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When my fiancé and I renovated our two-bedroom co-op, we made a lot of rookie mistakes that, in hindsight, could have been avoided. So in the interest of creating some good karma for our next reno project (TBD), here's what we learned:
- Don’t interview contractors who weren't referred to you by someone. Frankly, it’s a waste of your time. It was certainly a waste of ours. They wanted to rob us blind or were downright unprofessional. Instead, use the word-of-mouth method and ask friends for reliable recommendations. That's how we wound up hiring a firefighter who also runs a contracting business.
- Don’t buy items way ahead of time. We did this with our kitchen cabinets. We had huge boxes stacked in the living room for 3 months, while waiting for renovation approval from the board. With our bathroom renovation, we bought the tub, vanity and medicine cabinet ahead of time and guess what? None of it fit. We went on a returning spree and our contractor had to use a jackhammer to break through the old tub and get the new one in—much to the annoyance of our neighbors.
- Fix existing problems first. We had yucky black mold in our old bathroom and figured it was just water caught between the tacky tile-on-tile job. During the renovation, our contractor found a huge leak in our upstairs neighbors’ plumbing. If we had called in the super when we first realized the mold problem, we wouldn’t have had to deal with major renovation delays due to fixing the leak.
- Don’t think minor changes aren’t going to be major. Man, did we learn this lesson. After taking down the old kitchen cabinets, we found out the kitchen walls were bowed—nothing was flat or square. Fitting the new kitchen cabinets took over two days when it should’ve taken one. The tub wouldn’t come out until it met our contractor’s jackhammer. The new medicine cabinet wouldn’t fit due to the position of a steal beam that was part of the building. Our contractor had to take apart, cut, rework and custom fit the cabinet to the wall.
- Don’t assume what was standard in 1967 is standard today. That was one of the major reasons we had so many problems with minor things turning major. Remember, every item you buy today is made for today’s building construction. And standards have changed drastically from over 40 years ago. For example, today's pipes for plumbing are much smaller than back in the day. Our standard-size tub of today was smaller than the original tub. We had tried to replace our out-of-date wall oven, only to find today's wall ovens are much bigger.
- Don’t assume a contractor will come on time. They don’t. Even the best ones are doing many jobs at once. Our contractor, who we liked very much and did a fantastic job, always arrived an hour to two hours late. We let it slide because he was great in every other way. Sometimes, you can’t have everything you want—just like buying an apartment in the city.
- Don’t clean while renovations are ongoing. Even if you have the urge to do so because you’re a neat freak, don’t do it. Why? Because there will be more dust, dirt and wood chips the next day. You’ll put yourself in a frustrating cycle of cleaning and feeling like you never did.
- Don’t gut the only bathroom while living there. We did this and it’s hard. We had no shower for nearly two weeks. Every night, when the contractor was finished, he had to put the toilet back so we could use it. But it wasn’t bolted into place, so sitting was forbidden. If you can, renovate an apartment with only one bathroom before moving in.
- Don’t work from home while renovations are going on. The thought of the nail gun still makes me jump. It’s noisy and impossible to concentrate, especially when a construction worker loves to sing along with his iPod. Go to a local café with Wi-Fi or ask to work at friend’s or family member’s place while they’re at work.
- Okay, this one is a little silly, but don’t stock up on frozen dinners if you have a working fridge during a kitchen renovation. We moved the fridge into the living room and filled up the freezer with frozen dinners to save money on food. Frozen dinners are nasty. I couldn’t stomach them after night two and we resorted to dining out or ordering take out anyway.