I have an embarrassing story to share. I live in an apartment building in Manhattan, and therefore, I am surrounded by a building structure that I don’t own. As a long-term apartment dweller and a restoration professional for many years, I know how much time and energy is required when looking into structure issues. Perhaps it makes me slow to react. 

In December, I watched as a spot on my kitchen ceiling got uglier and uglier. We had a lot going on at the time and I knew it wouldn’t be a quick fix. I was also confident that it was a small leak and a bit of a delay wouldn’t cause the ceiling to cave in. Then I noticed the spot start to darken and develop a point at the end that no longer looked like a paint bubble. Well, as you may have guessed already, one morning a full-on mushroom busted through! I wish I were writing an article about how I discovered a great new career in urban mushroom farming, but alas, that was not the career path I was on! 

Yes, I know better, but it was bad timing. Opening up a ceiling is never quick, not to mention that multi-unit buildings come with an extra set of steps, which, frankly, can be hard on owners or renters to navigate, leading to poor or delayed choices … like mine. 

While I am sure that some of you are horrified by this story, I’m sharing it so you see that even someone who knows better can still hesitate to get things rolling. Living in a multi-unit building can be awesome, which is why so many of us do it, but it does come with complications that single-family homes don’t have to consider. 

As a restorer, before you go jumping into a multi-unit or multi-tenant space, be sure to get the lay of the land to understand who owns what and who gets to make which decisions. Below is a list of the least number of people you need to consider may be involved with just one unit in a multi-unit job. If you work in more than one unit, you will need to add in more people!

  • Owner/Tenant of affected unit
  • Owner/Tenant of surrounding unit(s)
  • Building superintendent, building manager, or resident manager
  • Building board—not an issue in a building consisting totally of rentals, but in co-ops or condos usually at least 1-2 people are involved in building work
  • Property manager
  • Building insurance adjuster
  • Unit insurance adjuster(s)
  • Plumber—usually hired by the building when a leak is truly a building leak 

Multi-unit buildings have superintendents, boards, management companies, and other people living there. If the unit owner files a claim, the building probably will as well, resulting in two insurance companies showing up to the party. Therefore, a leak in the ceiling of my ground level unit means we need to get attention from at least 3-4 people before a plumber can even examine the problem, never mind fix the leak and then do the remediation. Oftentimes the biggest hurdle can be gaining access to other units just to find the leak. 

Learn more about managing restoration work

Coordinating all these people can be the thing that drives a unit owner over the edge, and this may be where you can help the most. You may not need to insert yourself into the process right away, but offer guidance based on your experience of what they should focus on next in the process. You can offer that same guidance to the building representatives, along with explaining what you think is the safest and best course of action to reduce tenant disruption.  

If you demonstrate knowledge and responsibility to the unit owner and building representatives, it is likely that you will impress all the people involved in that one job, and you will be the first call they make the next time something goes awry! 

It is also important to consider that many smaller multi-unit buildings operate on small budgets and cannot float the cost of work. This often leads to an adversarial relationship between the unit owner and the party representing the building. The owner wants to move forward so they can get their fridge out of the living room, while those representing the building may want to shop around or hire the most reasonably priced plumber on record, who will frequently have long lead times.  

Restorers sometimes come into a project after things have been slowly moving forward for a few weeks. A unit owner, a building management company, or even the building entity could hire you. The bottom line is that you will want to know who is paying your bill. If a unit owner says, “My building is paying for this, because it is their leak,” I suggest you verify that with someone representing the building. You always want to ask the property manager or board representative.  

You work for who you are billing, but you also need to do the right job and keep all interested parties in the know. Communication is table stakes for any job.

You work for who you are billing, but you also need to do the right job and keep all interested parties in the know. Communication is table stakes for any job. What may be routine to you is not for the people experiencing the damage. Also, keep in mind that any one of those people can post a review or escalate the situation at any time. 

From a unit owner’s perspective, I do not want to make my neighbors miserable when repairs need to be done, exhaust my board (made up of my neighbors who do the job free), or alienate my building superintendent with demands on their time. But this is still a place I have invested in, that I live in, and I want the project to end as quickly as possible. Unit owners have a lot of additional stress in the equation and, therefore, staying on top of communication and updates will make the job easier on you as a restorer.

You also need to be aware of who owns what in a multi-unit space. In other words, who has the insurable interest in the building materials. It is possible the unit owner will hire you and contract with you, but you will still need to work hand-in-hand with the building staff in order to actually perform any work. And you may need to break down your work to bill both the unit owner and the building based on the work that needs to be performed and how much building material is affected.  

If you are just entering into the multi-unit space, I would advise you to proceed with caution. You can offer your experience and knowledge, but you should also learn from everyone involved so you’re able to give the best advice. In this scenario, one job can expand quite a bit and turn into a great set of projects, but only if you clearly understand how to meet the needs of everyone involved.