There’s a first time for everything: riding a bike, starting a new job, trying that spicy dish on the menu, or maybe even buying your first apartment. But not all firsts are as straightforward as others — purchasing your first pair of winter boots (an absolute requirement here in NYC) is likely an easier process than...renovating your entire home.
When it comes renovations, you’re going to want to get the job done right — particularly if you’re making the long-term financial investment to create a more beautiful and functional space to lay your head each night. But there’s no need to be intimidated! Because we believe knowledge is power, we’ve put together a handy guide for first-time renovators. You’re about to become an expert in the three major component parts of any major project: design, compliance, and construction.
To take our NYC home renovation guide on the go, download the printable version here.
The backbone of any great renovation is a solid design. Your vision goes from daydream to sketch to concrete and actionable plan. The key is to work hand-in-hand with a great architect who understands your lifestyle–and how to navigate the complexities of building beautifully (and intelligently) in a city as crazy as NYC. (In other words, don't go at this alone.)
Define your scope of work: Do you want more light, a second bathroom, or a kitchen refresh? Establishing specific goals will help you prioritize your scope of work, separating the must-haves from the nice to haves.
Establish a maximum all-in budget: This means everything – from appliances and storage to mortgage carrying costs and alternative housing (if needed). Think of it as a renovation + lifestyle budget. Keep this figure to yourself – nobody else needs to know it.
Establish a target renovation budget: This is the cost to cover design, construction and compliance, and it’s the cost you will eventually share with your professional team. Think of this as the renovation cost only.
Choose your professional team: We hope it’s us. :)
Test your target renovation budget and scope with your team: Stress-testing is a key step that will help you design to budget. Ask questions like “can this be done within my budget,” or “how can we do this right, but for less?” If your budget isn’t working, this is the right time to know!
Understand your design proposal: Know the breadth and limitations of your architect’s design, and ensure your architect knows your expectations. Do you want to go shopping for finishes on your own, or do you want to be guided through showrooms? Establish a working process, because communication is key.
Sign the design contract: It’s all coming together!
Design development: You and your architect will firm up timelines and action plans. Your architect will also manage compliance documentation with the DOB, Landmarks and your board or building management.
You know what you want to build, how you want to build it, and you’re working in tandem with your team. Congratulations, you have a realistic project. Hooray! Now let’s talk about the white elephant in the room: the red tape involved to make your dream a reality. Compliance can often be the most frustrating aspect of a renovation. And, naturally, it can effectively determine the success or downfall of your project.
The alteration agreement: This is the contract that tells you what you can and can’t do in your building. If you live in a co-op or condo, you’ll likely need one of these. If you own a brownstone or townhouse, check to see if you’re in a landmark district and the type of occupancy you have.
To join or not to join: If you live in a co-op or a condo, and depending on your project, it may be smart to join the board. Time to make some new friends!
Do your homework: Understanding how your board thinks is critical to the success of your project. Just because the board has previously approved a similar project doesn’t necessarily mean yours will be a slam dunk.
Wait, still more homework: If you don’t live in a landmark district, your process will be a bit easier. Your architect will ensure your project is up to code to attain DOB approval. They’ll also ensure your project meets the building requirements to get board approval.
Work it out with the building architect: The building architect is the board-hired expert who is tasked with giving an unbiased review of your renovation. Building architects will sometimes request design changes to your plan in order to satisfy board requirements. Note that it’s often the applicant (that means you) who must pay the building architect fees, so it’s a good idea to finalize changes as efficiently as possible.
The Department of Buildings: The DOB can still raises issues with your design at this point. Let your architect handle any bumps in the road.
Time to get building: Once you have DOB and board approval, you can commence the build. Pro tip: never begin work without having both approvals in place.
Special inspections: During the build, third party inspections ensure all construction is done according to code. Your architect will coordinate these special inspections to keep it all compliant.
Depending on who you ask, this is the most exciting part of the process. New floors! Knocking out walls! The smell of cut pine! Sure it’s fun, but it’s also the most challenging phase, from an operational perspective. In other words, you’re not going to want to do this alone. We urge you to leave it to the professionals, because in NYC, the financial implications of shoddy construction can be astronomical.
That contract must be nailed down: Ensure your final estimate is included in your contract and names a fixed price.
Your contractors should be in the know: Your team should know the lay of the land. They must understand the level of protection your building requires.
Insurance is key: Double check to confirm your team has the right level of insurance across the board, all the way through trades. If not, you could be on the hook to foot the bill if anything goes wrong.
Don’t forget those pesky permits: Your team must pull the right permits before a single nail gets...nailed. Beginning work without permits could have some nasty consequences, courtesy of City Hall.
Don’t be shy: Periodically, you should meet with your architect and contractor at your home-in-progress. Remember that construction is a living organism, so things are going to look rough from time to time. Feel free to make small changes or suggestions at this point. Better to make adjustments now than long after the paint has dried.
Punch list: You and your architect will take a tour at the end of the build to ensure everything is ship-shape. And if it’s not? Here’s where you make a punch list of outstanding items. Be detailed about what’s not to your liking so that you can work with your contractor to make it right.
Take a breather: Take some time to tuck in and enjoy things. Lie down on the floor, poke around, take a turn about the room. We’re done! Just note that during the first year, your home might take some time to adjust, particularly if you live in a brownstone. You should negotiate a year-long warranty for any odds and ends to be repaired as things settle.
Feeling like a home renovation expert? We hope so!