The allure of a penthouse or for that matter any apartment with a setback terrace is irresistible. A precious and highly coveted commodity, terrace ownership connotes a certain quality of life with bragging rights. To the urban dweller, outdoor space offers oases of air, light, sky and ultimately status. Outdoor space sells at a premium in New York City, and for the purchaser, caveat emptor reigns supreme. It’s critical for a buyer to understand the governing Proprietary Lease and House Rules which will vary from building to building and also to consult with an attorney regarding local ordinances and building codes as they relate to what can and cannot be done, placed or built on a terrace.

Firstly, who owns the terrace?
The terrace is an appendage to the apartment, but who owns it? The Offering Plan and Proprietary Lease will rule on this. The terrace may be the property of the unit owner, or it may be owned by the co-op which provides exclusive use of the terrace to the shareholder. In some instances when the shareholder owns the terrace, the building may have an easement which grants management access in order to service areas of the roof which can only be accessed through the apartment terrace. Often the building has the right to use the terrace as a staging area for Local Law 11. When that happened at my Carnegie Hill Penthouse listing, in return for months of workers on the roof, the co-op paid for new terrace flashings and repainted the terrace railings.

So who pays for what?

The Proprietary Lease also defines obligations, rights and restrictions. Typically the roof membrane, parapet walls and flashings are maintained by the co-op, and the pavers and drains by the owner. Recently however, I’m finding that co-ops are shifting responsibilities to the unit owner. In my Carnegie Hill penthouse sale, where I represented the seller, the co-op created a new “Terrace Repair Responsibility Agreement,” and the buyers were approved on the condition that they execute a document that specified the co-op was responsible for the terrace verticals and the shareholder was responsible for the terrace horizontals. In this particular building, the board was also interested in replacing an aging roof under the terrace, and they wanted the new buyer to pay half. We closed on the apartment, but the board’s 11th hour stipulation was an unexpected wrinkle in the transaction.

What are the limitations?

In a current deal where I’m also the seller’s agent, management informed the seller that before they would schedule a closing, she would need to present a notarized engineer’s letter stating that her terrace had been surveyed and her plantings had been weighed and complied with the co-op’s current weight restriction guidelines.

Not all buildings have similar restrictions, but you’ll be wise to pay attention to the following:

  • Weight limits for everything including plantings, planters, soil (both dry and saturated), trellises and furniture.
  • Height restrictions for trees and shrubs.
  • Placement and spacing of moveable lightweight planters with adequate drainage holes.
  • Specific mixtures for soil—like perlite, peat moss, sand and topsoil—to reduce weight.
  • Supports or legs for planters to provide a minimum of 2” clear space above the roof and at least 3” clearance from walls to avoid cracks and leaks caused by roots that grow into surfaces.
  • Anchoring of large plantings and furniture to prevent uprooting by high wind. 
  • Seasonal maintenance and shut downs for watering systems.

You’ll need approvals from the board to install everything from plantings and lattices, to fences and awnings, to lighting and watering systems. Drawings should show layout with dimensions and calculated weights for planters. In addition, you’ll need DOB permits and approvals if you intend to build a structure on the terrace. Additions will need to conform to square footage requirements and allowable zoning restrictions and can’t block light or air from another apartment. If in a landmark district, you’ll need to set back your addition so it can’t be seen from the street. Don’t count on being able to add a greenhouse, as the city has been discouraging these. 

Every five years Local Law 11 requires inspection of the building’s facade, balconies and terraces. If the building roof needs replacing, in most instances the co-op will bear this cost, but the unit owner will be responsible for removing terrace pavers or other decking, elaborate trellises or other structures in order to get at the roof.

If your passion is to hone your grilling skills on your terrace, check with your building’s rules first. NYC allows barbecuing if there’s no overhanging structure above though not with propane; charcoal is permitted on a terrace or backyard but not on a balcony or roof. Your grill needs to be a safe 10’ distance away from walls or windows, and keep a fire extinguisher, garden hose or bucket of sand on hand.

Over the years I’ve represented both buyers and sellers in a number of penthouse apartment transactions. There’s something immeasurably rewarding to be able to step to the outside on your private terrace and feel the sun or breeze on your face, watch birds build a nest in your Japanese maple, plant herbs or heirloom tomatoes for your kitchen, bring in roses and lilacs for your vases, dine al fresco with your friends or share cocktails under the stars. The water pressure may not be ideal, and you’ll need to be diligent about clearing drains of leaves, snow, and debris, but there’s something unmistakably enviable to being that much closer to the sky that makes up for all the caveats that need to be considered.