Renovating an apartment in Manhattan presents a set of unique challenges.  I’ve written on the subject before, and with the perspective of my recent 6th renovation behind me, I offer some advice to the uninitiated. 


First Do Your Homework


Talk to as many people as you can who have been through the process.  Get recommendations, ask questions and take notes.  Interview your primary professionals carefully, visit their past projects, and check references.  When evaluating bids, take into account reputation and experience as much as you consider price.  Determine whether projects were finished on schedule.  When checking references, ask how each trade handled problems that surfaced during and especially after the job.  The lowest bidder may not be the wisest choice.


Your drawings should refer to an attached comprehensive plan itemizing in words the full scope of your project.  These papers will form the basis of your eventual contract.  Include precise specifications for everything from materials to appliances to door knobs—even if you intend to provide the supplies separately.  Specify thickness and edging for granite and marble.  Be clear if you want painting to include meticulous skim coating, taping and sanding prep work.  The more complete your plans are up front, the less room there is for interpretation, and also fewer opportunities for surcharges.  Ask your bidders to itemize their estimates by trade in order to compare quotes easily.  Expect estimates to vary widely.     


Before you sign a contract, approximate on how long the job will take from start to finish, and write projected start and end dates into your agreement.  Barring interruptions beyond a contractor’s control like strikes, broken elevators and unavailable materials, consider a per diem penalty for a grossly delayed project.  Also build into your contract a specific procedure for change orders.  Some changes will arise because of unforeseen conditions, but others might occur because you’ve changed your mind and want something different or additional.  In the case of the latter, you should have the opportunity to rescind the change order because a price is too high.  Your contract should also include a proposed payment schedule and an estimated timetable showing how work will proceed from demolition to punch list. 


Unless the renovation you are contemplating is purely cosmetic, before your job can begin, board approval is required in co-ops as well as condos.  While boards may not unreasonably withhold consent, they are concerned with preserving the building’s infrastructure and with protecting the quality of life and safety of residents.  It’s important to study your building’s specific alteration agreement since each building has its own set of requirements, fees and security deposits.  Increasingly, because of issues of accountability, more and more buildings are requiring that jobs be filed with the city’s Department of Buildings.  If that’s your case, then your plans should be prepared by an architect. 


There are scores of questions to consider.  What hours is work permitted?  Does the board limit construction to summer only months?  Is there a specified time period in which to complete the work, and what is the per diem charge for delay?  Are reservations needed when moving materials into and out of the building?  Can more than one renovation occur at a time in any one elevator bank?  How must hallways and elevators be protected?  Does the building expect workers to be certified in lead-safe practices per the new EPA legislation effective April 22, 2010 requiring that contractors have special certification for jobs in buildings built before 1978? 


Always Respect Timing


Probably the biggest unknown for a renovation project is the time that it takes to get board and DOB approval.  Varying from building to building, the span can range from weeks to months.  It’s impossible to predict what other concerns will take precedence over reviewing your application.  Since the board president must sign DOB 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 and the building’s architect.  Detailed plans plus insurance policies and trade licenses are essential for prompt review.  Requests for omitted information cause unnecessary delay. 


Consult frequently with your building’s superintendent.  His hands-on knowledge of the building’s operating systems will be invaluable.  Moreover, he’ll be able to provide access to other apartments from which you can model your own improvements or learn what not to do. 


Understand the hierarchy from the architect/designer to the contractor to the trade subcontractors to the suppliers.  Acknowledge that each is dependent on the work of another.  If problems or questions arise—and they will—discuss these with the primary professional who should have ultimate responsibility and who, much like a symphony conductor, manages expectations and orchestrates each progressive movement in the total job.


Once your renovation is in full swing, keep extensive lists and check on progress with regular site inspections and meetings.  Expect setbacks to occur.  Wait until your punch list is entirely completed, before you make your final payment.


As of this writing, I’m on my fourth and hopefully final punch list.  I’ve learned more on this job than on my others.  This last renovation took twice as long as anticipated with 17% in cost over charges.  Nonetheless, not only have I increased my property’s worth, I’ve achieved immeasurable personal satisfaction and real delight in the execution of a renovation well done.