‘Six months to get approval’: What you can and can’t change when renovating an apartment

There are thousands of old apartments around Australia crying out for a little love, and if you’ve been inspired by The Block, you may be wondering what you can do to flip an apartment for profit.

But if you’re keen on dragging a dated unit into the 21st century, and perhaps making some money in the process, it’s important to understand the limitations that apply to renovating an apartment.

The structure of the apartment building is owned by the owners’ corporation. This usually means that any changes that affect the structure will require approval, while some are unlikely to be allowed at all.

Expecting owners’ corporation approval to be quick is one of the biggest traps to for renovators, according to Bernadette Janson from the School of Renovating.

“The process can be quite time consuming,” she said. “If you’re flipping and you’ve bought a property to renovate, it might take you six months to get the approval.”

“Often it requires educating the owners’ corporation. Often they might not understand what’s required.”

It’s important to factor this time into your budget, and Janson suggests investigating whether the building allows short-term rentals to cover your holding costs in a drawn-out approval process.

Fortunately, it’s unlikely that reasonable requests for approval will be rejected, providing renovators follow certain guidelines and changes are carried out professionally.

Owners’ corporations want to ensure the structure of the building is not compromised by renovations, and make sure other apartments in the building aren’t devalued as a result of changes.

They will also want to minimise the impact that the renovation will have on residents in the building, and may restrict noisy works to certain time periods, so renovating may not be allowed on weekends.

What can you change without approval?

Painting is one of the simplest changes that makes the biggest impact, and fortunately, this doesn’t require approval from the owners’ corporation.

Flooring can also be updated, although Janson said floating floors can be problematic because they allow sound to be transmitted to other apartments.

“Different buildings deal with it differently,” she said. “Some will have a bylaw already written up so you know what you can and can’t do. Some will require you to submit the materials you’re using. Some will require you to have a sound-test done after you’ve laid it.”

‘Six months to get approval’: What you can and can’t change when renovating an apartment

Apartment owners can generally install hooks, shelves or cabinets without asking for permission, although it’s best to check bylaws or run it by the building manager or strata committee first, especially when attaching items to shared walls.

New lights or tap fittings can be installed by a qualified tradesperson, and it pays to select someone experienced in apartments.

A kitchen can often be updated or replaced without approval, provided it’s installed in basically the same position. If walls or plumbing need to be relocated, you’ll have to ask the owners’ corporation first.

Repainting or replacing kitchen cabinet doors, knobs and appliances won’t require permission.

Which changes require approval?

Most buildings require owners to seek approval for major changes.

“A bathroom renovation in particular is considered a major change,” said Janson. “Before you can touch it you need to get approval from the owners’ corporation.”

Janson said the waterproof membrane beneath bathroom tiles that prevents water from seeping into other apartments can often be a sticking point in an apartment reno, especially when deciding who will be responsible for its maintenance.

“Often [the owners’ corporation] will use the renovation as an opportunity to hand the responsibility over to you,” she said.

Removing internal walls to create an open plan living, kitchen and dining area will definitely require approval, as many internal walls are load bearing and support the floors above. But according to Shaun Hanley from Living Space Constructions, the hassle is worth it.

“By doing something that other people see as hard to get through, it can really add a lot of value to a property,” he said.

Exterior changes that affect the appearance of the building are often restricted, and perhaps surprisingly, even minor changes can require approval from council, according to Janson.

“Putting an air conditioner compressor unit on the balcony can require a DA because it’s an external change,” she said.

Hanley said an apartment was usually more straightforward to renovate than a house, despite the red tape.

“If you can weave your way through that you’ve got a fairly secure platform to renovate, because a lot of the big ticket items are not owned by you and are borne by the strata,” he said.

“You’ve got a lot less variables in your renovation and very few surprises compared to house renovations.”