Secrets of Renovating an Apartment in New York City in 2021

Hint: it’s all about your contractor

There are certain truths about living in New York City – some spoken, some unspoken – but all widely accepted. In fact, Carrie Bradshaw once said “In New York, you’re always looking for a job, a boyfriend or an apartment.” #TRUTH. Ask any of your Big Apple buddies and they will be sure to agree: Getting your first-born into preschool can be statistically harder than getting accepted into Harvard. You will log more non-treadmill steps on your Fitbit just living your daily life than you would practically anywhere else. And yes – leave the weekend subway rides to the tourists because chances are pretty high you will spend more time waiting on a platform than actually enjoying your destination.

But once you find your niche, we guarantee you will eventually want to make a bigger commitment and purchase your own slice of real estate heaven. For those of us who don’t have quite the same resources as the billionaires who live here alongside us, that means making some compromises to fit our budget. That might mean looking in an up and coming neighborhood. Or settling for a smaller apartment because it’s in a building with a doorman, a gym AND a parking garage. And of course, what most of us do - buying the apartment that is absolutely perfect –except it needs a complete and total gut renovation.

So how exactly DO you renovate an apartment? Well before you even start down that road, you need to explore yet another truth about living and owning a home in New York: finding the right contractor is going to be the key to your happiness and maintaining your sanity.

It shouldn’t be a rushed decision; remember you will be working closely with your contractor and his/her team on a daily basis for several months or longer as they transform your apartment from a diamond in the rough to a gem for your modern lifestyle. Finding the right contractor for you (and your renovation project) can be akin to finding a unicorn – it takes time and the end result should be magical. Here is our definitive “2021 Guide to Finding the Right Contractor in New York City”.

And if you have any questions? Don’t hesitate to reach out: inquiries@intrabuild.com or call (718) 612-9900.

“Being our first renovation, and hearing lots of horror stories from friends, we were expecting this process to be painful. From the initial walk-through to the end of the renovation we have been very pleased with our experience with Nick and his team. It has been a pleasure to work with Nick; he is fair, organized and takes great pride in his work. We purchased a dated co-op in Woodside, Queens and knew right away that we wanted to renovate before moving in. Our project entailed creating an open plan between the kitchen and living room, updating the kitchen and bathroom, refinishing all floors, and creating a new entry to the 2nd bedroom. Working with our designer, Nick, and his team, we were able to do so much more. His bid was fair and appropriate for the work to be done and we were happy with the timeline proposed. The team hit the ground running and worked through the demolition and re-framing quickly. Nick was flexible with us while we were juggling design decisions and helped to keep the project on track. We found him to be very honest and upfront as to hiccups and timing issues when they arose. We are very happy with the experience and the results and have referred him to several friends and family.”

– Vida C.

