How to Renovate in New York City

A HOW-TO GUIDE
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Average NYC renovation cost per square foot

Whether you’re renovating an entire New York City brownstone or a studio apartment, the cost is based on the square footage of the space being renovated, the level of finishes, plus additional costs including any co-op/condo board fees and temporary housing. 

For a basic gut or non-gut renovation, the average cost in NYC is $100 to $200 per square foot, including labor and stock materials (with gut renos at the higher end). Expect to spend $200 to $400 per square foot for higher end renovations and all the way to $800 per square foot in extreme cases—depending on the quality of finishes and fixtures and the extent of customizations. 

This figure also depends on the current state of the property, with prewar co-ops and brownstones often posing their own unique problems, such as awkward layouts that don’t work well with modern lifestyles and/or outdated plumbing and wiring. 

As no two projects are going to be exactly the same, per-square-foot averages are slightly less predictive. That said, understanding how the per square foot number is computed helps you appreciate what you will be paying for—and what’s going to be extra. 

Your cost may vary depending on:

  • time spent on the designs
  • complexity of approvals and permits
  • skilled labor and actual construction costs
  • materials and finishes
  • amount of customizations 
  • unspoken costs (see below).

Cost of renovating a brownstone vs. a condo or co-op

Though renovating a condo or coop apartment in New York City doesn’t typically involve the level of work that brownstones do, the obstacles that co-op and condo boards and buildings present may offset any cost savings, including:

  • A multi-stage approval process which can take several months. 
  • Stringent liability insurance requirements imposed on contractors of anywhere from $1 to $5 million, plus some buildings require $1 million on the contractor's vehicles too. 
  • Higher labor costs, as boards require licensed professionals to do even small jobs. 
  • Strict start and stop times, restricting what can get done in a given day or week. Same for prohibiting work on holidays and weekends. 
  • Dealing with multiple neighbors and building staff (and tipping the latter as needed).
  • Building rules that may require you to update the plumbing lines when replacing fixtures, sometimes at your expense. 
  • Possible late fees for going beyond the stipulated end date. 

If you’re renovating a brownstone, even though there’s no board to contend with and you are more free in what you can do (barring any applicable landmark district restrictions), your renovation will likely go far beyond what’s involved in an interior apartment remodel, potentially including:

  • Repairs to the structure and roof.
  • Exterior updates, including facade restoration and painting the stoop and railings.
  • HVAC upgrades.
  • Electrical upgrades.
  • More extensive layout changes.
  • Building out or up, with garden-level or roof-top extensions.

Therefore the average cost per square foot tends to fall in the same range for coops, condos, and brownstones and ultimately depends on the level of renovation you are pursuing. 

Besides expenses that are baked into the above square-footage formula, other costs are involved in the renovation of a co-op or condo. Ultimately you will need to check with your own board to determine what fees (and potential fines) are involved, as they can vary greatly across different buildings. At a minimum you can expect to pay upfront fees of anywhere from $250 to $500, or the board may require a nonrefundable deposit that’s based on a percentage of the total cost of the renovation. (For example, 1 percent of a $750,000 renovation would be $7,500.)

Some boards also pass along the cost of having their architect review your plans at a specified hourly or project rate, for a total of around $1,000 to $2,000. Occasionally, a building will require you to pay for the building’s architect to keep an eye on your renovation from start to finish, inspecting at key junctures such as before walls are closed, and report back to the board. That can add another $8,000 to $12,000 to your reno tab. You may also be assessed a fee (say, $50) for every day the crew is moving equipment in and out as well as a penalty for projects that go beyond the original end date. (Suggestion: Have the architect build this into the contractor agreement so your contractor is liable for being late.)

Gut renovation costs

Planning to gut renovate your apartment or brownstone––i.e., take the existing space down to the studs, plumbing, and wiring? If so, the potential costs tend to be higher than for non-gut (“cosmetic”) upgrades like replacing kitchen cabinets and/or bathroom fixtures due to the need for more complex planning (by an architect) and Department of Buildings permitting.  

The average cost per square foot for a gut-renovation using mid-range materials is $250 to $300 per square foot. 

To gut renovate a 2,500 square foot prewar apartment, for example, you should plan to spend around $625,000 to $750,000. Double that figure for top-of-the-line upgrades. 

Similarly, renovating a 3,200 square foot brownstone averages around $800,000 to $960,000 and will cover updating the mechanicals, replacing the kitchen and bathrooms, refinishing the flooring, and updating the roof, windows, and facade. But if you are making major structural changes (such as building out the back or adding to the top) and selecting the highest-level finishes and furnishings, your total cost may be closer to $1.6 million. When renovating a brownstone in a historic district, Landmarks Commission approvals will push the total closer to $2 million-plus. 

Though these figures might seem like a lot, a complete gut renovation of your entire apartment or brownstone may give you the greatest payoff, especially if you plan to stay in the home for at least five years. Renovation costs (labor and materials) will only rise over time, and doing work in a piecemeal fashion will end up costing you more in money and inconvenience. Larger jobs are more attractive to quality architects and contractors too, some of whom will not accept anything but.

Kitchen and bathroom renovation costs

While New York City kitchens and bathrooms may be small, the cost of renovating them is not.

How much does it cost to renovate a NYC kitchen?
Expect to pay $25,000 to $40,000 for a mid-range kitchen renovation, and much higher (as in $90,000 and up) depending on size and finish levels.

The size of your kitchen is just one factor, as there are generally plumbing, electric, and construction matters (taking down walls, for example) to contend with.

The choice of fixtures and finishes are the biggest driver of overall cost. A small kitchen with high-end materials and appliances could end up costing more to renovate than a larger kitchen with budget-friendlier options.

If you stick with stock (e.g. from big-box stores like Home Depot or Lowes) options such as GE or Frigidaire, expect to spend anywhere from $400 to $3,000 for each appliance. Designer ranges (e.g., Wolf and Viking) and refrigerators (Sub-Zero and Liebherr) will cost more like $6,000 to well over $10,000, especially for custom integrations.

Countertops and backsplashes span the same gamut, with stock subway tiles being much less expensive than marble or quartz and other made-to-order materials. Plan on about $25 per square foot total (with installation) for subway tiles and over $100 for the latter. 

The cost to renovate a typical NYC bathroom
The starting point for a typical 5-by-7-foot bathroom gut renovation in NYC is $25,000, moving closer to $50,000 depending on materials and whether the tub will be replaced. (Note: You may be able to gain significant cost savings by renovating two or more bathrooms at the same time.)

The high cost given the relatively low square footage is in part because these spaces involve more than the usual plumbing work, particularly in cases where you are rejiggering the placement of the fixtures (toilets, sinks and tubs). Surfaces—flooring, tiling, and countertops—will also contribute to price creep as will fittings (the term for faucets and showerheads) and fixtures.

Take toilets, for example. Your run-of-the-mill variety can cost as little as $400 while state-of-the art models with heated seats and other bells and whistles will set you back over $3,000. Sinks fall in a similar price range, with custom being even higher.

As with kitchens, tiles and other surfaces run the gamut, except here you may be using them to cover entire shower walls and the floor as well as a custom vanity.

Radiant flooring is yet another common upgrade, at an average of $20 to $25 per square foot including installation.

The cost of adding a second bathroom
Unlike when renovating an existing bathroom, adding a new one usually involves extensive plumbing and electrical work—meaning more time getting DOB permits and inspections as well as board approvals if you are in a co-op or condo. So expect it to start at around $50,000 and go up from there depending on the quality of the finishes (see above).

Cost of combining apartments

If you keep everything as is and just put a door in between, your main cost will be filing for permits and the construction (mostly demoing the extra kitchen) for a total cost of less than $10,000.

A vertical connection however will require a structural engineer and more filings plus expeditors and special inspections. Plan to spend around $60,000, including for the stair. This might possibly give a co-op or condo board pause and will require more time and effort getting approvals.

Everything else (upgrading the kitchens, baths, etc.) is just like any other renovation and will depend on the quality of the materials.

You’ll also have to contact ConEd to have the electrical panels combined or keep the two panels (and have two bills).

Unexpected renovation costs

Just like anywhere else, a NYC renovation is subject to the universal rule of pricing: You should always budget for at least 15 percent more than the original estimate. 

Here are some common budget busters:

  • Even with the most experienced team, unexpected problems can and mostly do crop up during a renovation. Because these often involve outdated plumbing and electrical systems (and structural concerns in a brownstone), you’ll want to address any issues as they arise and do so in the right way. 
  • There’s also the “while you’re at it” principle at play, meaning once you’ve exposed the wiring and plumbing, it often makes good sense to plan for anything you might want to do in the near future—like arranging the plumbing for the addition of a second bathroom or a washer/dryer at some point in the future (or to tack that on now, budget allowing). Most experts suggest creating a “change order” line item in your original budget, equal to an extra 5 to 10 percent of the total estimate. Better to pad it from the get-go so you are prepared if and when change orders occur (and they always do). 
  • The cost of fabrication––templating and cutting whatever material you are using on your countertops, bathtub surround, and shower walls––is often not baked into the quoted cost of those materials; same for installation. This can add an additional 10 percent to that initial price. Be sure to ask your architect for a breakdown of the costs at the outset, as you may want/need to go with a more affordable material. 
  • Similarly, many (most) big-ticket items such as appliances have hefty delivery fees and sales tax that you may not have accounted for in the pricing—yet another reason (besides the trade discount) to have your contractor order all these items directly. It’s also worth asking your architect to review your budget and flag any missing costs.

The cost of temporary housing in NYC (and the price of staying put)

If you are doing a gut renovation, it’s wise to vacate the premises for at least the duration of the demo phase, for your own health and safety as well as to keep the project going apace. The good news is finding a short-term rental is getting easier and (somewhat) more affordable, and if you remain within your own neighborhood, it will be more convenient and less disruptive to your everyday routine. 

What to budget for a temporary rental depends on how much space you need, but safe to say it will cost you at least $3,000 per month for a furnished one-bedroom. You’ll also need to consider removing your belongings, especially if you’ll be refinishing or replacing flooring. When possible, you may be able to gather everything into a spare bedroom while work is done elsewhere. Otherwise budget for a moving company to pack up everything and store it for at least part of the time, for several hundred dollars per month. 

Intent on staying put? Factor in these considerations:

  • Your contractor will have to implement precautions and take extra steps to protect you from dust and toxins, all adding to the cost (and time). Some architects and contractors will even build in a buffer of 20 to 40 percent for clients who insist on remaining on site for the duration. 
  • Even if your contractor makes every effort to contain the dust with plastic barriers, you’re still taking a risk—especially if young children or older adults will be living there. (Same for staying during pregnancy.)
  • Staying put is a more realistic option if you are able to stage the construction on one level or section of your apartment while living in another, though doing so will drive up costs, potentially above and beyond the cost of a short-term rental. 
  • If you are only renovating the kitchen, you might easily be able to stay and work your meals around that. Likewise if you are renovating one of two (or more) bathrooms, or even adding a new bathroom.
  • You may not need to stay elsewhere when adding a bedroom or combining apartments, depending on the extent of other renovations. 
  • There’s often no getting around vacating if you are replacing or refinishing floors, which takes one or two weeks. Likewise if you are doing plaster wall repairs, as that stirs up a lot of dust and takes anywhere from five to 10 days.
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How long does it take to renovate in NYC?

Average renovation times: Brownstones, co-ops & condos, kitchens and bathrooms, combinations

Renovation times will vary by project but there are accepted averages for brownstones versus co-ops and condos, and for one-off projects like renovating a kitchen or bathroom. Keep in mind that the active construction or “build” time--demolition, framing, plumbing, electrical work, tiling, and installing fixtures and finishes--is only one part of the nose-to-tail renovation process.

Brownstone renovation time: It’s safe to say you are looking at six to eight months of active build time, with rooftop or rear extensions (such as expanding the kitchen in the back or building a structure up top) taking longer. Start to finish, most brownstone renovations require a minimum of twelve months to complete. The more changes you make to the layout—and reconfigure systems like HVAC, electrical, and plumbing—the more regulatory challenges you’ll encounter, which eat up time. Roofing and structural repairs will add time too, as will obtaining any Landmark Commission approvals.

Co-op and condo renovation time: Plan on four to six months construction time (and keep in mind that many co-op and condo buildings restrict project length to 4 months, levying a daily fine on projects that take longer). Although the work is typically less involved than brownstones (no roofing or foundational concerns, for example), the added layer of approvals tends and restricted work hours tend to make up for any reduced build-phase time, such that twelve months is the average start-to-finish time.

Kitchens: Upgrading cabinets, countertops, and/or fixtures might take only a matter of weeks. But if you’re completely renovating your kitchen, plan on more like ten to twelve weeks for the active build phase, and total of six months from planning to completion.

Bathrooms: The construction time for a typical reno is four to six weeks, with the total process taking about four months. This also applies to the addition of another bathroom.

Combinations: Safe to say vertical combinations will take longer than horizontal ones in terms of getting board approvals, DOB permits and inspections, and fabrication and installation of the staircase. Expect at least six months for those. But also note that some co-op boards limit combinations to one per year, so you may have to get on a waiting list. Co-op boards usually require you to combine the units within a certain time or face a penalty, in case you were planning on putting off the work for a while. Condos don’t generally have those restrictions but there’ll be more red tape in a condo because you have to change the declaration and also file for a new tax lot with the Department of Finance before you file a permit with the DOB. 

Renovation timeline

Every New York City renovation is unique and yet the underlying process is the same. Think of this as your reno roadmap:

1. First is the ever-important planning stage, where you come up with your goals and estimate costs and hire an architect, which can take days, weeks, or months depending on your motivation, scope of project, and your capacity to rebound from sticker shock.

2. Next comes the design phase, where your architect will be reviewing your property and working with you to discuss your goals and budget, and to help decide between must-haves and all the rest. You will also need to select all materials and products that will be installed.

