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Part 2: Assembling a home renovation dream team

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“Who cared about tiny turquoise bathrooms and having kitchen counters as long as the lights stayed on and the toilet flushed?”

Devon Banks

You never want to see your inspector’s face fall.

By the time Tim Curran showed up at the Ridgewood house, two days after our accepted offer, we felt like old friends. After all, he had inspected the Bushwick house whose seller ghosted us only a month earlier. (He gave us a discount, knocking $50 off the $850 fee the second time around.)

We hung on every word anxiously. “Brick is way better,” he told us. We beamed.

In the basement, he thwacked the main beam with his screwdriver and pronounced the house structurally sound. We exhaled.

We had been told to turn and run at the sign of any structural problems. The basement, Tim said, was incredibly dry. We took it as a personal compliment. Then he saw the thick pipe running up along the party wall and grimaced.

“That’s the main stack,” he said sadly. The lead pipe that carried waste down from all of the plumbing in the house was pockmarked, and it was deteriorating. “You're looking at a plumbing bill of $30,000 to $50,000.” We shuddered wordlessly. Silence. “But you guys are redoing the bathrooms anyway, right?”

We had no idea what we could afford to do. But that lead pipe was not going to stand the way of our dreams.

“Of course we are,” I said.

Devon Banks

He was right about the plumbing bill. (He was right about everything, actually.) Old houses are a paradox of fragility and sturdiness, and when you find out everything that’s wrong with one, you wonder how people lived there so blithely all these years.

We knew the house had old knob-and-tube, cloth-wrapped wiring that was a conflagration in the making. Now we knew it needed all new plumbing. There were ugly, hulking oil tanks in the basement—which we planned to turn into an art studio for my partner and an office for me—that cried out for conversion to cleaner, more efficient natural gas. We told ourselves that we would be lucky if we had enough money just to replace all the mechanicals. Who cared about tiny turquoise bathrooms and having kitchen counters as long as the lights stayed on and the toilet flushed?

Thanks to our brilliantly efficient lawyer, Jon Skolnick, and the fanatically devoted mortgage broker he recommended, we closed just under two months later, a miracle by New York standards. On the morning of the closing, for the customary walk-through, the owners teared up on the stoop and told us they’d had several happy decades in the house and hoped we would have the same.

By this time, we were getting used to numbers that once would have terrified us. Rob, our energetic mortgage broker, told us our credit scores qualified us for a better loan than the FHA loan we thought was our only choice (good for first-time homebuyers because you can put less down; harder to find homes in New York City that fall within the lending limits; sucks to get stuck with private mortgage insurance). We settled on an 80/10/10 piggyback loan: a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage and a 10 percent home equity line of credit with a variable rate. The upshot was that we could put down 10 percent ($95,000) and keep the rest for renovation. (Well, “the rest,” after nearly $40,000 in closing costs.)

Our hope was to move into the top unit as soon as possible while renovating the first-floor apartment. By this time, we figured we had a renovation budget of around $130,000, possibly more as we went along. Three-quarters of the total budget came from our pockets, mostly revenue from my work, which had grown since we had started looking.

Full disclosure: My partner’s parents contributed around $20,000 to our down payment and my parents pledged $50,000 over the course of the renovation. It wasn’t the difference between whether we could do this crazy thing or not, but it made a huge difference in how much we were able to do all at once.

If we had money left over after replacing the mechanicals, we wanted to knock down the wall between the kitchen and the dining room, maybe cut a door from the first floor to the backyard so we wouldn’t have to go to the basement to access the outdoors. That would mean permits, filing, licensed professionals, possibly structural engineers, all phrases that terrified us because they came with dollar signs.

It would be expensive, but it would pay off in the long term, considering we planned to get tenants as soon as possible and stay as long as possible. When the construction dust settled and we had tenants paying market rent, our monthly payment would still be about $1,000 below what we had paid in our rental, without the major hikes that could come with renting. And we’d have a duplex with workspace, a backyard, growing equity, and the benefit of the mortgage interest tax deduction.

But we had no idea how long it would take us, or how much, to get to that ideal state. All of the Googling “how much does it cost to replace a main stack” in the world would get us nowhere. Once the panic that the deal would fall apart subsided, a new freakout replaced it. We needed a team.

I always half-rolled my eyes at real estate listings that said “Bring your architect.” It sounded impossibly high-flown, perhaps aimed at the type of people who traveled with an entourage of servants. But let me say this flat-out: The best thing we ever did for our renovation was hire an architect. If a friend exhausted from years of incremental renovating hadn’t insisted that we would save money in the end if we sprung for an architect, we would probably still be couch surfing and paying a mortgage on an uninhabited construction site. The cliche that time is money never felt realer than when we were about to start paying rent and mortgage at the same time.

One architect we wrote to, whose work was constantly praised in the press for making magic with less, flatly told us our budget was too low for a phone conversation. Another gamely came out to Ridgewood and then broke our hearts by telling us we couldn’t live in the upstairs apartment during renovation. His firm worked hourly, but offered ballparks: $20,000 for drawings alone, double that for construction administration, plus an extra $5,500 for the licensed architect at the firm to file the job, not counting filing fees or paying the expeditor. Over a third of our total budget. Guess we weren’t hiring an architect after all!

Even before closing, having been guaranteed three site visits in our sale contract, we posted on Sweeten and Googled and asked around, and I obsessively looked at the portfolios of hundreds of architects on Houzz. My ideal: A young architect who was looking to make his or her name and thus could maybe offer us a good deal; ideally someone who didn’t turn up his or her nose at Queens but still had an urbane aesthetic.

Houzz led us to Otto Ruano, the head of LEAD Architecture and Design. Otto had grown up in Bushwick, just blocks away, and now lived and worked in Ridgewood, walking distance from our house. He was young, and we liked his stuff, even if some of it was more minimalist than our own taste. At the first meeting, we clicked instantly.

He would charge 15 percent of our budget—that is, 15 percent of what we paid the other contractors and the appliances and finishes we purchased ourselves. In exchange he would not only develop a design, draw it, and file it, but would help us hire a contractor and oversee the construction with weekly meetings. That would be 15 percent less that we would have for actual construction, but we bet that it would be worth it in value.

The new, spiffed-up layout of the Ridgewood rowhouse. The street-level entry leads into a hallway with the main apartment entrance straight ahead. The second-floor rental unit is accessible up the stairs in the foyer.
LEAD Studio/Otto Ruano
Layout of the second-floor rental unit, with the bedroom facing the street and the kitchen and dining areas looking out over the rowhouse’s backyard.
LEAD Studio/Otto Ruano

It was almost November. We’d already told our landlord we would move out of our apartment on December 1. We’d use our own house as a storage unit to save money, and we’d lined up some housesitting and catsitting gigs through Christmas. Despite the architect who had told us it was foolhardy to live upstairs during the renovation, our plan depended on living in what would be the rental unit, which just needed new electric and maybe stripping about a hundred years of wallpaper. So there was just one thing we needed to know before we signed the contract.

“And… do you think we can live upstairs during the renovation?”

Otto made a “duh” face. “Obviously. What, you want to pay rent and mortgage at the same time for three months?”


Next week, on Renovation Diary:

An updated project budget, and getting closer to a dream kitchen with some strategic compromises.