A Hands-on Renovator Fashions His Perfect Home

by Tisha Leung

Prepping was a smart move from hiring the right contractor to staying on budget

With some working knowledge in architecture and interior design, Toby was able to articulate—and save time and money—on how he wanted to recreate his fixer-upper in upper Manhattan. He reached out to a few contractors on his own but wasn’t convinced there was a fit. He then posted his project on Sweeten, a renovation platform connecting homeowners with vetted general contractors, and hired a contractor to fulfill his vision. Laser-focused on the design as well as the renovation process, he reversed a dark and inefficient space with a series of space adjustments between the rooms, ushered in a brighter home (thanks to paint and skim coating), and by being uber-organized. Bonus score: His neighbors became friends during the process. 

living room renovation

“After” photos by Pixy Interiors for Sweeten

Sweeten blog post by homeowner Toby

Before hiring my contractor through Sweeten, I had been apartment hunting for over a year. I wanted to be in a diverse community that was vibrantly neighborhood-centric and had accessible transportation. As an avid HGTV junkie and a novice student of architecture and interior design,  I wanted something I could make my own. I landed in upper Manhattan and chose a co-op with a reputation for having a board with liberal renovation policies.

I had hoped to bring a contractor to potential properties to help with realistic renovation ideas but contractors don’t want to spend a lot of time doing detailed estimates for buyers without an accepted offer. Plus, the walls carry expensive secrets that don’t come to light until demo time, so estimates can vary widely.

homeowner portrait holding pet cat

After interviewing five contractors and still feeling unsure, I turned to Sweeten. I chose three of the contractors who showed interest in bidding on the project. There were pros and cons to each of the eight professionals I interviewed but I landed on this Sweeten contractor.

On my first meeting with him, I was hesitant. He was very professional but a bit standoffish, which worried me. Having a good relationship with your contractor is critical. He was very upfront and honest about all the potential hidden costs which I wanted and appreciated but I also wanted to hear options and workable solutions. He was not the cheapest by far but what impressed me most was how thorough he was in the walkthrough.

The apartment didn’t have a lot of character. It had a small galley kitchen and a tiny bathroom with a toilet in direct view with the dining room table. The amount of natural light was ok but the depressing shades of brown and beige on the walls made it look darker than it was.

However, it did have an open spacious living/dining area. I felt I could expand the kitchen and solve the light issue by painting the walls white throughout, installing blinds instead of curtains, and bleaching the floors a light natural color. The walls needed skim coating and recessed lights were added throughout for ambiance. The board also allowed the installation of a new washer and dryer, which was a must-have.

I hired an architect to navigate code issues, work around structural limitations, and produce licensed plans but my elementary knowledge of space planning and architectural drafting saved a lot of time and money.

living room before
dining and living room
bedroom renovation
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By the time my contractor was ready to start the demo, I had chosen most of the finishings. I kept track of lead times, on-hand inventory, and the dates materials were needed on-site with an elaborate spreadsheet that I used as my bible throughout the project. Shopping for finishings was fun but it was exhausting and time-consuming. It can be a full-time job. I spent most of my time shopping for appliances, countertops, and tile. Warning: In planning a kitchen redesign, choose your appliances first and work around them or adjust accordingly.

I created the illusion of more space by using the same tile on the floor and walls and taking it to the ceiling.

I liked having a hallway that separates the private areas of the house but it was inefficient. Moving the doorway created a trifecta of functionality. It eliminated the sightline to the toilet from the dining room, created a location for the washer and dryer, and added additional closet space, including a hall and broom closet.

kitchen before
kitchen remodel
open shelving kitchen
vertical kitchen storage closet
"During" of building a new closet
bedroom closet
Bathroom before
bathroom storage
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I hated the dark reddish wood floors, so I stripped and bleached them. When the natural color came out a bit green, my contractor gave me “wash” options. It cost a bit more but it’s one of my favorite upgrades making the apartment lighter, brighter, and more modern.

I gave the master bedroom closet to the bathroom, and built a full-length closet with sliding doors, which I designed, stained, and finished, along with an open inset for the dresser and a TV, resulting in housing significantly more apparel and my extensive shoe collection.

The tiny bathroom was a challenge. There were several pipes to work around and the waste line dictated that the toilet could not move. The room borrowed two feet from the master bedroom, allowing the tub to be swapped for a walk-in shower. I created the illusion of more space by using the same tile on the floor and walls and taking it to the ceiling. Also saving room is a floating vanity with lighting under the sink that acts as a nightlight. The guest room was tiny because I took space away to add to the kitchen. But I spent a long time making sure a full-size bed and closets could still fit. That interior design space planning class paid for itself many times over.

bathroom tile and clear shower door

In preparing for my renovation, I felt I knew as much as possible about what lay behind the walls at the end of my contractor search. My Sweeten contractor was one of only two who gave me their estimate on the date they promised (his was a day early) and it was a very thorough detailed estimate that proved to be a valuable reference document that allowed me to keep an accurate running total of actual costs and change orders. The office manager was on top of all change orders and cost adjustments.

The contractor estimates came in significantly higher than planned across the board so I revised my budget by almost double with no room for contingencies. In order to set and hit realistic budgets, lay out your must-haves vs nice-to-haves, including the things you can do on the cheap that work. Items from Ikea, Target, and T.J. Maxx can work beautifully next to expensive pieces.

The contractor quoted five months to complete while I was facing an expiring lease in my previous location. After a five-week close, the board approved my interview in one day—a miracle—and then approved my renovation package three days later. Soon after, I gave a nice bottle of wine to surrounding neighbors along with a note apologizing in advance for the disruption.  We have been friends ever since.

I am really thrilled with how the project came out. My project manager, Nicholas, and his crew were great to work with and I appreciated that Sweeten checked in on a regular basis to make sure things were going as planned.

Thank you, Toby, for sharing your new home with us!

WATCH VIDEO:

KITCHEN RESOURCES: Cooktop: Bosch. Hood: GE. Wall oven and microwave: Whirlpool. Dishwasher: Samsung. Refrigerator: Fisher Paykel. Tile backsplash in Smokey Grey: TileBar. Countertop in Alabaster White: MSI. Cabinets in Super Matte White: Adornus. Cabinet pulls: Build.com. Under-counter lights: Kichler. Floor tile in Baltimore Gris: Happy Floors. Faucet: Grohe. Sink: Artisan

BATHROOM RESOURCES: Showerheads, faucet: Grohe. Vanity: Fresca. Exhaust fan: Panasonic. Vanity lights: Kichler. Bathroom tiles: TileBar. Washer and dryer: LG. Shower glass: Fleurco. Towel racks, toilet paper holder: Grohe. Toilet: Duravit. Lighting trims and lighting trim kit: Ultritech. Bulbs: Phillips

OTHER RESOURCES: Durso 8 light dining light fixture: Wayfair. Closet door handles, privacy door handles: Kwikset.

Sweeten founder and CEO weighs in on what to know before renovating a brownstone.

Sweeten handpicks the best general contractors to match each project’s location, budget, scope, and style. Follow the blog, Sweeten Stories, for renovation ideas and inspiration and when you’re ready to renovate, start your renovation on Sweeten.

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