How To Start an Apartment Renovation In NYC

by | Last updated May 17, 2024 | Apartment Renovations, Renovations, Residential

Starting an apartment renovation in New York City can be a complicated process. However, if you take it one step at a time, put together a good team, and have a solid game plan, you will be just fine. Renovating your apartment means you need to hire an architect and general contractor. Always work with qualified professionals that you feel you can trust! Putting together the team that will bring your project to fruition is the most important step you can take as a homeowner. Aside from hiring the team you need to establish your project goals and budget. Be prepared: there is a lot to do, but in the end it should all be worth it. Below we will review the general process for getting to the point of being able to begin construction on your apartment renovation.

I am Jorge Fontan, an architect in New York and owner of Manhattan based architect firm Fontan Architecture. This blog post will be focusing on the key steps for starting an apartment renovation NYC.

Remodeled Apartment in New York

Remodeled Apartment in New York


Set goals

The first step to renovating an apartment is to make the choice itself. Once you commit to doing the project you need to establish your goals. What do you need in your renovation? What do you want in your apartment? Start with big picture items and work your way down to the details.

One of the other most important decisions to establish is the budget for your project. This can be difficult to accomplish without help from experienced professionals. I always ask my clients about their budgets early on and do my best to set realistic goals when it comes to the budget.

I tend to break down renovation budgets into three basic categories for simplicity sake and they are: Scope of Work, Who You Hire, and What You Purchase. These are the three big variables to determining a budget. We have another post if you are interested in reading more about the Three Factors for a Renovation Budget. The most important thing to know about starting a renovation is that you do not need to have everything figured out on day one. It is ok to feel overwhelmed and to need help. There are professionals who do this for a reason and it is never too early to hire an architect.

Setting goals for a project can mean a lot of things. Let me give you one example from an apartment combination we completed on the Upper East Side. The owners of the apartment had three children, two boys and a girl. They asked us to provide a bathroom for each child but wanted them all to be the same. This was very important to them that all the children’s bedrooms and bathrooms where designed the same. They also did not want the apartment to be child themed and asked for all the bathrooms to be designed for a grown up aesthetic. Below is a picture of one of the kid’s bathrooms in the apartment. We used the exact same design for all three of them. And then different designs for each of the two parents.


Hire An Architect

In order to renovate your apartment, you will need an architect to help you throughout the process. The architect will work with you to put the design together and produce a set of drawings, but that is not all we do. An architect such as myself will guide you every step of the way. We can help with figuring out the budget and establishing the project goals. Then we work together to design the home, from basic layout to minute details. At completion of the design, we produce a set of technical construction drawings. We can also assist you in selecting a contractor and getting bids on the work.

During the construction the architect stays on the job to perform administrative roles and periodic site visits. At completion the architect will work on punch lists, quality control, and prepare the sign offs to close out the permits.

I am an architect and this is what I do. An architect is a professional and the GCs are professionals so it is good to get their insights. Just make sure you hire people who’s views on the project align with yours. You do not have to do this on your own and listen to suggestions.

Let me give you an example where I made a suggestion to a client that they had not considered but where very happy with at the end. In the photo below you can see an open kitchen which has a family room on one side and a living room on the other. This was originally one apartment. The owner wanted to simply make a door between the two units for the combination. I suggested making a small hallway between the two but also opening up the kitchen on both sides. This really transformed the space. Not everyone is good at visualizing a home renovation. In this case they client loved the suggestion and here is the result.

Apartment Combination & Gut Renovation

Apartment Combination & Gut Renovation

We have another post you can see if you are interested in reading about NYC Apartment Combinations.


Review the Alteration Agreement

Your building will have its own set of rules and specific requirements for the renovation. They will have a contract for you to sign, which is known as an Alteration Agreement. I have another post explaining Alteration Agreements if you want to read more about that particular part of the process.

The alteration agreement should outline the general building regulations. Some buildings have basic alteration agreements and some have more detailed and extensive agreements. Either way the building will have rules and you are responsible for your team complying with those rules. The architect, contractor, and property owner should all get a copy of the alteration agreement and understand the regulations.

