5 Tips for the First-Time Renovator

So you’ve survived the home-buying process and scored your first fixer-upper. Now, you just have to figure out what to do, how to do it, who to hire—and how much it will cost.

Corcoran associate broker Sydney Blumstein has gone through it all—from co-op board headaches to unforeseen design changes—after purchasing (and then renovating) a one-bedroom co-op in the East Village.

Here, Blumstein shares her top tips for a successful renovation the first-time around:

1. Be Realistic About Your Priorities—and Your Budget

Determining a realistic budget is the first big hurdle for the novice renovator.

“I always tell my clients to live in their homes for three to six months before undertaking renovation projects,” Blumstein says. “During that time, they should make a running list of the changes that mean the most to them and use it as a prioritization guideline.”

Once you’ve researched the typical costs in your area for your priority projects, you will get a sense of the numbers. “Remember,” cautions Blumstein, who exceeded her own budget by $55,000, “you’ll likely go over-budget by 30 percent to 50 percent, and completion time will be two times longer than what you had anticipated—unless you get lucky.”

2. Choose the Right Contractor for You

Finding the right contractor is perhaps the most formidable task for any renovation. Mine your contacts for recommendations, consult home renovation and design platforms like Houzz, and ask contractors for references and before-and-after photos of their work.

Keep in mind that the lowest bid may not be the best one—finding a professional who isn’t full of empty promises and who will actually bring your project to fruition is worth paying a little more.

Blumstein went with a contractor who gave the lowest quote and got burned. “Many of the jobs my low-end contractor completed had to be redone, which ultimately cost me more time, energy and money—and my project took four times longer to complete,” she says.

To avoid disappointment, agree to a timeline, trade contact info, and get everything in writing before the demolition begins. Schedule regular meetings at the site—and remember: Any changes will likely increase the cost and push back the completion date.

3. Follow Building Rules

Whether you’re overhauling a master bath in a townhouse or simply correcting out-of-date wiring in your co-op apartment, you must obtain proper permits and follow building rules—or face the consequences, including a fine and a stop-work order.

Since no two buildings have the same rules, get a copy of yours in advance. There may be rules prohibiting work on weekends and/or holidays, and if your neighbors are doing renovations, you may have wait in line for your turn. Co-ops are especially rigorous when it comes to renovations.

“With a co-op, you’re buying into community ownership, so any of your changes impact everyone in the building, especially in terms of apartment valuations,” Blumstein says. “Be sure to disclose your entire plan to the board upfront.”

4. Unlock Your Home’s Potential

A home’s beauty may be hiding in plain sight. Prewar properties often offer sought-after details like built-ins, crown moldings, tin ceilings, and working fireplaces, which may not be hidden behind layers of paint and plaster. Blumstein suggests making small, clean exploratory holes in walls and ceilings to see what’s what. (You can also snake a wireless inspection scope through said holes for a clearer picture of what lies beneath.)

“Preserve those unique details and unusual elements,” Blumstein says. “They’re the aspects that buyers remember.”

If your home is lacking in some of these features, you can “fake” original details by sourcing reclaimed and architectural-salvage materials from Big Reuse or similar businesses.

5. Know Your Numbers

Don’t underestimate the power of a good cosmetic facelift, if your budget gets blown by the need to bring plumbing up to code or repair structural issues.

Design elements such as subway tile, modern light fixtures, unique cabinet pulls, peel-and-stick wallpaper and new appliances (have you seen KitchenAid’s new matte-black line?) are chic-yet-affordable options that provide instant gratification—not to mention a fresh coat of paint.

“Sometimes,” says Blumstein, “Cleaning up a space is easier than gutting it.”

Another budget-stretching strategy is to “consider what’s existing and how it can be repurposed or reused.” Instead of all new kitchen cabinets, you could pair existing Ikea cabinet boxes with fronts from Semihandmade and Kokeena.

Real estate is about gut instincts, but the numbers matter, too. “If you fall in love with a home but hate the kitchen, know that a $20,000 improvement can lead to roughly $50,000 in growth of the assets value in the future,” Blumstein says. Good numbers, indeed.

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