Building a house in NYC

12 Steps to Building a New Home in NYC

Building a new home in NYC is probably a little more complicated and involved than anywhere else. This article is about the process and protocols for building a house in New York City including some of the bureaucracy. We will not be discussing home design or constructions in this article this is meant to be more of a technical guide to the process. If you are planning to build a house and it is not in NYC you the requirements may be different.


Building a New Home in NYC what do you need to do.


12 Steps for building a new house in NYC

  1. Buy a Property
  2. Figure out your budget
  3. Find an Architect
  4. Site Analysis
  5. Design the house
  6. File with Department Of Buildings (DOB)
  7. Find a General Contractor
  8. Get a permit from DOB
  9. Build The House – Construction
  10. Inspections
  11. Get a Certificate Of Occupancy
  12. Enjoy Your New Home


Buy a Property to build your new home. (Step 1)

Usually when people contact an architect to design their new home they already have purchased a property. Sometimes they have not and ask us to help them select a property. This is something an architect can help you with. It could be helpful for you to understand zoning regulations before you purchase a property. The zoning codes will determine what you can build on your property. For example some zoning districts do not allow two family homes. You may want to know that before you buy the property. Zoning also restricts the square footage of a house so you may want to know how big of a house is allowed on the property before you purchase it. Here are some issues zoning regulates:

  • The number of families allowed.
  • The square footage allowed to build.
    • This is called FAR floor area ratio (it’s a really important calculation)
  • How tall can the house be.
  • The minimum size of your yards.
  • Parking
    • Can you have a detached garage for example.
  • There are also special zoning districts with all kinds of specific regulations.


Figure Out Your Budget for your new home. (Step 2)

Building a new house will, for most people, be the largest expense you ever have in your life. Think it through. Talk to architects and contractors when you are thinking about this. I highly recommend having a reserve budget for contingencies of at least – 15% of the total project cost. Don’t think of your budget as just a construction budget. Think about your budget as a total project cost. This includes: Construction, Architectural fees, filing fees, landscaping, furnishing, legal fees and all the miscellaneous issues that can arise that vary from project to project.

I know some people do not like to tell their contractor or even their architect what their budget is because they are scared of being taken advantage of. First off don’t work with people you don’t trust that should be obvious. Second if they are honest professionals telling them your budget upfront can help save time and money.

Find An Architect to design your house. (Step 3)

The architect will be on your project from start to finish. Selecting the architect is important.

Only hire licensed professionals.

Be careful when hiring an architect. There are people who say they are “home designers” or who claim to do “architectural design” but hold no license. General contractors and interior designers are neither capable nor licensed to design a house in New York. It is in fact illegal to claim to provide any type of architectural service in the State Of New York without an architecture license.

An architect is someone who has a license to practice architecture issued by the state. A licensed architect is also known as a Registered Architect. Make sure to verify if the architect is licensed and has at least a $1,000,000 insurance policy. You can ask them to send their license certificate and insurance policy for your records.

Hiring an Architect.

As an architect I often suggest to my clients that we do not start with a contract for the entire job (especially when its a big job). Start with a small contract. Hire them first to do a zoning analysis for example. Or a preliminary sketch design. This will give you an opportunity to work with the architect before making a large commitment while getting some of the upfront work done. Of course if you are happy with the architect there is nothing wrong with hiring them for the whole job upfront.

Expenses You My Not Expect.

Ask your architect about expenses you may not know you need. Make sure they tell you what is and what is not included in their contract. For example do they include: surveying, geotechnical, structural design, HVAC, plumbing and electrical design, interior design, inspections, filing with DOB, printing and so on. Did you know you have to pay for inspections … are these included or not? What services are necessary and what services are optional. Do they require an expediter or do they file the job with the department Of Buildings themselves?


