Do-It-Yourself, or Call a Pro? Getting Renovations Done Right

 These days, the urge to save a few dollars here and there may be inspiring the  creatively inclined to try their hand at home renovation. Before picking up the  paint brush or tearing up that carpeting however, it may be worth it to consult  a professional designer or architect. With myriad building codes, board rules  and the unknown risks that lie within each load-bearing wall or decades-old  bundle of wires, the D-I-Y approach can get tricky for even the handiest  homeowner.  

 Starting Out Small

 Still, that isn't to say that there aren’t plenty of small things a homeowner can do that will make a big difference to  the look and feel of their co-op or condo. Marilyn Sygrove, president of  Sygrove Associates Design Group, Inc. in Manhattan says there are a variety of  inexpensive yet highly effective options for people who want to freshen up  their living space.  

 First, less can indeed be more. “A good, old-fashioned spring cleaning where you can edit some of your  possessions and dispose of damaged or less useful items” can be a good option, Sygrove says. “Simply getting rid of something you have been hanging on to opens up your space.  Less clutter and repositioning what you have decided to retain can make a huge  difference in the appearance of the size of the apartment. If you can see the  floor, the space will look larger.”  

 Organization can also help in achieve that de-cluttered effect. “Remove things that stick out, like hanging shelves or racks,” Sygrove says. “They cut into your space. A long-term worthwhile investment would be to have  your closets outfitted for better storage so you can eliminate wall mounted  shelving that eats up space.”  

 Designer Kim Depole, owner of Kim Depole Design Inc. in Manhattan suggests  oversized mirrors as another inexpensive way to shake up a room. “They provide double the lighting effect,” she says. And as an added bonus, “just about everyone likes to look at themselves when they are running out of the  building.”  

 Light is also key, Sygrove says. “Get rid of heavy window treatments and add a few more lamps to give the  apartment a lighter feeling,” she suggests.  

 That sense of light can be achieved through color choices as well. “Keep your floors light in color, which is easily done with a new light-colored  rug,” Sygrove says. “Floating furniture on a rug also gives the feeling of space.” Also, “Your furnishings and finishes should be as monochromatic as possible. Get rid of  those flashy throw pillows and replace them with colors that match the  furniture and walls. And if you are repainting, keep to light, soothing colors  that are in the same family as the important pieces of upholstered furniture  and window treatments.”  

 Even the bathroom can benefit from some relatively minor touches. “A see-through shower curtain will make the bathroom look larger,” Sygrove says. “Replace a chunky vanity that goes to the floor with a lighter pedestal-style  sink on legs. They still come with built-in storage.”  

 First Steps

 Before replacing that sink, though, it’s important to follow all of the proper steps for larger at-home projects. One  of a homeowner’s first calls should be to management.  

 “It has been our experience that before any work is to be performed, the unit  owner must provide the managing agent and board with the information required  in the building’s alteration rules and practices,” says Dennis H. Greenstein, a Manhattan-based co-op and condo real estate  attorney and partner at Seyfarth Shaw. “Generally the painting of apartments and delivery of cabinetry to be installed  does not require the prior approval of the board. However, it is not unusual  for the board to still require insurance from any workers and contractors prior  to the work commencing.”  

 Steve Zirinsky, president of Zirinsky Architecture PC in Long Island City,  agrees. “Buildings are becoming more and more restrictive these days,” he says. “It’s important to talk to your managing agent to find out what involvement the  building wants you to have from outside professionals. You should do this for  anything more than painting. Even with painting, though, the building will  likely want to know who the contractors are and if they have the correct  insurance. People can unintentionally cause themselves trouble.”  

 One of the safest bets is to simply consult first with the building’s designer or architect before launching into any new projects. The architect  knows the building best and can determine if your project will affect any  structural aspects of the building or unintentionally wreak havoc with fire  safety codes.  

 Often, a resident will start work on what they think is a small project only to  find it has larger repercussions. Zirinsky tells the story of a building  architect who was overseeing some exterior renovation work. One afternoon, he  heard pounding coming from inside one of the apartments. When he peeked inside  the window, he saw the unit owner chipping away at a ledge he later learned the  resident did not like. It turned out that the seemingly innocuous ledge was  actually a relieving masonry wall. If the unit owner had succeeded in  dismantling it, the whole corner of the building—six or seven stories—would have come down. “Of course the owner didn’t know this,” Zirinsky says. “He thought he was just taking out some bricks. But that’s why it’s important to turn to people who have been trained to do this kind of work.”  