3. Your architect will also be seeking board approvals and DOB permitting. This step can take a minimum of 2 to 4 months, longer for more complicated projects. (On average, half of a 12-month renovation will be spent in the design phase.) You will also be working together to select the products that will be installed.

If your apartment or brownstone is located within one of the city’s historic districts, anticipate extra time for getting Landmark Commission approvals. Interior-only renovations can be fast-tracked within a week or so but some exterior renovations can add months to the process.

Note: Here’s where hiring an architect who has experience with your specific property and project type is key in being able to negotiate with boards and the DOB in a timely manner.

4. Approvals and permits in hand, your architect can bid out the project to contractors, who will obtain the permits and procure all the materials. Nothing like work being held up because some appliance or surface doesn’t arrive on time. Things have to happen in a very specific order.

5. Next is the demolition stage, requiring the implementation of protections around your worksite and any shared areas in your building that will be affected.

6. Then the build or construction phase begins—and where unplanned repairs, failed DOB plumbing and electrical inspections, and any other change orders can cause further delays.

7. Once work is completed, it’s time for the final DOB inspection, contractor cleanup, and your own walk-through to address the punch list.

Common reasons for renovation delays

Just as with cost overruns, scheduling set-backs are practically bound to happen whether you’re renovating here in New York City or elsewhere. Most experts advise adding one-third of the overall timeline to the original estimate. That means a 12 month renovation may very well take more like 15 months, and that’s being conservative. 

What can cause delays?

  • The timing of your renovation can play a role in how long it will take, though that can be hard to control. When possible, you may want to start your approval process in the spring to avoid the winter-to-spring backlogs at the DOB.
  • If your board meets infrequently or takes a hiatus over the holidays or during summer, that can cause the approval process to stall, as can a rigorous review by the building’s own architect, who is tasked with ensuring the work will in no way negatively compromise the entire property, not just your own unit.
  • When submitting plans to the DOB, your architect may discover illegal or sub-par renovations by previous owners, adding months to the front end.
  • During the construction phase (after demolition), the DOB will inspect plumbing and electrical work, resulting in delays if the work fails to pass muster. Your licensed plumber and electrician can opt to self-certify these inspections instead, but if the DOB fails the work on a spot check, you may have to open up the walls again––and that puts an end to future self-certification.
  • Custom finishes are not only more expensive, they usually have long lead times. And if they aren’t delivered in a timely manner, that can hold up progress. Installation can also prove trickier for these.
  • Contractors and subcontractors who do not show up on time or leave early or drag their heels for whatever reason are another common culprit of slow-downs. That’s why it is imperative to keep the lines of communication open and build some leverage into your contract, such as making the payment schedule contingent on meeting certain milestones and imposing penalties for work that is not finished in a timely manner.
  • If materials are not delivered on time and in good condition, that can obviously throw a wrench in the schedule. And so on...all the way to the end, when you may not be completely satisfied with the level of work during the final walk-through.

First-time renovation mistakes

When embarking on your first (or second, or third) NYC renovation, it helps to learn from the mistakes of your fellow first-timers. Here are nine common pitfalls to avoid.

  1. Rushing through the planning phase such that you end up not getting the updates you desire, or immediately regretting some decision as soon as the work is done. (Hint: Avoid following the latest trends.)
  2. Assuming you know all the board rules, even if you serve on the board. Do your homework--you and your architect should comb through your building’s alteration agreement--and find out all the necessary prerequisites (asbestos removal and mandatory window replacements, for example) before you proceed.
  3. Not asking around for architect/designer/contractor referrals, especially from your own building. Hands down, it always pays to work with someone who is familiar with the building, or at least who comes to you on solid recommendation. Check references too.
  4. Getting only one bid or going with the lowest. You get what you pay for.
  5. Buying materials yourself when your contractor or architect or interior designer can usually obtain them at a substantial to-the-trade discount.
  6. Living in the apartment throughout the renovation. Besides driving up costs and posing health hazards, dealing with the mess day in and day out causes undue stress and strain and can test even the strongest of relationships.
  7. Skimping and splurging in the wrong places. It’s not worth having Calacatta Gold marble in the bathroom if that precludes you from fixing an awkward layout. Likewise, it may not be worth spending the majority of your budget on top-of-the-line kitchen appliances when you don’t cook, or when that means getting lesser quality countertops or cabinetry.
  8. Thinking you know your apartment better than the contractor. No amount of HGTV or YouTube videos will make you more of an expert than a seasoned pro. It’s fine to question certain decisions and then do independent research, but in the end it’s probably worth trusting their judgment (at least unless you find evidence not to)—especially if you avoided mistake #3.
  9. Deciding not to fix existing problems as they arise. It’s easy to become overwhelmed by all the decisions and expenditures during a lengthy renovation. Hoping that certain things that could create bigger problems down the road (like the presence of water damage or shoddy subflooring) will just go away isn’t the answer. Face these repairs head on and be prepared to forego something that’s non-essential elsewhere to stay on budget.
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Hiring the right renovation team

Do you need an architect and/or an interior designer, as well as a contractor? What’s a design-build firm?

Hiring the right team for your NYC renovation is essential. Which professionals you enlist, and whether you go with an architect plus contractor or a one-stop design-build firm, depends on the type and scope of your project and your own comfort level with the whole ordeal. To get you started, it helps to know what each pro does, when you will need them, and what/how they charge.

Architects

If you are embarking on an extensive renovation, such as changing the layout or structure of a property, you may have no choice but to hire an architect (or engineer) to draw up and submit the plans. Even when that is not the case, a skilled architect can maximize the functionality and aesthetics of the space by applying universal design principles.

Generally speaking, an architect provides design and construction services including:

  • consultation and evaluation
  • planning and preliminary studies
  • drawing and submitting designs
  • administrating construction contracts
  • managing contractors/subcontractors

Other potential benefits of hiring an architect include:

  • Creative problem-solving: Whatever your need or desire––an open kitchen or a home office––an architect can provide you with design alternatives that you may never have thought of (or dreamed of). They can also maximize every square inch of your tiny New York City bathroom or kitchen--practically worth its weight in gold.
  • Built-in connections: Rather than having to find a contractor and other professionals on your own, an architect will have established contacts and can suggest the best people to hire for your particular project.  They will, in theory, also have leverage over them too--in the form of repeat referral business--should something on your project go awry.
  • Extensive sourcing: Architects have relationships with manufacturers and distributors of surfaces (stone and tile and flooring), granting you access to a wider variety of options than you could find on your own––and at a discounted price.
  • Smoothing out the process: Besides knowing how to navigate the Department of Buildings permitting process, an architect can monitor the construction phase to make sure the work is being done correctly and according to plan (before it is too late), and to keep the project on schedule.

You must hire an architect for any project requiring a buildings permit, such as:

  • gutting an entire apartment or brownstone
  • gutting the kitchen and/or bathroom(s)
  • adding a bathroom
  • making structural and layout changes (such as opening the kitchen)
  • combining two apartments
  • moving plumbing or gas lines
  • making electrical upgrades
  • adding an extension to a brownstone/townhome or penthouse apartment
  • doing any kind of interior or exterior work in a landmarked residence

You may want an architect and/or designer is for improved results and professional oversight if you are:

  • replacing finishes such as kitchen cabinets, countertops, and backsplashes
  • updating kitchen appliances (but not changing plumbing or gas lines)
  • swapping out bathroom fixtures
  • replacing or refinishing floors
  • upgrading lighting
  • adding architectural details such as crown molding or wainscotting
  • painting and wallpapering.

Some renovators on a limited budget will hire an architect to draw up designs and then work directly with the contractor on the rest. Not all architects are on board with this practice however because they will not be able to monitor how their designs are implemented, and their reputation will still be at stake.

Interior designers

Contrary to popular opinion, interior designers are not merely decorators but are trained to visualize a space in terms of both function and aesthetics and can be the lead in a smaller scale renovation, in lieu of an architect (when DOB permitting is not required).

For more extensive renovations where an architect is required, whether you need both of these professionals depends on your architect’s willingness to handle the A to Z of designing the interior. Some do but many (most) do not.

In the case of a major gut renovation, for example, there’s something to be said for paying architects for their particular skill set (creating the spatial design and structure) and interior designers for theirs (creating a cohesive aesthetic within that structure). Wisdom has it that a collaboration of the two will produce the greatest pay-off. An interior designer will also be there after the reno work is finished in tending to all the finishing touches.

Other potential benefits of hiring an interior designer include:

  • Sourcing: Similar to architects, interior designers will have access to a much greater supply base of “to the trade” materials, and at a discount. This applies to surfaces (countertops and backsplashes), lighting, textiles, furnishings, and accessories––the whole gamut. Plus they can get samples to test out in real time and can use their connections to smooth out any hiccups.
  • Choosing: There are countless decisions to make in any renovation and a designer can help you hone in on the selections (paint colors, faucets, etc.) that match your goals, saving you much time and energy in the process.
  • Understanding value: Designers know what’s selling and what’s not, and while you may not be planning a move for a while, it can be helpful to have someone on your team with that kind of input.

Design-build firms

As the name implies, a design-build firm is a one-stop shop for architects as well as contractors and specialists, with the goal of providing a more efficient experience for everyone involved. Some design-build firms handle all types of renovations while others specialize in kitchens and bathrooms.

One key advantage of working with a design-build firm is that instead of contracting with an architect and a contractor separately (even if the architect brings the contractor on board), you will just have to manage the one contractual relationship––and skip the contractor bidding process. On the flip side, they could end up working in cahoots to their ultimate benefit, not yours, so here as always, be sure to do a thorough reference check including clients whose projects have withstood the test of time.

Other potential benefits of hiring a design-build firm:

  • Streamlined process: Everything is handled in house, from start to finish, reducing the risks of the usual communication and scheduling snafus.
  • Inherent collaboration: You’ll have a project team that routinely works together and, as a single source of responsibility, be incentivized to finish on time and to your satisfaction.
  • Cost savings: You may be able to save money working with a design-build firm. Compare bids to find out.

Contractors

Unlike when you're repairing or replacing a few fixtures or refreshing the paint and flooring and can rely on a competent handyperson, a licensed general contractor (aka GC) has the expertise to oversee an entire renovation project.

  • Contractors work with architects to implement the design plans or can devise their own when an architect is not warranted (such as when not opening up any walls or changing the layout).
  • Contractors obtain the DOB permits generated by the design plans; they can also self-certify final inspections.
  • Having this point person is critical in creating the build or construction schedule and then procuring the materials and finishes and overseeing the necessary subcontractors (plumbers, electricians, countertop fabricators, etc.). Things have to happen in a sequence and an experienced contractor knows how to make that happen.

How (and how much) do NYC designers, architects, contractors and design-build firms charge for their services?

Here’s what to expect in terms of fees and fee structures when you hire a designer, architect, contractor or design/build firm for your New York City renovation. 

Architects: The two most common payment structures are a fixed fee or a percentage of your overall construction costs. Some architects charge by the hour, or a combination of these options. No matter the payment structure, be prepared for a sliding scale, with more prestigious firms charging as much as double that of less established ones.

A fixed fee is often based on the total square footage subject to renovation. This might be the preferred option when the scope of the work is clearly defined, such as adding a bathroom or opening up a kitchen. For more extensive renovations, the fee is typically based on a percentage of total construction costs (based on the accepted bid), with 15 to 25 percent being the norm in NYC. It’s important to nail down whether materials are included or will be extra. Some firms keep these separate (called “cost-plus”), others bake them in.

Some architects choose to stick to an hourly fee for all or part of a renovation, $100 to $250 on average in NYC. Others may charge on an hourly basis for very specific work like moving a gas line or for work that exceeds the scope of a larger renovation (such as dealing with DOB permits instead of hiring an expeditor). It’s also common for an architect to charge an hourly rate in the beginning while figuring out what the project will entail before shifting to a fixed-fee or percentage arrangement.

Some combination of the above might also be the case. For example, an architect might charge a fixed fee for drawing up plans and meeting co-op/condo board requirements for asbestos testing and charge an hourly rate for obtaining permits and sourcing materials, tacking on a markup for those (or passing on part or all of their trade discount).

Whatever the case, you and your architect should work together to come up with a suitable structure. Always ask for a detailed explanation and make sure you understand what’s included and what’s not. For example, if “fixtures and finishes” is line-itemed in a fixed-fee situation, clarify what those actually are.

The initial proposal is a starting point and an invitation to revisit your wish list and look for opportunities to scale back. In general, however, a firm is probably not going to budge on the fee by more than 5 percent. And the more well-defined you can be about your project, the better position you will be in when negotiating fees.

Interior designers: How and what designers charge also varies but there are some discernible trends, with some combination of the following:

  • Most NYC designers will charge a fixed fee for design and consultation as well as on-site project management based on square footage (anywhere from $10 to $100)
  • If they are choosing the materials, expect to pay a percentage markup of those (with 10 percent being common practice)
  • There might also be separate hourly or project fees for other services such as contract administration and installation.

Design-build firms: Because part of the ethos is transparency in pricing, most of these full-service companies provide detailed pricing information on their websites. Pricing is typically based on square footage, with $200 to $400 per square foot as the median baseline. This soup-to-nuts fee includes architectural designs, all third-party services, and total build costs (including materials).

Contractors: A traditional bid is based on a fixed-price rate though in rare occasions (for smaller jobs or ones where the scope is still undefined) they may charge for time plus materials using an hourly rate. In a fixed-price arrangement, a contractor will charge 10 to 30 percent of the total project cost, inclusive of labor and materials. Day rates can often crop up should the job go well beyond the projected timeline (through no fault of theirs), starting around $400, plus $150 on up for each worker. Hourly rates also range anywhere from $35 to $100 depending on experience and the work being done

Other renovation specialists you may need—or want—to hire

Besides having an architect, contractor, and or interior designer on your renovation team, your project will call for a fuller cast of professionals––engineers, plumbers, electricians, for example––to get the job done. Your architect and/or contractor will likely have a short list of at least some of the specialists in their arsenal, but it helps to know who else might be involved (and where your money is being spent).