Site Analysis of your property. (Step 4)

Your architect and the rest of the team will start the project with a site analysis. As mentioned in step 3 you can hire people just to do this first, if you want to hold off on signing a contract for the entire job. Site analysis will include / require at minimum:

  • Property Survey, you will need a licensed land surveyor to perform a survey of the property (and provide a final survey after the house is built) We usually call these a complete “Architectural Survey” and a “Final Survey” The architect does not do these.
  • Geotechnical Report, a geotechnical engineering report based on soil borings or a pit will be required. They will take soil samples and send them to a lab to assess the bearing capacity of the soils. this will be used to determine the appropriate foundation for the house. The NYC Department Of Buildings  (DOB) will require at least 2 borings to be done on your property when building a new house in NYC.
  • Utilities availability. In most cases in New York City you wont have a problem with access to utilities. Utility work can be expensive so it’s good to know upfront what is available. For example: did you know there are no sewers in Breezy Point, Queens? That is something you want to know upfront.
  • Zoning. You will need to determine the zoning requirements for your house including how big of a house you can build in square feet and height, how big are your yards required to be, and many other issues. The architect should be familiar with performing a comprehensive zoning analysis.
  • Demolition, Is there an existing house to be demolished?
  • Special requirements are you in a an area with special environmental or zoning requirements. Examples Flood Zone (example Breezy Point / Far Rockaway) , Natural Area Districts (Examples in Riverdale, Bronx), Hillside Districts (examples in Staten Island), land marked Historic Districts (examples all over New York).
  • Miscellaneous Restrictions Deed restrictions, property easements, etc…


Deign You New Home (Step 5)

You and your architect will work together to design your new home. Here is an article I wrote on the Five Phases of Architectural Design. Read that article if you want to learn more about the process I will not get into any detail on the subject in this article.

Once the Architect finishes the design they will produce complete and comprehensive drawing sets. These drawing sets will be used to obtain approval from the Department Of Buildings and be used by the contractors for construction. Pet peeve of mine: people still call these blueprints nobody in the industry calls them that anymore. Blue printing is an obsolete technology. We call them drawings, plans, CDs for construction drawings or working drawings. Simply drawings is usually best.


File Your House With The Department Of Buildings (Step 6)

Personally I prefer to file jobs online. You can still file projects with the Department Of Buildings (DOB) in their office and on paper if you choose. Here is an article we wrote about Filing Online with the NYC DOB. Here is a link to the NYC DOB Guidelines for single and two family houses  if you want more information.

Filling with the DOB takes time please be patient. I warn you to be suspicious of anyone who tells you they know exactly how long this will take. It varies from project to project and it varies based on how busy the person reviewing is. The fastest new house I ever got approved in NYC was 3 weeks and that was very unusual.

You may also need to file documents with other agencies at this time depending on your property and the extent of the work. Ask your architect to explain the process and to let you know upfront what to expect. Here is a list of some of the additional agencies having jurisdiction:

  • Borough President’s Office
  • CPC – City Planning Commission
  • DEC – Department Of Environmental Conservation
  • DEP – Department Of Environmental Protection
  • DOB – Department OF Buildings
  • DOF – NYC Department Of Finance
  • DOT – Department Of Transportation
  • FDNY– Fire Department Of New York
  • LPC – Landmarks Planning Commission


Hire a General Contractor / GC / Builder (Step 7)

If you have not yet selected a contractor, the time when you are waiting for DOB approvals is ideal for this. In many cases you are going to bid the job when the architectural drawings and specifications are done. You may choose to have several contractors price the job. You can also bring a contractor in earlier if you have one preselected. If you select a contractor earlier in the process this can be very beneficial as the contractor can work with the architect during design in order to control costs.

The architect and contractor should work together as a team. Mutual respect and communication are essential to the process. If you find the architect and contractor at odds that is usually a sign that there is something wrong with one or both of them. As an architect I treat contractors with respect and expect them to treat me the same. I am constantly surprised when I hear colleagues telling me stories where this is not the case. If your architect and contractor do not work well together it can cost you time,  money, and headaches. Building a house is a team sport.

Make sure that you are hiring a licensed and reputable contractor with the appropriate insurance. Your architect can help you in this process.

Sometimes a contractor doesn’t have a license and uses someone else’s, don’t work with people like that. There is no reason someone should be doing a job without the required license. That goes for architects as well.


Get a  Permit From the Department Of Buildings (Step 8)

Before you can get a permit you will need Approval from the Department Of Buildings on the architects application. Be aware that an approval and a permit are two separate things. The architect gets the approval but the contractor gets the permit. A permit goes under the name of a contractor. Under the contractors license and insurance.

An additional item you need is a special inspection agency. You will be required to do several inspections and possibly testing on certain aspects of your construction project. There are agencies called special inspection agencies that do these inspections. You will need to pay for these inspections. The engineer or architect from the inspection agency needs to be signed on before pulling a permit. Sometimes the general contractor includes this in their price. Sometimes the architect included this in their price. Sometimes nobody includes it in their price and it is a separate additional expense. Ask your architect upfront about this. Please be suspicious of people who do not tell you about additional expenses before you sign a contract. If someone starts naming additional expenses (without any warning) after the contracts are signed I would be concerned.

