NYC Renovation Chronicles

NYC Renovation Chronicles: 5 tips for figuring the cost of a fixer-upper

By Yoel Borgenicht  | September 14, 2011 - 1:50PM

The Situation

You are looking to buy one of several apartments and want to get an idea of what the construction costs will be to renovate. Accurate renovation pricing will help you decide which apartment is right for you and your budget.

Here are some tips for divining the post-renovation bottom line.

 The Deal

1. Establish a relationship with a reputable contractor.

The best way to obtain an estimate for renovating a prospective apartment is to bring a skilled contractor with you to see it.

If you do not have a relationship with a reputable contractor, ask your friends for a referral or try Googling “Manhattan General Contractor.” Many of the established companies show projects on their websites and post third-party reviews about their customer service.

If a company’s work appeals to you, call or email and ask if they are interested in a project such as yours. Spending time with a potential contractor looking at apartments will also be a good way for you to evaluate whether the contractor is punctual, professional and has a good eye for details.

Some contractors will expect to be paid a fee to see apartments you are considering buying. Ask before you arrange to go to avoid any awkward surprises.  

2. Determine your desired scope of work.

Prepare a detailed list of the scope of work you would like done in a prospective apartment. The contractor will use this list to calculate an estimate. The more comprehensive your renovation wish list is, the more accurate the estimate will be.

It is also helpful if you select the grade of finish materials you want to use (e.g. Ceramic vs. marble tiles, IKEA vs. Cherry wood cabinets) as these can have a significant influence on the bottom line.

If you would like a renovation that requires a work permit (e.g. reconfiguring the plumbing in the bathroom) then you will need to take into consideration the cost of hiring an architect and expediter along with Department of Building fees.

If you have a fixed renovation budget, I recommend that you tell your contractor the amount. He can then propose a scope of work that does not exceed your budget.

3. Be wary of an architect’s construction estimates.

There are some very experienced architects who can provide accurate construction estimates. They are the exception.

Architects are trained to be good designers and educated about the building code, not about renovation costs. Some architects with whom I work estimate the cost to renovate an apartment on a per-square-foot basis (e.g. $150 per square foot to gut renovate an apartment).

I discourage this approach, since New York City apartments vary and a standard per-square-foot cost such as this is often too high or too low, depending on the condition of the unit. Each apartment should be priced individually based on its conditions and unique attributes.

4. Keep costs down by avoiding or minimizing plumbing and electrical work.

New York City licensed master plumbers and electricians are expensive for two reasons: Obtaining a professional plumbing or electrical license here takes years of education and apprenticeship, and it is costly to maintain because of the price of liability insurance. (Imagine a leaky faucet on the 50th floor of a luxury condominium.)

5. Take into account the time to start and finish your renovation.

Depending on the scope of work, it may take several months to start your renovation project after you purchase your apartment.

If your project requires architectural drawings and a work permit, it can take a several weeks just for your plans to be ready. They then need to be reviewed by the building’s architect and eventually submitted for review to the Department of Buildings.

I have seen simple apartment renovations take more than half a year from the closing date to get all the necessary approvals to begin work.

You will also want to get an ironclad construction schedule from your contractor (with financial incentives to keep to the schedule), so that you can estimate how long it will take before you can move in.

That is why when estimating renovation costs for a prospective apartment you must take into account expenses you will incur until your apartment is in move-in condition, such as paying rent on your old place and mortgage payments on your new home.

Yoel Borgenicht is the president of King Rose Construction, specializing in residential and commercial renovations in the New York City metro area.  

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