The Homeowner Diaries: Clinton Hill

Editor’s Note: This is part of a new series in which Bolster’s homeowners are sharing their adventures in renovation first-hand. Today, a Clinton Hill homeowner describes how her panic over schools turned into a panic over space (or lack thereof).

Child too big, apartment too small

In the spring of 2016, pregnant with 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. We committed to raising kids in Brooklyn. We are fortunate to have friends with kids our age and wanted to lay down some roots. But, we had thought about parenthood in a deluded short term mentality. Babies. 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.

So it began

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. A home with walls like old friends who would hold up your idols, with floors that would support the moods, toys and footsteps of your life. The spaces that would frame the memories of your development. My mother sold the house I grew up in 20 years ago and I still dream of the nooks. The place where I secretly made graffiti with crayons, the smell of the tiny cedar closet in the attic, the stairs whose every step I knew the weak or strong spot of to sneak around. My husband and I wanted the door frame with lines measuring all the growth spurts. 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. We learned about the benefit of a central staircase (maximize width in front and back of house!), the feeling of a 15 foot wide next to a 20 foot wide (a unicorn in our budget), parking challenges, school zone ruts, tradeoffs between train access and school district, the importance of friend or school proximity versus commute, the availability of street parking, we learned to look for stripped wood vs. painted wood, what is worth salvaging what should be trashed, pros and cons of landmarked homes and on and on and on. 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 3 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 (what??) 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.  

Natural light streams through the parlor as the home is prepped for renovations.

Natural light streams through the parlor as the home is prepped for renovations.

Bonnie and Doug had moved there together in the ‘80s. Together they had done much of the renovation themselves. They’d stripped the lead paint off the door moldings and window frames, refinished the floors, built a deck, planted an apple tree, hung a basketball court, raised two kids of the same birth order and age distance as ours. The top floor bedroom had pennants from the college where my grandfather and uncle matriculated. Some of their holiday decor was specific to my own tradition.  It was a “when you know, you know” feeling in the moment. 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 Bonnie and Doug. 

Confusion sets in

Somewhere along the line someone had given me the book “Restoring a House in the City: A Guide to Renovating Townhouses, Brownstones, and Row Houses with Great Style” in which one of the homeowners had 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 scoured Brownstoner and renovation blogs. 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. 

While we relished being able to walk in our new kitchen without bumping into one another, overall 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 contractor who told us he could do it didn’t have an architect, he had an engineer. The architects we liked were unresponsive or way out of our budget. And where would we live through all of this? Old paint, plaster and stucco dust was not safe for our small kids to live through. And we couldn’t swing rent on top of mortgage and renovation costs.

The home features generous room proportions, including the large kitchen.

The home features generous room proportions, including the large kitchen.

These are all good problems to have. We are grateful for our home and the life we have made. However, we began to wonder if life in New York was worth it. If we chose another part of the country, we could have a second home for the cost of what the renovations were shaping up to cost. As the putty between the 100-year-old floorboards began to come up and dig into our feet and the thick summer heat seemed to jam our ceiling fans, we had some hard reckonings. Summer faded, leaves turned and finally while scouring Brownstoner I came across a piece about Bolster. 

The promise of clarity

As inexperienced first-time home owners (does a condo really count?) the Bolster promise instantly appealed to us. I made a call to get the details and Anna 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 architect Paul and contractor Chris, 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 garden level of the home was in need of some TLC.

The garden level of the home was in need of some TLC.

Trust

The following week a small team from the architect’s office 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. And again, we’d had an agreeable meeting with a pleasant team of people. 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. 

The rain begins

So we commenced with the detailed drawings and plans that we’d have to submit to Landmarks. Then one day in early January of 2017, after a particularly harsh freeze in which our furnace had broken down, we received three urgent calls from our babysitter. “It’s raining in the living room!” We rushed home to find the fire department there, having turned off the water main and identifying the source of the burst pipe. By then the damage had extended from the main floor into the garden rental, thankfully unoccupied. Shell-shocked, and without a list of “go-to” repairmen, we called our Bolster contractor Chris. He was there with a plumber in less than an hour. The plumber got up on a ladder, hammered through ceiling, took out the cracked pipe, cut and welded a new one, then replaced the pipe in no time. Already the responsiveness Bolster demonstrated reinforced our decision to work with them. 

The home features a delicately curved mahogany bannister and stairs.

The home features a delicately curved mahogany bannister and stairs.

A big reckoning

We set out filing an insurance claim. They immediately found temporary housing while we figured out the best plan of attack for the water damage. Cleaning crews arrived as we departed to remove the water damaged plaster and begin drying off and cleaning out the house.  A week later we took our kids for check-ups and were horrified to learn that they had elevated lead levels in their blood test. It wasn’t so high that we needed to medicate, but it scared us enough that we knew we couldn’t go back there with gaping holes in the walls and toxic dust floating everywhere. We 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, furniture packed from our temporary house, our dusty water damaged house, our office and we set out across the country to live with family while we remotely managed a house renovation.

From the Midwest.

One of the four bedrooms in the home, pre-renovation.

One of the four bedrooms in the home, pre-renovation.