Brownstone Boys: Getting a Reno Project Started

We tried to stay involved with our renovation so we understand each project

Editor’s note: Welcome to the 34th installment of Brownstone Boys Reno, a reader renovation diary. We’re excited to publish their tale of buying and renovating a brownstone in Bed Stuy. See the first one here. They also blog at www.thebrownstoneboys.com.

We’ve spoken with a lot of new homeowners who close on their place and then look at one another and think, “now what?!” How do we find a contractor? Do we need an architect? Where do we start? All questions we get weekly. Understanding even a little bit of the process can help relieve some of the stress of starting a new renovation.

It may seem obvious but the first thing we would suggest is to make a list of what you want to do. How many bedrooms do you need? Do you want to increase the square footage and build an extension? Are you moving the kitchen or the bathrooms? Are you opening up any walls? You’ll need to at least have a basic list of the scope of the work as you move forward and have other conversations.

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The last of the ceiling has been closed up

Another thing we usually suggest thinking about first is if you will need a project manager. We’re managing our own project and I would say we’re spending seven to 10 hours a week on it, if not more some weeks. There is so much to do even if you have a GC doing the heavy lifting. Some people just do not have the capacity (or possibly the knowledge) to manage their own project. That is where a project manager can come in. It’s good to make this decision first because they can also bring in a team (architect, GC, designers, other skilled tradesman), which can help as you will spend a lot of time trying to find the right people.

Whether or not you use a PM the next step would normally be to start interviewing architects and general contractors. Ask around for recommendations. Choosing the right GC might be the most important decision you make. If you can find someone who you know has done good work it can relieve a lot of stress and potentially avoid some frustrating problems. If you are using a PM they may have one or several GCs to work with.

Your meetings with general contractors will give you a lot of info about what you’re doing. For instance, if you’re removing walls what structural changes you need to make? Do you need new electrical and what is the status of the plumbing? If you are adding bathrooms, moving kitchens, building an addition or new level, what will be the structural implications?

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A Pinterest board can help out with so much

Before you choose a GC, you’ll also want to consult with an architect. If you’re moving any walls or changing the configuration you will most likely need to file with the department of buildings. In any case, an architect can offer some great advice on what needs to be done and what the costs will be. The architect will draw up the plans, facilitate the city filing, and can work directly with your GC. The architect and GC (and project manager if you are using one) are usually the first members of the team.

Are you confident in your design skills? If so, it is certainly possible to make all of your own design decisions. If not, you might want to consult with an interior designer. Remember there are so many little details to bring together that you might not think about yourself. An interior designer can help you realize your vision and will have ideas that wouldn’t have occurred to you.

Keep in mind that you might need to pull in other skilled tradesman along the way. In our renovation, we had to find someone who specializes in plaster moldings, wood stripping and custom woodwork. It was just outside of the scope of what our GC would be able to do. Before we’re finished I’m sure we’ll need to find some other specialists.

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This newel post is finally back to the original wood. It’s been a huge job requiring three craftspeople

Once you have the GC chosen and the architect working on the drawings, it is very important to get a good understanding of the timing of your project. You’ll need to consider where you’re going to live while it’s in progress. Anyone who has moved into a place before the renovation was complete would probably recommend against it. You don’t want to put yourself in a situation where you are stressing about rushing the finish. You will have delays. Plan for them, expect them, and they won’t cause as much stress.

We’re sure you started discussing budget from the very beginning, but based on the quotes you received from your GC and architect you can start fine tuning it. Keep in mind that the quote from your contractor will most likely not include the finishes. Cabinets, counters, tile, light fixtures, doors, bath fixtures and many many more things will need to be purchased. A project manager or an interior designer may be able to help with this part. We ordered everything ourselves and it took a considerable amount of time.

Give a lot of thought to your floor plan before you have the architect draw up the plans. Every change will cost money. Once the plan is approved by the DOB, changes will require filing an expensive amendment.

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We spent months shopping for product before purchasing our home so we could stay on schedule

Speaking of the DOB, this is one of the biggest headaches for renovators. Plan on the filing process taking a least two months (if handled properly). We recommend working with an architect who will personally go to the meeting with the plan examiner. In our situation, we think that saved a lot of back an forth and also may have avoided some objections.

In the few months that it will take to work with your architect and file with the city, start choosing your finishes. This will take a lot of time. Go to showrooms, start a few Pinterest boards, go to open houses, do whatever you can to try to understand what you like. This is where many people see delays in their project. Not from the city, or the contractor, but in making their own decisions. Remember that there will be a lead time for many items. Once you chose that tile you want it could take a month or even two to get it. If you don’t order it on time, or if you don’t order enough, that is where the delays can start adding up.

Having the opportunity to create your own space can be rewarding. We are constantly reminding ourselves that we will only have this opportunity once (or maybe twice…three times 😉 ) in a lifetime. It can be stressful and it is a lot of work, but remember as often as you can to enjoy the process and have fun with it. We’re about a month out from finishing the ground work (fingers crossed!) and using this time to reflect on our first home together. We’re very excited!

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