What’s most important to the success of a renovation project?  I asked a handful of property owners who have renovated multiple times, an architect, a space designer, and a contractor.  All agreed:  do your homework, plan thoroughly, and respect timing.  


Do your homework 


Before you begin, talk to as many as you can who have been through the process.  Get lots of recommendations, ask dozens of questions and take notes.  Interview your primary professionals carefully, examine past performance, and check references.  When evaluating bids, consider reputation and experience as much as you consider price.  When checking references, ask how each responded when problems surfaced during and after the job.  


Study the building’s house rules, by-laws, proprietary lease and alteration agreement.  What hours is work permitted?  Are there summer only rules?  If there are restrictions on the use of the freight elevator, it may mean that only one renovation may occur at a time in any one elevator bank.  Is there a charge for freight elevator use?  Does the freight elevator need to be reserved in advance for moving materials into and out of the building?  Is the removal of demolition debris limited to a specific day of the week?  Is there a specified period of time to finish a job, and what is the per diem charge for late completion?  When are special filings or permits required by the city’s Buildings Department or Landmarks Preservation Commission?  If the building’s engineer is available to be consulted, enlisting that kind of aid upfront is invaluable.  


Plan thoroughly


Try to make as many decisions as possible before actual construction begins, and include even the smallest details along with specifications for all equipment and materials in your contract documents and drawings.  Detailed plans are essential for prompt review and approval by your co-op or condo board.  


Understand the hierarchy and chain of command from the architect/designer to the contractor to the subcontractor to the suppliers.  Acknowledge that each trade is dependent on the work of another.  If there are problems or questions with one skill set, discuss these with the primary professional who has ultimate responsibility and who, much like the conductor of a symphonic orchestra, must manage expectations as well as each movement of the total job.


Respect timing


Probably the biggest unknown for a renovation project is the time that it takes to get board approval.  Varying from building to building, the span can range as short as two weeks to as long as six months.  It’s impossible to predict what other board concerns will take precedent over reviewing your application or what board members may be on vacation.  Since the board president must sign work permit applications, delays are tough to anticipate.  Additionally, since there are no real standards to follow, the board will need time to consult with its Managing Agent, the building’s engineer, and other advisors as needed.  


Make sure that your submitted plans include all contracts, permits, timetables, insurance policies, and lists of contractors and subcontractors.  Requests for omitted information only cause delay.  At the Columbia Condominium, a recent project was held up for four and a half months with request after request for more information, such as what size anchors would be used to install kitchen cabinets, and what finish was being used on cabinet doors?  If you’re seeking to set a building precedent like the owner on Riverside Drive who requested a mixed design of casement and tilt and turn windows, then don’t expect a speedy response—in that case, it took four months for the board to finally approve the window replacement.   


Though the approval process may be arduous, the review of alteration plans is more than “strangers dictating what you can or can’t do in your own home”—as one homeowner described it.  On the contrary, the board is concerned with issues of safety and looks to safeguard the building’s structure and systems for heating, plumbing and electric.  Additionally, the board seeks to protect security and quality of life for residents as it tries to contain noise and air-borne contaminants.  


Setbacks are unpredictable: elevators break down, building employees strike, ordered materials are not available.  Whenever possible, prepare for contingencies, or be ready to assume the costs of unavoidable delays and cost overruns.  Changes that you make to approved plans affect not only end pricing but scheduling.  Since time is money, delays are always costly.   


Once your job is in full swing, keep extensive lists and check on progress with weekly visits and conferences.  Stay on top of supply deliveries, or you may wind up losing a week or two waiting for an ordered item when another might have been substituted.  Wait until your punch list is completed, before you write your last installment check.


There is great value to successful property renovations.  Aside from the obvious increase in worth, there’s immeasurable pleasure and satisfaction in your own design and execution of a renovation well done.