When it comes to New York City real estate, there’s nothing else out there like a brownstone. Despite their high costs and renovation difficulties, they’re still arguably the most coveted real estate in the whole of NYC. One reason they’re so desirable is that they’re infinitely customizable. Unlike co-ops, condos, or regular apartments, brownstones can be adjusted when needed to suit your individual needs as they change over your lifetime. It makes them perfect for people looking for a home to spend their golden years in. Let’s not forget either the beautiful ornate architectural details so many come with, that you won’t find anywhere else. Lastly, there’s the advantage of all the space they provide in an otherwise crowded city. Whatever your reasons for wanting a brownstone are, they’re sure to meet and exceed those needs and wants.
But with that said, they also present significant challenges. Especially considering that many are sold as-is and require extensive renovations. Brownstone renovations can be highly time-consuming and require a large budget. Whether you’re already about to close on your new brownstone or still on the fence about buying and renovating one, this full guide will give you a picture of what lies ahead.
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What to Consider When Renovating a Brownstone
Even if you’re only vaguely familiar with NYC brownstones, you’ll at least know they don’t make buildings like these anymore. Many brownstones are over 100 years old and will have to be modernized if they’re to suit the needs of a 21st-century family. Of course, the cost of these renovations will be the first thing that comes to your mind. But before we get to that, here are some things to consider before starting a brownstone renovation project.
It may take some time
Anyone jumping into a brownstone renovation needs to understand the time commitment they require entirely. A significant project like this is a bit like climbing a mountain. You have to plan and prepare for several months before you can start. Then, once do you start, it’s an uphill battle that can test the patience of even a saint. If you plan to also live there through the renovation, then expect some stressful times. Acknowledging this ahead of time will make the eventual climb much easier.
If you’re going for a full gut renovation, then you should expect it to take at least a year, probably more. On average, the design phase can take about four months. You’ll be working closely with your architect to assess your priorities, draw up plans, and submit them for approval. Coding violations or landmark issues can slow this down. Once the work itself is ready to begin, it can take another eight months, depending on the scale of the project. Talk this all through with your architect to access how long it will take. Expect delays and a few road bumps along the way.
You’ll need time to get used to brownstone living
Many homeowners who are new to brownstone living require some time to get used to it. If you’re moving from a small apartment, then the level of space you’ll gain can be a bit overwhelming at first. Families, in particular, often feel like it’s too luxurious to have a whole floor assigned to each family member. Then there’s the long-ingrained New Yorker habit of feeling like every room and bit of space needs to have a specific purpose.
Don’t worry, in time you’ll get used to your new living arrangement and find out how to make the best use of all the space you now have. Be sure to have a long talk with your architect about your plans for the future and how you intend to utilize the space. They can help you come up with a design that provides both functionality and comfort. Preserving the unique architectural details is one reason why it’s best not to rush the design phase as your goals and expectations may change.
You may have to make compromises
It’s sporadic for any renovation to go exactly, as planned, and meet all your needs. Your architect will help you decide on what you should prioritize and what you can compromise on. It might make for some hard decisions, but if you’re not willing to stay flexible, then the project will never get finished. Potentially means limiting what areas you’re heavily renovating to save on budget. It might mean having to sacrifice some beautiful original details like that millwork that first caught your eye. Whatever it is, be open to suggestions. If something is very important to you, then your architect and contractors will try to save it. But if it’s not, then some things will have to be sacrificed for the sake of convenience, functionality, or budget.
Working with an Architect
Renovating a brownstone is a huge undertaking and one that will require the services of an experienced architect if it’s to go well. Architects are trained to think about how a room and building can be best utilized, and by involving one early, you can avoid costly missteps.
How to choose an architect
Choosing an architect is much like choosing a buyer’s agent. Each one will be different, so you’ll want to find one that is qualified and has experience working with brownstones. You’ll also want to choose someone that you can get along quickly with. You’ll be working very closely with this person for some time, so find one you feel comfortable with and can get along with.
If you haven’t bought the home yet, then you should schedule a site evaluation with your architect. They can provide invaluable insight into potential problems with renovations and point out its potential. This will also give you a chance to see how your working relationship will go. Do they listen to you and understand your vision for the home? If so, then you might have the right person for the job. This kind of job requires a huge team effort, so do your due diligence on finding the right architect.
Getting approval and compliance
Another strong argument for hiring an architect is that they’ll be well-versed in the complex world of NYC compliance. Permits, meetings, and walkthrough will have to be obtained from the municipal board and landmark board. All of which your architect can handle. Depending on the district and the scope of the work, landmarks approval may only require staff-level approval and add only one or two weeks to your project schedule. But in the event of extensive exterior work, you may require both community board and Landmarks Preservation Commission approval. Permits like this can take as much as six months to be granted.
Fortunately, there is at least one big advantage to renovating a brownstone compared with other building types. There are no co-op or condo rules that will limit what you can do. So long as the home meets all the building codes and zoning restrictions, you are free to approach the project; however, you wish.
