What's involved in gut renovating a co-op or condo apartment in NYC?
- A gut reno involves taking the apartment down to the studs and joists by removing the walls and ceilings
- Projects that include changing the layout typically take longer to get board approval—and to complete
- The average cost using mid-range materials is $250 to $300 per square foot, double for luxury upgrades
We are buying a place that needs major updating, but aren't sure whether we need to do a full gut renovation. What's involved in that kind of project?
No two projects are the same, but a gut renovation typically entails taking the apartment down to the studs and joists by removing the walls and ceilings and sometimes flooring. This kind of work often involves changing the layout although that's not a given.
"We often do gut renovations where everything remains in the same place and we are just upgrading what is there, including plumbing, electrical, and HVAC systems," says David Ackerman, founder of the general contracting company Urban Standard, which has over a decade of experience renovating co-ops and condos across Manhattan and Brooklyn.
Either way, 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.
Here’s the process, from start to finish.
What happens in the design phase
"We always start by helping people understand that there can be this big lead time from when you buy the apartment or decide to renovate your existing place and when the project actually gets started," Ackerman says.
The first thing you need to do is find out if your renovation goals are attainable. He recommends reaching out to a contractor or architect before going to the effort and expense of having the plans drawn up—only to have them shot down by the board or the city.
The reno pro will look at your building's alteration agreement for specific parameters and also apply their knowledge of city rules and regs.
For example, a new bedroom will need to meet DOB requirements for air, light, and size. If you'd like to relocate your kitchen or add a new bathroom that would be above a bedroom or living space, many buildings have "wet over dry" rules that would prevent you from doing that, though Ackerman says some buildings approve such changes.
Similarly, many buildings that have a concrete slab will not allow you to channel into the ceiling to add recessed lighting.
“Find out if the same kind of work has been done previously by asking the property manager or building staff,” he says.
Once your options are clear, the architect will draw up the plans and prepare the board submission. Your board's architect and engineer will then review the plans and provide comments, which your architect addresses for the board to green-light the project.
Next, your architect will bring in an expediter to file the plans with the city and again, the city may come back with comments that need to be cleared before stamping with their approval. There are also post-approval documents that must be filed with the city before the contractor can pull the work permits and schedule the start date.
How long will all this take?
"It's impossible to estimate because it's a building-to-building situation in terms of their approval process," Ackerman says, adding that it also depends on the size and scale of the project—the bigger that is, the longer it can take a board to review and the more comprehensive that review will likely be. "We have projects that are approved in a matter of weeks and others that take six months or longer." (He points to one "extremely patient" client who has been stuck in an approval loop with her condo board for more than a year over where to put the HVAC condenser unit.)
What's more, not all gut renovations are the same. Boards are likely to be much more lenient and take less time to review the plans if you are not touching the layout, meaning all the walls, plumbing, and gas lines will remain in place as opposed to if you are moving things around.
What happens in the build phase
A typical gut renovation begins with the complete demolition of the apartment's interior—new walls, doors, casings, baseboards, possibly flooring, and mechanical systems (electrical, plumbing, HVAC). It also includes installing kitchen appliances and surfaces, as well as bathroom fixtures (sink, toilet, tub) and tiles.
"The back end of the construction stage is when clients add their personal details like custom millwork and plaster moldings," Ackerman says.
“At Urban Standard, we provide a construction schedule at the beginning of the project that reflects how much time each phase will take to complete, with clear caveats for unknowns that are outside of our control,” he explains. "We can't forecast deliverables, design decisions, or building-related delays due to inspections. For example, if we are ready to paint and you haven't picked out your color, the project sits. The same goes for flooring, tiles for the backsplash or shower, and all the rest."
The sooner you make your decisions, the better. "Or understand that holding off on making the decisions results in a trade-off of the cost of the additional construction time," he says.
Along those lines, Ackerman emphasizes making sure the lead times for all materials—flooring, tiles, appliances, plumbing fixtures—are in line with the construction schedule so the team has everything in place when that part of the project arrives. In his experience, light fixtures are still "taking forever" but other lead times are somewhat back to normal.
Finally, you never know what you will find when opening up walls, especially given the nuances of prewar buildings. "We've discovered plumbing lines that are on a riser leading to multiple other units, meaning any changes to your plumbing will also impact your neighbors. Now we need to ask the building for permission to replace your plumbing and learn whether you are also going to need to replace other units' plumbing," he says.
How to manage the project while living off-site
One aspect of a gut renovation that people don't often consider is that you will need to vacate the apartment, at least during the demolition phase and usually for the duration (it's hard to live without a kitchen but impossible to live without a bathroom). If it's a new purchase, you'll either need to extend the time at your previous place or find a short-term rental.
"If you are gut renovating before moving in, it's important to understand what your carrying costs are going to be in determining the scope of the project," Ackerman says.
You'll also need to factor in storage costs for all your furniture as well as the cost of moving out and in.
Ackerman says he waits for clients to provide their move-out date (or closing date) before he schedules the start date and then gives them a rough idea of when the project will be complete. "Most people schedule a post-renovation cleaning before moving in," he says.
Throughout the project, Urban Standard holds weekly site meetings with their project manager, which clients—or more likely their architect or designer—can join in person or remotely via Zoom or FaceTime.
"We update them on the work that has been done since the last meeting and anything that cropped up that impacts the schedule. We also discuss what work is slated for the coming week," Ackerman explains, noting that these are designed to keep clients informed at all times.
"Construction is an anxious process to begin with, and even though we've done the same basic project numerous times, each one is different based on the client's comfort level," he says.
What you can expect a gut renovation to cost
Besides the incremental costs outlined above, the average cost for a gut renovation using mid-range materials is $250 to $300 per square foot in New York City. That translates to around $625,000 to $750,000 to gut renovate a 2,500-square-foot apartment. Double that figure for top-of-the-line upgrades.
You will also need to check with your board to determine what fees (and potential fines) are involved, as they vary 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.)
You will also need to pay an upfront deposit to lock in a contractor. For example, Urban Standard collects 25 percent of the target budget: 10 percent is due at contract and 15 percent before the start date.
In their decade-plus of experience in residential and commercial construction in New York City, the team at Brooklyn-based Urban Standard, led by founder David Ackerman, has remained proactive in problem solving to provide a high-quality client experience. If you are ready to get started on your next renovation project, send us an email or call us at 718-669-0526 to discuss your goals.