The Brownstone Boys’ Do’s & Don’ts of Renovating

Tips from the Brownstone Boys, a Brooklyn-based duo, to help guarantee a smoother renovation

Brownstone Boys renovation (Above) Jordan (left) and Barry (right) of the Brownstone Boys

When the Brownstone Boys— Barry Bordelon and Jordan Slocum— began renovating their 130-year-old brownstone in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, they decided to document the journey. Their multi-story home seemingly squeezed in bedrooms wherever they could (five!), a kitchen sat in the middle of a living room, and the kitchen needed an upgrade. Ready for the deep-dive, the pair had original woodwork restored, overhauled the cooking space and modernized the home throughout. The room they’re most proud of? A bedroom-turned-guest-bath. “We went classic New York all the way—subway tiles, hex floret floor tile, and claw foot tub,” the duo said. “We added a reclaimed door adding chicken-wire glass and stenciled ‘WC’ into it.”

The Brownstone Boys shared some do’s and don’ts with Sweeten, a free renovation platform that matches homeowners with licensed general contractors and tracks their projects. Read more about how the 15-year Brooklyn veterans transformed their home on their Brownstone Boys blog.

Brownstone Boys: The “Do’s” of renovating:

1. Make sure you have the right team (contractor, architect, specialists)

Brownstone Boys renovation

It’s one of the first things you’ll do. You’ll be spending a lot of time with these professionals. Make sure they understand the project, have the skills needed, have a good track record, and are easy to communicate with.

2. Get together a solid budget and leave room for contingency

Brownstone Boys renovation

Surprises can be waiting when you open up the walls. Decisions you make in the design phase can also impact the budget. Making large structural changes can require the need for a structural engineer. HVAC plans may call for a mechanical engineer. Be prepared to set your priorities and create a budget that leaves room for the inevitable surprises. Depending on the size of your renovation, leave about a 10-20% contingency.

3. Get 3-5 estimates from contractors

You’ll learn something with every walkthrough you have with a contractor. Quotes can vary greatly. Some contractors have crews of their own rather than subs for certain things which can lower costs. Some have more experience in areas that might especially help in your project. You could easily see some quotes come in double from others. Getting 3-5 estimates will help you understand the full range and put you in the best position to choose the bid that works for your project the most. (Hint: that is often not the cheapest one).

4. Plan on a lot of things taking longer than you expect 

Brownstone Boys renovation Photo: Dave Sauerhoff

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City approvals, landmarks approvals, plumbing inspections, finishes selection, and material delivery are all part of the process. Things along the way will also create delays. If you build in extra time, it will be much less stressful.

5. Organize your inspiration photos so you have a good sense of what you want

Brownstone Boys renovation Photo: Dave Sauerhoff

For many people, going through a renovation will require making more decisions in a short period of time! It will take time and you’ll want to think about details and materials carefully. Start organizing your thoughts early so that you know what you want later.

6. Have at least weekly meetings with your contractor but remember they need their space to work

Hopefully, you selected a contractor who is easy to communicate with and responsible enough to be given some autonomy. You likely won’t be on-site daily, but it’s a good idea to set a weekly walkthrough to review what has been done the previous week, what issues have come up, and what will be done over the following week. At the same time, it’s probably not the best idea to micromanage your contractor on a daily basis. You want them to work efficiently and you should be able to trust them to get the job done. If you don’t, then you might not have the right team.

7. Order finishes with proper lead times and the right quantities

Some finishes have longer lead times than others. If you don’t have enough of that custom tile to finish your bathroom, you might have a 6-8 week wait for more (whoops!)

Brownstone Boys: The “Don’ts” of renovating

1. Don’t live in a construction zone. We know it’s tempting.

Brownstone Boys renovation Photo: Bridget Badore

The budget is tight and a month-long camping trip in your own house might sound fun, but the process can be stressful. It can easily spill over into the unmanageable. Don’t have a hard deadline to finish. Whether it’s a lease expiring, a previous home sold, a due date, have a backup plan should the project go over. It will be less stressful for you and your family and your contractor can focus on completing the renovation. It will likely be worth the expense to have some lease overlap or temporary living arrangements so that you have some breathing room.

2. Don’t change your mindand your plansthroughout the process 

It’s one of the biggest causes of delays. Changing finishes, configuration, and plans mid-renovation will slow things down to a crawl. Make decisions early so that you have time to let them sink in so that any changes are made well before that phase starts.

3. Don’t put off work that can easily be done while walls are open and unpainted 

Your budget might require you to push some items to the future, but make sure they are projects that make sense to do once the main renovation is complete. For example, don’t add an AC system or move walls. You will destroy a lot of recently finished walls and floors. While your walls are open, do the projects that require any electrical or plumbing changes. Before the floors are finished, this is the time to move walls. Adding new windows or putting in that steel deck are items that could be put off for later. They likely won’t require you to undo what’s already been done. 

Thanks to the Brownstone Boys for sharing these invaluable tips for renovating! 

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 with Sweeten.


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