Once the contractor pulls a permit you are ready to begin construction. You will get several permits for your house including

  • New Building Permit – Pulled by General Contractor
  • Plumbing Permit – Pulled by Plumbing Contractor
  • Electrical Permit- Pulled by Electrical Contractor
  • Mechanical Permit – (Heating & AC) this is pulled by a plumber or GC

Often there may be more permits depending on what you are building and how the work was filed.


Build the House – Construction (Step 9)

Building a house takes time. Please be patient during this process.

The architect stays on the job during construction but their involvement will be much less than it was during the design process. The architect will occasionally visit the site. At certain milestones during the construction the architect will perform progress inspections. Progress inspections are required by the department of buildings and a Technical Report has to be submitted by the architect to the DOB. The architect will also help out if there are any issues, questions, problems that arise during construction. It may happen that some additional drawings may have to be produced to clarify the GC’s questions. Sometimes design changes happen during construction. Be careful these can make the cost rise.

The architect does not typically supervise a construction job. Supervising the construction is the job of the General Contractor or Construction Manager. Some architects also do construction management and some architects are also general contractors. You can have your architect review the contractor’s pay requisitions and sign off before you issue progress payments to the GC.


Inspections on your new home (Step 10)

We already mentioned inspections but lets get a little more detailed. There are three basic categories of inspections done on a new house. The following is based on NYC regulations and standard practices it may differ in other locations.

  1. Progress inspections.
  2. Special Inspections
  3. DOB or other agency inspections.

Progress Inspections

Progress inspections are done by the architect. There are two types of progress inspections. TR8 – Energy Code and TR1.

Tr1 is a technical report that must be completed on your construction project. Typically the architect does the Progress Inspections section of this report. These are a few general construction inspections that the architect will perform and coordinate with the contractor.

The TR8 is an Energy Code Technical Report. This also is typically done by the architect. These inspections are for energy usage and thermal properties of the home. For example the architect needs to verify the insulation R-Values, the type, and quantity of insulation used. This is one of several Energy Code inspections required. At the end of construction the architect submits the technical reports to DOB.

Special Inspections

Special Inspections are often done by a third party inspection agency. These vary from job to job depending on the type of construction of the house. Some architects may be licensed to do some of these inspections. Typically your architect will not be doing all or even any of these inspections. Make sure you know who is paying for these inspections before you start construction. These inspections are usually done by a third party private company. They will charge you extra if they need to come to the job site repeatedly to reinspect. You should be aware of who is responsible if the inspector has to come look at something more than once due to failing inspection. Is the contractor paying or are you? The special inspection agency will submit a TR1 Technical Report upon completion of all inspections.

I am also going to include testing in this category. You may need to get concrete testing done. Samples of concrete are sent to a lab for testing. There are instances where this may not be required but often it will be.

DOB Inspections and other Agency Inspections

The Department Of Buildings or DOB will also perform inspections. These you do not pay extra for. You pay DOB fees when you file the job in step 6. You will have at least one inspection done by a DOB inspector depending on what was done in the house. There will definitely be a general construction inspection when you build a new house in NYC. You will also very likely have additional inspections for electrical and plumbing. In some cases inspections can be done by the contractor responsible for the work. The New Building (general construction) inspection is always done by the DOB inspectors. Sometime you may have other types of work that require inspections. Every project is different.


Get a Certificate Of Occupancy (step 11)

You can not legally occupy your new house without a “Certificate of Occupancy” also known as a C of O or CO.  Upon completion of construction and passing all inspections one can apply for a C of O. All Technical reports along with some miscellaneous documentation will need to be provided to the DOB. When you file a job with the DOB they generate a “Required Items List” specifically for your project. You need to fulfill all the items on that list to get a C of O. Once you have a Certificate Of Occupancy you can then move into you new house.


Enjoy Your New Home (step 12)

Sit back and enjoy your new home.


building a house in NYC

New House built in NYC


I hope this article was helpful to you. If you would like to speak with one of our architects please feel free to – Contact Fontan Architecture. You may also be interested in learning more about our services for New Home Design.

1 Comment

  • Taylor Bishop

    August 24, 2017 3:13 pm

    Thanks for helping me understand more about the process of building a new home.

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