What New Yorkers wish they knew before starting a renovation

By Kelly Kreth  |
October 5, 2021 - 12:30PM

One New Yorker learned the hard way to double check all measurements after redoing the floors, and finding the refrigerator no longer fit under the cabinets.


Renovating a house is hard, but renovating an apartment, as any New Yorker will tell you, is exponentially harder.

Why? For starters—it’s nearly impossible to live in a small place while you are redoing it—of course that doesn’t stop some from trying. Then there are the hoops one needs to jump through in an apartment building: Alteration agreements. Use of the elevator. Restrictions on the number of renovations being done in a building. Neighbors working from home. 

And if doing work was hard before—it became even more difficult during the pandemic as a result of Covid cleaning protocols, limits on visitors, and material shortages.

Still don’t believe renovations are harder in NYC? We asked New Yorkers about their experiences and the lessons they learned the hard way. Here’s what they had to say.

Double check all measurements

When renovating my 750-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment I learned it’s important to communicate with management and be sure to detail exactly what you are doing. Also make sure your contractor has the appropriate insurance and certifications. I intentionally did not do anything that required a permit. As long as you are not changing the apartment’s layout, moving gas, water or electric lines, you can usually work within the buildings decoration agreement as opposed to the alteration agreement. 

So, an architect and permits were not required. The cost estimate I was given was very close to the actual end price. I had a previous relationship with this contractor, so I knew what to expect. There were a few things that came up in the course of renovation that were unexpected, and those things raised the cost slightly. 

For instance, when we put a new floor in the kitchen, we did not realize that the refrigerator would no longer fit beneath the cabinets. It was only a few inches, but it required us to raise all the cabinets and as a result, redo part of the backsplash. —Rich, Hudson Heights 

Don’t skimp on the renovation insurance

When renovating my 550-square-foot, top-floor co-op apartment I decided to do an extensive upgrade. I changed the bathroom, kitchen, skim-coated walls, and re-did all the floors after a pipe burst during the renovation. 

I learned that there is renovation insurance and you should probably invest in that.  I also learned that there are a lot of restrictions in NYC that you might not face elsewhere, even where the contractor and other vendors can park becomes an issue. Tight hallway spaces add additional challenges with getting materials into the building—service elevators are a huge plus if you happen to have them in your building.  

Buildings may have specific rules as well, as far as what you can and cannot install in the unit, so it's important to understand those limitations to manage your expectations. I think it is also important to stand firm with what you want out of the project (within reason) and be prepared to increase your budget along the way for unforeseen circumstances.  

Be extra nice to your neighbors because they have to deal with the inconveniences of your renovation sometimes too! Although I love how it turned out, I would prefer not to go through it again because it was a very stressful process. My recommendation is to try to do it before you move in, if you can. I had been living in the apartment for several years prior to renovating, so that complicated things. —Christina, Murray Hill 

Insurance will cost you a pretty penny

When I purchased my large, one-bedroom apartment I knew I had a list of things I wanted changed. I wanted to remove the carpet, mirrored wall, and wallpaper and repair the sheetrock. I also wanted new doors, crown and baseboard molding and my popcorn ceilings encased in plaster. Turns out Prices in NYC for any renovation work are higher than almost anywhere else, because of the amount of insurance coverage contractors need to have just to step foot into most apartment buildings in New York City. 

Board rules must be followed exactly or you will have issues. I had to opt for renovations that didn’t touch the electrical or plumbing for the sake of expediency and because of my contractor’s insurance limits. Just to touch electrical or plumbing the board requires a $5 million policy. 

Still, I’d do it all again if the inflated cost of renovations would add to the resale value over the cost. Sometimes this isn't true in a fluctuating market. The kitchen, bathroom, and floors will need to be redone at some point but I needed to move in quickly, and architectural plans can take months to draw and approve. 

Covid introduced more restrictions such as disallowing multiple contractors working on the same floor at the same time. I also had popcorn ceilings which were not allowed to be scraped without asbestos testing and certification by the city, so I negotiated with the board to fully encapsulate with plaster instead of scraping or lowering the ceiling. —John, Midtown East

You get what you pay for

We purchased our 2,000-square-foot, four-bedroom, three-bath apartment three years ago. It was in original condition except the flooring. We wanted a lot of electrical work done. I was quoted five months and thankfully, that was accurate. 

I learned that you get what you pay for in terms of the contractor and materials, and it’s important to choose a contractor that knows your building. We chose one who did work on my neighbors’ apartment and had worked in the building a lot. This made things go smoothly with our board and management. We also hired an expeditor, which helped make process go smoothly. 

The only con:  I opted to use lower-quality cabinets and it shows. Overall, we are happy with the changes because it provided us a larger, more useful living space, which was especially important during the pandemic. —Nitu, Kips Bay  

Pace yourself

When I opted to renovate both a rental apartment in my two-family townhome and my own kitchen, the most important thing I learned about was material and labor costs. To keep things affordable, I did some of the work myself and hired a contractor for larger projects. 

A key lesson was to pace myself, take the time to get material samples, view them in the light of the space, and do a lot of research before beginning the project. 

I would totally do it again. I loved it. The planning, the design, seeing a room evolve. It’s great to see a project though from start to finish and enjoy the end product. Renovating has made my house a home. Ultimately, I realized you have to decide if you’re treating the place as an investment or your own home when considering what to upgrade. I live in my building and rent the garden apartment to tenants so my decision to upgrade all the common areas and my apartment to a high but manageable standard was easy. The garden apartment renovation was done tastefully but also with a focus more on return in investment. —Tim, Prospect Heights

Make sure your contractor will pay fines and penalties

We are almost done with a significant renovation on our townhouse in Brooklyn. We created a two-story addition. It's been a wild ride. Since DOB fines are fresh on our minds, here's a little note about that. Review your contractor’s contract and be sure that your contract includes a clause that indicates that the contractor will pay for all fines and penalties. 

After the job is done, and inspections are on their way, fines may still remain and they may still be fighting them with the DOB. We were waiting months to see if our contractor had any luck fighting a pretty unreasonable fine. But no luck. With the fines outstanding, we were unable to schedule a final inspection and unable to get our temp certificate of occupancy. 

If we were desperate to speed up the process, as per our contract, we could have handed over the thousands of dollars, and our contractor would have to refund us those payments. 

But fortunately, after the final hearing and getting the unfortunate news, our contractor appropriately paid off all the fines and we were able to move forward one giant step to finally being done with the project. There will always be fines, and it's necessary to expect them. Having it noted in the contact that there is appropriate recourse is important. Penalties aside, we love the house and are thrilled with how it turned out. Would we do it again on a different property? No. —Apolonia, East Williamsburg



Kelly Kreth

Contributing writer

Contributing writer Kelly Kreth has been a freelance journalist, essayist, and columnist for more than two decades. Her real estate articles have appeared in The Real Deal, Luxury Listings, Our Town, and amNewYork. A long-time New York City renter who loves a good deal, Kreth currently lives in a coveted rent-stabilized apartment in a luxury building on the Upper East Side.

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