 Alterations and improvements such as moving walls, changing or adding plumbing  or electrical lines generally requires that the unit owner sign an alteration  agreement with the board, says Greenstein. “The agreement requires plans and specifications to be provided to show all of  the work to be performed, which is then reviewed by the building’s architect. It also requires insurance from the contractor and where  applicable, filings with the Department of Buildings (DOB), such as a work  permit.  

 Finding the proper tradespeople to carry out the work is key. “One rule that should be written in stone is to hire licensed tradesmen,” says Depole. “Electricians and plumbers should be vetted before starting any work. It only  takes one simple phone call to the licensing board.” Checking on past histories also may contribute to getting the best crew  possible. “Having a good contractor is essential,” she adds. “I always check at least four references and take the time to see the work with  the former clients at hand to confirm the workmanship. Like any other process,  you need to do your prep work and take the word ‘assume’ out of your vocabulary.”  

 Greenstein also suggests that a copy of the building’s alteration policy and application be given to all contractors from whom bids  have been requested. This will help them understand what type of insurance is  required, the days and hours work may be performed and what restrictions such  as prohibitions against the use of jackhammers might exist. “Once the building’s architect comments on the plans and they are finalized and approved by the  board, the contractor should finalize the bids. Once one is selected, the work  (should start) after coordinating with the building’s superintendent and managing agent.”  

 Do I Have To?

 It can take some time and effort to get all the construction ducks in a row  before a renovation or redesign can begin. Some unit owners may be tempted to  ignore those initial steps. “If they feel the board is being capricious, people will resist,” says Zirinsky. “Sometimes, though, a board will decided they want or need to tighten some things  up and you’re just the wrong person at the wrong time.” He gives the example of a resident who buys a used washer and dryer from  another tenant. When it comes time to install that unit in his or her own  apartment, the board says no. While that may seem like just a cruel whim to the  new owner of the washer and dryer, the board likely made the rule because there  may have been issues of leaks or some other mishap with that type or size of  machine. “The building doesn’t mean anything by it,” Zirinsky says. It’s just a rule that had to be made.  

 Taking the time to do things properly will also help with keeping your neighbors  happy during those days of buzzing saws and pounding nails. “After years of experience, I follow the good neighbor is a happy neighbor rule,” says Depole. “I always leave a personal note for residences that are in close proximity to the  renovation. Then after we complete the job, I leave a thank you note and  flowers or something sweet. Often my clients throw an open house party to show  off their new digs.” That is an ideal way to show patient neighbors that the slight fuss and muss  was worth the aesthetic effort.  

 Staying on top of the work can also help eliminate frustration from neighbors.  The design professional should ensure that all contractors are in compliance  with all of the building’s rules and regulations with regard to hours of work, protection of common areas  and other facets of the job that might impact other residents. “Design professionals should visit the site weekly or on an ‘as-needed’ basis to monitor the workers and assure that all is going smoothly.  

 Most importantly, if the proper rules and regulations for the building and the  city are not followed, the penalties can be stiff. “The number one question every designer is asked is, do I have to file with the  city?” Zirinsky says. The answer is an emphatic yes. For one thing, there may be new  codes that the homeowner or even the designer may not know about, like a new  energy code introduced into the city in December 2010 that requires compliance  whether the property owner files or not—basically, you need to know about it even if you don’t know about it. These are the kinds of things that a little preventative  footwork can eliminate.  

 The building’s boards also can enforce strict penalties for non-compliance. “The board in its discretion can likely force the unit owner to restore the  apartment to its prior condition,” Greenstein says. “Fines may be imposed as well. In any event, most boards will demand that the  work cease until the board makes a decision as to whether or not it will  require restoration or alternatively, allow the unit owner to continue work but  with more stringent requirements.”  

 Once all of the legwork is complete, undertaking a new design or renovation  project can help transform your family’s living space and breathe new life into your home. If it can make the old feel  new again, then all the preparation and work will be worth it, not to mention  the satisfaction of having a beautiful space to call home.   

 Liz Lent is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Cooperator.

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