Buildings can all have different rules. For example the “Wet Over Dry” rule states that you cannot add a wet area on over a dry area on the floor directly below. Some buildings allow wet over dry conditions, some do not. In the photo below you can see a kitchen where we were able to slightly enlarge the kitchen despite the “Wet Over Dry” rule because the building agreed it was a small amount and acceptable.

Kitchen in NYC Apartment Renovation

Kitchen in NYC Apartment Renovation on the UWS


Building Management Review

When the architectural design, drawings, and specifications are complete, the architect provides these to the building management company for their review. The building management company must approve the proposed work before you can file for permits with the Department of Buildings. This review process timeline will vary based on your building, management, and reviewing architect.

In most cases, the building management will have another architect review the work and provide a report. This can be quite a process with a lot of back and forth. The reviewing architect will typically issue questions, comments, and requests for more information. The architect will provide a response and may need to make drawing revisions at this time, usually to add specific information or house rules on the drawings.

The building management review of your apartment renovation can go quickly with little hassle or can be a bigger ordeal depending on your building and the scope of work. Try to have patience and remember that, while the building management works for you, they have to look out for the building and board’s interest first.

In the photo below you will see an apartment where we added a bathroom, renovated an existing bathroom, and add a laundry closet. The management required their architect to come to the jobsite and inspect all the waterproofing and soundproofing to verify the proper installation. There are many different examples of these management reviews and fussing with things, but usually it is all doable.

Adding a Laundry to an Apartment in NYC

Adding a Laundry to an Apartment in NYC


Condo or Co-Op Board Approval

Once the management review is complete, the board can approve your renovation. If you are making any special requests or proposing something out of the ordinary this may require the board as well. You need board approval before proceeding with the project. We have another post you can read on How to Renovate Your Co-Op in NYC if you would like to learn more.

Some buildings we work in are very easy to deal with and some are more difficult. The time frame for management and board approvals fluctuates a great deal from project to project. The apartment below is from a full gut renovation we did where the entire project was smooth and easy. In honesty this is not always the case but whatever the circumstances we work with the management team to get the job done.

Renovation NYC Apartment

Renovation NYC Apartment (Upper East Side)


File With DOB

In most apartment renovations your architect will file an Alteration application with the NYC Department of Buildings. This will be reviewed by the DOB and it may take some time. As with the building review process the plan examiner from DOB may have questions/comments and requests for more information. This can result in a little back and forth and, as always, the best thing to do is have a little patience.

Co-Op Apartment Renovation Approved Plans

Co-Op Apartment Renovation Approved Plans


Bid the Job

Bidding is the process of getting prices and proposals from the construction contractors. This may be done earlier in the process or you may even hire one contractor directly. The architect can help guide you through this process.


Hire a General Contractor

After the bids are in you will select a general contractor. The most important thing I can tell you is that you need to ignore all the salesy crap the contractors are going to tell you. If they seem more like a salesman than a contractor, you should be wary of them and act with caution. Pick the person you believe will do the best job and that you feel you can trust. I am a big fan of going with my gut. Please also try not to hire the lowest bidder, as this is just asking for trouble.


Obtain Permits 

The architect files the job and gets approvals on the submitted plans. The permit itself goes under the contractor’s license, so you will not actually get a permit until you have a GC. Once the Contractor pulls the permits, you can begin construction.

Apartment Remodeling NYC

Architect Jorge Fontan on an Apartment Remodel in NYC


Start Construction

Construction is a long and arduous process, but hopefully you have managed to find a good team to help you through it.


Starting an Apartment Renovation in NY

Apartment renovations have many steps and can be quite daunting. Hire qualified professionals that you can trust and you will be fine.

NYC Apartment Renovation

NYC Apartment Renovation


Thank You for Reading Our Blog Post on the Renovation Process for NYC Apartments

I hope this was helpful. If you would like to speak with an architect about a potential project you can contact us directly.


Contact Fontan Architecture


Jorge Fontan

Jorge Fontan

This post was written by Jorge Fontan AIA a Registered Architect and owner of New York City architecture firm Fontan Architecture. Jorge Fontan has earned 3 degrees in the study of architecture including two degrees from the City University of New York and a Masters Degree in Advanced Architectural Design from Columbia University. Jorge has a background in construction and has been practicing architecture for 20 years where he has designed renovations and new developments of various building types.