Tips for Not Losing Your Mind
For the past two weeks I’ve had a dose of my own medicine: In an effort to knock off some improvements before the holidays, a carpenter has taken up daytime residence in my dining room. But like the doctor who is the worst possible patient, I am the biggest baby about undergoing a renovation. The dust, the disruption, and the commotion are almost unbearable. I hate everything about it, except the results.
It also serves to remind me what my clients are going through, and forces me to swallow some of the medicine I usually dispense…
Why Renovations Cost So Bloody Much
I get this phone call all the time: “My contractor just came in with a $50K price on my bathroom, but I got my bathroom in the country done for $10K. What gives?”
While tile, fixtures and lights cost the same no matter where you live – courtesy of the Internet – the price of labor varies widely, and here’s why: City contractors face an array of challenges their suburban and rural counterparts don’t.
Will My Contractor Overcharge Me Because I Live in Manhattan?
Back when I was running a paint crew, I went to see a client’s classic-seven on Central Park West, to give her an estimate. The view was exquisite; the pre-war rooms generous in scale and beautifully detailed. The client pointed to the grand piano, the museum-quality art, the photos of family, posed with celebrities at a benefit. Her manners, and everything in the home, spoke of quality and an elegant life, well-lived.
Then she paused, turned to me and said, “Now don’t get the idea there’s any kind of money here.” I had to laugh, and graciously, so did she.
Whether they live on Central Park West, Sutton Place, or Sullivan Street, New Yorkers often worry that their swank addresses will serve only to get them ripped off by contractors with dollar signs in their eyes.
How Not to Talk Money With a Contractor
I remember going to see a TriBeCa loft with my two partners back when the area was starting to boom. Between us, we had 30 years of experience. We listened as the newly wealthy photographer-owner described the glass-topped wall he wanted. My partners and I were thinking, silently, that it would take 5 days with 2 guys, plus materials.
Now, back in the day, before his loft had tripled in value, the photographer had thrown up some wobbly sheetrock walls himself, and he thought he knew a thing or two about construction. “How much can it cost,” he demanded. “What, two, three-hundred dollars? C’mon, it’s a no-brainer!”
After we walked out, all three of us shook our heads and said simultaneously: “No brainer.” When a person tells you that what you do is of no value, you don’t take the job.
Discussing costs is always tricky. Here are some actual phrases I wish I’d never hear again:
Cooling Your Heels One Meeting Too Many
My client arrives for our site meeting bright-eyed, ready to roll, and clutching a bulleted to-do list. For the second time, the contractor rushes in 25 minutes late, a deer-in-the-headlights look on his face, having leapt from his truck while barking instructions to his assistant to find coffee and parking. He apologizes, asks for a pen. My client quietly rolls her eyes.
Five minutes later, the contractor owns the meeting, walking us through intricate issues involving risers and beams. The owner is impressed and takes his advice about a problematic valve. Yet she can’t help but wonder, “Does this guy, who is literally ripping my apartment apart by the seams, really have his act together?”
Contractors Versus Handymen: What’s the Difference?
Last week, I had two separate calls from “contractors” pitching themselves to do my projects. Although they both claimed to have been doing renovations in the city for years, they were unfamiliar with the most basic requirements for working in a Manhattan co-op, such as insurance and other documentation.
In short, they were not really contractors at all: They were unlicensed handymen.
What’s the difference, anyway?
Who Me, Picky?
Back in 1995, John Tierney wrote a story for The New York Times in honor of Valentine’s Day. The article, “Picky, Picky, Picky,” chronicled the various inane reasons a single New Yorker might reject a potential mate. For instance, “She mispronounced ‘Goethe.’”
Similarly, the homeowners of this city seem singularly equipped with their own lists of design peccadilloes and a passion that can be startling. It can be about color, it can be about furniture, it can be about fabric. I’m always amused when I discover a new one.
My fellow designers and I have heard a long and conflicting list, ranging from, “Absolutely no gray,” to “I hate color, please, can we stick to soothing gray?”
Some dictates are decipherable, as in, “No overhead lighting.”
Others, not so much: “No lamps on end tables.”
Sometimes there’s no explanation at all, like the client who adamantly declared to my partner and I, “NO OTTOMANS!” (We were afraid to ask!)
A Board’s Eye View of Your Renovation Wish List
With his kids grown, my client was finally able to sell his Long Island house and snag the Manhattan apartment he’d always wanted. He hoped to move in as soon as the house closed, but his renovation wish list was studded with red flags – adding a laundry, central air, and a fireplace – guaranteed to slam the brakes on the approval process.
The reality is that upgrades that may be commonplace in the burbs are anything but to a NYC co-op. Knowing the difference between what usually gets approved, what might get approved, and what’s strictly verboten, can save you time and heartache.
Um, Why Do I Need a Handicap Bathroom for my Third-Floor Walk-Up?
This is a true story: When we redid the bathroom on the top floor of my client’s attached townhouse–up two narrow, winding flights of stairs–we were required to widen the doorway for wheelchair accessibility.
This was a space that no disabled person could ever access in the first place. In fact, during construction, my client had a skiing accident that put her in a wheelchair. She was grounded to her first-floor powder room for weeks.
Now, understanding the arcane federal and local laws surrounding the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a forward-thinking law passed in 1990, is beyond the grasp of many professionals, never mind the average NYC apartment dweller…so much so that a massive industry has grown up around interpreting and anticipating how these laws will affect renovations.
So, what do you have to know, as a homeowner, before you begin yours?
I used to live in a SoHo loft that had been renovated by squatting artists in the 1970s. To make their apartments as huge as possible, they’d created a crazily narrow public hallway. Every time you had to move furniture, or came home a bit wobbly after a night out, you cursed that tight space.
These days, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) would have prevented such short-sighted construction by dictating a minimum hallway width. In a previous column, we identified who has to follow ADA rules. Below, a brief tour of what the ADA may compel you to do.
Maximizing New York’s Most Valuable Real Estate: Counter Space
Think like a restaurant chef: They can cook anything in 24″ of counter space. All you really need is two clear feet of counter space between your sink and your stove, and you can crank out any feast.