Tips For Renovating Apartments in NYC

by | Last updated Apr 16, 2021 | Apartment Renovations

Renovating an Apartment in NYC requires putting together a good team to bring your project to reality. This means hiring an architect and contractor that you can trust to look out for your best interests. The process can be intense and challenging, but in the end, it will result in your new beautiful home.

I am an architect in NYC and owner of Fontan Architecture located in Manhattan. Since starting my architecture firm I have renovated many apartments in NYC from small apartments to massive lofts. This post will review a few tips that I put together to help you get off on the right foot when planning an apartment renovation in NYC.


Establish Project Goals

The first thing to do when planning an apartment renovation is to establish your goals. Always start with big decisions and work your way down to smaller, more detailed decisions. If you are on a budget I would make a list of items that you need, items that you want, and then a wish list. Prioritizing is important.

You may know you want to renovate, but not know exactly what you want to do. This is okay, don’t worry. You can hire an architect and ask for help with figuring out what you want. I find that many of my clients feel like they are supposed to have everything figured out on day one, but that is not the case. We can figure it out as we go along. One thing at a time!


Hire an Architect

One of the first steps to renovating apartments in NYC is to hire an architect. I always ask my clients questions about their goals and focus on big picture issues at first, and then narrow down as we go along. As an architect, I can also help you figure out your goals if you are not completely sure.

You will be working very closely with your architect, so make sure you are comfortable with and trust them. Renovating your home is a very personal experience. You want to make sure you put together the right team.


NYC High End Residential Architect

Talk To You Management Company / Board

Every apartment building is different and may have different rules. You may want to start by talking to your management company. If this is something you are not interested in doing, you can delegate that to your architect.

It is important to know early in the process who will be handling communications with the management company, as there will be plenty of coordination and correspondences. One thing to take into consideration is that your building may have very specific rules that we need to be aware of from early on. Some boards, for example, do not let you add a new wet space, such as an additional bathroom, over someone’s dry space below. Rules like these will undoubtedly affect the design, budget, and decision making process.


Determine How Hands On You Will Be

I once had a client tell me that they did not want to know what was going on until it was time for the final approval. This was rather unusual for me, as most of my clients are very hands on. I always ask all my clients how involved they wish to be when I first meet them. This is important for me to know as an architect, because some clients want to be involved in every minor detail and some do not. It helps me understand, as your architect, when I should bother you and when I should not.


You Will Probably Need Permits 

In most cases, you will need to get permits when renovating your apartment in NYC. The only exception is when you are doing very minor cosmetic work or repairs. If you are building walls, removing walls, moving plumbing fixtures, or doing electrical work, you will need a permit. In NYC you will typically obtain an Alteration Type 2 or Alt 2 permit for your renovation as well as plumbing, electrical, and maybe even a mechanical permit if you are doing HVAC work.

In order to obtain an Alteration Type 2 permit, you will need an architect to file the architectural drawings with the DOB. This can be a bit of a process and will take time. I advise a bit of patience during this time but it can be frustrating. Every job is different and the time frames vary.


Test For Asbestos in Buildings Built Before April 1st 1987

If your building was built before April 1st, 1987, you will need to test for asbestos and obtain an asbestos report filing with DEP to provide to the DOB. Let me take this opportunity to answer the most common questions I get when I tell people this:

  • No, you cannot use an asbestos report from another apartment in your building.
  • Yes, you need this even if it is minor work. The DOB will require it.
  • No, it does not matter that your apartment was previously renovated.
  • And no, it does not matter who told you there is no asbestos in your building.

We have another post on the NYC Asbestos Testing Requirements if you want to read more on the subject.


Establish a Budget

You need to have a realistic budget. This will vary based on the scope of work and the level of the finishes. It is never too early to talk to a contractor, but do not expect them to give you a price with minimal information. They would only be guessing.

This is New York City, so the reality is there are people who can renovate their apartments, lofts, and penthouses without concern for budget. Most likely, this is not the position that you are in. Figure out what you are willing to spend. In my experience as an architect renovating apartments in NYC, I find that when people do a full renovation they will spend anywhere between 15% and 33% of what they paid for the apartment. This is just my personal experience for a full renovation. Of course, every project is different.




Contractor Cost Equals Quality 

You should never hire the lowest bidder, and doing so is usually a terrible idea unless the prices all come in very close. The simple truth of the matter is in my experience as an architect in NYC, the most expensive contractors are often the best contractors I have worked with. The cheapest contractors are often the worst. It comes down to that.

People often think that one contractor may be more expensive than another contractor because they are raking in the money putting it all in their pocket. That is just not true. The more expensive contractors are more expensive because they do more work. They often will have more management and supervision resulting in better jobsite coordination. Additionally, they are usually better about paperwork, bureaucracy, and inspections.

Cheaper contractors  usually do not really know what they are doing. They also substitute specified materials for cheaper lower quality products. The work is often more sloppy and unreliable. They may not know protocols, or may know them and not care about them. You will also find cheaper contractors are using unqualified individuals to do the work. This is a problem when plumbing and electrical work is being done by someone without a license.


Understand Things Take Time

The reality is that there will be plenty of architects and contractors who will only tell you what you want to hear. There will be people who only want you to hear the good news and never tell you the bad news. There will be people who cannot keep their promises because they make unrealistic commitments. They do this because they just want to get in the door without concern for consequences.

The truth is that project schedules are a good guideline, but not all schedules will be 100% accurate projections. For example, people always ask me how long it takes to get a job approved by DOB. All I can do is tell you how long finished projects of mine took, but that will likely differ from yours. Every job is different. New York City does not rush for anyone! The Department of Buildings does not care if you are in a rush, because every single person they deal with is in a rush. The best way to get a job done is to have a team that is on top of it.

The more decisions are made up front and the more management and coordination you have, the higher the chances you have of the job timeline without delays. Contractors with more management generally tend to charge more. Bigger companies will be more expensive, but probably have more resources to get the job done quickly.

Another important issue to consider is that high-end products can have long lead times for ordering, especially if they are coming from Europe. Kitchen cabinets, for example, can take several months to order depending on which manufacturer they are coming from. The more expensive the kitchen, the longer it will usually take to get the cabinets delivered. High end American-made cabinets will usually be a little faster, and custom cabinets can potentially be faster than luxury foreign brands. The reality about cabinets is that the top of the line American-made cabinets are often better built than the high-end European cabinets. However, I find many people don’t really care how the cabinets are made and mostly only care how they look. I recommend considering both.

NYC Architect Jorge Fontan Apartment Renovation

NYC Architect Jorge Fontan Apartment Renovation


Know What You Are Getting Into

Renovating can be stressful for some people. This comes down to personality. Some people enjoy the experience and some get overwhelmed. There are lots of decisions to be made, take them one at a time. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.


Apartment Renovation Tips

Apartment Renovation Tips


Renovating Apartments in NYC

Planning is key to renovating your NYC apartment, but it is also important to understand what you are getting into. Put together a good team that you trust and you will be fine.

As an architect, I study design and construction, but these are complicated and quite involved issues. Every project is different and must be assessed on its own unique characteristics. This post does not assume to cover every possible issue or condition but provide a general overview of the topic.


Thank you for reading our blog post on Renovating Your Apartment in NYC

I hope this was helpful. Please leave questions and comments below. 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 15 years where he has designed renovations and new developments of various building types.