Reno Ready

Here's how to breathe new life into this under-$800,000 fixer-upper on the Upper East Side

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A decent number of closets—three in the front foyer (including one walk-in) and two in the bedroom—is probably the most appealing feature of this $749,000 one-bedroom co-op at 301 East 78th Street on the Upper East Side, according to Carlos M. Rodríguez Infanzón of Rodríguez Studio Architecture. Also, “the apartment also looks to have nice proportions in general,” he adds. “The bedroom and living room seem to be quite large.”

But the kitchen definitely needs a refresh. “There’s limited flexibility on opening it up due to the way the riser shafts are laid out,” says Rodríguez Infanzón, noting that nowadays, most people prefer an open kitchen so they can interact with others while cooking or doing dishes. “Plus, the wall behind the stove will most certainly have gas lines in it, so it will most likely not be able to be moved,” he says.

The apartment, which dates back to the early 1960s, could stand to be fully updated, says Rodríguez Infanzón. His recommendations:

The dining room (pictured above)
For starters, Rodríguez Infanzón would do away with the mirrors at the back. “Mirrors don’t age well,” he says, noting that if you look at the corners you will see signs of wear. “It makes the place look dingy.”

Next, he’d remove the doors leading to the kitchen. “People just don’t have a separate room for a kitchen like this anymore,” he says, noting that you only really see this type of closed-off distinct kitchen area with a door in older apartments in older buildings. Open kitchens are now all the rage.

Then, he’d turn his attention to “that weird strangeness in the ceiling there—that small bump,” says Rodríguez Infanzón. He recommends dropping the rest of the ceiling to match the lower height so as to make things look a little more even. After dropping the ceiling, he’d junk the chandelier and replace it with “something more contemporary” since the current one looks to be quite old.

He’d change out the floors and the baseboards, too. “Nobody wants parquet anymore,” he says, explaining that “many people have a strong, negative reaction to parquet” because they seem to associate it with decrepit old buildings “that have graffiti in the basement. Nine times out of 10, new owners want to take it out.” He’d rather see a bleached natural-colored wooden plank floor in this space for a cleaner, more modern look. 

He’d also repaint the left-hand wall and the ceiling with a neutral white, but suggests painting the back wall (the one with the mirror) with something a little more colorful—“maybe a grayish or a blue-ish,” he says—and turning that back wall into a feature wall that will attract the eye to the warm, comforting color when you enter the room.

Last, he’d dump the shabby curtains in favor of roller shades. “They’re a little more contemporary, a little sleeker,” he says. “They won’t get as dusty as the curtains. And you can have a valance over them so that when the shades are open, they can essentially disappear, so all you’ll see is the view.”

Price: According to Rodríguez Infanzón, dropping the ceiling should be around $7-$10 a square foot. Prices for modern chandeliers start at just $105 at New plank floors should run between $15 and $25 a square foot, depending on how wide it is, says the architect. Gallons of Benjamin Moore paint for the walls and ceilings can be obtained for $69.99 each. Prices for these roller shades start at $39.99 at Bed, Bath & Beyond. Labor—including ripping the kitchen doors off their hinges—will tack on to these costs.

The living room/foyer
The first thing Rodríguez Infanzón would do is carve out a distinct space for the front foyer by building a wall that would separate it from the living room. “That foyer is 100 square feet and as it is now, it’s absolutely useless,” he says. “If you look at the floorplan, you’ll see a line of dashes  between the foyer and living room.” That line demonstrates that the foyer and living room are separate spaces even though there isn’t a real wall physically separating them. “I’d build a wall that’s, like, five feet wide there,” he says—half the length of the dashes—simply to formally separate the two areas. For the remaining five feet or so of current foyer space, Rodríguez Infanzón proposes making a small office/study area with a desk.

He’d then turn his attention to the lighting situation. There isn’t any overhead lighting—just some table lamps scattered throughout and the single pendant light in the foyer. He’d add sconces on the wall above the couch, a couple to the new foyer, and a couple to the new office area.

However, he does recognize the need for “some mood lighting” (meaning: lights that can be dimmed) or bright lights that could help you while cleaning, so he proposes adding some up above. The beam at the front of the room looks to be slightly lower than the rest of the beams on the ceiling. He proposes dropping that beam and making them all the same height. Then you’ll have some space in the ceiling to run cable to put in some overhead lights with a dimmer switch. “Having flexibility is a great thing,” he says. “Whether you want some dim lighting to set a certain mood or you need lights from above to help you find your contact lens.”

