New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

Habitat Magazine Insider Guide



Spin Control

Smart co-op and condo boards are always looking for ways to increase the value of their buildings’ apartments. Opportunities abound from the basement to the rooftop, and they range from the prosaic to the poetic – from a new boiler to an elegant lobby makeover to state-of-the-art solar panels on the roof.

A value-enhancing amenity that’s catching on with a growing number of co-op and condo boards is allowing shareholders and unit-owners to install clothes washers and dryers in their apartments. It may rate as a mundane amenity – even as somewhat down and dirty – but one veteran real estate appraiser has estimated that a washer and dryer add about five percent to the value of any apartment.

That number is nothing to sniff at, as far as the board at Museum Tower is concerned. And so the seven-member board recently undertook the tricky process – a bit like walking across a minefield – of rescinding a ban on washers and dryers that had existed for decades.

Museum Tower, a 52-story, 238-unit condo building perched atop the Museum of Modern Art, opened in 1983. The apartments were designed to accommodate a washer and dryer, and in the building’s early years about three dozen unit-owners installed the appliances. It didn’t take long for the trouble to start.

Drain lines ran to the eighth floor, where water discharged from washing machines was transferred to a line connected to city sewers. The transfer point was unable to handle great volumes of soapy water cascading down dozens of flights, and the water backed up vent lines. Dirty, soapy water bubbled into toilets, sinks, and tubs on the building’s lower floors.

To remedy the problem, the board passed House Rule 37 in 1994. It forbade unit-owners from installing new washers and dryers; it allowed owners of existing machines to repair but not replace them; and it required that the machines be removed when an apartment was sold.

Peace returned. Time passed. Things changed.

“Our board has always been very conscious about trying to add value,” says Ted Voss, a marketing consultant who moved into the building when it opened and has served on the board for 15 years, the past six as president. “About five or six years ago, I asked a couple of brokers who have long experience with the building to list what prospective buyers considered to be our pros and cons. Among the pros, they mentioned our location above the museum, our spacious apartments, our terrace on the museum’s roof, our spa, business center, and meeting room. But the first thing on the short list of negatives was the lack of washers and dryers in the apartments.”

That seemingly trivial item put the building at a distinct disadvantage against many of the new condo buildings that have built-in washers and dryers. Even older co-ops have been joining the trend, amending rules to allow the once-forbidden appliances, provided certain criteria are met.

While interest in this amenity is growing, it’s still the exception rather than the rule. Apartments with washers and dryers now make up only about 20 percent of the sales and rental listings in Manhattan, according to website StreetEasy. Condos offering the amenity outnumbered co-ops in December listings by more than three to one: 1,849 versus 593.

“About two or three years ago,” Voss says, “we had a discussion with our manager and told him to get us technical information and make an analysis.”

“They asked me to go through and see how many machines are left in the building,” says John Spellmon, who has been building manager of the property for the past 15 years. “They asked me and our engineer, Lane Engineering, to check the pipes and drains and see if there was a way to bring [the machines] back. As soon as the low-water-usage washing machines hit the market, I thought that was the answer for us.”

The new generation of washing machines by such manufacturers as Bosch and LG used as little as 10 gallons of water for an entire wash and rinse cycle – as opposed to about 40 gallons used by machines in the 1980s. Other technological advances include low-suds detergents that are less likely to clog drain pipes, and “condensing” dryers that don’t require an exhaust vent, a major consideration in many city buildings.

“We got seven or eight residents who agreed to put them in temporarily, so we could make sure it would work,” Spellmon says. “We didn’t have any problems.”

At the board’s direction, Spellmon, with the help of the building’s lawyer and engineer, then drew up the following guidelines that residents would have to follow when installing washers and dryers: “If problems arise, residents must remove the appliances at their own expense; washers have to sit in an overflow pan, and the pan has to be equipped with a leak detector that shuts off the water supply if the pan overflows; water lines have to be braided stainless steel instead of conventional rubber; only ‘condensing’ dryers are allowed; and washers have to be an approved, low water-usage brand.”

“We started out with two or three acceptable manufacturers,” Spellmon says. “Now, there are so many low-water machines on the market that unit-owners submit their proposed machine to the engineer, and he almost always approves it.”

The board’s rewriting of the guidelines was simplified by a bit of history. In years past, the building’s eighth-floor laundry room – 10 washers and 10 dryers – was run by a laundry contracting company. Dissatisfied with the service, the board decided to take over operation when the contract with the company expired in the late 1990s. Boards locked into long-term contracts might run into problems if allowing washers and dryers in apartments siphons too much money from the laundry contractor, who frequently has a guaranteed minimum income written into the contract. But Museum Tower didn’t have that problem.

Since the rule change, about two dozen residents have installed washers and dryers, according to Spellmon. “They love it,” he says. “Every tenant who has bought an apartment has put in a laundry room. Prospective purchasers say it’s a huge amenity.”

Corinne Vitale, a senior vice president at Brown Harris Stevens, is the broker who closed on the very first apartment in Museum Tower in 1983. She’s hearing the same thing as Spellmon. “People want a washer and dryer,” she says, “which is why the developers have made a point of putting them in new buildings. I think people are expecting it now. When they look at apartments, their first question is, ‘Where’s the washer and dryer?’ And if there isn’t one, they ask, ‘Are they allowed?’ It’s a very big selling point.”

Ironically, Vitale bought a co-op apartment 20 years ago that was equipped with a washer and dryer, then a rare luxury. “And I took it out!” she says with a laugh. “I have a cleaning lady who takes my laundry to the building’s laundry room, and I’d rather have the storage space. I guess that makes me the exception who proves the rule.”

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