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Renovations 101: Need-To-Knows Before Fixing Up Your Home

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Curbed University delivers insider tips and non-boring advice on how to buy, sell, or rent a home or apartment. Additional questions welcomed to tips@curbed.com. Today's topic: the basics of renovating your NYC home!

It's New York City, so manifold layers of laws and legal red tape, plus some extra rules and regulations on top of those, go with the territory. That's why it's best to have a little bit of background knowledge before you take a sledgehammer to those cabinets you've always hated, or the wall that's standing in the way of building an extra bedroom. First things first: Before you even attempt to find out if you need a permit from the city or embark upon the long process to procure one, find out what your building's rules are. Whether they're dictated by a board or a management company, you need to know their guidelines?sometimes before you even paint your place.

"See what they are as far as work hours, as far as insurance policies, as far as moratoriums on construction?if it can't occur during holiday periods," says RJ Diaz, a longtime contractor and manager of construction projects who runs a blog called Renovating NYC. "Sometimes tenants are only given six months to complete a project. Sometimes it has to be phased, so it's not a continuous project and happens over a year. Hyper-local rules, meaning your own building's, are in effect that may affect what you can do." Grand plans can be stymied from day one. All too often, Diaz adds, you can't move kitchens or bathrooms if they are in a stack of kitchens and bathrooms of all the other apartments in your building, as is often the case in New York.

Once you are familiar with the initial hoops through which you must jump, then figure out whether your renovation is basic or more complicated. "Those that are simple do not involve removal or construction of partitions or walls. For instance, a replacement of kitchen cabinets, counters, or appliances, without any partition or wall changes, or a replacement of bathroom fixtures on existing roughing or with the same piping and in the same location as originally built. These will still need co-op or condo board approval but not necessarily LPC [Landmarks Preservation Commission] or a building permit," explains Carlo Zaskorski of Zaskorski & Notaro Architects, who has 30 years' worth of experience renovating condo and co-op apartments as well as townhouses. Painting and molding adjustments also fall under this category.

But if your dream home involves changing walls or partitions, demolishing or removing them, constructing new ones, adding new plumbing, adjusting the electrical system in a big way (requiring more power, adding new air-conditioning).... then hold up, because you're definitely going to need a permit from our favorite government department, the Department of Buildings. (And, FYI, here is their basic guide to construction.) But before you bury yourself in paperwork, remember to check whether your building is landmarked, or even if it's located in a historic district as designated by the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission. If so, then you'll have to apply for a permit from them before you can get an OK from the DOB, and that's all while getting another approval from your building's own board or management. Whew.

All right, as much as watching HGTV or reading blogs is going to help you gear up for a renovation, unless the retooling is extremely minor, you're going to need a professional to help. Small-scale projects can be handled by an interior designer or decorator, while more ambitious overhauls need the trained eye of an architect or a contractor or (usually) both. Upside: Most will be willing to do a free consultation to help you figure out if your vision and your budget are a match; downside: this ain't gonna be no DIY project.

Zaskorski recommends making sure that whoever you choose to work with has experience with whatever type of project you want to do and whatever kind of building you live in. Don't go for a guru consistently converts 1BRS into 2BRs when what you really want is a state-of-the-art kitchen with all the latest bells and whistles in your 1920s townhouse. (Let's pretend, shall we?) Sitting down with your designer, decorator, architect, and/or contractor is crucial; make sure there's a detailed plan on paper, down to every last outlet and fixture, and work with the crew to keep it on track and on budget.

Timelines can be longer than you'd think?and except for very small, very contained jobs, many tenants will need to move out while construction is being done, says Diaz. Even the smallest projects will take 6-8 weeks, he adds, with one- and two-bedroom whole-apartment renovations taking a year and townhouse ones typically taking two. For a rough estimate, start with 6-8 weeks of work per room, and add an additional two weeks for every additional room that's getting a makeover.

And now, for the cost. Zaskorski says that very rough estimates depend on the scope or quantity of work as well as its overall quality (the level of the finishes, the quality of plumbing fixtures, etc.). Here's the ballpark: renovations in NYC could be as low as $75/square foot and balloon up to $500-plus/square foot, with total bills amounting to between $100,000 and $500,000, and up.

As always, there are nitty-gritty can't-forget details, like making sure to check the walls for concealed utility pipes, which Zaskorski says is essential. The Brick Underground blog lists several other unexpected (and costly) challenges, from the availability of parking for the contractor and crew to the importance of doling out little tips to keep work running smoothly, that regularly arise in New York City home construction. Godspeed, first-time renovators.
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