Structural engineer: An engineer has the ultimate responsibility of making sure your apartment or townhouse is structurally sound from top to bottom by ensuring the architect’s plans can be done safely and comply with code. In a co-op or condo that typically means you will need an engineer when removing a wall (in case it is load bearing) or even modifying doors and windows; same for installing central air conditioning in a prewar apartment. An engineer will also be essential when combining two apartments, and especially when creating a duplex. Structural issues come up much more frequently in brownstone/townhome renovations where roofing, foundational concerns, and multiple floors  are at play. Any additions to the top or the back will also require an engineer.

HVAC technician: If you are installing or upgrading your heating or cooling systems, you’ll need one of these pros to do the work. A renovation is a good time to consider updating to energy-efficient systems and/or to create zoning for more even temperature and also cost savings.

Renewable energy experts: If you are considering switching to solar for your electricity, doing so during a renovation will ensure you can make the most of the investment. Though traditionally designed for pitched roofs, NYC-based companies have created solar canopies and other workarounds for flat roofs and water towers and other common (and previously prohibitive) structural issues.

Smart home specialist: Incorporating smart home technology in NYC renovations is becoming increasingly common for the improved convenience and sustainability that these features offer. Many architects and designers recommend lighting, window shades, and thermostat controls as basic smart home investments, though smart faucets and appliances and of course audio-video are other options. (In fact, many former audiovisual companies have transformed into full-service smart technology providers.)

Lighting specialist: It’s easy to underestimate the importance of lighting, but architects and designers consistently rank it at the top of any home-renovation checklist. It’s not just a matter of having enough light but the right kind and balance of light in any given room. There’s also the need to strike a balance between ambient, or general, lighting (think recessed lights) and accent or task lighting, such as what might spotlight a focal feature in a room or help make a room more functional, such as having pendants over a kitchen island. Many architects and designers are adept at doing this on their own, while others will hire a lighting specialist, who will arguably be on top of the latest tools and techniques, to spec out the space.

Home security installer: These days there are plenty of DIY wireless security systems––complete with motion sensors, video doorbells, Wi-Fi-enabled door locks, and even smart light switches–– that do not require any installation (the keypad is mounted to the wall with adhesives or screws). But if you want something that’s more elaborate (say, with CCTV surveillance cameras), or if you prefer to leave it to the experts, you may want to have a traditional company create a site-specific system, many of which are now also wireless. You may also feel better about having the 24/7 monitoring done by a local operation.

Facade restoration specialist: Brownstones are subject to cracking and other signs of wear and tear, and will require maintenance and possible extensive repairs over time. That’s where an exterior architect can help (not all architects go beyond interiors) and certainly a specialist must do the actual work. This is particularly so if the building is in a historic district and must (usually) be restored to its original appearance.

Window and door professional: Landmarked homes will also need to comply with strict requirements when replacing/upgrading any visible windows and exterior doors, so your architect may enlist the services of specialists to ensure the best results.

Landscape architect: If you have a brownstone or penthouse apartment, you may want to enlist the services of this expert in creating a top-notch garden, in case this falls outside your own area of expertise or comfort level. You can even hire one to design the plans and purchase the plants (at a discount), and then do the rest yourself––or hire a more affordable gardener to do that for you. (Plants are expensive, so it pays to get the right ones and in the right spots.)

How to find the best architect, designer, contractor and/or design/build firm for your NYC renovation

Finding reputable professionals, be they architects, designers, contractors, or design-build firms, is a critical first step in any NYC renovation. Do your homework and ask the right questions. Ultimately, it’s important to find people that you trust and actually enjoy working with.

Get recommendations

Start by canvassing your network, as word of mouth is usually the best route to success.

  • Check with your condo/co-op board and super to see if they have any recommendations for people with experience in the building (this can also be helpful in ruling out anyone).
  • If you are in a brownstone or townhome, find out who did any recent renovations you like––either ask the homeowner or check the DOB’s Buildings Information System online search portal (or go directly to the Building on My Block site). 
  • You can find member professionals through the Landmarks Conservancy, including architects and general contractors and exterior facade restoration (and you can hire them even if you are not in a historic district).
  • Ask friends, colleagues, relatives, neighbors, and anyone else whose opinion you trust. Real estate agents can also be good resources

Ask these questions before hiring anyone

Once you’ve come up with a list of potential candidates, call them up and ask if they’re interested in your particular project. Describe what you are aiming for and the desired time frame. If the answer is yes, ask them to send you their qualifications and relevant experience. Based on this initial inquiry, you should be able to narrow the field to two or three candidates at most.  (You should also screen an architect, contractor or designer by their website; if it seems outdated or the aesthetic doesn’t match yours, that’s a big red flag.)

Even if some information is provided on their website, call them up and ask the questions below. You can discern a lot from having the question answered in real time.

  • How long have you been in business? The answer is not meant to rule out less experienced candidates but to give you some context. Upstarts may devote extra time and energy to your project to help burnish their reputation. It’s just one piece of the puzzle.
  • Where do you do most of your work? Do they only dabble with high-end projects within the five boroughs? Do they focus mostly on the Hamptons or Miami?
  • How many projects have you completed in [your particular borough]? NYC is by no means an equal playing field. Someone who works exclusively/primarily in a Queens co-op might not be a good fit for a Brooklyn brownstone reno, as different types of properties are prone to different issues and also have unique features (plus just knowing the ins and outs of parking and also what’s being done in similar nearby properties will be a boon to your project). Same for someone who mostly works in Upper East Side penthouses as opposed to Tribeca lofts.
  • What percentage of your work is for individual homeowners as opposed to new developments or non-residential properties? Many pros focus on one or the other.
  • How many projects like mine have you completed? Be specific in your wants and needs. If you are in a brownstone/townhouse, ask to make sure they have experience in that type of property (and vice versa for co-ops/condos).
  • How many projects do you take on at any given time? There’s no right or wrong answer here, but even asking this question can trigger some enlightening responses. What you are gunning for is some indication that your project will hold just as much priority as the others.
  • How many projects do you have lined up for the next six/twelve months? Based on the answer to the above question, this can be an indicator of whether or not they can truly take on your renovation.
  • Who will actually be handling the job? If you hear lots of “we” that can indicate the architect or contractor will be delegating the work. The ideal answer to this question is “me” (including when interviewing the contractor at a design-build firm).
  • What are your typical work hours? Find out specific start and stop times, keeping your own building’s limits in mind. Also ask about breaks for workers throughout the day.
  • What do your services include? For an architect, you want to make sure it’s not limited to just the design phase unless you are okay with that. For example, once they submit the plans to the DOB, will they be responsible for steering them through the review process? Once the contractor is in place, will the architect manage the project? This is a critical question to put to an interior designer too, as you may expect that person to take the management lead in lieu of an architect.
  • What role will you play in choosing/procuring the fixtures and finishes? You can never assume that an architect will handle these critical tasks. If you sense any hesitation, ask to walk through a “typical” kitchen renovation where you go through all the different selections (countertops, appliances, etc). Same for an interior designer.
  • How do you typically charge for this type of work? See How (and how much) do NYC designers, architects, contractors and design-build firms charge? for what to expect.
  • Do you include materials in your base cost or will they be extra?
  • How do you prefer to communicate with clients once work begins? Find out the mode (phone call/email/text/in person) and also the frequency.
  • Do you schedule regular meetings with clients throughout the renovation? These can be weekly or biweekly, or maybe it fluctuates during the different phases. But some form of routine face-to-face is warranted.
  • How do you bill clients? It’s helpful to know if they do this by email or snail mail and what are the terms, as in payment expected within 10 days or upon receipt.
  • What types of payment do you accept? It’s helpful to pay by credit card for tracking purposes and if you are able to build up reward points.
  • What is your track record with staying on schedule? Watch out for answers like “impeccable.” That just isn’t the reality. Honesty here goes a long way toward establishing trust.
  • What happens if the job goes over budget? Ditto. “In all my years that’s never happened” is NOT an answer. Renovations pretty much always go over budget, so acknowledging that is also part of the screening.
  • What are some problems that have cropped up in previous renovations? How did you resolve them? Again, creating the opportunity for more open-ended answers can be enlightening. What you want to hear is (a) XYZ problems happened that (b) weren’t always someone else’s fault and (c) were resolved by taking these steps to minimize the impact for the client. If they insist no problems ever happen, scratch them off your list.

If at any time you don’t fully understand the answer or find it lacking, dig deeper.  Besides testing their patience and explanatory abilities, you’ll be signaling a no-holds-barred attitude. And if they aren’t comfortable with that give-and-take, better to find out before you sign any contract.

If after asking all the above (and your own inquiries) you still aren’t satisfied, consider crossing this professional off your list. That’s a clue as to how that person or firm will communicate throughout.

How to check a contractor’s references

As you compare bids from contractors (more on that below), get references for any that you like. Always ask a prospective contractor for a minimum of three former clients, preferably within the past two or three years; some experts suggest calling on the three most recent projects.

Renovations from long ago may not be true indicators of present work product (maybe a prospective contractor was just starting out and eager to please back then). Realize too that while negative references are unlikely to be provided,  you can still glean a lot from asking the right questions, most of which can be adapted when checking references for an architect or designer.  Ask the questions below (adjusting as necessary if you’re checking references on an architect):

1.  What kind of property did you renovate?

It’s always better if a reference renovated a property that’s similar to yours––whether that’s a two bedroom in a co-op or condo versus a single-family brownstone. Even if not, you can get an idea of the general progression of the project. But if none of the references seem to match up, you should go back and specify this request or drop this contractor from your list.

2. What kind of renovation did you do? 

Similar to above, you’ll want to find out specifically what the scope of the project was to see if it aligns with yours. Did they simply have the walls skim coated and painted? Did they update the kitchen or do a gut renovation of that space? Or was it a more thorough gut renovation of the entire condo or co-op?

3. Why did you choose this particular contractor?

Knowing why this contractor was hired in the first place, which might include an excellent reputation or being able to complete on time and on budget, can be informative. Perhaps the contractor was recommended by the co-op board based on past experience in the building. If the connection is mostly familial, that might be a red flag.

4. How long did it take? Did the project finish on time?

You'll want a contractor who stays on task, on schedule, and gets in and out. Remember that the more time it takes, the more money it costs.

That said, the “twice as long” rule of renovation can rear its ugly head in even the best of circumstances, so if it didn’t finish on time, probe deeper to find out why. If the workers took too many breaks and long lunches, or if the contractor wasn’t as hands-on as they would have liked, then that is certainly cause for concern. You need to know the bad habits and idiosyncrasies before you sign on the dotted line, so at the very least you can stay on top of them.

But if the culprit was beyond anyone’s control and the contractor had no reason to anticipate it (whether faulty wiring or a record-breaking snowstorm), then you can weigh this in light of the other two references to determine if there is a pattern of coming in way late.

5. Did the final cost match the original bid?

If the answer to this question is “it cost twice as much," that’s a huge red flag, especially if all three references had a similar response. That could be standard practice for this contractor and you should not expect to be an exception. Either the contractor has a habit of low-balling the pricing to get the job, or they aren’t experienced enough to factor in what could potentially happen, or they are simply inefficient. 

So long as the scope of the project doesn't change, it should come in as close to budget as possible.

6. How did the contractor communicate with you? Did you feel like there was a good rapport?

You want to discover the means as well as the frequency of communication, whether it was a daily or weekly email summary or a more spotty text or phone call. The tenor is also important, as in, was the person responsive and open to what you had to say? Or rushed and dismissive?

Also worth asking is whether they lived there during the renovation or relocated for all or part of the time. If it was the latter, how did they monitor the work? Did they arrange for weekly site visits? Was the contractor open to that?

7. Did the renovation go as expected?

No project is without flaws or the unexpected, but knowing that others have had a relatively drama-free experience with their contractor may seal the deal on your decision.

A “not really” answer is not necessarily a dealbreaker and could in fact be a plus if it turns out the contractor was able to finesse some situation with more than satisfactory results. Twists and turns are bound to happen and it’s how the person navigates those that matters in the end.

8. Are you happy with the result?

Don't commit to any contractor whose clients didn’t love the finished product. If there is even the slightest hesitation, that’s your cue to go elsewhere.

9. Was there anything you did you not like about your contractor?

Perhaps he took too many smoke breaks, long lunches, or maybe he wasn’t as hands-on as they would have liked, stopping by the job site only weekly.

You need to know the bad habits and idiosyncrasies before you sign on the dotted line, so at the very least you can stay on top of them. Your relationship with your contractor will feel like a marriage for the duration of the project.

10. How did the work hold up over time? How did the contractor respond to any subsequent problems?

Don’t commit to any contractor whose work did not stand the test of time (same for your haircut and color!). What’s more, if a contractor was the least bit hesitant to return and resolve any outstanding issues, strike this business off your list.

11. Would you hire the contractor again?

This is the most obvious and important question. If someone wouldn’t hire again, you shouldn’t hire for the first time.

Besides clients, you may want to ask for subcontractors and supplier references as well to make sure they are paying them appropriately (and actually doing the kind of work they say they are).

Along with checking references, be sure to  verify the credentials of all candidates:

  • In New York, architects are required to be licensed and registered by completing a combination of 12 years of education/experience credit and passing the rigorous national examination (ARE). They must also re-register every three years to practice in New York. (You can verify an individual’s license and registration here.)
  • Members of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) are required to remain in good standing according to the organization’s ethical standards and continuing education requirements.
  • Home improvement contractors working in the five boroughs need a license from the city’s Department of Consumer Affairs (or call 311), while general contractors are licensed through the Department of Buildings.
  • For contractors, you can check with the DOB for any dings in their reputation.
  • Checking the Better Business Bureau is also a good idea on all counts.

