Why NYC renos cost more than you think, plus how you can save

By Lucy Cohen Blatter  | May 9, 2014 - 8:59AM

In Case You Missed It: Every so often, BrickUnderground digs through the archives to find the best advice our experts have shared through the years.

If you've just started researching a NYC renovation, you've probably noticed that things get pricey--fast. Hidden costs are everywhere, and they're just some of the reasons it's so expensive to renovate in the Big Apple. (Word of advice: Don't talk to your suburban friends about their renovations. It'll depress you.) 

Here's why you're paying more--and some tips to lessen the damage.

1. Shorter work hours

Most New York City apartment buildings have strict working hours, like 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. or even 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. That short timeframe includes set-up and clean-up, so an actual workday may be five hours or less, meaning that your project is likely to take longer. And we all know, more time equals more money.

In addition, certain buildings allow construction during summer months only (after Memorial Day and before Labor Day). Ninety days is a tight timeline, and you may pay more for a "rush charge."

2. Elevator issues

If a contractor has to drag supplies up 10 flights of stairs because they won't fit in the freight elevator, or if they need to figure out a way to bring the stuff up on top of the elevator cab, the extra time and money will show up in your bill.

3. Tipping building staff

Building employees who interact with your general contractor receive "incentive" to keep things running smoothly. These costs vary considerably, from a small tip of $20 at the beginning of a job to something more substantial.  

4. Parking

A contractor will charge more for a job where parking is going to be difficult (and if you've ever tried to park in NYC, you'll realize that's almost everywhere). If double parking is required while loading and unloading, they're going to rack up a lot of tickets and you're going to pay for them. 

5. Space-sharing

Unlike in a suburban home, if you choose to occupy parts of your apartment during the renovation, chances are you'll be at least somewhat in the way. This means a lot more cleanup and much more time to set up and break down everyday. 

6. Insurance 

Contractors are required to have large business insurance policies to be eligible to work in most Manhattan buildings. The amount of required liability insurance starts at about $2 million and can go up as high as $10 million depending on the actual building. The apartment owner will shoulder the cost. Sometimes this is stated specifically in a contractor's bid, sometimes it's not.

7. Licenses and certifications 

There are some work types that require special certifications--for example, if lead paint is to be removed. The cost of obtaining these licenses is passed along.

Luckily, there are things you can do to fight back against cost creep:

Consult an interior designer before buying materials. Make sure that you understand the budget-busting installation costs that could be required from a range of professionals, like plumbers, tile contractors, electricians and others. Also, an interior designer can steer you toward items that will fit easily into freight elevators.

Move out. Relocating will cost you a pretty penny, but consider that contractors may add 20-40% to the price if you'll be sticking around. 

Get prices from at least three contractors. Think twice before taking your super's recommendation, as many get kickbacks. But don't necessarily go with the cheapest offer. You want value for your money.

Ask your chosen contractor for advice. Don’t be afraid to ask your contractor for recommendations on how to cut costs and still get the end results you desire.

Stick to the scope. Remember that the five most expensive words in any renovation are "While you're at it...." Be crystal clear about the scope of work and try not to create changes in the middle of a renovation. Change orders dramatically increase the cost of any renovation.

For more, read NYC Renovation Questions: Why is it so expensive to renovate in NYC? And what can I do about it? and The hidden costs of a New York City renovation.


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