Fallout on Park Avenue: Grand Renovations Leave Neighbors in the Dust

Shortly after my husband and I acquired new upstairs neighbors, we noticed water damage on our daughter’s bathroom ceiling.

I had an awkward phone conversation with the missus above. She deftly stated that if the problem were indeed caused by their renovation, then their contractor would repair it. I was feeling edgy. The ceiling had a heavy light fixture that at any moment could have come crashing down like the chandelier in Phantom of the Opera and knocked our daughter unconscious while she was brushing her teeth.

We removed the fixture and waited. One got the impression that the neighbors’ contractor was trying to avoid ripping up his clients’ new tiled floor to find the leak, and my husband and I were increasingly convinced that we would have to endure a messy legal battle.

Luckily, that didn’t happen. Workers invaded our living space, and the ceiling was fixed. I don’t have to dread running into our neighbors in the lobby (although there will always be a little undercurrent of unease that doesn’t quite go away).

I’ve renovated two prewar apartments myself, and it’s hard for me to say which is worse: being the alleged perpetrator of damage or the victim of someone else’s renovation fallout. There’s nothing like standing next to a potential plaintiff in the wood-paneled confines of your building’s elevator. And if the trouble should be with a co-op board member, you can pretty much forget about getting a fair trial.

When my first project was underway, the downstairs neighbors complained about—you guessed it—a crack in their dining-room ceiling. When my contractor went down to take a look, he observed that said ceiling hadn’t been painted since the 1920’s. There were profuse paint chips flaking off, which seemed to have no relationship to the alleged fissure. Nevertheless, he generously directed his painter to skim-coat the entire surface.

It seems that renovations often pave the way for aggrieved shareholders to get free touch-ups of their own crumbling apartments. Because spurious claims have become so rampant in prewar buildings, many contractors now insist upon inspecting and photographing downstairs apartments prior to the renovation process, to provide handy recourse when the neighbors claim your jack-hammering caused their “showplace” to look like a $5 million tenement.

Before my friend Hilary commissioned construction in her apartment, which is in an exclusive Upper East Side building, she tried diligently to get such pictures of all the adjoining abodes. “All neighbors consented to the photo session,” she said, “except the lady below us.” As co-op fate would have it, when the renovations were complete, this downstairs neighbor complained that there was damage to her dwelling. Not that she would permit an inspection of the premises. “She presented us with a bill for over $3,000 in cleaning services,” Hilary said. “I think she wanted her apartment cleaned and used this as a way to make us pay. Our contractor paid it because he wanted to make ‘peace in the valley.’”

Some claims are so outlandish that they would send even the most diplomatic renovators screaming to the suburbs. While doing work on their Park Avenue apartment, my friend Linda and her husband were sued for dust damage by their neighbor two floors above. There was no problem with the apartment directly upstairs, but somehow these pixie particles magically wafted through two floors. The neighbor collected $23,000 from the insurance company. Linda later discovered that he had sued other people in the building as well.

Then there was the Upper East Side “eccentric” my contractor encountered after his electrician accidentally broke a fist-sized hole into the apartment adjacent to his client. My contractor sent an apologetic note and flowers. The neighbor said she didn’t want the hole fixed. Nor did she want the mess on the carpet removed. Instead, she billed her renovating neighbors for the following items: 1) the services of three structural engineers to make sure the wall didn’t fall down, 2) a visit to her cardiologist’s office to make sure she wasn’t breathing in any dust and 3) a box of Godiva chocolates, “to calm her nerves.” Although this woman collected insurance money, she is suing her neighbors for $25,000. Nine months later, the schmutz is still on her carpet.

Many rich New Yorkers apparently just take it for granted that litigation is going to ensue. An architect friend of mine told me that in one building he renovated, the work had caused a hairline crack in the neighbor’s wall. One day the architect and contractor ran into the neighbor, who said, “Cracks are one thing, but I’ve just gotta sue you.” He was perfectly polite and didn’t seem at all upset—just resigned. “That kind of thinking is pretty typical of New Yorkers,” said my architect friend. “In this rarefied atmosphere, people are so accustomed to dealing with lawyers.” Then there’s that co-op in the East 70’s where an upstairs neighbor complained that a downstairs neighbors’ retiling of a bathroom two levels below had somehow caused a crack. Upstairs sued for $10,000. Downstairs countersued for the same amount, claiming that the neighbor’s leak had damaged their master-bedroom closet. In the end, both claims were settled.

Even if your relationship with your neighbors remains non-adversarial, don’t forget contending with the building staff, which often wields significant power. The super controls the flow of workers in and out of the building and can choose whether or not to bend the rules to allow workers to stay over the 4:30 p.m. service-elevator closing time (which some staff cling to with NASA-like accuracy). A little greasing of the palms is expected, but my beloved contractor was once the victim of a shakedown at a Central Park West building. “The super said, ‘We’re not going to let you work in the building unless you talk to us,’ ” he remembered. “He told me there was a fee of $5,000 that had to be paid to the super and building staff.” My contractor, sensing foul play, asked if he could write a check. When the super agreed, my contractor sent a copy of the check to the managing agent. Busted!

Of course, sometimes the neighbors’ banging has nothing to do with construction. My contractor also told me about one memorable walk-through of a downstairs neighbors’ Park Avenue apartment, during which he entered the bedroom and found the neighbors’ college-age son naked in bed with two women. Now that was one crack he never expected to see.