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Tips & Hacks

What it Takes to Renovate a Brownstone

by The Brownstone Boys|Feb 03, 2021

We have a secret to tell you. It might be the best piece of advice we have for anyone shopping for a fixer-upper brownstone.

Living in a historic brownstone or townhouse in Brooklyn or Manhattan is a dream for many people. The original woodwork, beautiful plaster moldings, grand staircases, and iconic stoops on tree-lined streets are too much to just look onto from afar. You might have come to the conclusion that the best path to having one of your own is to buy a fixer-upper and build your dream home. Seeing the price tag of available listings is pretty straightforward, but what about the renovation? How much does it cost to restore those beautiful 100+-year-old original features, build spaces for modern living, and repair the home to last another 100 years? It’s difficult to even understand if the purchase price you’re looking at is feasible for you without understanding the other side of the equation. If you’re ready to start searching for the right place, we can help!

A good place to start is trying to get a handle on exactly how much work is needed. There are 2 basic things you’ll want to understand: What the condition of the place is and how much you’re changing the configuration. If you walk in to view a home, the kitchens and bathrooms are relatively where you want them and it appears to all have been modernized in the last couple of decades, you might be able to get away with a smaller scope cosmetic project. If you walk in and see aging mechanicals, deteriorating plaster, crooked floors, as well as a kitchen on the wrong floor, and bathrooms in entirely wrong places, then the most likely scenario is that you’re going to be doing a fairly large scope gut renovation. That doesn’t at all mean that the historic features and charm would be removed, but it will take some work to restore it all and integrate it into the modern home with the historic charm you’re dreaming of.

We have a secret to tell you. It might be the best piece of advice we have for anyone shopping for a fixer-upper brownstone. When you bounce around from open house to open house you’ll see places that you immediately know will be a huge project: plaster falling off the ceiling, carpet that reeks of cat urine, old dirty bathrooms, and ancient electrical panels. And you’ll see places that look entirely habitable: Freshly painted walls, historic charm in great shape, a kitchen that looks like it was installed within the decade (be it in the wrong place), and the electrical doesn’t look like a fire hazard. With the latter, you might think you have hit the jackpot on a place that just needs some walls moved and some TLC. You might think, although the price tag is higher at least it is a smaller renovation. Our word of warning is the project size and cost may not be all that different between them. If your plan includes moving bathrooms, creating a big beautiful primary bathroom and closet, reconfiguring bedrooms, relocating the kitchen to the parlor floor where there is none, and adding a powder room – that is a major reconfiguration. After all of those walls are moved the floors and ceilings will need to be addressed, not to mention that crooked floors will look even more crooked next to all of the new features so those might need to be fixed too. You end up re-doing (or resurfacing) most of the walls, ceilings, and floors. Finally, once the plumber and electrician redo half of what’s there for the new layout, they’ll likely want (or need) to replace it all. There is code as recent as the 2,000’s that everything will need to be brought up to. Oh, and what about HVAC? The point is that although a building may initially look like less work since you feel you could move into it as-is if needed, it might very well be the same scope and cost to make it into your dream home as the place with carpet that reeks of cat urine, ancient electrical panels, and deteriorating plaster. So why pay more for the place that only appears to offer you a smaller scope project.

Since a lot of things go into such a big project, we need a quick way to estimate costs, and one of the quickest ways to get a general idea of a budget is to use a price per square foot and apply it to the square footage of the home. A price per square foot for the entire house will give you a general idea of the total cost for a renovation and it takes into account that there is a new kitchen, a few bedrooms, several new bathrooms, electrical, plumbing, and HVAC…etc. While it’s not a bad way to generalize the cost of a complete home renovation, it’s really just to give you a quick idea so that you can have an estimation, for instance, if you’re trying to figure out if the fixer-upper you viewed fits your budget including the renovation. Keep in mind that there may be a feature of your renovation that might push the costs up outside of the price per square foot, one big example of that would be adding an addition to the home which comes with many more costs than renovating within the home’s footprint. For something like that you might want to treat it as a separate line item. Ok! So you’ve got it and just want the numbers, we hear you, and we’re here to give them to you!

One last thing, you should know that we do renovations in New York City and the numbers in some of our examples might be more in line with renovating in New York or other big cities. We provided a range so that you can adjust if you live in a place with a lower cost of living. The low end of the range can be used for areas where the cost of living is less and the high end is for areas where the cost of living is higher. That’s true for contractor and labor expenses, but costs for finish items would likely be the same since we get those items from all over the country and world and many of the suppliers we purchase from are national. Ok ok… the numbers! Total home reno price per square foot budgeting:

Hopefully, you can find yourself in one of those buckets and you can generalize the cost of renovating your fixer-upper or existing home! There are a lot of ranges there so if you’re having trouble landing in one, we would suggest that the once-in-a-lifetime dream home you are envisioning is probably in the upper $200’s-lower $300s PSF.

If you are adding an addition to the building since there is so much foundation, concrete, steel, and structural work we would estimate that line item at $700-750 PSF.

Now, that gives you the hard costs of the renovation but there are other expenses you should take into consideration as well. Depending on the size of your project you will likely need an architect, engineers, and city filings. Those costs can vary depending on the scope you have but you’ll want to budget $35,000-$60,000 (but it could be higher as well). If it’s a larger project and you won’t be living in the home during the process (we highly recommend that you don’t) you’ll want to include carrying costs like the cost of the mortgage, insurance, utility bills, and/or alternative accommodations while the work is being done. These are all soft costs.

Finally, don’t forget to include a 10-15% contingency. There are almost always additional expenses that come up during the renovation. Once walls, floors, and ceilings are opened up it’s quite possible that some repairs may be needed that were not seen before. You also may have to or want to alter a design to account for conditions onsite. These items are called change orders. They can be stressful, so if you have a budget included for them it can make the process much smoother.

Restoring and renovating a historic home can be a perfect path to owning a piece of history. It will have had many owners before you, some who may have arrived at its doorstep in horse and carriage, and it will likely have owners after you. These well-lived homes are often part of a thriving community that we hold dear and being a part of its significant life is something that’s just very special. Happy renovating!

This article was written by Jordan and Barry from The Brownstone Boys.

Meet The Authors

Jordan and Barry are two designers, DIY-ers, renovators, and restorers in Brooklyn, NY. Some of the best advice that they received came from creative blogs so they decided to start their own and share their own experience in hopes of helping others as well.

They slowly restored their very own 130-year-old Brooklyn Brownstone home and now want to help others achieve their own goals in their homes as well!

Check out their Blog, Instagram & Pinterest!

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