As for paint, he’d once again go neutral with the walls—maybe white or off-white—except for the wall behind the couch, which, he suggests, you could paint a gray or blue. “It’s best to do an accent color on a wall that gets natural light,” he says, noting that the light will show it off more.

He’d also tear out the parquet floors and put in plank flooring here, too.

Price: Rodríguez Infanzón believes that building the actual wall should cost around $1,000 or so, depending on your contractor, but with permits and labor, it could be thousands more. These brushed nickel wall sconces are $49.90 at Lighting by Gregory. As mentioned earlier, dropping the ceiling should be around $7 to $10 a square foot, a junction box for the overhead lights should be about $250 per point, and the lights themselves should be about $100 or so. The entire space probably needs four to six lights. Cans of Benjamin Moore paint for the walls and ceilings can be obtained for $69.99. New plank floors should run between $15 and $25 a square foot, depending on plank length and width. Labor will be more.

The bedroom
Rodríguez Infanzón would begin by ripping out the unsightly carpet to reveal the floors underneath. “Maybe you could get away with just refinishing them,” he says. But, if they’re in bad condition, “you’ll probably have to get new wood floors like in the living room.”

Next, he’d get a wall-to-wall radiator cover with storage on either side—“maybe a couple of cabinets or bookshelves”—to conceal the free-standing heater by the window. He’d also add a through-window or through-wall air-conditioner since “it looks like that’s a regular radiator—no A/C.” He’d then do away with the gauzy curtains and go with a roller blackout shade, instead.

Rodríguez Infanzón would then mirror the beam that’s above the window to make an identical, fake beam above the headboard wall. “You could put some lighting in the mirrored beam above the bed,” he says, noting that he’d put two or even three recessed lights into the beam to light up the room. These will be great for reading or working in bed. In addition, he says he’d also drop the [rest of the] ceiling an inch and a half to run a junction box and cables to add a fixture to the middle of the room. “Maybe even a fan instead of an a/c,” he says. These brighter lights might be more helpful when cleaning than for late-night reading, but the architect likes for people to have options.

In the second photo, there’s a “funny bump” on the top right-hand side next to the dresser. Rodríguez Infanzón suggests “building a cabinet or maybe a bookshelf under it to make it feel more clean, to make the eye notice it less.”

He’d also change out the doors on the closet and the bathroom, since “the hardware’s very old,” he says, noting that the bathroom door is “probably the hollow metal door that was original to the building” and that the bi-fold doors on the closet “are probably not working that well anymore” since they’re so old. He’d keep the new closet door white so it blends with the rest of the space, but recommends that the bathroom door be made of natural wood so it looks different from everything else in the apartment. “A different finish will make it look different, more inviting,” he says.

Last, he’d paint the walls a neutral color to blend seamlessly with the rest of the unit. The ceiling will also be white.

Price: New plank floors should run between $15 and $25 a square foot, depending on plank length and width. According to Rodríguez Infanzón, a wall-to-wall radiator cover should be around $8,000. “Wood-working is expensive,” he says. “It takes a lot of skilled labor.” This window air-conditioner is $169.99 at Best Buy. These room-darkening roller shades are $30.97 at Home Depot. Rodríguez Infanzón says it should cost around $15 a foot to mirror the beam. The boxes behind the lights should be around $750 each. And the lights themselves should be around $60 a piece. As for the ceiling lighting, it should cost around $250 for a junction box and about $10 a foot to drop the ceiling. The cabinet under the “funny bump” should be “a couple of thousand for something made of finished wood.” New closet and bathroom doors should be around $700-$800. If you replace the frames, too, they’ll run around $1,800-$2,000. Cans of Benjamin Moore paint for the walls and ceilings can be purchased for under $70. Labor will add on to these costs.

The bathroom
“I’d blow all of this out and get a new tub, new tiles, a new toilet, a new medicine cabinet, a new vanity, and new fixtures,” says Rodríguez Infanzón, noting that the bathroom looks to be pretty archaic. “You see the toothbrush and soap holders set into the wall?” he asks. “That’s a pretty old-style detail. I’d change this all out to make it more contemporary.”

He suggests switching out the strange, mismatched tiles in the shower, as well as the area under the medicine cabinet where the soap and toothbrush holders are currently for new tiles. “Maybe something as simple as subway tile could work here,” he says. “It’s traditional, but also contemporary.”