How to get and understand renovation bids

Before you hire a contractor, you’ll need to solicit a few bids so you can decide between businesses––be wary of any that are too high or (worse) too low. The surest way to get accurate bids is to prepare a detailed project brief that clearly outlines your objectives, preferred timeline, deliverables, and total budget. (Keep in mind: The bid is just one part of the equation. References and the outcome of your Q and A are also key factors to consider.)

Preparing the brief

Your architect will typically provide a detailed explanation of your project––complete with drawings, materials lists, and product names—to avoid having wildly divergent bids (and too many change orders down the line). This exercise also signals your commitment to the project and provides a convenient guide for interviewing candidates and doing a walk-through of your space.

  • Include basic information such as your name, address, the type of property, the desired start (and end) date, and your total budget.
  • Include a budget range for your materials to guard against scope creep, not just to keep the contractor (and designer) in check but in case you end up falling for fancier stuff once the work has begun. If your total budget is $500,000, for example, your budget range for materials might be $100,000.
  • Create a material sheet for each room or space you want to remodel, including appliances, lighting, cabinetry, surfaces (countertops and backsplashes), flooring, sinks, and any other components you plan to add during the renovation. (You’ll need to do this eventually or your contractor will—and you’ll be handing over some control of the details.)
  • Reference the actual fixtures and fittings that you have in mind, whether by including tear sheets or product catalogs (print or online) or links to your Pinterest boards.
  • Items in the material sheet can look like this: "guest bathroom 1x Kohler faucet @ $600 (with visual), 1 x Grohe rainfall showerhead @ $750 (with visual)," and so on. Even if you haven’t yet picked out the precise make and model, at least find a good representative of the quality and price range (and then update this document when you land on the final picks).
  • Put together a binder of blueprints, floor plans, photographs, and any relevant drawings that show your space and the work you want done. (Or create a digital folder that you can share, understanding that not all contractors will be equally tech savvy––though that in itself might be a prerequisite for you.) 
  • Annotate the floor plan, writing down and describing every single task you want done in each room. Use an active voice; for example, “remove existing light fixture,” “install a washer/dryer.” “upgrade windows.” Name the rooms too—“master bedroom,” “home office”—to make it easier to communicate with the contractor once the job gets underway.

How many bids should you get?

Three bids seem to be the magic number. Any fewer and you will be comparing apples to oranges with no way to determine which is more accurate. Any more and you risk wasting your time and theirs.

The only caveat is if only one out of three bids even comes close to matching your budget or is not alarmingly low. Then you may need to revisit your shortlist and solicit one or two additional bids. What you want to end up with are three bids that are within the realm of reason.

Always be sure to supply the same information to each contractor.

What should be in your contractor’s bid

A solid contractor bid thoroughly outlines every aspect of the job. Though bids will vary depending on the type of project, these are the basic requirements:

  • overall project cost
  • proposed start date
  • project duration
  • type of contract (their own or a standard one from the American Institute of Architects) line-item budget that includes the dollar amounts for labor, materials (these should match your brief), taxes, permit processing, and insurance surcharges expiration date (usually 30 days, as the price of materials can continue to rise or fluctuate)
  • list of contractor licenses and insurance policies; you may want to ask for a copy of their licenses and insurance policies at this point too (especially to check insurance expiration dates)
  • any drawings or concepts that the contractor may have created (though whether you get these will depend on the type and size of project you are undertaking)

How to compare multiple bids

Low pricing does not often equate to the best value. Indeed, a significantly lower price could indicate the contractor is not properly set up to do business (and will end up unable to complete the job, or at least to your satisfaction).

Similarly a higher than usual price could indicate the contractor is not going to be so interested or hands on unless your project is extensive or potentially notable enough.

The common wisdom? Rule out any of the lowball and highball offers and focus on those that are competitively priced.

Besides making sure each bid meets the baseline requirements, you should be looking for:

  • how closely the bid matches your detailed brief
  • a milestone-based payment proposal (this can include a reasonable deposit to cover materials and labor to get started, followed by payments once the contractor hits certain goals in the job)
  • a detailed timeframe linked to milestones
  • feedback on whether the materials you want are available or knowledge of similar products that could be used to replace them
  • good chemistry––you will spend a lot of time with the contractor and his or her crew.

Keep in mind the bid is only factor (albeit it a big one) in choosing a contractor. Experience and communication style are others. That’s where doing a thorough walk-through your home is essential in gauging these and other qualities.

Do they ask the right questions and have the right demeanor? Did they point out a structural issue that you know about?

No one knows what’s behind a wall until you open it up. What you want is for the contractor to at least explain the potential worst-case scenario.

Red flags in a bid
It’s not just the numbers but how they are presented. A general sloppiness and lack of attention to detail are in themselves warning signals.

  • look out for "exclusions" for things like permit processing fees
  • some contractors include overhead or profit as a separate line item, but if not be sure to ask for those to be broken out so you know what they are (and are not being overcharged)
  • beware of unrealistic timelines when you know it will take much longer
  • make sure general liability coverage is not less than $1 million and preferably not less than the value of your property
  • too many items being ignored from your project brief is cause for concern
  • a bid that’s wildly out of whack with others in terms of pricing should be carefully scrutinized; low bids could be a sign of cutting corners (or omitting items just to get the job, with lots of change orders ahead), while high bids could mean your contractor is only interested in jobs in that price range (and is adding in costs that aren’t reflected in the brief) or is not familiar with what’s being asked (and will not be the most cost-efficient choice in that case).

How to negotiate with a contractor

Negotiating a contractor’s bid is an acceptable part of the process so long as you are not being unreasonable or unrealistic, and especially if the pricing seems too high or you are uncomfortable with any of the details.  Enlist a design professional (such as your architect) if you have one. What you want to avoid is creating a hostile environment or sending a message that cutting corners will be okay. Have a target number in mind before you sit down at the bargaining table––and be prepared to meet somewhere in the middle.

  1. Have your architect or designer review the bid and highlight any areas that might be bloated so you know specifically what to ask your contractor for. The bid is technically between you and the contractor, but these design pros can walk you through the process.
  2. It’s usually better to negotiate in person, preferably at your project site, and not over the phone or via email. This way you can walk through the space to get clarification on the specifics and see if there is any wiggle room as you go.
  3. Research the industry standard for your type of project in NYC and be prepared to offer up that precedent at the bargaining table. Ask friends and relatives for what they paid on a similar project. Speak to brokers and others who are familiar with project costs. Also revisit your material costs and make sure the bid is not overstating those.
  4. Rather than asking outright for a price drop, see if the contractor can suggest ways to shave costs without compromising your goals, perhaps by using a more affordable material or changing the HVAC system. Tapping into that person’s expertise will get you farther than challenging the price point.
  5. If you have three bids that vary greatly in amounts, you can use that as leverage to get a higher quote dropped.
  6. If any of the references had anything negative to report, by all means mention that tactfully––and be prepared for a rebuttal. Still, if communication was lacking and that’s important to you, or if there were other sticking points that might keep you from hiring that contractor, it’s worth discussing these now.

It’s important to remember that contractors carry a lot of overhead, including insurance, taxes, labor burden (payroll, worker’s comp, benefits), equipment, transportation, brick-and-mortar offices and staff, communication, and warranty of work (that comes out of their own pocket). Plus they need to earn a decent salary. What you don’t want to happen is to put such a strain on their resources that they cannot complete the job at a quality level.

What should be in a renovation contract?

Once you’ve solicited a few bids and decided on the right contractor for your renovation, the next step is to consecrate the arrangement in writing. The contract is your roadmap to success, so the more detailed and exhaustive it is, the better. Do your due diligence before signing the bottom line.

Must-haves for a written contract with your contractor include the following:

  1. A preamble/introduction: This part may seem perfunctory but it should still be precise in setting forth:
  • the names, addresses, and contact information for all parties to the agreement, plus the contractor’s federal tax id and license number
  • a statement that the contractor is an independent contractor (and not an employee, for liability purposes)
  • the total expected payment
  1. Detailed project description: Be comprehensive, as anything that’s not included here may be considered a change order and subject to an extra charge. Make sure this section covers:
  • an outline of the specific work to be done, including what will be demolished and what will be newly constructed
  • a breakdown of all the requisite labor and materials and associated costs for each task
  • a statement that the work will be done in compliance with all building code and zoning regulations
  • who will be responsible for submitting plans and obtaining all permits and inspections (either the architect or contractor) and closing them out by getting the certificates of occupancy
  • a statement that the contractor will provide for the safe and appropriate removal of all debris during the demolition phase
  • specific instructions for using and maintaining the premises during construction, such as any applicable work hours and freight elevator usage set by the building, where equipment is to be stored when not in use, noise level restrictions, parking, etc.
  • the contractor’s warranty that all workers involved are covered by the contractor’s general liability and worker’s compensation insurance policies; you should also stipulate that you (and your co-op/condo board) be listed as an additional insured
  1. Project schedule: The goal is not to hold a contractor to any exact end date and to allow for the inevitable delays that are out of everyone’s control. That said, be sure to stipulate:
  • the start and approximate end date, taking into account any building holidays or other known instances when work will not be allowed
  • interim completion dates (roughly) for important phases of the project, and penalties for failing to meet those
  • a stipulation of instances where the contractor will need your approval before proceeding (such as when sampling materials) so that work won’t stall while you are on vacation
  1. Payment schedule: The total amount is important but so is how that will be paid out over the course of the project, including:
  • the amount and terms of each installment plan, preferably tying those to the completion of certain milestones (e.g., demolition, flooring, cabinetry)
  • the initial payment should not exceed 10 percent of the project cost
  • the final installment (also around 10 percent) should be payable only upon the satisfactory completion of the punch list
  • how payment is to be remitted (check or credit card)
  1. Lien waivers: Even if you paid your contractor for all work done, all the employees and subcontractors who did work on your property––electricians, plumbers, painters, etc.––can claim they weren’t and place a lien on your property. To legally protect yourself:
  • the contract should require the contractor to provide a lien waiver for each installment payment made before you pay the next one
  • this effectively means that every invoice for every payment must include a signed statement from the contractor indicating the payment was in fact used to pay for the labor and materials in the invoice
  1. Protocol for change orders: Changes are bound to happen, so it’s important to anticipate them by having a plan in the contract. Before any changes can occur:
  • the contractor should provide a description of what the new work will cost and how it will impact the schedule
  • the contractor must obtain your written approval, and state whether that can be by text, email, or pen and ink
  1. Guarantees and warranties:   Many contractors offer warranties of one year after a project is completed or occupied, but there is no requirement that they do this, nor is there a standard warranty policy in the construction industry.  You’ll want to work with your attorney in putting the precise warranty terms in the contract, including the start and stop dates so it doesn’t start too soon. For example, it can take time for you to reasonably notice any problems, so having the start date be a month after you take occupancy (and not after project completion) is a wise choice.

    You’ll also want to be covered for any shoddy work or sub-par materials by including:
  • a contractor’s guarantee that all materials were purchased new and with the manufacturer’s warranties intact
  • a warranty that covers all labor and materials necessary to perform the work and all protective measures and ancillary measures that might be needed (such as scaffolding)
  • a contractor’s warranty, usually for no less than one year from the completion date, that provides for reimbursement of any and all expenses paid should something go wrong (this does not relieve your right to sue if you discover a problem after that stated time)
  • the name and address of the individual or company who will be responsible
  • the specific start and end dates of the warranty period (so make sure it doesn’t start too soon)
  1. Legal disputes: If the architect/contractor violates the contract and you are required to pursue legal action, you can write in a provision for the recovery of attorney fees in case you prevail. You can also agree to resolve disputes through mediation or arbitration by spelling that out in the contract.
  2. Cancellation clause: Life happens and sometimes your best-laid plans are derailed for one reason or another. Fortunately, New York is one of many states that provide for a three-day “cooling off” period in which you can cancel a signed contract without penalty. Even if this is the law, it doesn’t hurt to write this escape clause explicitly into the contract.
  3. Signatures: It may seem too obvious to say, but a contract is only binding when it is signed and dated by all parties.

Typical payment schedules

The general of thumb is to never pay for anything that hasn’t been finished, the exception being the initial payment when the contract is signed––usually no more than 10 percent.

The standard payment schedule is tied to separate phases and/or specific milestones, which is what the contracts created by the American Institute of Architects call for.

A common scenario is for payments of 10 to 15 percent to be pegged to city inspections and approvals for such work as foundation and framing, electrical, plumbing, and HVAC. Later in the renovation the milestones might include completion of the drywall, carpentry, and painting.

The final payment should never be paid out until after the punch list is completed and be at least 10 percent of the total cost––anything less is not incentive enough to ensure these items are fully addressed. .

For smaller jobs (say, when the cost is less than $50,000), some contractors may request a one-third payment plan, where the total bill is divided into three equal payment––usually on signing the contract, then the midway point, and upon completion of the punch list. This might suffice for small, shorter stints, but not for longer renovations where a more detailed schedule and payment plan is advisable.

Nice-to-have additions

Most contracts will be fairly comprehensive, but if you are doing an extensive (and expensive) renovation, there may be a couple items that you may want to include. Talk to your attorney.

Consider having a provision requiring your architect to approve the work as a condition to your contractor’s right to payment. This will ensure that everything is to spec as the job progresses––and before too much longer after the fact. The caveat being not all architects will be willing or the best person to effectively take on the role of project manager, so be sure to discuss this with your architect before putting anything in writing. For example, you could limit the architect’s scope approval to include structural work or customizations.

In addition, it’s worth having a clause whereby you can stop making payments if work has not been properly performed or the contractor is otherwise in breach of the agreement.

It’s always worth trying to get an extended warranty beyond the standard year.

Finally, it’s a good idea to have a clause stating the contractor acknowledges and understands the co-op/condo board rules and agrees to abide by them and will reimburse you for any breach of those rules. Otherwise you’ll get stuck paying for any of the contractor’s screwups.

Should you have an attorney review your renovation contract?

