Brownstone Boys Renovation: Squeezing Our Dreams Into Our Budget

Editor’s note: Welcome to the fourth 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

We’re in a holding pattern right now waiting for DOB approval to get out the sledgehammer. Our architect is doing a great job managing that, and our contractor is sidelined waiting for approval. So this downtime in physical work is a perfect opportunity for us to plan out our budget.

Our renovation is especially exciting because all of the projects are a product of a lot of our own dreaming. We’ve decided to use our vision, our plan, and our tastes for the design. Much of this came from inspiration over the course of the last couple of years. I think it can be summed up this way: We wanted to buy a brownstone, with original details, restore the history, and modernize the finishes.

Someone commented on our first post on Brownstoner and said they hoped that our story is not one of “a million dollar renovation with exotic finishes, super-expensive European appliances and the over-the-top bespoke stuff” but rather one that will be “relevant to readers.” That couldn’t be more the case. Words used by our contractor and architect to describe our budget are: “modest,” “tight,” and just straight-up “not enough.” But I’m confident we’ll get it done and this will be our dream home.

Our tastes are classic. We are going to keep it simple and we’ll need to find savings along the way. The key will be to splurge in a couple of areas so that our renovation seems high end, but stays within our “tight” budget.

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We’ve already scaled some things back to limit the construction and we may need to do that again. We’re going to try to be smart about buying with discounts. Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday are on the horizon and this is a perfect opportunity to take advantage of 20 to 50 percent off. We’ll need it!

We want to reproduce some high-end designs we’ve stalked, using less-expensive and discounted materials. It’s likely we’ll make compromises or put off some projects until after we move in. Despite our contractor’s warnings, we’ve settled on a plan and we think we can accomplish it, but if not we’ll adjust. But we do have priorities of things that have to get done.

Our building has a garden rental and a duplex on the parlor and third level. We’re leaving the garden rental as is (it’s in good shape) and renovating the duplex.

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Currently the duplex is configured as a five-bedroom with two bathrooms. The parlor level, as expected, has the living room next to the entrance (with original structural wall separating the entry and staircase that has original woodwork and other details remaining — see our previous post for that story). The kitchen is in the middle, then a non-original wall with a bedroom is in the back, with a full bath next to it.

The parlor level plan is to demo the existing kitchen, the wall between the bedroom and kitchen, the full bath, and the wall separating the bedroom and the bathroom.

After the demo we will have an open space from the front of the building to the back. The kitchen will go across the back of the building with the main water/gas wall on the wall where the bathroom was. A powder room will be next to the kitchen. The living and dining area will be one open space. We’re building a deck off the back, and popping in a glass door where there is now a window. We know this is an additional expense but we feel it will be worth it in the long run.

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Upstairs there are currently four bedrooms and a full bath. The plans are minimal. We’re moving one wall to create a larger master bedroom in the back, renovating the existing bathroom as the master bath, and creating a guest bath in the smallest bedroom that is over the vestibule.

A month ago I would have told you we were replacing all of the hardwood flooring and leveling the floors (they were replaced a few years ago with solid white oak flooring in a very light whitewashed finish that has to be changed). We were also going to create a larger opening in the back of the building for a glass slider.

But the budget has altered these two things as well as a few others. We are happily going to refinish the floors and live with a couple of slants (that will save us probably $20,000 to $25,000). It also gives us the advantage of not losing a lot of the original baseboards (which saves on that as well).

For the deck door, we are saving thousands by using the existing opening for the window and just having a single door rather than a slider (that saves us about $7,000 to $10,000 and a lot of annoying structural work).

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Those are the big overall projects. Some of the smaller things that we think will go a long way are: removing the carpet and restoring the stairs (who knows what’s under there), removing the baseboard heaters and installing radiators, and stripping the layers of paint off a lot of the woodwork, including the original interior window shutters.

We’ll also create some interesting features and nooks. For instance, at the top of the stairs in a place that can be seen as soon as you walk in, there is a door that leads to the closet where there is a ladder for roof access. It’s not the worst, but a good friend of ours (who designs spaces for a global clothing brand) suggested that we move that door around the corner and create a space to hang a great piece of art (or a bookshelf nook). It will cost a bit to do that, but I think the effect will be worth it.

So that is the overall scope of the project. We originally posted this without mentioning our actual budget. The reason why is because it’s still a little bit of a work in progress. We may need to adjust a bit. Several people have reached out wondering, mostly because they have their own projects and they are very curious about what others are spending (or targeting to spend).

As of now, not having actually started the project, we are trying to keep our renovation at or under $200,000. As we progress we’ll share details on each area one at a time.

[Photos by Brownstone Boys unless noted otherwise]

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Photo via Branca & Co.

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