Above the medicine cabinet, he’d forego tiles completely and opt for paint. “Maybe a blue or a gray,” he suggests noting that he likes something muted here because it’s such a small space. He’d keep the ceiling white.

For the floors, he’d go with either porcelain or stone tiles. “Not subway tiles, which are glazed and therefore slippery,” he says.

The medicine cabinet “looks really small” and really high up as it is at the moment, so Rodríguez Infanzón recommends making the opening a little larger for a bigger one. “If you’re short—or you’re a kid—you won’t be able to see yourself in this one,” he notes. Of course, that all depends on the pipes in the wall and whether or not you can make the hole bigger without disturbing or exposing them.

He’d also get a new vanity/sink/faucet combo, a new tub, new fixtures and a new toilet. 

He’d keep the rod, but get a different shower curtain, perhaps “something fun with a pop of color” that will show off your personality a little, he says. He also advises not getting anything too heavy or dark so as to make the shower seem darker.

He’d swap out the light fixture for a new one in the same spot. “I’d get something similar,” he says. “Something close enough to the ceiling so it doesn’t bounce light off of the ceiling” and create unpleasant shadows.

Price: New subway tiles for the shower and under the medicine cabinet should be around $7 to $8 a square foot for the tiles themselves and around $15 with installation, says Rodríguez Infanzón. Gallons of Benjamin Moore paint for the walls and ceilings can be purchased for just under $70. The porcelain tiles for the floor should be around $7 to $10 per square foot. This Robern medicine cabinet is $1,249. He thinks that a new vanity/sink/faucet combo should run around $1,200-$1,500 at a place like Porcelanosa, “but it could be way more, depending on what you want exactly.” This tub is $258 at Home Depot. This Grohe shower combo is $114.99 on This Toto toilet is $430.17 at Home Depot. This soft-close Toto toilet seat is $50.43 at Home Depot. This world map shower curtain is $14.99 at Target. These bathroom wall lights from Lighting by Gregory are $490. Labor will be more.

The kitchen
“I’d change everything out here too,” says Rodríguez Infanzón, mentioning that the appliances, countertops, and cabinets look rather outdated.

“I can’t tell the light situation from the photo, but I’d imagine it’s similar to the rest of the unit,” he says. Therefore, he’d advise dropping the ceiling and putting in some recessed lights. He’d also add under-cabinet lights. “They’re the most important here because cabinets tend to cast shadows and they get rid of the shadows,” he says.

Next, he’d junk the prehistoric cabinets and get new ones, opting for ones that are “more modern, flat-panel. Possibly white or finished wood, depending on your preference.”

He’d choose new stone countertops for this room. “Something hard that doesn’t stain,” he says. He’d also get an undermount sink to replace the existing self-rimming sink. “It’s cleaner, more modern, and you don’t see the edges,” he says. He’d then switch out the faucet for something less tarnished, and add a new backsplash. “Maybe subway tile or a mosaic.”

The way the kitchen is currently configured, there’s a separate wall oven and cooktop. Rodríguez Infanzón proposes “just doing a range and gaining that [wall oven] space back for storage.” He’d also get a new refrigerator and a new dishwasher.

He’d scrap the well-worn floor tile in favor of stone or porcelain tiles. “I don’t recommend wood in the kitchen because it wears unevenly,” which can be especially annoying in a room where you spend most of your time standing. He’d also get rid of the vinyl baseboards and get painted wood baseboards, instead.

As for the walls, he’d once again prefer to keep it neutral—white for the walls, white for the ceiling.

Price: Dropping the ceiling should probably be around $7-$10 a square foot, a junction box for the overhead lights should be about $250 per point, and the lights themselves should be about $100 or so. Under-cabinet lights, like these from IKEA, should be about $40-$50 per light. Rodríguez Infanzón thinks that you could probably get IKEA cabinets and have them installed for around $10,000. If you want custom cabinetry, it’ll be much more. He thinks stone countertops should cost around $2,000-$3,000 since it’s such a small space. This undermount sink from Kohler is $591.75 at Home Depot. This Grohe kitchen faucet is $259.99 at Home Depot. The mosaic tiles for the backsplash should be around $12-$15 a square foot, he says. This free-standing GE gas range is $539 at Best Buy. This stainless steel GE French-door fridge is $1,299.99 at Best Buy. This GE dishwasher is $449.99, also at Best Buy. Gallons of Benjamin Moore paint for the walls and ceilings can be purchased for just under $70. Labor will tack on to these prices.