Some contractors rely on contracts provided by the American Institute of Architects while others draft theirs from scratch. In either case you’ll want to have an experienced real estate attorney review the language to make sure you understand all your rights and are appropriately protected. Some attorneys will suggest using their own contract forms as an alternative to the AIA’s; others will use riders to modify certain AIA terms. 

Attorney fees will run about $1,500 but may save you thousands in the long run. (As with anything, the cost will vary depending on the complexity of the project and the particulars of the board/building.) This is especially important if you are a first-time renovator and are understandably unfamiliar with the terminology and what could go wrong.

Here are the more common potential problems that can crop up during a renovation––and that a qualified attorney will know how to avoid:

  • your contractor demands payment for work that hasn’t been done, either in the form of advance payments or additional interim payments
  • your contractor uses sub-par materials rather than what you asked for
  • the scope of the work ends up deviating from the agreed-upon specifications
  • the contractor fails to supervise employees and subcontractors
  • the project ends up costing more than the agreed upon price, even in the absence of change orders
  • likewise, the contractor makes unexpected changes––and charges you for them––without prior notice or approval
  • the contractor claims materials and labor costs were not included in the project fee but you understood that was not the case, and stops all work until you fork over payment
  • the work product fails to meet your expectations
  • the work causes damage to your property, either during the project or a few months after completion
  • the contractor fails to pay the subcontractors, who attempt to put a lien on your property (even though you paid the contractor in full)
  • the architect/contractor fails to obtain the proper DOB permits and inspections
  • a worker is injured while on the job and you are liable for damages
  • the contractor’s insurance is not sufficient (attorneys recommend that buildings have their insurance broker vet the policies)

Bottom line: According to the NYC department of consumer affairs, complaints filed against home renovation contractors consistently rank among the top five complaint categories. Spare yourself the stress and strain.

NEXT SECTION:

Getting your renovation approved by your co-op or condo board

The renovation approval process: what to expect

Co-op and condo boards are often fussy about approving even minor renovations, much less anything more extensive. Each building has its own guidelines, so it’s critical to understand your board’s particular policy before you begin any work. Here’s what to expect

Steps and timeline

Start by contacting your building’s managing agent, who can provide you with the most recent version of the alteration agreement—a standard contract between you and the building laying out your responsibilities in a renovation, including doing everything according to the code, the law, and who’s responsible if something goes wrong. Most buildings also have their own house rules, which affect almost every aspect of getting work done (including the ultimate cost).

You (or more likely your architect) will then initiate the approval process by writing a formal letter to the board laying out the proposed work. Include your architect’s plans along with copies of your contractors’ insurance certificates and licenses. 

The building will typically hire its own architect and/or engineer (at your expense) to ensure the plans are in compliance and will not pose a risk of damage. 

You may need to meet with board members and the building manager to discuss the terms of the renovation as well as the plans themselves. 

You should also be prepared to address questions and concerns, with the potential for much back and forth. (Tip: Have your architect or contractor meet with the building’s super before submitting plans, as that person will know how the building works and what you can and can’t do including the gray areas.)

Expect the approval process to take at least a month if your board and property manager are efficient and do not ask for changes, and up to a year for more extensive work like combining apartments or changing the layout of your existing unit (such as when adding another bedroom). Being on the board yourself can be a significant asset to your project, especially if it’s large or complicated. Though you must recuse yourself from any decision making, your presence on the board will likely help your project proceed faster through the process. You’re also likely to encounter a more tolerant attitude overall to aspects of your renovation that might be expected to trigger concern or pushback, such as wet-over-dry or installation of central air conditioning. Once your project is underway, don’t be surprised to find your property manager and super behaving less like traffic cops and more like problem solvers

Also note that some buildings limit renovations to summer only (when the building is more empty) as well as the number of renovations happening at any one time—meaning the sooner you submit your plans, the better your chances of success. 

Co-ops often limit the number of combinations to one per year too—and require you to actually combine them within a specified time period; condos on the other hand usually don’t have such restrictions—in fact you may not even need the board’s consent as set forth in the condominium documents.

Finally, you will want to consider if the building itself is planning on any capital improvements, as that could interfere with your own renovation. Asking the managing agent is often your best bet in gleaning information about what else may be happening in the building. 

Roles of board vs property manager vs building architect/engineer

Board members are the ultimate arbiters of whether or not your plans will be approved based on protecting the long-term interests of the building and its residents. They set the initial policies laid out in the alteration agreement and building rules and then make the final decision to approve work or not. In doing so they rely on a team of professionals, including the property manager and registered architect or engineer. 

Your property manager’s job is to make sure any work will not harm the building or unduly disrupt life for the other shareholders or condo owners. They will provide suggestions to the board members regarding the specific work, but how much sway that person has can vary (for example,  if the agent is brand new to the building, they may have less influence). Your property manager will also be responsible for monitoring the progress of the work and smoothing out any hiccups your neighbors or your building’s super. 

The role of the building architect or engineer is to lend expertise to the board in reviewing the plans, particularly when it comes to staying on the right side of building code and other legal requirements but also for sussing out anything that might go against specific building rules (such as “wet over dry,” explained below). The architect or engineer will usually be expected to conduct site visits over the course of the project too (also at your expense). 

It’s important for you to personally monitor the course of the project too rather than relying on the building’s inspectors, who are protecting the building’s interest and not your own.

Tips on communicating effectively and responding to concerns 

Renovations are always a delicate subject in co-op and condo buildings, so you'll want to be mindful of approaching your board the right way to make the process as painless as possible and improve the odds of a favorable outcome.

  • Make a good first impression: A well-constructed alteration agreement should set forth the precise protocol for submitting plans for approval, and you’d be wise to abide by that. For instance, you may be required to submit a detailed statement of work that includes the names and contact information for all contractors and projected schedules for each phase of the project. 
  • Don’t rush it: Being familiar with all the building’s rules is essential––you don’t want to submit plans that go against anything without a solid reason. Do your homework and consult with your architect or contractor in devising how to stake your claim. Showing how the work will enhance the apartment’s value and thereby the building’s can help smooth over any disagreements.
  • Don’t skimp on your architect: If a plan is submitted that doesn’t demonstrate an understanding of all the rules that a renovation must follow, including any landmarks requirements, Department of Building codes, and basic plumbing and structural feasibility, the building architect and the board will be highly suspicious of the design team.
  • Strike a collaborative tone: Obviously taking a combative approach is never a good idea. Keep in mind you are just one of many residents. Anticipate questions and concerns, especially regarding how much disruption your project could impose on your neighbors. If you are doing a major renovation, another way to sweeten the pot for building and your immediate neighbors could be to offer to freshen up a tired common foyer as part of your project.  
  • Meet with your neighbors: Getting your neighbors on board before you present anything to the board will demonstrate a good-faith effort to keep the peace (and make their lives all the easier). It can also help short-circuit any building gossip. 
  • Be an upstanding resident: Don’t overlook how staying in the good graces of your board from the get-go can be helpful when you decide to renovate, even if that’s not in the immediate future. This is doubly so if you are hoping to have exceptions made for your project.

Strategies for overcoming your board’s objections

Boards basically have the freedom to turn down anything they want. Rarely will they flat out reject a renovation proposal (unless it’s clearly in violation of DOB code). More likely they will provide you with a detailed laundry list of questions and concerns that you can then address to bolster your case. Or the board may ask you to change your renovation plans or accept them with modifications.

Being responsive is essential. If paperwork is consistently being submitted in a timely manner, there might be more wiggle room when it comes to the board's flexibility, as they will have more confidence in how the project will be managed (meaning on time). 

It’s also important to pick your battles, so if your top priority is to knock down a wall and expand the kitchen, push for that and let some other things go. 

Some boards won’t budge for certain types of work, but you can always ask it to make an exception. Just be sure you can build a solid case, such as how adding a bathroom will improve the equity of the building itself (because you will be upgrading the plumbing and your apartment will be worth more when you eventually sell), or that your architect has expertise with waterproofing or soundproofing in similar buildings (like when adding a bathroom or bedroom). 

If negotiations get you nowhere, you can always take the board to court, though you probably won’t prevail unless you can show the decision was discriminatory.

Condo boards have much more leeway than co-op boards and can even reject a renovation proposal for no reason. However, most condo bylaws indicate that if the board takes no action on a project within 30 days of its submission, you can assume that the project has been approved. 

The high price of unauthorized renovations 

It is not uncommon for alteration agreements to impose (often stiff) daily penalties in the form of substantial fees when jobs are not completed in accordance with building policy, such as if the project runs long or the contractor works outside of authorized hours.

If you do something that’s not covered by the alteration agreement---say, you change a plumbing line in a kitchen expansion---your project can be halted indefinitely and the workers denied access to the building, and you may be forced change back any rogue work. Same for any damages (fires and flooding for example) caused as a result of any unauthorized work.

The DOB can also impose fines for work that is not performed with the proper permitting, even when it was done by a former owner (and they will also delay your permitting applications until the illegal work is remedied).

And unauthorized renovations can endanger the workers on the job and the people and property in neighboring apartments, not to mention your own safety. So it’s just not worth the risk.

What’s an alteration agreement?

An alteration agreement is a contract between you and your co-op or condo board stipulating that your renovation work will comply with code-related and other legal requirements, as well as the building’s requirements. The agreement will affect the ultimate cost of your renovation, so it’s important to know what to expect, and also what you want to make sure is included in case it’s not already.

Alteration agreement vs a decoration agreement

Some buildings do not require you to even even notify the board of work that does not involve major systems like electrical or plumbing or the removal of walls, while others require you to sign and abide by a “decoration” agreement which covers cosmetic changes like painting and floor work and swapping out kitchen cabinets or appliances or plumbing fixtures like faucets and showerheads.

A decoration agreement can sometimes be approved by the managing agent without a full board review, meaning you can have it authorized in less than a week. Even when board approval is mandated the process is much quicker than for an alteration agreement.

Regardless of the nature of the work, your board will generally require your contractor to be licensed and insured up to a certain dollar amount and the building named on the insurance policy.

If you are not sure where your planned work falls, play it safe by running it by the managing agent and asking for the necessary information.

What to look for in an alteration agreement

Most buildings use standard forms as a jumping off point and then add their own “house rules” or “building rules” that are equally binding.

  1. Prohibited work: Many buildings forbid outright certain types of work, such as “wet” over “dry” areas or adding a washer/dryer [add cross-link here to list]. Or they will require special permission that will be decided on a case-by-case basis.
  2. Timeline: You’ll need to specify a hard start and stop date. Your board will likely fine you if the project runs long, so make sure you are realistic about these. Make sure you have selected the materials and figured out most of the details before the project begins to keep from going over.
  3. Extension clause: If your deadline is looming and the project's dragging on, you'll need to file for an extension with your board according to the procedure laid out in your alteration agreement. Tip: More and more people are having contractors sign a clause in the agreement saying that if the work runs long, they'll shoulder some or all of the fees.
  4. Building fees: With renovations becoming more common and extensive, many boards will tack on fees as long as your construction lasts, ostensibly to protect the property, pay for added demands on building staff, and mitigate other residents’ distress. Such a fee might be flat or it might be monthly, weekly, or charged on a sliding scale that increases over time. You’ll also have to pay for the building’s architect or engineer to review the plans and inspect the work. Same for the managing agent and inspectors.
  5. Liability: Should there be any damages or injuries during your renovation, you'll want to have financial responsibility assigned ahead of time, so check in on your building's policy and your contractor’s insurance (see below).
  6. Contractor insurance: The best case scenario is for the agreement to  require your contractor to have a certificate of insurance that names the board and managing agent as additional insureds. You may also want to  have it in writing that you are named as an additional insured by the contractor.
  7. Security deposit: Most buildings charge a security deposit to guarantee that your work will adhere to the rules. It’s also a way for them to cover any damages to common areas that might occur during the renovation. Again this varies by building but expect to pay a flat fee of $5,000 or 10 to 15 percent of your total cost
  8. Work schedule: Some buildings only allow summer renovations, for example. Most limit work to 9-5 weekdays.
  9. Service elevator requirements: Your building may set hours such as restricting use during the beginning and end of the work day.
  10. Department of Buildings permitting protocol: Basically this will set forth the rules and regulations to be code-compliant.
  11. Lead and asbestos testing: Some buildings require an environmental testing firm to monitor lead levels and the presence of asbestos before you can begin work, or as part of a regular inspection. This is especially likely if your building has a history of lead. It may also indicate how hazardous materials like lead-based paints and asbestos should be removed and require that the contractor use licensed abatement professionals.

Ask an attorney review the alteration agreement before you sign

Anytime you are signing a contract with potential financial liabilities, it is worth having a real estate attorney review it, preferably someone with extensive board experience.

The more detailed the agreement, the better, but that often means there’s lots of confusing language and legalese. Plus the agreement was drawn up by the board’s attorney, so it is designed to protect the interests of the building.

Here are some key concerns your attorney can be on the lookout for:

  • When it comes to fees and other payments to the board, you may want these to be held in escrow. This means you’ll be required to put a certain amount of money in an account overseen by a lawyer for payments to the board. This is a measure that can protect your relationship with the board.
  • Some agreements impose stiff penalties for running long or other violations to the point of being punitive, in which case your attorney can help negotiate more favorable terms with the board’s attorney. 
  • It’s important that you and all workers and the building are shielded from liability in case someone gets hurt or there’s damage to the building by having comprehensive (or “umbrella”) insurance, taking note of any exclusions. Your attorney can work with you to ensure your contractor meets those requirements and that they are covered in the agreement.

15 things your coop or condo board might not let you do in your renovation

These rules will vary lease building by building and board by board, but the following are the most common restrictions. Before you approach your board with any of them, be sure that they are allowed by the alteration agreement, permitted by building code, and worth the trouble in terms of potential costs and other hassles. 

