Lending a Hand
Expeditors can make the sale go smoother
October 18, 2002
Two days before closing on a home in Commack, Dan and Barbara Lavender learned the seller had no certificate of occupancy for a deck on the property.
But having already sold their home in Massapequa, the Lavenders didn't want to delay the late August closing while waiting for the CO, as certificates of occupancy are known. Instead, they went ahead, holding some of the seller's money in escrow to cover the cost of obtaining the document.
And rather than leave the Lavenders to deal with the paperwork and officials themselves, the seller's attorney hired Michelle Noonan, an East Northport expeditor, to help them get the CO.
Now an architect is drawing up plans to show what the deck looks like. After receiving them, Noonan will gather the rest of the documentation, file the permit applications and do the follow-ups and inspections until the CO is secured. This will surely save the Lavenders hours of work, had they undertaken the effort on their own.
"Michelle calls me twice a week to tell me how everything's going," Dan Lavender said.
While Lavender, a contractor, already knew about the role expeditors play before he met Noonan, "most people don't," said Christine Nicholl, a Brookhaven hamlet expeditor. "About 50 percent of my clients didn't even know I existed until their attorney or real estate person told them about me."
Expeditors - often former building department employees and contractors - act as liaisons between municipalities and homeowners to help remove building violations and prepare applications to secure permits, COs, certificates of completion and other documentation for their properties.
For such services, they charge a range of fees, depending on the job. Noonan said she charges a minimum of $350. Fees for a simple filing, such as legalizing a detached garage, start at about $500 while anything requiring a variance may cost $1,000 or more, other expeditors say.
Generally, expeditors are called in when homeowners are selling or refinancing, said Nicholas B. Valastro, president and chief executive of Permits Plus, the expediting division of Valtech Research, a real estate services company in Carle Place.
Increasingly, lenders are looking closely to make sure owners have a CO for any additions to their house before approving a mortgage or refinancing a loan. If they don't, the borrower can hire an expeditor to go to the building department and file the paperwork as well as attend hearings and inspections that may be required.
Expeditors are especially useful when there is a tight time element, such as an impending closing, or when it's a complicated matter, experts say. They know who to talk to in municipal government and, more importantly, the hours those people are available, said Steve Wekselblatt, a real estate attorney with offices in East Hills and Sheepshead Bay.
Expeditors also are frequently hired by individuals building new homes or doing extensive renovations. Along with the final CO, there are more permits required than most people realize, particularly in New York City, where there are permits for items such as plumbing, electrical wiring and sidewalks, said Donna DiFara, an architect with W.D.A. Architects and Planners, a Woodside firm with an expediting division.
In addition, expeditors do work for other professionals, filing plans for architects and paperwork for attorneys, to save them time, Noonan said. It costs a client less for the attorney to hire an expeditor than for the attorney to personally do the filing and charge his or her hourly rate, said Huntington real estate attorney Herbert Kotler.
In Nassau and Suffolk counties, most homeowners needing such services go directly to an expeditor when they need help, Valastro said. Within New York City, however, homeowners usually turn to architects or professional engineers with an expediting division. The reason: While some Long Island municipalities don't require plans with an architect or engineer's signature and seal if the project's cost is under $10,000, Valastro said, the city requires such signatures on all additions, from sheds to dormers.
For most homeowners, the decision to hire an expeditor does not come from their inability to get these documents themselves. In fact, when Dan Lavender sold his Massapequa home, he got the CO he needed for his deck and other add-ons on his own. But it did take a while, he acknowledged, and for homeowners who are not contractors like himself, it's bound to take longer as they try to figure out the process.
In addition, "most people have jobs and families and are busy," Kotler said. "They don't have the time it takes."
Some people start the process and then hire an expeditor when they see how much work is involved or after they become confused, Noonan and others said.
"Getting a CO or permit is a lot more complicated than people think," said Eugene Murphy, acting commissioner of the Town of Islip's planning and development department, which oversees the building department. Often, more than one government agency is involved, and several follow- up visits are required.
"Getting a permit is not like going to the DMV [Department of Motor Vehicles], where you go in at 10 and you are out by 12 with what you need," Murphy said. "Expeditors do provide a service."
Every municipality has its own quirks, and experienced expeditors know what they are, Noonan said. For example, the Town of Smithtown accepts Polaroid snapshots when photos must be submitted with an application, but the Town of Huntington does not.
Expeditors also know when other municipal agencies must be involved, Nicholl said. When an outside cabana is added to a home in Brookhaven Town, an owner needs approval not only from the building department, but also from the health department for a sanitary system.
Homeowners doing it on their own can ask a clerk for help, Kotler said, but some are less helpful than others.
Alfonso Duarte, a Whitestone-based professional engineer who works with homeowners and others in securing permits and COs, said he sometimes feels as if he lives in the city's building department because of the huge amount of time he spends there.
A lot of time is just spent waiting, Duarte said. Because of the strong remodeling and housing market, there are often long lines and a shortage of staff.
Some people arrive 5:30 a.m. to see an examiner in the city. In fact, Duarte said he has gotten new clients while at the city building department, just by running into homeowners who were wandering about lost while trying to find out how to file for a permit or CO. They take his card and contact him later, he said.
Murphy also noted that it's easier for building department employees to work with veteran expeditors who know the process and terminology and know how to follow up.
After five minutes of talking with a homeowner, Nicholl said, an experienced expeditor should be able to determine what they need to file, what the cost will be and how long it will take to accomplish their goal.
While it's easier and less stressful to take care of these things before putting your house on the market, most sellers find out what paperwork they are missing only as their closing approaches, Noonan said. Sellers often don't have the necessary COs, she said, because they've added sheds and decks or converted garages into living space without getting the necessary permits - all in an effort to avoid increased property taxes on the improvements.
But many municipalities now add penalties when applying belatedly for a CO. And doing work in the city without a permit can result in a fine of up to 10 percent of the project's value, DiFara said.
When New York State's updated building code goes into effect on Jan. 1, homeowners getting a CO belatedly, after the work is completed, could face even greater headaches, Nicholl said. Homeowners will have to meet the stricter code, even on work done years ago, she said. Changes in the code include some larger required window sizes and new deck railing requirements.
Duarte, the Whitestone engineer, said that some problems take a long time to resolve, even for an experienced expeditor. He recalled one instance when he was hired by a seller whose lender learned the day before the closing that the homeowner had no CO for the home. Duarte went to the building department in Queens and discovered there was, indeed, none on file. He then proceeded to do all the tasks necessary to get one.
"I measured every room and window," Duarte said. Blueprints were drawn up and permits filed for the electrical work and plumbing, among other things. A CO was secured and the seller was finally able to close - four months later.
Some real estate agents will perform expediting services for their clients, as part of their commission, said Gail Bishop, office manager for Prudential Long Island Realty in East Islip.
Charles Sciberras, an agent with RE/MAX Today Realty in Astoria, recently helped a seller get a CO for a two-family house that was being converted into a three-family. "I did it myself and it was a lot of work," Sciberras said. "I had to go back [to the building department] a half dozen times."
In retrospect, he said, it would have made more sense to hire an expeditor.
Joe Catalano is a frequent contributor to Newsday. He may be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2002, Newsday, Inc.
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