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Learn from these first-time renovators' mistakes

By Mayra David  | February 26, 2016 - 1:59PM
We once asked first-time buyers to share their regrets and what they'd do differently next time so that we could learn from their mistakes. Now, we turn our attention to renovation. Here's what those who've been through the joys and struggles of renovation would do differently next time.
Read this before you hire that contractor or buy that fixer-upper.
1. I would insist on a larger final payment and less up front.
Getting our contractor to finish our punch list was agonizing—in fact, he never did. We had no leverage at that point, basically, because the final payment in our contract was less than $1,000. He had already moved onto a new job and wasn't interested in finishing ours. —Sandra, Williamsburg
2. I'd make sure the architect and decorator don't hate each other.
It's a red flag if the architect and decorator are always at odds and sh-t-talking behind the other's back. The only person who loses is the client (that was me).  They need to get along, or one needs to get out. There needs to be a vendor, plan, and schedule transparency and accountability. In our case, the architect wouldn't let the decorator talk to his trades, the decorator gave up and did not oversee trades, mistakes and imperfections were made and it turned out costly or impossible to fix some of them. —Jamie, Upper East Side
3. I would have soundproofed.
We renovated before moving into our brownstone apartment, and so we failed to realize beforehand how incredibly noisy it was. We can hear everything our upstairs and downstairs neighbors do.  It would have been so much easier to take steps while the place was torn apart. Instead, it turns out we actually worsened the problem by dropping the ceiling to put in recessed lighting without filling the space with soundproofing material. Now it's an awful echo chamber amplifying the noise from upstairs. —Michelle, Park Slope
4. I'd check in with the contractors more often during the course of the work.
I would definitely be more diligent in checking the work in progress. We went away during our bathroom remodel, looking forward to coming home to a perfect, new bathroom. But in fact, while the remodel was successful over all, there were little things that bothered me. Like how some tiles are crooked and how the shower lever wobbled a bit. Sure enough, two months later, the shower lever fell off completely. Thank goodness, the work was guaranteed for a year. They came in right away and fixed it. Make sure the work is guaranteed! —Lorelei, Hamilton Heights
5.  I would suck it up and replace the floors. 
To save about $20,000, we decided just to refinish our old floors instead of replacing them. Now it's a much bigger deal to replace the floors than it would have been then; we'd have to move out and put all our stuff in storage. I wish we had cut corners elsewhere,  in places that could be easily upgraded when we had the money, like putting off the Sub-Zero fridge for a future date and getting something cheaper in the meantime. —Andrea, Lower East Side
6. I would move out for the entire renovation.
My wife and I moved back in right after our kitchen was gutted.  The other rooms were all done and we figured we would just order in a lot and it would be fine.  But not having a kitchen affects just more than what you eat for dinner--it's breakfast, snacks, lunches, everything.  And our five year old came down with a lot of respiratory infections that winter that I'm sure had something to do with all the dust and other stuff floating around the apartment. —Joshua, Park Slope
7. I'd get more specific details about what is--and is not--included in the price, plus I'd ask for information on all the things that were used.
I'd make sure the contractor was more specific about his quote and what is included and more importantly what is not included. For example, our kitchen included cupboards but not door handles. You don't necessarily think of this as being a big thing when planning but an apartment has a lot of doors and a lot of handles. I'd also recommend asking for a product book at the end of the job so that you know what color paint you had, what was used to seal tiles, etc. It makes it much easier when you're touching up or even buying cleaning products. —David, Upper East Side
8. I'd think about what needs doing BEFORE signing on the dotted line.
Next time, I'd have somebody with knowledge and experience with me to take a look at what needs renovating before I buy a place. Somebody with experience will be able to see a space and see what needs changing. For example, the fact that the electric hadn't been updated in decades. Almost all the outlets in the place were still for two-prong plugs! So we had to switch out outlets, just to be able to use our A/C. And now, of course, the lights flicker whenever we turn it on. —Vladimir, Upper West Side
9.  I'd go the credit-card route and keep my cash safe.
I didn't know there are contractors and plumbers that take credit cards. If I had known that, I would have put one of our bigger repair jobs on our new credit card, which had a high credit limit, and no interest for 18 months. We just didn't want to accumulate more debt along with our new mortgage. But now I think that as long as you stay on budget, using a credit card would have been smart.  We could have kept our cash in the bank for emergencies, and paid down the debt at a more leisurely pace, instead of having to immediately tighten our belts. Or we could have used it for more weekends away, which we really needed during the renovation process! —Andrea, Washington Heights
10.  I'd schedule things better so that the renovation didn't coincide with any large (expensive) life-cycle event.
One thing I wouldn't do is plan a wedding right after moving into our fixer-upper. Our wedding had been planned for a while, and then this great apartment came up. We moved in five months before the wedding. Trying to finance a renovation and a wedding is pretty much impossible. —Robert, Astoria
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