  1. Penetrating the building’s membrane: Many boards forbid doing any work that punches through exterior walls (aka the building’s membrane), seeing it as an invitation to leaks and future requests by other residents. That means a through-wall A/C unit or a split A/C system may be off limits. Same for installing exhaust fans such as for a professional stove or a dryer, or adding a new window (more on that below).
  2. “Wet over dry” work: Given how kitchens and bathrooms are the most popular areas in need of updates (especially in pre-war buildings), boards are wary of approving any expansion or addition that ends up putting these “wet” spaces of over a living room or bedroom (“dry”), as doing so increases the risk of water damage in the unit below. In fact some boards flat out prohibit it. Tip: Proactively show that all the “wet” items (sinks, dishwashers, refrigerator) are still located in the original kitchen or bathroom footprint and the rest is just cabinetry, i.e. “furniture” in the former dining room. Or you may be able to get a wet over dry renovation if the dry is a hallway and your contractor will use state-of-the-art waterproofing materials. (Exception: Boards are increasingly lenient about allowing a washing machine to go over a “dry” area--see #10 below.)
  3. Changing the layout: Boards generally like to keep things the way they are and always have been. That means having living rooms over living rooms, bedrooms over bedrooms. So if you’re thinking of putting a playroom over your neighbor’s living room or a "media room" over their bedroom, be prepared for push back, even if your engineer includes noise mitigation in the plans like extra soundproofing in the floor.  Multiple this possibility by infinity if your neighbor is on the board.
  4. Relocating the “stacking:” Changing the supply water and waste lines is usually a no-no in buildings, where risers control the flow of clean hot and cold water and stacks are the sanitary system, with one carrying waste and another serving as a vent that allows for the flow of air. Relocating these systems creates a risk of a missed connection or a drop in water pressure that could affect the entire building.
  5. Upgrading the electricity: It’s not unusual these days for owners to want to triple the electrical capacity of their apartments to power modern air conditioners and kitchen appliances. Some buildings have already upgraded their meter banks or distribution panels to allow work that requires going from a single to a triple phase. Others are more likely to approve new wiring that can be run through the core of the building rather than outside, which then interferes with facade maintenance.
  6. Moving a gas line: Anytime you alter a gas line, such as when expanding your kitchen, the building has to shut down the riser in the basement, affecting everyone whose appliances receive gas from that particular riser. Then before Con Ed will turn it back on it has to perform a pressure test and if a leak is found (which often happens) it will have to be shut down until it is repaired and retested. Increasingly, this can take months. What’s more, any piping that is maintained or repaired must be brought up to the new Con Ed specifications such as installing riser valves, meter bars, and replacing any defective piping.
  7. Central air conditioning: Even if this is not explicitly forbidden in the alteration agreement, your building may not have enough electrical power to accept it and would need to upgrade the entire building to bring the conduits from the basement all the way to your apartment floor. Plus buildings are nervous that condensing units will cause vibrations throughout the building (something that can be avoided with proper installation and vibration pads, but still).
  8. Steam showers and jacuzzis: If you’re thinking of turning your bathroom into a home spa, think again. In most buildings, these types of renovations are a no go. A therapeutic whirlpool might possibly get approved but jacuzzis and steam units are considered too noisy, too likely to leak and the excess moisture of a steam unit requires specialized ventilation and may cause mold problems.
  9. Washer/dryers: In older buildings, including prewar and many postwar ones from the 1950s and 60s, waste lines were just not sized to accommodate the kind of suds drainage that today’s washing machines require. Approval is sometimes granted for European-style high-efficiency washing machines, which use high-efficiency laundry detergent that produces significantly fewer suds, or on condition that a leak-catching pan is installed under the washing machine along with a leak detection/automatic shutoff system. With dryers, the problem is with the ventilation. Although there are now ventless dryers on the market, some buildings do not allow them because they can create an overly humid condition in the apartment.  On the positive side, wet-over-dry is not usually an objection here, as your building will likely require your washing machine to be placed in a pan connected to an automatic shutoff valve if a leak is detected.
  10. Garbage disposals: Although the DOB allows them in New York apartments, most buildings do not because of the wear and tear on the plumbing system.
  11. Sound systems: Most buildings don’t allow speakers (or even TVs) on "demising" walls, which are the walls between apartments or an apartment and a common space. Some boards may let you install them in a dropped ceiling, as long as they don’t come into direct contact with the slab, a flat piece of stone or concrete used for floors and roofs.
  12. Stone flooring: If you want to replace a wood floor with one made of stone in your entry hall or kitchen, be prepared for a fight. Footsteps are noisier on stone than wood. Here’s where noise mitigation comes into play and you may need to get an acoustical engineer in your corner for back-up. There are materials that will in fact mitigate the noise of high heels on a stone floor, but your board may not want to set a precedent.
  13. Window replacements: In almost all co-ops, windows are deemed “common elements,” or parts of the building owned by the co-op as a whole. And boards shy away from allowing changes to them. A new window will also require approval from the DOB and, if your building is landmarked, the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Tip: Broach the idea with the board, saying you’d like to hire an architect to assess how the work could be done. You want to get some tacit approval before you spend a couple grand on a formal study.
  14. Roof: If you are a penthouse owner, know that renovations to the roof are tricky because you’re dealing with an area that is already exposed. Putting in watering systems for plants is particularly problematic as potential sources of damage.

6 extras your co-op or condo board may insist on (at your expense) when you renovate

When you’re renovating a co-op or condo, you’ll probably be expected to address behind-the-wall and other issues that are important to your building and are most cost-effectively dealt with when you’re renovating.  Usually, you will have to pay for them too. These items may or may not be listed in your building’s alteration agreement, so be sure to ask, as you’ll still have to do them and it’s important to budget for this extra work in time and money.

  1. Replace plumbing: If you are modifying any plumbing in your unit, your building may require that you upgrade the piping branch lines all the way back to the main water lines. This is especially true when gutting a bathroom or kitchen, when the walls will already be opened up.
  2. Upgrade electrical systems: Changes in the city’s electrical and energy codes require that you update your existing set-up before you can get a sign-off on your final inspection. Even newer buildings may not be up to code. Plus if you are putting in new appliances your building’s system may not be up to snuff.
  3. Soundproof: If you will be changing the layout of your apartment such that now the living room is over your neighbor’s bedroom, your board may require you to install soundproofing in the floor or adjoining walls.
  4. Waterproof: If your building allows wet over dry renovations, it will most often dictate the required safeguards you need to take in mitigating the risk of any damage to the unit below. These include installing waterproof membranes in the flooring and water catch pans with an automatic shut-off mechanism in case of leaks.
  5. Replace windows: Though you are most likely prohibited from replacing windows on your own, if the board has a window replacement plan in place, you may be forced to include this in your own project, and at your own cost.
  6. Post-renovation agreements: Some boards will require indemnification against future responsibility for any damages caused by your renovation for all time, with this being transferred to new shareholders after you sell the apartment.
NEXT SECTION:

How to get your renovation approved by the city

When do you need a building permit to renovate in NYC?

Unless you are doing only minimal updates to your co-op, condo or townhouse, your renovation will likely require a DOB permit––and some co-op and condo boards mandate getting a permit no matter what. As anyone will tell you, it takes time and money to follow DOB’s permitting protocol. Here’s how to tell if you need permits for your renovation--and how to get them.

Renovations that require a permit

There are two general categories of work that falls under DOB permitting:

  • Type I: Your renovation requires a major change to the certificate of occupancy, including changing the use of the building from commercial to residential, adding a bathroom or bedroom, or combining apartments.
  • Type II: Your renovation requires different trades such as plumbing, electrical and construction, even if there's no change to the certificate of occupancy.

    An easy way to think of it is that if you are doing anything that opens up the walls, such as relocating the sink and toilet in a bathroom, or rerouting gas pipes and adding electrical outlets in a kitchen, a DOB permit will be a must.

    Same for removing walls, whether structural or not.

It’s always a good idea to start by calling the DOB or visit them in person to get information on what you need, as getting a permit varies on a case-by-case basis. A qualified architect and contractor will also be able to offer guidance.

Note that if you are adding a bedroom, the DOB has strict requirements around dimensions, egress, and natural light and air for making it legal; your architect will be able to advise you (and see links below).

Renovations that do not need a buildings permit

Generally speaking, a DOB permit isn’t required for “cosmetic” or surface upgrades. This includes painting, wallpapering, and floor resurfacing.

In a bathroom renovation, you would not need a permit for installing new tiles or flooring, lighting, and plumbing fixtures (toilet, tub, sink), so long as those fixtures are staying in the same location.

The same goes for a kitchen redo where you are swapping out appliances, surfaces (countertop and backsplash), fixtures (sink and faucet), and even cabinetry––so long as you are not shifting their placement.

That said, you may still need a Limited Alteration Application (LAA) when modifying or replacing gas or plumbing lines (such as when replacing a tub with a shower), but those can be obtained by a licensed contractor or plumber rather than having to hire an architect or engineer.

Note:  Some boards will require you to get a permit even when the DOB would otherwise not mandate that (check with your property manager).

Professional certification alternative

The standard certification process involves filing plans, waiting for a DOB review and subsequent comments or objections, and resolving those issues to obtain final approval.

To avoid a continual logjam, the city gave architects the ability to sign off on their own plans for common home renovations (but not in landmarked buildings or when applying for a new certificate of occupancy). In this self-certification (also known as “professional certification”) process, professionals effectively state that the plans they are filing with the DOB comply with applicable laws, thereby eliminating the need for certification by the city.  End result: You can get a permit the same day rather than weeks.

Not all boards allow self-certification though, so be sure to find that out. And some architects may not feel comfortable self-certifying a project, especially if they are unfamiliar with the city’s codes. Keep in mind that one of every five self-certifications are audited (randomly) by the city, and if the DOB finds any issue with the initial plans or the final conditions, it will conduct a full review and can require changes, potentially long after your work has been completed.

If your architect does self-certify your project, make sure they complete the process, which means closing out all the permits when a job is done.

Inspections

During the construction phase, the city will conduct plumbing and electrical inspections to ensure compliance with the filed plans. This can often involve multiple site visits between ConEd and the DOB.

Once all of the construction is complete, a final inspection is conducted in order for the DOB to sign off the job and close the permit.

A contractor can choose to self-certify the final DOB inspections. These are subject to random audit (similar to architect self-certification) and subsequent inspection by the DOB.

Potential problems

Here’s where your final walk-through with your architect or contractor is key in going through a “punch list” of items that need to be addressed before the construction team leaves (and the DOB inspection takes place).

What the DOB will be checking is that all the renovations are code-compliant, which includes seemingly minor things like having enough space between a washer/dryer and the ceiling as well as ADA rules for egress in a bathroom (for example, if you installed larger fixtures without expanding the square footage).

Other problems crop up when the inspections were not completed during various project stages (such as electrical and plumbing), or when the final work deviates from the original plans. In that case your architect or contractor will have to submit revised as-built plans for approval by the DOB.

Another potential approval problem: Illegal work by previous owners.

In reviewing your plans, the DOB might see red flags based on prior work and not only reject the application for a permit but charge you a fine. Then you’ll have to remedy that illegal work before resubmitting new plans (and hoping nothing else turns up).

In other instances the illegal work is discovered by the contractor or subcontractor (say, a gas pipe has been installed without any record of such) during one of the site inspections. In these instances the DOB will stop the work until the problem is resolved, which may involve multiple inspections (especially if it involves a gas line).

You can try to avoid these unpleasant surprises before you buy by making sure your attorney does the requisite due diligence regarding prior alterations. You can even include language in the contract where the seller has to certify that they only did legal renovations.

You would be wise to also look for permits yourself. All permits for work done after 1993 should be on the DOB’s website. For work done before then, ask the co-op or condo board to provide you with their records.

Paying for an architect to join the pre-purchase inspection can also be a good way of avoiding trouble later on especially if you plan to renovate.

Sign-offs

Assuming all the inspections have passed muster, the DOB will officially close the work permits. This is an important step that should not be overlooked. Open permits can pose problems down the line, such as if you (or subsequent buyers) embark on another renovation. You won’t be able to get any new permits until the old ones are closed out, which may not be easy or inexpensive to do—building regulations change all the time. Even though the work was properly completed at that time could now be in violation of newer codes.

Extra dob requirements if you’re renovating in a NYC historic district

If you plan to renovate a co-op, condo, or brownstone in a historic district, you will need approval from the city’s Landmark Preservation Commission (LPC) before you can then proceed with DOB permitting. The regulations and specifications are specific but tend to be applied on a case-by-case basis. And the unpredictable review process can make renovating a historic district property (especially a brownstone) potentially time-consuming and costly. But there’s plenty you will be able do and ways to speed up the process.

Approval process

Permits for work that conforms to LPC rules can be done at the staff level, where your architect and an LPC preservationist will mostly communicate via email. According to the LPC, fully 90 percent of all approvals are handled this way.

What’s more, staff-level permits for interior and some non-visible exterior work can be issued more quickly through its expedited review services.

Permits for work that does not meet the rules––typically extensions and any significant changes to the facade or other features like the stoop or cornices–– require a Certificate of Appropriateness, a much more intensive process that involves a review by the full commission at a public hearing. Before that can happen, you must present your project to your local community board.

Interior renovations

Your architect needs to file plans with the LPC, but generally speaking you have carte blanche to do anything you want on the inside of your brownstone, including gutting it and changing the layout. There are a few exceptions, such as when changing a floor level affects the windows, but those are very rare.

You (and your architect) may prefer to retain historical details on the interior, but there’s nothing stopping you from converting it into an open loft-style dwelling.

Exterior renovations

The LPC will review plans for any “visible” elements with more scrutiny, the goal being to preserve the historic fabric of the neighborhood. This includes items that could be seen from all street-level vantage points, including in front of your house but in a sort of 360-degree sweep that includes the street that’s parallel to yours and might get a glimpse of your brownstone’s rear side.

You will mostly be expected to renovate the exterior to be as close to the original appearance as possible. This can include restoring or replacing the actual brownstone facade and any architectural details like cornices. The LPC also has specs for front door types and paint colors; same for the stoop and railings.

