New Yorkers' 8 biggest renovation delusions

By Marjorie Cohen  |
March 4, 2014 - 8:59AM

Buying a fixer-upper isn't necessarily a bad idea--so long as you know what you're getting into.  If this is your first time at the renovation rodeo, you're probably harboring some not-quite-accurate perceptions about the project in store for you. We asked some of the city's real estate brokers--who are often the first to hear about a buyer's renovation aspirations--to list the most popular examples of wishful thinking they've encountered.

1. I can renovate as soon as I close...

“If your broker says, ‘It’s easy to get approval for a renovation,' run!” says real estate agent Danka Pinkos of Coldwell Banker Bellmarc. Pinkos usually suggests that her clients count on a two to four month turnaround on plans before any work gets started.

Real estate agent Brad Malow of Rutenberg Realty, who has been living through and blogging about the renovation of his two-bedroom Flatiron/Chelsea apartment, agrees wholeheartedly.

As an example, he says, “I recently sold to clients on the Upper East Side who have been waiting for five months for their plans to be approved by the board. They have a large project planned for their two-bedroom and have been asked many times for revisions on plans/renderings and then the board takes weeks and weeks to respond."

So, if time is of the essence, and you're looking at a gut reno, you may want to consider more move-in ready options instead.

2. ...and it shouldn't take long to finish.

This is you: After closing, I have a couple of weeks to get board approval, then I can start demolition and installations. Should be a six to eight week process, depending.

This is Malow: “Most people don’t factor in the contractor search time, the time it takes to create architectural plans, the process of obtaining permits, ordering and delivery of materials and, of course, the dreaded unknowns."

Plan for at least two to three weeks of delay for anything from delivery hold-ups to electrical or water issues and workmen tardiness. 

"It's safe to say that the larger or more complicated the project, the greater chance for delays," he says.

Malow himself thought his renovation would take five months, and it took over six. And stories of 6-month gut renos taking a year, or longer, are legion.

3. A bathroom reno will take a couple of weeks

Particularly if the building is pre-war, a bathroom renovation can easily be a big deal. 

While a minor facelift--replacing the toilet and sink, resurfacing the tub and tiles or tiling over existing tile--can take just 2-3 weeks, think  2-3 months for anything that involves opening up a wall or moving fixtures.

Among other things, buyers often don't realize that "the piping has to be removed back to the risers, which often means ripping up concrete floors and walls, asbestos removal and other things that will add substantial costs [and time] to the project," says Barbara Kaufman of Coldwell Banker Bellmarc. 

4. I can live in the apartment while it's being renovated

“Having just gone through it, I can tell you that living in the apartment while it is being renovated  is more stressful than you think,” says Malow.  

You could try a short-term rental or staying with friends or family, he notes, but if that's not possible, be prepared for substantial inconvenience. 

"I found that my contractor was completely off in predicting the amount of time that those rooms would be non-functional," Malow says. "Weeks turned into months. Being unable to cook at home made eating out the only option. Budget for that--most people forget to.”

If you do try to stick it out to save money, understand that contractors will up the price--anywhere from 5% to 40% more--to compensate for the inconvenience of working around you.

5. I can get a mortage to cover the cost of my reno

Not possible, says Robbie Gendels of National Cooperative Bank. Lenders do not provide funds for renovations before a purchase is finalized. Period. But owners do, on the other hand, have the option to take out a second mortgage or Home Equity Line of Credit.

6. Washer/dryers are verboten, so I'll just sneak them in

Some buyers think they can bypass the rules of the building and have what they want when they want it without anyone knowing about it. That's a big mistake.

The “I didn't know” defense never, ever works, says Malow. Once the co-op board finds out that you have the outlawed appliances, they will not hesitate to have you remove them and potentially levy fines in the process. And chances are they will find out--and you will forever after have a reputation as a resident who tried to pull a fast one.

7. The floors need sprucing up, I'll just replace them

Changing the floors of an apartment can give the whole place a strikingly new look. That doesn't necessarily mean that you have to replace the floors to get a more modern or cleaner look.

You can stain, buff or polish what's already there without permission from the board. If you are going to simply freshen up the existing floors, do it before you move in. Once you're in the apartment, you'll have to move all your furniture and will need to figure out a place to stay for two to three days while the finish dries. That only adds to your expenses.

And note that if you are going to replace the floor with some other material, the board needs to know, and you need to allow time for the project to be done before you move in.

8. I want new windows. I'll just order them and have them installed.

If a window is cracked, you can ask the seller to have it replaced before you buy. But if you are thinking about putting in a window that might alter the facade in any way, the board needs to be consulted. And, be warned, they may very likely say no.

Related posts:

10 first-time renovation mistakes even New Yorkers make

About time: Now you can insure your renovation

How to finance a NYC apartment combination [sponsored]

How to turn around a renovation turndown

10 renovation plans your board probably won't go for

NYC Renovation Chronicles: The cost to renovate a NYC bathroom



Marjorie Cohen

Contributing writer

Marjorie Cohen is a New York City-based freelance journalist, editor and author of over seven non-fiction books. Her real estate reporting has appeared in amNewYork, Investopedia, and The West Side Rag. Since moving to New York five decades ago for graduate school at the Teachers College of Columbia University, Marjorie has lived on the Upper West Side, with a brief detour to West 15th Street when she got six months free rent in a new building.

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