NYC Renovation Chronicles

NYC Renovation Chronicles: When the project is DIY, it helps to have the right tools, a good rapport with the super, and lots of plastic sheeting

By Mayra David  | August 14, 2013 - 9:23AM
I have fond childhood memories of delicious smells wafting through the house, welcoming me home after school, or waking me up on a weekend morning. It wasn’t so much the smell of cooking that would wake me up, but rather the smell of sawdust and freshly cut wood combined with the noise of my dad’s table saw.
These days, I'm a proud New York City owner of a fixer-upper co-op. But the city mouse I've become still misses one thing--suburban DIY renovations, complete with work space.
As previously recounted here, we had to move out for our bathroom remodel.  There really was no escape from a project that involved that much dust and debris. 
However, for smaller projects that don’t warrant a complete evacuation, one really needs to just make do with the space one’s been given. In our case, a 900 square feet one-bedroom apartment.
Here are some basic tips for getting started.
Containment is key
Say, for example, you’ve taken on the uneviable job of stripping paint from your window frames. The trick for living with your DIY project is to designate one space at a time for working in--and erecting a barrier of plastic sheets and strong tape to completely cut off  and contain the area (see picture below). You know those movies that involve the containment of patients infected with a deadly, airborne virus? Do it like that. Have masks, goggles, gloves, the works. 
My super gave me the following tips for working in enclosed spaces:
  1. Open windows, if you can. But if you’re so high up that it gets really windy inside, consider sucking it up and closing them. (Not an option when working with fumes, obviously.)
  2. Fill a spray bottle with water, and spray water into the air to keep dust to a minimum.
  3. Place damp newspapers or cardboard on the floor so that dust can cling to it. 

In a small New York City apartment, containment is key.

Also, in the spirit of viral containment, you’ll need a decontamination antechamber: an area outside the work space designated for taking off your work clothes so you don’t drag dirt all over the apartment. Have a damp towel on the floor to step on to with your work shoes. 
Get the right tools--ahead of time
Having the right tools on hand really make a difference to getting a job done quickly--even enjoyably--and hating every minute of it.
For example, one of our DIY projects involved adding cove molding to smooth the corners formed by our stripped, two-inch thick door frames and the wall. We were also replacing molding where water damage had rotted the original away.
At first, we thought we could make-do with a miter box and hand saw - no electricity required! But the elbow grease and time we would have wasted sawing away one cut at a time would have made a laborious process even more so. So we bought a miter saw (for about $120 at Home Depot). Having sold tools on Craigslist for my father (who tends to hoard tools, since he has the space for it), I knew we could easily re-sell the miter saw later on. 

The ladder above was found on Craigslist for $15. You can also ask your super if he's got anything you can borrow.

You can buy equipment and supplies cheaply online as well. That way, you won’t mind throwing them out afterward, if you don’t feel like going through the hassle of selling it.
This 8-foot aluminum ladder costs $89 at Home Depot, but we bought one (pictured above) on Craigslist for $15 dollars. We’ve gotten so much use out of it I could happily toss it when we’re done. However, our super has already told us he’d be happy to keep it, and we can borrow it whenever we like. If we decide not to sell the miter saw (which comes in a space eating 2-foot by 3-foot box) he’d be happy to keep that as well. And he’s practically drooling over the wet/dry shop vacuum we got. (Very necessary for containing dust!)
If you can't borrow or buy the tools you need, chances are you may be able to rent them.  For bigger projects like re-finishing floors, for example, you can always turn to the Home Depot to rent a floor sander. (Only if you really want to DIY that sort of thing. I got a quote for $350 for somebody to come in a refinish a 12 X 15 room. Seems a reasonable expense to avoid the hassle of doing it yourself.) 
In fact, the Home Depot rental service is one of the greatest resources a city-DIYer has. 
Talk to your super
This brings me to another suggestion: Get to know your super.
We're doing all our work ourselves, but our super lendss hand trucks and dollies whenever we’ve needed them. He’s told us we’re welcome to borrow anything we like, as long as we’re good about returning things.
Equally or more important, your super is a valuable source of inside information.
For instance, there are countless hardware stores in our area, one seemingly just like the other. But our super has his favorites, and he's kindly shared those with us--the reliable hardware stores owned by people who can give actual advice on the products they are selling.
Our super was also quick to say that sometimes the best place to go for supplies are the big box stores. This is because their inventory is frequently replenished and you can be sure to get fresh, reliable product. Smaller stores, he said, tend to hold on to old inventory forever and so you might get saddled with rubber washers that disintegrate, and connector pipes that have been damaged somehow and painter's tape that will no longer stick.  (We've been victims of all three. )
The super is usually the first to know when something cool is being thrown out in the building. He's got a little stock of original light fixtures in the basement. I've asked him to keep a look-out for a door to the potato cooler in the kitchen.
He's also privy to all the building gossip -- renovation gossip, I mean. He knows who had built-in shelving put in or kitchen work done, and who did the work, and how much it cost. That can be very useful information. When we were considering having built-in bookcases made, he was able to give me a good point of reference by telling me how much my neighbors' spent on theirs. He's also the one who told me that, in the distant past, the coop allowed a wet-over-dry remodeling of their kitchen. Not that I'm planning anything like that at all -- but good to know, right?
Next up: Inside my DIY projects -- including new French doors and redoing the radiators.

NYC Renovation Chronicles is a bi-weekly column focused (obviously) on renovation, NYC style. Helmed in the past by an architect, a kitchen and bath designer, and a general contractor, the column's new steward is co-op renovator, real estate porn addict and Harlem resident Mayra David. She'll focus on what it's like to DIY or HSI (= Hire Someone Instead) in NYC.

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Here's why you may be overpaying for your NYC renovation

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