For the most part, these renovations can be handled at the staff level unless you are proposing a significant alteration, such as replacing brownstone with limestone or red brick (it has happened).

Windows

The LPC is notoriously stringent about the steps you will need to take to find replacements with the same profile and sight lines and operation––and there are hefty costs in working with a sanctioned window company and skilled contractors. Exceptions have been made, but not without significant time and expense in convincing the commission to give the green light through a full review.

As for adding a new window? Never in the front but maybe in the back. Plenty of brownstones have been updated to have walls of glass on the ground level leading out to the garden, but the LPC has shot down expansive windows on an upper floor that would be visible from the street.

Extensions

The level of scrutiny for vertical or horizontal additions tends to be extremely thorough. There’s just too much risk for setting precedent. Expect to add at least three to six months to the approval process.

Any rooftop addition must be completely non-visible from the street, usually by way of a 15-foot set-back. (The same goes for putting new mechanical equipment on the roof.) Your architect will have to submit much documentation to prove your case, complete with a painted mock-up of the structure and photos from all different perspectives.

You have a bit more leeways with rear extensions, so long as they comply with zoning ordinances, which deal with height, depth, and total square footage. The LPC also generally requires these additions be at least two stories shorter than the brownstone, or matches what’s the norm in the particular historic district.

But besides these restrictions, additions need not be in the style of the original brownstone. Indeed many architects find it easier to get one approved if it is ultra-modern rather than some faux period piece. That means you might be able to get a glass cube on top or in the back.

What’s an expeditor, when do you need one, and how much will it cost?

Expeditors (or what the DOB calls “filing representatives”) are experts when it comes to NYC renovations: They're required to keep abreast of all the changes to code, and they also know which questions to ask, how to fill in the forms, and what you'll pay in fees. They also do all the legwork, visiting the DOB in person and standing in lines and all the other running around that’s part and parcel of getting permits through the city’s infamously complicated system.

What your expeditor should be doing

Expeditors act as liaisons between you and the DOB and can help figure out which permits you need, as well as facilitate the paperwork. Before you submit a permit application to the DOB, an expeditor will review your reno plans to make sure they follow the city’s construction codes. The expeditor will also make sure to get all the signatories, which include you, the architect, contractor, and property manager, and sometimes the board president. Then, while the department is processing your application, they gather all the necessary checklists and signatures (from building owners, architects, and so on) and field the DOB's queries.

When it comes time to get the DOB to sign off on your project, an expeditor can help the process along, including managing the third-party inspections and additional documentation that are often required.

The expeditor can also handle the final paperwork and sign-offs for your architect or contractor. The last thing you want is outstanding "open items" from your reno that tie up an eventual sale of your apartment.

When an expeditor is helpful

Using an expediter is no guarantee that your permit application process will be speedy. But it does increase the chance that you'll get the approval you need faster than if you navigated the bureaucracy solo. 

This is particularly true if you are planning a gut-renovation of a brownstone or apartment, where by definition you are going to be dealing with multiple permits and subcontractors. There’s just a ton of “I”s to dot here, with lots of running back and forth and in between.

And most architects will rely on expeditors when working on a building in a historic district, as dealing with the Landmarks Preservation Commission adds a whole other level of approvals (and additional months) to an already labor-intensive process.

How to hire one

Because an expeditor takes on tasks usually handled by your project team, your architect or contractor will be the one to do the hiring. Anyone with experience renovating in NYC will know where to find reputable expeditors; some architectural and engineer firms even have them on staff. You may still want to make sure the expeditor is registered with the DOB and has a clean record.

Cost of hiring an expeditor

Expect to pay an expeditor anywhere from $2,000 to $3,000 for a complete reno package (more for a landmarks project), plus miscellaneous fees, per permit process. Contractor permits are more in the range of $400 to $600 per permit. Though these upfront costs may seem steep, hiring an expeditor is well worth it, and you will save time and money (and frustration) in the long run.

NEXT SECTION:

Managing your renovation project through construction & beyond

The stages and timeline of construction

The general schedule for the construction or “build” phase of your NYC renovation (outlined below) should be included in your contract, complete with the duration and major milestones for each. Note that the estimated times will depend on the size of your home as well as the extent of your renovation; gut renovations of entire brownstones will take longer.

  1. Demolition: about 1 week
    The first step is to put up protections such as zip walls to seal the demolition area. In condos and co-ops, the exterior hallways, elevators, stairs, and other common areas must also be protected.

    Once these are in place, the demo work begins, involving ripping out cabinets, countertops, floors, fixtures, and any walls (for a gut renovation).
     
  2. Rough construction: about 3 to 6 weeks
    This stage involves building out any new structural features and framing the walls and ceiling systems. It should not take longer than a week unless you are changing the layout.
     
  3. Plumbing, Mechanical, Electrical: 1 to 2 weeks plus at least 1 week for inspections
    Once the walls are opened, it’s time for the “rough-in” work.

    An electrician will run wires from the service panel to the endpoints, leaving those unattached. A plumber will also run supply and drain pipes to their respective fixtures or appliances.

    Then DOB inspectors must come and either pass the work or order modifications, so the timing can vary.
     
  4. Drywall: 1 to 4 weeks
    Drywall (aka Sheetrock) is named for the fact that the “mud” mixture does not use water, making it a much faster surface than plaster (which takes a couple days to dry out). It is installed in two phases: hanging the panels by attaching them to the wood or metal studs and then finishing by taping, sanding, and skim-coating.

    Some contractors will go ahead and prime the walls and ceilings now for added protection against scuffs and stains until they can be painted.
     
  5. Flooring: 1 to 2 weeks
    Many types of flooring, like tile and hardwood, are typically installed before your cabinetry, though some contractors prefer to wait due to the risk of damage. Other floor types, like vinyl flooring and laminates, must be installed after the cabinets so they can be cut to precisely fit. If your hardwood floors need staining and finishing, expect to let them cure for another week.
     
  6. Cabinets/Fixtures/Surfaces: 2 to 6 weeks
    Only after cabinets and plumbing fixtures are installed can measurements for countertops be taken. Fabrication for countertops can take up to one month depending on the material. If you are adding custom built-in shelving or paneling, plan to add a few extra days.

    Bathroom and kitchen tiles and backsplashes are added now too.

    Ultimately this phase depends on the timely delivery of materials.
     
  7. Appliances: 2 to 4 days
    Once all the cabinets and countertops are in place, the appliances are positioned in place.

    Lighting is usually added in a kitchen at this time too.
     
  8. Finishing details: 1 to 2 weeks
    After wiping them free of dust and debris, the ceilings and walls can be painted or wallpapered. Hardware is added to kitchen cabinets and bathroom vanities. All appliances are checked to make sure they are level and connected properly.
  9. Cleanup: 1 to 2 days
    Once all the equipment has been removed, a thorough top-down cleaning should always be the final step. This includes clearing out the entire space and ventilation system of dust and debris, wiping down all surfaces and scheduling the haul-away of any dumpsters and hazardous materials.

Getting along with your neighbors, board and super during your renovation

Renovations are more common than ever in New York City, so residents and building staff are used to dealing with the disruption. Your neighbors also (ought to) know they might be the ones asking for understanding at some point too. That said, construction-related skirmishes do happen. Most times these situations can be avoided––or at least mitigated.

  • A well-informed neighbor is a happier one

    Notify your neighbors—upstairs, downstairs, and next door—before you start work. Renovating a brownstone is no different––the sound of workers and the sight of dumpsters for months on end is undeniably an inconvenience.

    If you haven’t already, introduce yourself to your neighbors in person or with a handwritten note and maybe a gift, like a bottle of wine (or noise-cancelling headphones).

    Many co-op and condo buildings require written notice as part of their building alteration agreements, in which case you will need to comply. Architects often have a standard letter they pass on to clients for this purpose.

    If you are drafting your own note, keep it brief and include the following:
     
    • the start and end dates of the job
    • a brief description of the work being done
    • any environmental concerns, such as dust and fumes, that may come up (and that you are making all best efforts to contain those to the job site)
    • assurances that the contractor has been instructed to keep common areas clean, work during authorized hours, and generally minimize disruption
    • contact information in case of any concerns
    • an apology for any potential inconvenience and a thank you for the neighbor’s patience

    For larger jobs, it may make sense to ask permission for your architect to photograph the neighbor’s apartment so that if any damage—or claims of damage—come up, there’s a record of what the place looked like beforehand. Your board may require this.

    Generally, demolition is the most difficult for neighbors due to the noise and vibrations. Fumes from paint and/or polyurethane used in floor refinishing can be disturbing as well.

    As your project proceeds, keep your neighbors informed.  If, for example, you know your project is going to run longer than planned, communicate that to your neighbors (as well as your board and super), along with an explanation as to why and the revised end date.

    It’s also a good idea to alert your neighbors a couple days before any unusually loud or disruptive work that is about to happen so they tweak their schedule accordingly.
     
  • Accommodate special requests if you can

    Especially in a co-op or condo, some neighbors may have special requests now and then and it is important that you try and respect those. For example, a neighbor with a newborn might ask for an hour of quiet during naptime. Or someone who is recuperating from surgery may ask for a later start time in the morning or for your workers to minimize noise for a couple days.
     
  • Check in, not out

    Make a point of regularly checking in with the super and the neighbors to see if they have any questions or concerns––and to make sure the workers are being respectful and not blaring music for hours straight. This is especially important while you are vacating the premises.

    And absolutely respond right away to any complaints that come your way, even if all you can do is listen to what they have to say and extend an invitation for dinner at your new digs once the work is done. 

    If your renovation damages adjacent apartments, be sure to act quickly. Send flowers and a note, reassuring your neighbor that you are aware of the situation and that you will see that your contractor makes repairs immediately (or whatever needs to happen to rectify the matter).
     
  • Tips on tipping your building staff

    This topic is not without its controversy; some people prefer to dole out tips to the doorman, super, porter, elevator operator, and any other building staff for all services rendered at the end of the year. But common sense suggests that giving a tip (whether $200 in cash or its equivalent, such as tickets to a game for a die-hard Yankees fan) at the outset of a renovation will keep things running smoothly. The more extensive the project, the bigger the tip.
     
  • Keep common areas clean

    This cannot be overemphasized: It is up to you to make sure your contractor and all workers ensure the dust and debris stays inside the work site, such as by taping the doors every day and wiping down their shoes so they don’t track footprints everywhere.

How to work effectively with your contractor and architect

A renovation involves lots of moving parts and it’s all too easy for things to fall through the cracks––especially when time is of the essence. Having clear communication guidelines and with your architect and contractor (or designated liaison) from the get-go is a must in staying on schedule and avoiding setbacks.

  • Communicating with your contractor and architect
    Before construction begins, agree with your contractor and architect how you’ll be kept in the loop. Put it in writing so everyone on your team is on the same page, noting who is the designated point person at every given stage of your project.

    The contractor is generally your point person during construction. Ask for his or her preferred mode of contact, whether in person or email or by phone or text (and in that case during what hours of the day). That said, unless your architect was only hired for the design phase, you’ll want to stay in contact with that person too, most likely on a weekly basis or more frequently during specific periods (such as when custom cabinets or countertops are being fabricated).

    Some experts recommend a daily check-in with the contractor (or designated foreperson), which might include meeting at the job site each morning before work begins or at the end of the day to go over what was done. Most contractors (and renovators) prefer to do this on a weekly basis, in which case you might opt for a daily email rundown, with photos if you are living elsewhere.

    Be prepared to answer tons of questions throughout the project; make a point of always getting back with answers in a timely manner (the same day is best).

    If you are going to be away on vacation or otherwise out of pocket, make sure to give your team a heads up so you can address anything urgent beforehand.

    Sometimes it makes sense for your architect to step into the role of point person, such as when your project involves custom work (as in a kitchen redo) or whenever your contractor will need hands-on guidance in executing a design properly or help in troubleshooting any problems as they come up. Indeed architects often pay weekly visits to the job site during these build stages, and they will be the best person to provide feedback.

    Later on, when the finishing touches are being added, you may prefer to deal directly with your architect or interior designer to make sure your materials and paint colors and other details are tended to.
     
  • Staying on schedule If things ever begin to move too slowly, it’s often worth getting everyone on your team––architect, contractor, and interior designer––in one room to identify bottlenecks. A penalty clause for work that runs long will be helpful too, as you can use that as motivation to stay or get back on track.)
     
  • Dealing with setbacks
    Your first line of defense is to be proactive about checking the work. Make a point of regularly looking over the job site on your own and take notes (and photos) of any concerns that you can bring up during your scheduled check-ins.

    Of course you don’t want to over-question your contractor’s work (unless it’s truly shoddy), so be tactful in how you approach these meetings, asking questions rather than passing judgment. “Does that trim look level to you?” is better than “You need to fix this trim, it looks awful.” If that gets you nowhere, you can ask your architect or interior designer to weigh in––and then be prepared to accept the consensus (it might in fact be level).

    If the work is shoddy, however, you will need to address that right away and once and for all. No need pretending like it will just improve over time. Start by enlisting your architect (or interior designer) for their opinion of the contractor’s work. They have a vested interest in it being done correctly too. If there is substantiated cause for concern, it may be time to look for another contractor.

    And keep in mind: You are much more likely to get quality work out of a construction crew when they enjoy working for you. That includes being responsive to your contractor’s questions and quick to make decisions (no one likes a wishy-washy client) and also friendly with all the workers.

6 common problems that can slow down or increase the cost of your renovation

Even the most experienced architects and contractors cannot anticipate every possible problem, and some things are out of their (and your) control. Here are the more typical issues that can crop up when you’re renovating;

1. Mold, asbestos, and/or lead: If these toxins are discovered (ideally in a test before work has begun), you will have to hire a qualified abatement company to safely remove them. You will also need to vacate the premises until the matter is resolved.

2. Electrical or plumbing issues: There’s simply no way for experts to see through walls, so once they are opened up a lot can happen. Pre-war co-ops and brownstones are especially prone to having outdated wiring and pipes that need updating/replacing. Regardless of the condition of your existing wiring, if you want to install powerful air conditioners or other appliances, you may need to upgrade the wiring to accommodate the heavy load they require.