  1. Work the phones. Talk to friends. Read the reviews. The truth of the matter is, you’re going to have to do your homework, and you’re going to have to dive into more than one resource. Here’s a familiar scenario: You have friends whose contractor did a fabulous job with their post-war open floorplan loft. It’s perfect for them in every way, and it might be tempting to ask for a bid and call it a day. But...you bought a pre-war classic six with crown moldings and leaded windows that all need to be replaced. Your needs are very different, and their contractor may not be the right fit for your renovation. Pre-war apartments are very specific, and you need a contractor who specializes in the details and who knows the right vendors. We recommend the following combination to land on your candidates to bring in for face to face interviews and bid on your job:
  • Start online: We particularly like Houzz and Yelp for customer reviews but Facebook and Angie’s List are also good places to start. Have they worked in your neighborhood? Can you message any of the posters for more info? Do they have a substantive project portfolio and a beautiful web site? Do their clients engage with them on social media? You can tell a lot about a contractor from their digital footprint. 
  • Check credentials: Do they have a NYC General Contractors License? Do they have adequate insurance? In New York City, general contractors are licensed by the NYC Department of Consumer Affairs, which has an online system where you can check the license.
  • Ask friends and family: Aside from the common pitfall described above, friends and family can be a great resource for recommendations. Sometimes, you may be lucky enough to have a family member or close friend who has a contracting firm in another city. Since they probably won’t have a vested interest in your project, they can offer unbiased feedback on project bids, budgets and timelines. At INTRABUILD, we offer this service to clients who have projects in markets we don’t currently serve.
  • Schedule phone interviews – and then meet in person: Speak with at least four different contracting firms before scheduling in-person meetings. You can tell a lot from a phone interview but not everything. It’s important to meet with contractors in person, especially if they do beautiful work that speaks to your design vision.
  • Talk to references: Guess what? People love talking about themselves. And they really, REALLY love talking about their amazing apartment renovation if that is the experience they had with their contractor. Speaking to more than one reference is key to moving your contractor candidates to the next phase: the in-person meetings. 
  1. What to expect in a face-to-face meeting: Now that you’ve gone through the online vetting process, you need to take some face-to-face meetings. To help you get to the core of what you need to know from your potential contractors, here is a list of questions to ask and things they should come prepared to discuss and share:
  • How many projects do you work on at one time?
  • Will I have a dedicated project manager?
  • How often will I be able to speak directly with you and what is the best way to contact you during the work day?
  • What are your safety protocols for coronavirus restrictions?
  • Can you give me an estimated timeline for my project?
  • Do you handle all of the permitting with the NYC Buildings Department?
  • How big is the crew?
  • What is not going to be included in your proposal that I may need to account for?
  • What professional associations to do you belong to?
  • Do you carry workman’s comp for all of your employees?
  • Where do you store your equipment and how do you clean up at the end of the day?
  • How does your crew/you deal with neighbor complaints?
  • A good contractor will offer up their certificate of insurance and bring a list of references without you having to ask.
  • A good contractor will immediately follow up with a personalized thank you note (via email is fine), and deliver a project bid within 3 business days. 
  1. Your building management and/or coop board is going to have a say: Another big consideration when vetting potential contractors: they are going to need to make a good impression not only on you...but on your coop or condo board as well. Your renovation plans will ultimately need to be presented to the board for review and approval, and it’s best to have a contractor who can win over even the toughest of boards. If your contractor has done work in your building or even neighboring buildings before? Even better. That means they know how to play by the rules: construction hours, they may already be friendly with building staff and they may even have ways to minimize disturbance to the neighboring apartments. We can’t emphasize enough how important it is to have a contractor who is easy to work with – not only with you, but with all players involved in the project.
Our apartment is in old prewar building so they had to redo our electrical wiring. You wouldn’t know our hallway walls and arch had to be broken through to replace the electrical panel. They did an amazing job putting it all back together better than it was before. They handled all the coop approval and building permit paperwork. The construction team was very diligent about staying clean and tidy preventing dirt from being tracked into the rest of the apartment and they worked well with our building super to coordinate deliveries and elevator trips.

– Frances C.
  1. Your inspiration board is the North Star. Just as you will expect contractors to come prepared for in-person meetings, you, too, will need to be prepared to share your vision for your home renovation. Pinterest is a great place to start as is tear-sheeting from magazines. You can use a program like Canva to easily create stunning mood boards to share with potential contracting firms. Talented contractors will be able to tease out your general design style and help you firm up a plan that is realistic both from a logistical and budgeting point of view. For example, if you need to replace windows, that is going to be a huge expense and you may not be able to afford that enameled lava countertop you have pinned on your mood board. If you are combining two apartment units, you may need to prioritize renovating the primary bath over a less-trafficked powder room. A great contractor will be able to guide you towards “compromise” products and finishes that are less pricey but give the same aesthetic appeal – OR even show you options that you didn’t know were out there. It’s important that you hire a contractor who will respect your design vision and interpret it for you in a way that is feasible to stay both on budget and on time in the process. If you share your vision board and receive immediate negative feedback, that should be a red flag and you should consider moving on to other candidates. On the flip side of the coin, you don’t want to be “yessed” to death either. If you have a vision that is going to be nearly impossible to execute and you don’t have a huge budget, your contractor should be upfront with you.
  1. What’s in a name: Estimates, Proposals, Quotes and Bids
    To quotes one of our favorite articles on the subject, “People use the terms, bid, quote, proposal and estimate interchangeably. But as one person put it: “Doesn’t matter what you think the difference is, it’s what the person asking for it thinks it is.” So, as a potential client, you want to make sure you are asking contractors who want to work on your project for the right thing. Here is a quick breakdown, and why we think you need more than just an estimate.

