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Inside Two First-Time Buyers' Renovation of a Brooklyn Condo

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Sometimes, the listings within a first-time buyer's price range are...less perfect than the buyer would like. One possible solution: a renovation. Here, recent first-time buyers Heath and Lindsay Fradkoff walk us through their renovation of a Brooklyn condo.

Our new Brooklyn condo lies just off Columbia Street and depending on who you talk to, we’re in Red Hook, Carroll Gardens or the “Columbia Street Waterfront District” (realtor-speak, ugh). We closed in August of last year and the place we’d bought had just about everything we’d been looking for. Character-wise, however, it was a bit lacking. The place hadn’t seen much renovation in a couple decades, and the previous owners had had three little kids to chase after and thus, other priorities.

We had to make the place our own. After working up a design with a friend who’s an architect, we blew out the walls, extended the kitchen, installed a breakfast bar and new cabinets, painted throughout, added crown molding, upgraded the electrical, and refinished the floors. The crowning touch was the wallpaper in our stairway, which is the first thing you see when you walk in, and remains visible from the living area.

As first-time homebuyers, we really had no idea what we were doing in getting into all this. We know a little more now. Here are a few of the lessons we’ve learned.

Start with a focal point
The moment we laid eyes on the place, we knew we had to demo the kitchen. We realized that expanding the cooking space would come at the expense of living room square footage. Our architect came up with the idea of a two-level countertop. Now, we have great counter space, as well as a breakfast bar. And we actually mounted our television on the backside of the new half-wall, with a built-in AV cubby beside it, allowing us to forego a bulky TV stand. It also discreetly tucks away the TV so it’s not front-and-center in our new open floorplan.

What IS front-and-center is the wallpaper, a bold print from Julia Rothman we bought from Hygge & West. We used four rolls for the space. At about $125 a roll this wasn’t the cheapest option, but we felt that this wall would be a focal point and decided to spring for it. The choice of pattern led us to the choice of paint color (a lighter shade of the blue found in the wallpaper). The paint color then led us to the soft grey couch, the couch led us to the chevron rug, and the yellow in the rug led us to the accent lighting?the bright yellow table lamps, and industrial pendants that hang in the stairwell next to the, yes, wallpaper. So start with one design choice, and let that lead the way. Also, we’d like to thank Pinterest. We couldn’t have done it without you. Xo.

Elevate the cheap with nicer finishing touches
Because we had just spent a lot on a down payment, we had a limited budget for renovation. Most of the kitchen came from IKEA ($5600 for cabinets, apron-front sink, countertops, open shelving, and under-cabinet lighting). However, we splurged on milk bottle pulls from Gracious Home (at about $15 a pull). When it came time to pick a backsplash, we found a really affordable mosaic tile from the otherwise-out-of-our-price-range Ann Sacks ($230 for 20 square feet). We got some gorgeous lighting from Hudson Valley, and did our best to personalize our IKEA kitchen.

If it sounds too good to be true, it most certainly is
(This one’s also a lesson for life, not just home remodeling.) We had bids from two companies suggested by our architect?the first she’d worked with before and was very reputable, but known to be a bit pricey. The second was one whose work she’d seen, but had never worked with directly. As you might expect, the bid from the first company came in way over our budget. The second came in under budget, with room for some extras. “Jackpot!” we thought. And thus began an important lesson, backed by this next one:

Properly vet your contractor
There are basically two kinds of contractors. The first is a person who takes your plans and sees them through to execution. He knows how long the various stages of the job will take and coordinates all the moving parts: finding talented workers and scheduling them; making sure they have all the equipment and supplies they need; juggling deliveries, permits and any necessary inspections. The second kind of contractor is a man who has a van, maybe some tools, and knows a few guys who work for cheap. We got the latter and we got burned.

Can’t stress this enough: it is so important to get the right contractor. When you’re looking at bids, see if you can get references from past clients. If you find your contractor through a friend who’s personally used them in the past, even better. Also, look carefully at what the bid does and does not include. This will give you some indication as to their attention to detail and what kind of contractor you’re working with.

All told, our contractor, um, complications included, but were not limited to: shoddy work, extensive delays, additional costs, and lastly, the complete abandonment of the project. Which brings us to:

Don’t be afraid to do small things yourself
Largely due to our MIA contractor and dwindling funds, we took on some of the smaller remaining projects ourselves. We saved labor costs and learned fun new things like working with caulk, the joys of wiring GFCI outlets, and lighting fixtures (important tip: turn the power off first!), and how to sand and stain a wooden handrail. Admittedly, this kind of work is not for everybody, but mostly anyone can hold a paintbrush and there’s definitely a feeling of accomplishment when you successfully finish a home project (even if you screw it up a couple times first?that’s what spackle is for).

Our wallpaper—the last project to finish—went up in December thanks to great work by John Parker of JP Interiors. We hosted a New Years Eve party to celebrate. On the whole, the benefits of renovating have far outweighed any headaches. Every day we come home to a place that feels custom-made for us.

· Open House Report: Sunday in the Life of a First-Time Buyer [Curbed]
· Rookie Roosts Week 2012 [Curbed]