Living in One of These 5 Rentals? You Might Be Living in an Illegal Apartment

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Living in One of These 5 Rentals? You Might Be Living in an Illegal Apartment

Bonface Landi · Sep 28, 2021
Many basement apartments like this one are technically illegal.

Few things are more frustrating than getting kicked out of your apartment because it’s an illegal unit – especially when you had no idea the unit was illegal in the first place. For that reason alone, you’ll find that knowing what is legal in your area to be an essential asset in avoiding trouble further down the road. Rental laws differ from one place to another, of course, which means you’re probably best off researching your particular building and the laws that govern it to be sure.

You can start by googling the building’s address, which might show any reports of previous violations. If you come across something about the building that seems suspicious, you should check with your local housing department. They’ll be able to give you the details of any previous violations and shed light on the legality of the building.

Even before you do any sleuthing of your own, you’ll want to start by watching out for these red flags:

You’re Renting the Attic, Basement, or Cellar

The prospect of staying in basement apartments might seem enticing, but you need to be careful with them. Such apartments are primarily illegal, putting you at constant risk of eviction. In fact, basements are actually the most common form of illegal apartment in New York City. Attics and cellars are also in the same category. And in case you’re wondering, yes: a basement and a cellar are different, mainly in that a basement is at least 50 percent above street level.

Depending on the city you live in, different laws will apply to these types of rentals. But for a basement, attic, or cellar apartment to be declared legal anywhere, it must meet the laid down criteria, like having a minimum ceiling height of 7 feet. If you live in an apartment whose space is mostly below street level, or an apartment with ultra-low ceilings, you need to find out whether it’s legal ASAP.

You’re Renting an In-Law Suite

Back houses and other types of secondary rentals are sometimes called "in-law" suites.

Also known as secondary units, in-law suites are typically self-contained apartments in private rooms with a separate kitchen, entrance, and bathroom. While such suites might seem normal and legal, you need to be very cautious if you plan to rent one. That’s because in most states, in-law suites are not permitted by law.

Most homeowners add in-law suites to their homes to generate extra income, but a lot of them don’t know that they need to get permits for such apartments. This is the case even if they’re preparing them for a family member. Some states also require homeowners to provide a separate parking space and electric meter for such units.

You’re Renting a Converted or Loft Warehouse

You might fancy the idea of living in a converted warehouse or loft space, but you’ll need to check the local zoning codes and ordinances before agreeing to move into one. This is important because many former factories and industrial buildings aren’t legally converted into residential apartments. They might also not meet the safety standards required for residential buildings. If you plan on renting a space like this, be sure to ask the landlord for a residential Certificate of Occupancy.

You should also beware of lofts or converted warehouses where basic residential amenities like plumbing, bathrooms, and electricity seem tacked on in a manner that compromises safety. This is crucial because most warehouse conversions are done without particular regard to fire safety. Living in such an environment poses a great risk to both your life and your belongings (cases of fire outbreaks in converted warehouse apartments are especially prevalent in the US). Similarly, if a unit shows any exposed electrical wires or crammed, seemingly disorganized areas, take your search elsewhere.

Utilities are Included

Checking an Apartment Building's Gas Meters

Most tenants love the idea of free utilities. Unfortunately for us all, this too is a living situation to be weary of. For instance, if everyone living in the building is limited to one gas meter, chances are the building isn’t zoned for separate dwellings. In these cases, the landlord might be hiding illegal units.

Likewise, if the building management tells you you can’t have mail delivered to your address, it could be an attempt to hide the unit. Remember, landlords pay tax and other charges depending on how big their buildings are. By hiding several rental units inside the building, they pay fewer taxes – which is, of course, illegal. Therefore, you may need to ask prospective landlords for documentation on the number of dwellings allowed in the building if they offer you free utilities on the spot. Ensure that everything adds up and that there are no illegal units in the building before signing anything.

You’re Renting a Unit with Not Enough Windows or Exits

If you rent a bedroom in a larger building with other people living in it, you should ensure that the “room” is legal. For a room to qualify as a bedroom, it must have a door, a window, and sizable space. A skylight counts as a window, though it shouldn’t really be facing the street. Bedroom windows and exits are essential for comfortable living. Besides, there should always be another exit from the room apart from the main door.

According to legal experts, landlords must provide their tenants with another exit if there are no doors. If the room doesn’t meet these qualifications, you shouldn’t rent it. Keep in mind that laws differ from state to state, making it necessary to research your local apartment laws and determine what is and isn’t legal on a case-by-case basis. Living in a room with no exit is stressful. Furthermore, it forces you to pass through other people’s private spaces just to access yours. Always assess bedrooms carefully and see whether they meet these basic standards. If not, get another one.

This goes without saying, but it’s pretty much essential to know whether your apartment is actually legal or not. Use the tips discussed in this guide to identify an illegal apartment early and avoid running into problems later on.

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