What’s the difference between cosmetic, partial, and gut renovations?

When you hear the term “gut renovation,” what, exactly, do you think of? For some, the term may conjure a bare-bones apartment, stripped down to the risers, with wires and pipes poking this way and that. But would it surprise you to know that not all gut renovations look, for lack of a better way of putting it, like you’ve taken all the guts out of the space?

Below, we’re discussing the three types of renovation projects homeowners may choose to embark on here in New York City, depending on their budget and lifestyle: cosmetic renovations, partial renovations, and gut renovations.


What is a cosmetic renovation?


The name here is fairly revealing. A cosmetic renovation is a very light-touch and typically less expensive project. The work that goes into this type of upgrade can involve touch-ups like painting, decorating, or adding some cute new shelves for that book collection that just keeps growing. No plumbing or electric is disturbed, and the layout remains untouched. And the key here is that a cosmetic renovation requires zero permits at all.

DIY renovators and intrepid homeowners often embark on these sorts of projects with limited input from professionals, since there are no regulatory bodies that dissuade a homeowner from painting her bedroom bright orange.


What is a partial renovation?


Again, as the name suggests, a partial renovation is a midway point in renovation projects. Here is when homeowners are likely to engage professionals and contractors to assist with bringing their vision to life and managing permitting processes. Unlike a cosmetic renovation, you don’t get to partially renovate your NYC apartment without paperwork––you’ll need to file a Limited Alteration Application with the Department of Buildings.

Partial renovations often focus on one or two spaces within the larger whole of the apartment––and more often than not, it’s the kitchen that many homeowners choose to upgrade. With so many pre-war apartments that feature tiny, cramped kitchens once meant for “the help,” it’s no wonder that kitchens are often the focal point for many NYC renovation projects. Plus, New Yorkers like to eat, drink, and socialize...and what better place to do that than in the kitchen. ;)

Many partial renovations feature appliances upgrades that include (but are not limited to) dishwashers, stoves, and sinks. Typically, the layout of the space remains the same in a partial renovation, but many homeowners may choose to open a non-load-bearing wall or move a few outlets around for a more convenient electrical layout.


What is a gut renovation?

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Above: a Bolster gut renovation in Downtown Brooklyn


Gut renovations, Bolster’s bread and butter, require a lot more heavy lifting (both literally and figuratively.) The crucial differentiation between gut renovations and other projects is the permitting requirements involved in such endeavors.

For gut renovations, homeowners will need to work with their professionals (their architect and their contractor) in order to file the appropriate paperwork with the Department of Buildings, secure approval from the building’s co-op or condo board based on the alteration agreement, and, if necessary, liaise with the Landmarks Commission if the property is in a protected and historic building or neighborhood.

Gut renovations typically include a major layout change to the apartment such as building a second bedroom or opening a fairly subdivided space for a roomier, more loft-like layout. At the point at which the homeowner is stripping their space down to the risers, many buildings will ask that the work include an update to the electrical and plumbing. The theory behind this is that buildings have a keen interest in maintaining the infrastructure of their properties––and if a homeowner is already that thoroughly “in the weeds,” the homeowner may as well take the extra step to update the inner-workings of their space.

However, gut renovations can be smaller in scope and only touch one room of the apartment. Confused yet? Somewhere, someone is reading this and thinking, “but I thought you said renovating one room usually counts as a partial renovation!” And, dear reader, the answer to that question is… not always.

The humble bathroom is often what we call a “swing room,” due to the complexity of the infrastructure required to pipe in all that precious hot water and run your toilet, sink, shower, and tub. Adding to the complexity is the rule of “wet over dry” that restricts homeowners from constructing a space with running water over a downstairs neighbor’s dry bedroom or living room. The theory here is to avoid water leaks and damages to those below you––and to avoid a lawsuit.

Making changes in the current bathroom, however, may bring a project into the realm of a gut renovation. If a homeowner wants to swap their bathtub for a standing shower, the homeowner will likely need to rip up the pre-existing tile in order to accommodate the change. And, at that point, you’re down to the risers.

Following the rules of infrastructure maintenance, buildings will often use this opportunity to ask that homeowners update the plumbing and electric. So thus, voila! One humble room earns the project the title of gut renovation.

And finally, if you’re a New Yorker in possession of a loft space, chances are that you’ll need to embark on a gut renovation if you ever want to put any major work into updating the space. Why? The simple answer is that most city lofts have illegal components, based on the history of how these spaces, once intended for manufacturing and warehousing, were often converted into living spaces during a time without much regulation or oversight. Thus, if you want to update your loft, we can assure you that the Department of Buildings will need to be involved––and the price tag on this project will be fairly steep.

About Us

Bolster is a data-driven team of experts on a mission to eliminate risk from major home renovations by being radically transparent across everything we do. We hire the industry’s best talent and use a continual improvement process to financially guarantee that your major home renovation is designed and built beautifully, on-time and on-budget. From the first sketch to the final handshake, our homeowners know the cost of every line item and have full visibility into project milestones.