Renovating an Apartment in NYC requires putting together a team to bring your project to reality. This means hiring an architect and contractor that you can trust who will 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 then 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.
Sometimes you may know you want to renovate but have no idea what you want to do. This is OK, don’t worry, you can hire an architect and ask for help 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, 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 help you figure out your goals as well since some people may want to renovate but do not know what they can and can’t do.
You will be working very closely with your architect so make sure you are comfortable with them and trust them. Renovating your home is a very personal experience you want to make sure you put together the right team.
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 but if this is something you are not interested in doing, it’s OK, 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. For example “wet over dry” some boards do not let you add a new wet space like an additional bathroom over someone’s dry space below. Not all buildings have this rule but this is just one of many examples that will affect the design, budget, and decision making process.
Determine How Hands On You Will Be
I once had a client tell me “I don’t want to know what is going on until the end of the process when I will approve all the final decisions.” This is rather unusual for me, as most of my clients are very hands on. I always ask all my clients how hands on they will 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 get permits when renovating your apartment in NYC unless 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 can 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 and provide this to DOB. Let me go ahead and 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 most certainly, no, it does no 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 but most likely you are not one of those people. 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 and as I said that is 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 that, as an architect renovating apartments in NYC, in my experience the most expensive contractors I have worked with have been the best contractors I have worked with. The cheapest contractors I have worked with have been the worst contractors I have worked with. 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 usually are better about paperwork, bureaucracy, and inspections.
Cheaper contractors first of all, usually do not really know what they are doing. They also substitute specified materials for cheaper lower quality products. The work is often sloppier and unreliable. They may not know protocols and may not entirely care about them either. You will also find cheaper contractors are using unqualified individuals to do the work, for example plumbing and electrical work being done by someone who does not have a license.
Understand Things Take Time
The reality is that there will be plenty of architects and contractors who will tell you everything you want to hear. There will be people who only want you to hear the good news and never tell you the bad news. And of course 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 later. And get the project at any cost.
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. I can tell you how long every one of my jobs took but that does not directly inform exactly how long yours will take. Every job is different. Also one major thing that I tell everyone is that 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. That is the best thing you can do.
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 not being delayed. Contractors with more management generally tend to charge more, so realize the bigger companies will be more expensive but probably have more resources to get the job done quickly.
One important issue to consider about time is that high end products can have long lead times for ordering, especially if they are coming for Europe. For example, kitchen cabinets 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. Also the reality about cabinets is that the top of the line American made cabinets are often better built than the high end European cabinets but I find many people don’t really care how the cabinets are made and mostly only care how they look. I recommend considering both.
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.
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.
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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.
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.