3. Shoddy joists or other structural elements: These are not discoverable until the demolition phase, and then you’ll have to pay extra for reframing.

4. Missing materials: If flooring, cabinets, appliances, tiles, fixtures, and all the rest do not arrive in a timely manner, or are damaged or the wrong item, work will have to stop––often for days and weeks. Things have to be installed in a sequence, and there’s just no getting around. Order well in advance in case you have to get a replacement.

5. Contractor concerns: If you ask enough experienced renovators, you’re bound to hear tales about contractor neglect. Either they fail to supervise the project as they should or to pay their workers, who stop showing up. That’s why having a detailed schedule with payments tied to key benchmarks is essential (the carrot) as well as penalties for being late (the stick).

6. Natural disasters: Hurricanes, blizzards, and the like can happen, and there’s nothing you can do about those except wait them out (and hope they don’t cause damage to your building). Most boards will understand delays caused by these occurrences in pushing out the penalty phase accordingly.

What are change orders? (and how to handle them)

Change orders are addendums to your original renovation contract that account for any additions or other deviations in the work. They can be instigated by you or your contractor or architect at any time and require your ultimate sign-off.

Change orders often arise because contractors underestimate the scope or overlook details of the project during the planning phase. (Sad to say that some contractors will deliberately omit items from their proposals for a lower bid.) Or they based their bids on incomplete drawings or erroneous designs by the architect.

Other times change orders are needed to address defects in the building that either should have been or were not able to be discovered before the work began and walls came down. This usually involves plumbing, electrical, or mechanical systems as well as foundational problems in a brownstone.

There are plenty of times when you (the client) will initiate a change order. Maybe you held off on making certain decisions or choosing materials early on, or have a change of heart about one aspect or another (like switching from a pre-fab Corian countertop to a custom marble one).

One thing to be on the lookout for: If a contractor says you need to fork over an additional $10,000 for the work to be completed, that’s not a change order but rather a cause for concern. Either they are not being cost-effective in optimizing resources or (worse) they’re taking advantage or using your money in unauthorized ways. Never pay without asking for an itemized record of labor and material costs before you agree to this demand.

Given the inevitability of changes, your contract should specify a process for submitting and approving change orders--for example, that your contractor will provide a description of what the new work will cost and how it will impact the schedule, and that you must approve in writing. (Your contract should also state whether that can be by text, email, or only pen and ink.)

Change orders will most always affect your budget and schedule. They are the reason behind the golden rule of renovating that says to plan for 30 percent more in both costs and time.

Case in point: Let’s say you planned to refinish your wood floors but then your contractor discovers they are too worn for sanding and need to be replaced. The change order causes the cost to jump from $4 to $10 a square foot, plus you’ll face a minimum of two additional weeks in selecting the material, waiting for delivery, ripping out the old flooring, and installing the new. And now you are unable to put in your kitchen cabinets or do other work until the floor is in place.

Even though your contractor should have factored this into the original estimate (by sanding an inconspicuous area, or looking at how visible the nail heads were), odds are you’d end up paying the same in the end.

Frustrating? You bet, but that’s how it goes in many renovations.

The punch list: what goes on it––and how to get your contractor to finish it

No matter how carefully and competently your renovation was planned, designed, and executed, there are bound to be items that require attention before the final sign-off and final payment. Be sure to try all the drawers and doors, look closely at the edges and finishes, and make sure everything is working the way it should.

A checklist for creating your punch list

The punch list is a tool that allows your contractor to keep track of all the bits and pieces of the job that need to be completed. By tying it to the final payment, it also serves as a financial incentive for your contractor to tie up all the loose ends.

The easiest way to organize the punch list is by room and then within each room by category––so finishes (flooring, walls, tiles, cabinetry, and countertops); doors and windows; electrical; and plumbing.

  • Finishes: Make sure hardwood floors are level and properly refinished or installed if new, without any noticeable gaps between the planks (they will only get bigger and trap dust and dirt). Vinyl or laminate floors should fit snugly in corners and around cabinets, with no visible puckering anywhere.
     
  • Walls: They can take a lot of abuse and end up with more than a reasonable amount of dings, dents, and scuff marks. Plus you’ll want to make sure the paint job is up to snuff and that any wallpaper was mounted correctly.
     
  • Tiles:  Whether in the bathroom or kitchen backsplash, tiles usually involve precise handiwork when installing, so you’ll want to make sure they are flat with consistent grout lines and patterning. Also be on the lookout for any loose or cracked tiles.
     
  • Countertops: Your countertops should be level and match the specs; same for cabinet fronts. Check cabinet doors and drawers to make sure all are in working order––and that none of them end up banging into each other or the refrigerator due to poor design. The hardware should be tight and even, not lose or off-kilter. Same for a bathroom vanity.
     
  • Doors and windows: Test all doors and knobs by opening and shutting and check for proper weatherstripping around exterior doors. Windows should open and shut easily, without any perceptible drafts (hard to tell if it’s summer, but still).
     
  • Electrical: For lighting, you’ll need to turn everything on and off a few times, and then leave them on for a while. Test dimmer switches and any smart-tech functions for lighting and window shades. It’s also worth testing all the outlets by plugging things in; press the buttons on GFI outlets in the kitchen and bathrooms to ensure they trip as they are supposed to

    Test all appliances too (run the dishwasher, heat the oven, ignite all burners, use the refrigerator’s water dispenser, etc.) and make sure you have all the included parts, operating manuals, and warranty materials.
     
  • Plumbing: Make sure all fixtures (sinks, toilets, and tubs) are aligned and their surfaces are pristine. Turn on all faucets and allow them to run for a while to make sure the hot stays hot and the cold stays cold. Fill sinks all the way, then unplug and let all the water drain out, looking for any signs of leaks from the attached pipes. Do the same for the tub, making sure the overflow hole does its job (again without causing any leaks to the room below). Showerheads should have ample power, and any smart fittings should do as they are designed.

The final walk-through
Once your punch list is complete, schedule a time to review the work and any outstanding issues with your contractor, who may be able to fix them on the spot or arrange a time to come back (asap). It’s also entirely possible that you will discover new items for the punch list at this time.

Tips for getting your punch list done
The worst thing you can do is wait until the end of your project to hand over your list. By that time, your contractor probably has another project on the schedule and is expected elsewhere.

Instead, start itemizing things that need to be taken care of during the last 30 percent of the job––or better yet, tie the second-to-last installment payment to completing these items rather than waiting for the final one. This way the final punch list should be fairly limited too.

Barring any backordered items, your contractor should be able to return and fix everything in a few days, especially if you’ve been whittling down the list all along.

The final items on your punch list are always the toughest to get completed. Most experts recommend withholding a small percentage of the contractor's price––usually around 10 percent––until all items are finished to your satisfaction.

For smaller jobs, you may need more of an incentive for the contractor to tackle everything. In those cases you could withhold 15 percent and then pay that out in two installments while the punch list is being completed. This is a fairly standard practice in the industry and should be set out in the 'hold-back' provision in your contract.

If you’ve already paid your general contractor in full and still have a few lingering punch items, you may have to be persistent by calling or sending emails until you get a response. Sometimes a personal note with a few kind pleas for help will achieve quicker results than expressing your frustration harshly.

But if all else fails, you can play the “reference” card, since client referrals are contractor’s bread and butter.

Before you make a final payment, get a lien waiver Contractors and subcontractors can file liens if they haven’t been paid for completed work, even if it’s not your fault. Having a lien on your property can wreak havoc when you are selling it, causing unexpected delays (and possibly scaring off potential buyers). It can also prevent you from refinancing or prevent a buyer from getting a mortgage to buy your place.

Ask your contractor to provide lien waivers from all subcontractors and suppliers stating they have been paid and giving up the right to file a future lien. Be sure to do this before final payment.

When do you need a new certificate of occupancy—and how do you get one?

If you're doing significant renovations or purchasing a fixer-upper with the intention of launching into extensive work, you may need to update the certificate of occupancy (or C of O) in addition to getting all the requisite permits. But that’s not always the case.

Simply put, a C of O is a document that lays out a building's legal use and occupancy. In a residential building, that includes how many bedrooms or exits are allowed at that address.  Without an up-to-date C of O, no one can legally occupy a building, so you run the risk of the city issuing a vacate order. It can also complicate matters when you try and sell your property. Usually any C of O problem will surface in the title search, and a potential buyer may walk away if they think the situation will take too long to correct.

You need a new Certificate of Occupancy if you’re:

  • Subdividing an apartment or even installing a floor-to-ceiling partition to create an additional bedroom
  • Turning a two- or three-family building into a single-family residence (or vice versa)
  • Converting a space previously designated for laundry or storage to increase the number of units
  • Modifying the layout of stairs, corridors, lobbies, and fire escapes that would affect exits

Combining apartments?  You may not need a new Certificate of Occupancy

Interestingly, you don’t need a new C of O if you’re combining apartments, so long as you meet certain restrictions:

  • The apartments being joined are on the same floor or adjacent floors using interior access stairs that connect no more than two stories
  • Each unit retains existing exits (or egress) from all stories of the building, such as stairs, corridors, passageways, fire escapes, or lobby
  • The combined unit will have the same or fewer zoned rooms (meaning you are not combining two two-bedroom apartments into a five-bedroom unit)
  • Each new habitable room is compliant with natural light and air requirements
  • The second kitchen is eliminated and the plumbing connections capped (unless used for a bathroom or other space)

Note that when combining apartments in a condo building, you must also obtain a new tentative tax lot number from the Department of Finance.

How to get a new Certificate of Occupancy

To get a new C of O, your architect must include this request in the plans that are submitted to the DOB before work begins. Then, once you’ve passed inspections, received all appropriate city approvals, and paid any outstanding fees, the DOB may either issue a new/amended C of O, or a Letter of Completion if the scope of work didn’t require a change to the existing C of O. This document will put the final stamp of approval on your renovation and is usually issued within a day or two.

How to get problems fixed after your renovation is done

Even if you didn't lay the groundwork early on by negotiating a warranty for your contractor’s work in the contract, you are entitled to a resolution. And should a problem not end up not being your contractor’s responsibility, getting his or her feedback can be helpful in figuring out the best way to fix it.

Most common post-renovation issues

Leaky pipes (causing damage to the floor below), defective appliances, non-working electrical outlets, malfunctioning radiant heat units, cracks in the walls and ceilings, doors or cabinet fronts that won’t shut properly, faulty windows, warped floors––these are just some of the more typical issues that can arise weeks or months or even years after sign-off. In a brownstone the list also includes problems with the foundation, mechanicals (boiler and hot-water heater), and the roof.

Just because there’s a post-renovation problem doesn’t mean the contractor is to blame. Usually some investigation is needed in identifying the cause, and there are multiple steps along the way––from initial spec to manufacturing of the material and installation––where errors can occur.

For example, your floor might be warping from defective materials or installation (usually by not having the proper substrate), or from excess humidity in the home from a faulty HVAC system.

Problems also occur due to improper use and general wear and tear (such as damage caused by routinely putting a hot pot on your Silestone countertop).

How to get things fixed

Whether your floor is buckling or water is leaking into the bathroom when you shower, there’s an escalating series of actions you can take to get things resolved.

  • Asking nicely but firmly Start by trying to appeal to your contractor’s own sense of obligation. Calling their business or showing up in person and showing proof of the problem is sometimes enough to get a reputable contractor to come back and investigate the situation.
     
  • Social Media These days, social media is a powerful forum for voicing complaints about a business. You can comment on the contractor’s website or Facebook page, for example, being sure to strike an appropriate tone (e.g., don’t be belligerent and provide facts to bolster your complaint).
     
  • Professional Complaints You can file complaints through the New York State Divison of Consumer Protection as well as the Better Business Bureau.

    So long as your contractor is licensed, you can file a complaint with New York City’s consumer affairs department, which upon review will contact the business and begin mediation. The department can require the contractor to pay restitution or fix or finish the job. It can also file charges against the business and seek a decision from an administrative law judge, who can order a business to pay restitution, issue a fine, or revoke the contractor’s license.

    If the business doesn’t have the resources to pay you, the department can tap into its home improvement contractor trust fund to award you up to $25,000.

    Some licensed contractors purchase a surety bond from their insurance agent in case of client disputes. If you file a claim, the bond policy pays you to compensate for your losses. (And then the insurance company goes after the contractor.) So you can start by contacting your contractor’s company.
     
  • Going (or threatening to go) to court
    Under New York law, you can sue a contractor for construction issues within three years of the contract date (and architects within six years), even if you agreed to a one-year warranty in the contract.

    If you've got a faulty appliance or fixture problem on your hands, it’s typically the manufacturer’s responsibility to replace it, provided you are still within the warranty period. But even if the window manufacturer puts in a new window for free, they won’t pay for the labor involved in ripping out the old one and repairing any damage to the inside. And if you purchased the appliance or fixture through your contractor or architect (they specified it, ordered it, and made a commission), then your contractor or architect should handle any repair or replacement.If you have suffered financial damages (say, you had to pay for repairs to your downstairs neighbor’s property), you can pursue litigation. This is usually your only option for unlicensed contractors too.

    But first, under New York’s right-to-remedy law, you are required to notify the contractor of any perceived defects in writing and provide that person an opportunity to remedy them.

    For losses under $5,000, you can sue in small claims court without a lawyer. Otherwise you’ll have to find a lawyer willing to take on your case––meaning you will need to have a good shot of establishing liability and the recovery amount is lucrative enough to justify paying attorneys fees.

    No matter which avenue you take, the more detailed your “evidence” is, the better the odds of a favorable outcome. Keep a paper trail of the work before, during, and after the project. Print out all emails and document all texts and phone calls with the dates and discussion points. Take photos of every stage. Post-project, send letters with your concerns to the contractor via certified mail.