Brownstone Boys: Renovation Dos and Don’ts

A historic renovation will always be a work in progress. Photo by Bridget Badore

Editor’s note: Welcome to the 64th installment of Brownstone Boys Reno, a reader renovation diary about renovating a brownstone in Bed Stuy. See the first one here. They also blog at

Now that Phase 1 is complete in our renovation, we can look back and wonder what we would have done a little differently. It also helps clarify a list of dos and don’ts that can ensure a smooth renovation. Truthfully, since our brownstone was built in 1890 there will always be a project to work on. It’s just as much a hobby as a home. So this might be more of a look back in the middle of the process rather than the end. We hope our list is a helpful resource for anyone pondering a renovation. Let us know if you have any to add.

Make sure you have the right team (contractor, architect, specialists). It’s one of the first things you’ll do. You’ll obviously be spending a lot of time with these people. Make sure they understand the project, have the skills needed, have a good track record, and are easy to communicate with.

Make sure you have the right floor plan/layout that works. Spend time making sure the new floor plan works well for you and your family. It’s a lot of hard work to switch things around mid renovation.


We spent months searching for the perfect team who fit within our budget

Get together a solid budget and leave room for contingency. There are a lot of surprise expenses that can blindside a renovator. And we’re not just talking about the surprises when you open up the walls. Some decisions you make in the design phase can dramatically impact the budget. Making large structural changes can require the need for a structural engineer and may further require a construction superintendent. HVAC plans may call for a mechanical engineer. And of course construction expenses can add up very quickly. Be prepared to set your priorities and create a budget that leaves room for the inevitable surprises. Depending on the size of your renovation, set aside a contingency of 10 to 20 percent of your renovation budget.

Make sure your architect really knows your budget. It sounds like a given but we have seen architects get carried away. They can make amazing suggestions and plans for things that are just way out of scope.

Get three to five quotes from contractors. You’ll learn something with every walkthrough you have with a contractor. Quotes can vary greatly. Some contractors have crews of their own rather than subs for certain things which can lower costs. Some have more experience in areas that might especially help in your project. You could easily see some quotes come in double from others. Getting three to five quotes will help you understand the full range and put you in the best position to choose the quote that works for your project (hint: That is often not the cheapest one).

Plan on lots of things taking longer than you expect. City approvals, landmarks approvals, plumbing inspections, finishes selection, material delivery…etc. Things along the way will create delays. If you expect them and build in extra time, it will be much less stressful.


It’s better to have your finishes and fixtures on site early and ready to be installed rather than late

Find some projects that can be started before demo begins. Get the specialists in before. The two- to three-month design and approval stage can be a frustrating wait of inactivity. It’s also time that can be used to get a head start. Wood stripping, stained glass restoration, roof repair, brick repointing, etc. are examples of projects you can take on before permits. (Obviously consult your architect and contractor to be sure.)

Put some thought into the electrical plans (lighting, switches and outlets). This is one of the areas you may inevitably end up wishing you made some changes. Are all of the switches in places that make the most sense for you? Are there outlets exactly where you need them?

Organize your inspiration photos so you have a good sense of what you want. For many people, going through a renovation will require making more decisions in a short period of time than any other time in their life! It will take time and you’ll want to think things over as much as possible. Start organizing your thoughts early so that you know what you want later.


We made the mistake of not reviewing our electrical plans closely enough and ended up with a light switch on the wrong side of the door

Have at least weekly meetings with contractor team but remember they need their space to work. Hopefully you selected a contractor who is easy to communicate with and responsible enough to provide some autonomy. You likely won’t be on site daily, but it’s a good idea to set a weekly walkthrough to review what has been done the previous week, what issues have come up, and what will be done over the following week. At the same time, it’s probably not the best idea to micromanage your contractor on a daily basis. You want them to work smartly and efficiently and should be able to trust them to get the job done. If you don’t then you might not have the right team.

Order finishes with proper lead times and the right quantities. Some finishes have longer lead times than others. If you don’t order enough of that custom tile to finish your bathroom you might have a six- to eight-week wait for more (whoops!).

Make sure all holes are sealed when the walls are open. OK, this is the one place we will micromanage our contractor. We need to see that all holes are sealed tight before cabinetry is installed and around plumbing. This is New York City and something will find its way in if there are any gaps.

Go on a vacation to escape for a couple days. We recommend somewhere tropical.


Live in a construction zone. We know it’s tempting. Budget is tight and a months long camping trip in your own house might sound fun, but the process can be stressful and this can easily cause it to spill over into unmanageable.

Have a hard deadline to finish. Lease expiring, previous home sold, baby arriving…etc. if you give yourself a hard deadline to have to finish the project with no backup plan, your level of stress and relationship with your contractor (and probably your partner or spouse!) will be pushed to its limits. It will likely be worth the expense to have some lease overlap, etc., so you have some breathing room.

Get too many subcontractors involved. Try to find a contractor who can do as many things as possible to avoid having to coordinate with too many other service providers.

Use all “off-the-shelf” finishes. Get something unique in the space. To control budget and timing there are a lot of standard finish items that are great, but make sure you get creative with some custom or just upgraded pieces to give your renovation some interest.


Patching floors where walls have moved

Change your mind and your plan throughout the process. It’s one of the biggest causes of delays. Changing finishes, configuration and plans mid renovation will slow things down to a crawl. Make decisions early so that you have time to let them sink in so that any changes are made well before that phase starts.

Put off work that can easily be done while walls are open and unpainted. Budget might require you to push some items to future projects, but make sure it’s things that make sense to do once the main renovation is complete. Some common examples of what not to do are adding air conditioning or moving walis. You will destroy a lot of recently finished walls and floors. If your walls are opened, this is the time to hide the wiring and cables. Before the floors are finished is the time to move walls. Before the walls are closed up is the time to put in new plumbing. Maybe some better things to put off are adding new windows or putting on that steel deck. Those are things that likely won’t require you to undo what’s already been done.

Wow, that is a lot! But there is always more! Going through a renovation can be a rewarding experience but can also be difficult and stressful. Fortunately there are many things you can be aware of before the process starts to make it go as smoothly as possible. We hope this helped.

[Photos by Brownstone Boys unless noted otherwise]

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