    First off, what is an estimate and when should you expect to receive one? An estimate is like a ballpark figure – we’re generally in the right place but the ball could land in quite a few places within that range. A contractor might follow up with an estimate when you describe the project over the phone, before you receive an actual proposal. You should never count on an estimate to be 100% accurate, but it should be somewhat aligned with the quote (we’ll get to those) you do receive should you ask for a proposal from a contractor who has provided you with an estimate. An estimate should also provide you with a high-level view of what would be included in the scope of services so that everyone is on the same page regarding what, exactly, will be included in a detailed proposal. You don’t want to get an estimate for a kitchen remodel only to find out in a proposal you will be responsible for all of the permitting yourself if your expectations are that it would be handled by the contractor. This should all be made clear in the initial estimate.

    Next up: a proposal is a detailed document that includes everything provided in an estimate and then some: an overview of the contracting company: the history, any industry awards, a complete and detailed scope of services, proposed timeline, terms and conditions, exclusions, references and of course an investment detail – i.e. how much this is going to cost you and how/when you will be paying for it. A proposal should also cover things like what happens in the event of a project delay or if you go over the proposed budget. And finally, in many cases, the proposal will serve as a contract between you and the contractor. There will be a place for your signatures, and it should be legally-binding. You will almost certainly refer to the proposal several times over the course of the project.

    Quotes vs. Bids:

    It’s much more common in the building industry to receive a bid for your project than to receive a quote. A quote is generally specific to the cost of goods sold and is typically valid for a finite amount of time based on fluctuations in the market that may impact hard costs. Usually a contractor will receive quotes from vendors on hard materials and then build them into the bid and final proposal. Quotes might ultimately impact the bid if the market prices for goods such as lumber and stone are dramatically fluctuating.

    A bid is what you are going to be looking at as far as how much your project is going to cost you. It can be included in the overall proposal or submitted to you separately, followed up by a proposal that includes all of the bells and whistles described above. A bid will be a total cost for the services outlined in the proposal delivered within a certain timeframe. If you are reaching out to more than one contractor – as we highly recommend you do – you may see a wide range of bids, so keep reading and we will debunk some of the behind-the-scenes reasons why.
  1. Okay so I have received several bids. Why are they so expensive? And why is there such a big range?: Remember when your mother told you “You get what you pay for”? Well she wasn’t kidding – especially when it comes to quality renovation work and project management. Here are the major reasons why you may have a wide range of bids on your project:
  • Working together makes all the difference. In a perfect universe, your contractor and architect are in lock-step when it comes to designing your ideal home and then projecting the costs. This saves everyone a big headache when your architect brings the contractor into the process early on – and they can have an ongoing dialogue as the plans develop. And this also keeps the two parties aligned with your budget. Unfortunately, what often happens is that the architect and contractor are working in two siloes. By the time your architect has the designs ready for your contractor to review and prepare a bid, the bid will very likely come in much higher than your budget allows...and you’re left with sticker shock and the cost of a redesign from your architect.
  • More information = more accurate bids. The more information you can give your contractor upfront, the more accurate the bid you receive is going to be, and the less likely you will end up going over your planned budget. There are always unforeseen costs but those are dramatically mitigated when you give contractors the most information you can, upfront.
  • Sometimes things are too good to be true. So, what happens when you receive a bid that is much LOWER than what you expected? Well even though you may want to jump for joy and sign that contract, make sure you read the fine print. Is this contractor reputable? Does the proposal cover EVERYTHING you are expecting and is the timeframe reasonable? Compare it to the other bids and proposals you have received – does the scope of work match up? If a bid seems too good to be true – it probably is. There are many nightmare tales out there of contractors who have simply ghosted on jobs or started out with a lower bid - but “extras” added up quickly. The truth is this: quality renovation should come with a fair but decent price tag. An experienced contractor with close relationships with architects and designers is going to save you time and money in the long run. 
  1. Do I really need to read that contract? The answer, in short, is yes! If you have read this far, you know our position on this. A contract is crucial to the success of your project, clarifies expectations and lays the groundwork for navigating any issues that may arise. The contract should clearly state the scope of work, the proposed budget, the timeline and include some flexibility and terms if a revised proposal is needed. You may start out with one path in mind for your renovation but in some cases, you may decide you want to do more and your contractor should clearly outline in the proposal that the scope may change and what the process for that would be. Unfortunately, far too many people only skim these documents but don’t have a full understanding of what they are signing. We recommend not only go through the contract thoroughly but also having a trusted second set of eyes go over deal points so you can feel confident signing on the dotted line. 
“There are a ton of moving parts in a renovation, particularly a gut renovation such as ours. So when there was an unexpected challenge/error, it was resolved quickly, without hesitation and without sacrificing quality of work.”

