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How we found a Clinton Hill townhouse and tamed a scary gut renovation: Part I

As inexperienced first-time homeowners, the Bolster promise appealed to this Clinton Hill couple.

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This is part of a new series from Bolster, a New York City-based firm that has designed a radically transparent renovation experience. Below, a homeowner describes how she and her husband found their Clinton Hill townhouse, and got started on the renovation.

Child too big, apartment too small 

In the spring of 2016, we were expecting our second child and in a tizzy about the school district changes happening in our neighborhood. My husband and I had a revelation while watching our 14-month-old tear around our small condo: We needed to table school and talk about more space. Life-long renters, we made our first purchase on our condo after living in it for a year. But, we had thought about parenthood in a deluded short-term mentality. Suddenly our baby was growing up and had more energy and interest in projectiles than our space could contain without ruin. So we set out to find some.

From April to December, from my first trimester to the early days of our daughter’s life, we hired babysitters and plotted Google maps for hitting all the open houses. We looked at condos, co-ops, and houses, trying to glean the right criteria for finding the home that would provide the shell of security that we’d known growing up outside of NY. In the face of this warm and optimistic dream, we sublimated all the warnings and realities about home ownership in NY. 

We schlepped from ultra-modern boxes to ‘ultra-gut’ renovation, from stoop to elevator, chintz to charming. In a couple of rare instances, we’d thought we’d found “the one.” In one case, we’d put in an offer from the recovery room in the hospital. On another we’d tried to secure a contingency deal while we waited for someone to take the bait on our condo.  

From imagining parenthood as a protracted period of holding a baby to thinking it would be a snap to sell our condo, our timing was optimistic at best and utterly deluded at worst. Neighbors down the hall had listed and closed within three weeks. We figured we had a better view and would do the same. The purge began, closets cleaned, belongings donated, furniture re-arranged, real estate photographers hired, broker hired. And then we waited. We napped our toddler in the car, in the stroller, or not at all. We visited family on weekends. We got the offer we should have taken. We didn’t and waited more. We took it off the market. We welcomed our second child. We repeated all the beginning steps. We lost bids because contingency plans don’t need to exist in Brooklyn. We lost hope. We discussed retrofitting our son’s tiny bedroom for two and getting a storage unit. We talked about other towns and cities. 

An actual Christmas miracle 

Finally, in early December we pulled up to a home in Clinton Hill, found immediate parking, and were welcomed into the upper triplex of a two-family home. Inside, the realtor took us into a living room with a lit fire, a Christmas tree, and introduced us to the couple who had lived there for the past 30 years.  

It was a “when you know, you know” feeling. And when we weighed it against the criteria we had set out it matched better than any other home. We felt we’d made a connection to the history of the home and its current owners. Now if we could just sell our condo to produce the down payment. And then, in a moment of serendipity, we got a cash offer. Not what we’d hoped, but not a loss on our investment and we were happy to have had the opportunity to move away from flushing rent money. We took the offer and were able to make a deal with the homeowners. 

Natural light streams through the first floor living room as the home is prepped for renovations. The homeowners later added an extension to the back of the home in order to accommodate a kitchen.

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Confusion sets in 

Someone had given me a book that made the case for living in a space before renovating to get a feel for how you use it. This seemed sage advice and we took it. We figured within a few months we’d secure an architect and contractor and within a year from then we’d be occupying the space that would provide the backdrop of our life together. Cue laugh track.

As the dust settled on our move, we called on friends who had been through renovations, friends that were architects, friends of friends that were architects, someone who had a great contractor. We hit walls. Even with people whom we know it was difficult to get an architect to return our calls, much less come out for a site visit. We heard vast estimates about budget and completion time. We heard abstract “price per square foot” estimates that offered no clarity about what work that number entailed. Everyone had a different number, always higher than we expected, and no one explained how to back into this number. We learned to be wary of people who told us what we wanted to hear.  Everyone agreed Landmarks was a wild card but expect the worst. 

Our spirits dampened as it dawned on us that the plans we wanted to accomplish would require about twice the budget and twice the amount of time. All the variables were abstract and some people had experience with some facets of the plan, but no one had a comprehensive plan for the big picture. 

The home features generous room proportions, including the large kitchen, which was moved from the third floor to the first floor during the renovation.

Bolster

The promise of clarity 

As inexperienced first-time home owners, the Bolster promise instantly appealed to us. I made a call to get the details and Anna, Bolster’s COO and Co-Founder, immediately returned my call. She explained their model: pair you with professionals and serve as an intermediary to help bridge the gap between professionals and homeowners. They provided actual granular budget estimates to illustrate where the money is going and help in shifting allocations depending on priorities. She was nice, not dismissive. We made a date. 

We met Anna, along with our Bolster Architect and Build Manager, at our house one afternoon. They didn’t tell us anything new or optimistic, but they were the first to give us ideas about how to manage all facets of the project. They explained what we could do with our budget. They explained how they work with expeditors to most efficiently get through landmarks and they knew the vagaries of the projects that the current board was green lighting and what was requiring a full hearing versus a “staff level” decision. They had good ideas about pros and cons of doing this vs that, what could be moved to a later phase and what should be prioritized immediately. We had a list of must do’s from our inspection and a list of nice-to-haves. They heard what we wanted and needed, had sound advice on some other things to consider and promised to give us a granular budget. After they left we agreed to invest in a set of drawings so that they could accurately provide a budget. When they left, we were immediately impressed with how pleasant and informative the whole exchange had been. So, naturally, we put up our guard and waited for disappointment. 

The home features a delicately curved mahogany bannister and stairs.

Bolster

Felt a sense of trust 

The following week our Bolster architecture team came armed with rulers, lasers and notepads and began diligently measuring each nook and cranny of the house. They were agreeable, unobtrusive and expedient. In a couple weeks, we had a set of drawings and a high level, but still detailed budget that would outline three tiers of the project so that we could decide how to allocate funds.

One estimate below our budget, one that met our budget, and one that accounted for some higher levels of finish. We met again and they showed us how they arrived at cost per square foot. They explained why—in a way that no previous contractor or architect could—we would need more money to do our project or scale it back. They had drawings to physically illustrate the different options. When we left the meeting, we were not happy about the amount of money we’d have to spend to get all of our “needs & wants,” but at least now we understood why.

We felt a sense of trust with this group. And as we reflected on the project and the sense of intimacy involved with someone gutting the space that will eventually hold your family memories and shape the background of a life together, we knew that trust was tantamount in pursuing this relationship. And trust that someone has your back in New York real estate felt like an impossible dream. So if they could continue to hear us and translate our needs into designs we could afford and actually deliver on budget and on time, this was a very easy decision. 

We commenced with the detailed drawings and plans that we’d have to submit to Landmarks, and researched housing options exhaustively from all angles until we came to the conclusion that we’d have to move out of state to proceed with the plans we’d made. Movers arrived, and we set out across the country to live with family while we remotely managed a house renovation…from the Midwest.


The Bolster Smart Renovation Zero-Risk Guarantee

How can a design-build firm guarantee a Zero-Risk renovation?

Bolster has pioneered Smart Renovation. We apply quantitative analysis along with our proprietary technology solution to identify and quantify the performance risk on every renovation project. The result is a personalized strategic approach to each renovation that allows us to absorb 100 percent of the homeowner’s risk. Your home will be beautifully designed, and delivered on-time and on-budget. That is our guarantee.

Smart Renovation & Zero-Risk means that Homeowners are now free to dream.

To start your major home renovation project visit bolster.us

The Bolster Promise video