I’m at the midpoint of my current co-op renovation, a total gut of a two bedroom apartment, and this is my 6th undertaking to date, not including my Westchester home which was a builder’s spec house that I finished. I’ve renovated the one bedroom units for my two children, altered our first family postwar on East 79th Street, then our seven room prewar on Central Park West, and 5 years ago I gutted a one bedroom pied a terre. Renovating a Manhattan co-op presents unique challenges and requires careful planning.

Identify temporary housing early in the process. 

When we were building out our first space on East 79th Street, we were able to remain in our rental with our infant son until the project was completed. When we modernized Central Park West, we moved with two toddlers into my parent’s Riverdale home, and I rented a short term one bedroom apartment for them since that was easier and less costly than identifying a larger rental for us—and they were willing good sports. We moved to our Westchester home for the duration of our current project which I timed for the summer months, so that driving back and forth to NYC would be less taxing. If moving into your Aunt Charlotte’s oversized apartment is not an option, you’ll need to add the cost of a rental to your budget.


Know your building’s Alteration Agreement.

What hours is work permitted? What fees and security deposits are required? Does the board limit construction to summer months only? Can more than one renovation occur at a time in any one building elevator bank? Are reservations needed when moving materials in and out of the service elevator? If bathroom walls are opened, does the building require replacing all branch plumbing lines? Does the building set a maximum time for job completion with per diem penalty charges? My current project allows 120 calendar days with a penalty of $100 a day thereafter, but I’ve seen surcharges as high as $1000 a day.

Take time to hire the right people. 

You’ll be spending a good amount of time and money with your primary professionals, so interview carefully, visit past projects, and check references. Begin with recommendations from those who have first hand recent experience and weigh reputation as much as you consider price. Determine whether projects were finished on time and how problems that surfaced were handled—especially issues that arise after completion. Evaluate the synergy between the two professionals, since how they interact with one another is key to a well executed plan. Don’t overlook the building’s super whom you should make your ally. His hands-on knowledge of operating systems will be invaluable. He will be able to provide access to other apartments from which you can model your own improvements or learn what not to do. Get at least 3 bids and ask contractors to itemize estimates not only by trade but by the particular scope of work to be done so you can choose to eliminate that which may be too costly.    

Expect approvals to consume time.  

The biggest unknown for any renovation is the time that it takes to get board and DOB approvals. Typically, you’ll need to file permits for electric and plumbing, and if your building predates April 1987, an asbestos inspection is required also. If you’re relocating doorways or changing layout, your job will require a full permit, and you’ll need architectural drawings by a licensed architect. Some buildings allow architects to self-certify certain jobs, shaving weeks off approval time. Work permits for self certified work may be obtained in a matter of days. If a full review is required, the process can take 8 weeks or longer. The board is concerned primarily with preserving the building’s infrastructure and protecting the quality of life, security and safety of shareholders. Increasingly, because of issues of accountability, more and more buildings are requiring full DOB reviews. The board will ask its architect to review your plans and may request clarifications or changes. If you live in a landmark building or within a historical district, there will be yet another level of approvals to consider.

Roll with the punches. 

Have your contractor approximate how long the job will take, and write this into your contract. Also specify a payment schedule and timetable for trades to show how work will proceed from demolition to punch list. Barring unforeseen interruptions caused by building employee strikes, broken elevators or unavailable materials, consider a per diem penalty for a grossly delayed project and a reward for a job completed early. Change orders are costly and create delays, but sometimes these arise because of unexpected conditions or because you’ve changed your mind and want something different or additional. When issues arise—and they will—collaborate with your team to find solutions or alternatives. Once your renovation is in full swing, check regularly on progress. Hold back 10% of final payment until your last punch list is entirely completed.

While I don’t want to jinx my current job, aside from the week I lost because my marble tiles were delivered late, my renovation is progressing smoothly. I’m looking forward to moving into my newly renovated home and reaping immeasurable personal satisfaction from a renovation well done.