– Cartier S. 
  1. The pandemic has changed things, and your contractor should have a plan, as well as a supply of PPE for the crew.
    In March 2020, when the world as we knew it came to a screeching halt, apartment renovations in New York City were deemed non-essential and were put on hold until early June. Once the restrictions were lifted, joyful apartment owners who spent three long months waiting to resume their renovation projects, as well as apartment dwellers who hadn’t considered any renovations until they were forced to work from home and started hating their kitchens couldn’t WAIT to jump in. But our industry looks a bit different now, just like many others. There are stringent requirements on job sites including sanitation stations, temperature checks, proper distancing, open windows or other means of ventilation and of course proper PPE – face masks – must be donned at all times. In many buildings, there are capacity restrictions that limit the number of people in common areas and elevators. And to further complicate things, in many
    instances, buildings and management companies have their own sets of rules on top of what is mandated by the NYC DOB. Not to mention shipping delays and sold-out products in almost every category. All of these stipulations create a perfect storm for delays and added expense. Your contractor should work with you to adjust the timeline according to your priorities and what is possible. This new world we live and work in makes it more important than ever before that the contractor you hire is well-versed in customer service and an expert with handling building staff, coop boards and management companies. Because in the end? This is how your project is going to get done on time and on budget - or close to it.

  1. Trust your gut: It’s a cliché but it’s true: trusting your instincts is probably the best thing you can do. Do you get a good feeling from your contractor? Have you read or heard anything negative that made you take pause? Can you see yourself problem-solving with him or her?These are the things that make or break a relationship and like everything else, communication is always key. There are so many pitfalls that can be avoided if you have a clear communication plan and feel comfortable reaching out to your contractor. We wish you the best of luck and we are here if you have any questions or would like a consultation for your particular project.

“We hired Nick and his team to do a rigorous renovation of our coop unit: gut renovation of the kitchen, bathroom, and we re-did walls and relocated some doors. Being first time homeowners, Nick couldn’t have been more accommodating and helpful throughout the way. We were both hands-on but also needed a lot of design guidance, and Nick’s extensive experience on working on similar projects gave him a wealth of experience that we could draw from. Nick’s company was also available to answer questions throughout the project and patiently answered all of our questions, even the tiniest detail. Looking back, having moved in to the unit, we just marvel at the top-notch quality work that Nick’s team has done and consider ourselves fortunate to have worked with him. We recommend his team’s services without reservation!”

– Sio Kay L.

Read more...

Houzz Logo
5 Star Rating
  • Intrabuild Best General Contractor 2021

Let's Get Started.

Our team is available to discuss your project with you and help you make your renovation dreams a reality.