Working through design and construction
As you work with your architect through the design and construction phase, it’s important that you balance your needs and wants. Brownstones tend to come with a lot of infrastructure issues that will have to be brought up to code. The most common problem areas are outdated electrical wiring, decrepit plumbing, and roofing maintenance. Other issues may pop up over time, but these are the main areas to look at first.
Changes in living expectations are another issue. Being old brownstones typically requires radical changes in design to accommodate modern needs. For example, in previous years, the kitchen was more of a utilitarian afterthought. Nowadays, it’s usually the heart of the home. By working closely with your architect and giving them a picture of how you want to live, they can help you craft a design that strikes a balance between the old and new.
Deciding on a budget
When it comes to budget (more on that below), try to get on the same page with your architect. Brownstone renovations can be enormous projects with many things to consider. Your highest cost will be labor, so the more you can limit the scope of a project, the more you can cut back on costs. Many homeowners make the mistake of thinking they can keep costs down by selecting lower-quality finishes and appliances. The problem with this approach is that the savings you’ll make are only marginal. A far better approach to keeping costs down is to limit the amount of square footage you’re renovating. This could be just a few cosmetic details you choose to forgo or an entire floor that you can deal with at a later time.
How Much Will a Brownstone Renovation Cost?
Now we come to the most painful question, how much will all of this cost? Renovating a brownstone is one of those things that can make a designer handbag habit or regular meals in a three-star restaurant look cheap by comparison. Every project is different, and much will depend on your location and the scope of the project. Nevertheless, here are some ballpoint figures of what you can expect to pay for a 3000 square foot house.
Average Breakdown of Price per Square Foot
- Full Brownstone Renovation: $200-$300 PSF
- Dry Spaces: $30-$50 PSF
- Wet Spaces: Baths start at $400 PSF and Kitchens start at $300 PSF
Heating, Cooling, and Plumbing
- Plumbing Permits: $2000-$3000
- Full Plumbing Upgrade: $50,000
- Replace Boiler: $400-$7000
- Electrical, Per Point: $250
- Install Light Fixture: $40
- Full Electrical Upgrade: $12,000-$30,000
Structural and Exterior Work
- Redo Outside Cement Patio: $2,000
- Brownstone Resurfacing: $70,000 and up
- Reline a Chimney: $2,500-$5,000
- Refinish floors: $1.50-$3 PSF, depending on the size of the job and other factors such as seal/stain
- Skim coating plaster walls: $3 PSF
- Stripping woodwork $25 per hour
- Finish carpentry: $40 and up per hour
- Painting: $1-$3 PSF, varying with the size of the job, prep, number of coats, trim, etc.
- Bathroom Renovation: $7,000 to $30,000 to $100,000 and up, varying with the size of the bathroom, cost of materials, and whether you’re moving plumbing or rebuilding floor support
- Kitchen renovation: $12,000 to $40,000 to $100,000 and up, depending on the size of the kitchen, cost of materials and appliances, the linear footage of cabinetry and counters, and whether you’re moving plumbing and walls
All of these numbers are rough estimates, but they should serve to give you some sense of the costs involved in a renovation. The main impact on cost is scope. Infrastructure will be the most significant expense, followed by other significant components like HVAC, electrical, flooring, and the roof. Making use of less expensive materials will only give you marginal savings.
The fact is, you won’t know what the expected costs will be until you’ve settled on a final plan with your architect and contractors. If you’ve chosen a good team, then they’ll know what suggestions to make that can help you cut costs. Whatever number they finally give you, make sure you have another 10-15% of that as a cushion. Renovation projects almost always encounter unexpected expenses, so it’s better to be prepared. Final costs can be anywhere from $300,000 to $1 million and up.
Tips on How to Budget Your Renovation
Mix high and low
When choosing materials, try to juggle between high-and low-end quality. It’s fine to choose a high-quality tile backsplash, just so long as you balance that cost with an off-the-shelf option for the second bath. Put the high-quality finishes on things that people are likely to notice. Save your money on those parts that visitors are less likely to notice.
Don’t go cheap on plumbing and electrical
Visitors won’t be able to admire the quality of your plumbing and electrical circuits. But these parts will still need licensed and experienced contractors to do the job right. If you try to cheapen out in this department, it will cost you far more in the long run.
Put your money into the kitchen and bathrooms
These are the areas that will push up the value of your home if you ever choose to resell. Not to mention, these are also the areas that will garner the most compliments from guests.
The End Result
Whatever your final vision is, don’t expect it to turn out exactly as you hoped. Unexpected problems can emerge, which will change the final plan. Going too over budget might mean having to forgo particular renovations until a later time. But by involving an architect as early as possible in the process, you can avoid most significant problems and still turn out with an impressive renovation in line with what you had in mind. It’s a long journey, but by knowing what’s ahead and putting as much time into the planning and design phase as you can, you can reach the top of the mountain.