When I moved into my slightly dilapidated one-bedroom co-op in Hamilton Heights, I not only bid adieu to my years as a renter, I also embarked on a complete overhaul of the place, from redoing the kitchen floors to remodeling the bathroom to adding an office—on a shoestring budget, and much of it with my own hands. It's been a messy, dusty, sweaty two-and-a-half years, but now the ladder and miter saw are in storage, and I'm ready to enjoy the fruits of my labor.
Here, dear reader, is what I gleaned from my New York City renovation:
1. Line up an expert: If you’re going to buy a space that needs a lot of work—and you don’t have a lot of money or expertise—it really helps to have a knowledgeable friend or relative to advise, answer questions and even do some of the dirty work. In our case, my dad, a handyman extraordinaire who lives in Las Vegas, leant a hand on our French doors installation, hallway makeover, kitchen backsplash and new floors. And all for the price of a couple of plane tickets!
2. Take a break (or several): Relentlessly renovating is not only unpleasant—who wants to live in a construction zone for months on end?—it's also a recipe for burnout. If you're going to DIY, budget week- or month-long breaks into the span of the job. Also, it helps to break up the big, messy projects with easy, decorative fixes that don’t take a ton of time. The results will give you the kind of instant gratification that'll motivate you for the ambitious projects down the road.
3. Painting is a big deal: When you're renovating, you hear this a lot: “Don’t be afraid of color!” or “It’s only paint—have fun!” Well, let me tell you, color may be “fun,” but the process of painting a room is a lot of work. You do not want to do it twice. Spend the extra few bucks on large paint swatches or paint samples, and look at the color throughout the day to make sure you like it just as much in the gloom of twilight as the morning sunshine.
5. If you build it, they will talk: You’ll likely get a lot of “input” on your projects from well-meaning observers. Many friends and relatives thought our plan to add a wall to create an office in the living room was a horrible idea. Now that it’s built, everybody loves it—especially the visitors who use it as a guest room! Remember it’s your home, and you have to live in it.
6. Do it once, do it right: It’s tempting to cut corners by skipping the research or jumping over a few steps in a job. But before calling it a day on the prep work, think about all the times you'll pass that uneven paint job or crooked tile work, and invest the time in doing the project properly.
7. Don't skimp on tools: The right tools and materials make all the difference in how well and easily you can accomplish a job. Even if you're on a tight budget, get the best tools you can (sometimes that means borrowing from a friend or neighbor). Likewise, if there is a project you think is beyond your DIY capabilities, save your sanity and spend the money on a professional.
8. Nurture your connections: Building a good relationship with your neighbors, hardware store staff, contractors, co-op board, and building staff pays dividends. Residents will complain less, boards will approve plans quicker, and contractors will take special care to do a good job.
9. This too, shall pass: You’ll often feel like you’ll never finish your renovation or live in a clean apartment again. You'll doubt your ideas and your work. Is it really worth it? Will anybody else notice? But just keep tackling one room and one project at a time—taking breaks and help whenever you need it—and one fine day, you too will fold away the ladder, sell some tools on Craigslist, and enjoy the home you created.