We constantly hear from new homeowners and prospective buyers that electrical upgrades might be needed for a decades- or century-old apartment or townhouse, but “electrical work” is one of those vague terms that can mean anything from installing a light fixture to replacing a building’s internal wiring. Because electrical magic happens behind walls, forecasting the extent and cost can be a big challenge and a big question if you’re budgeting for a renovation or for a new home purchase. Read on for nitty gritty budget basics of electrical work and potential costs!
How do I know what kind of electrical work a place needs?
Contractors will first look at the electrical panel (or “box”) in order to determine circuit load capacity — in other words, what can the existing framework currently handle? Experienced contractors who do this routinely can generally tell by looking at the circuits what can and cannot be done (whether you need to add more load on the existing framework or whether you need to upgrade to a larger panel because switches are full).
Pre-war apartments that haven’t been updated in decades often need significant electrical re-wiring and additional wattage to support modern electricity demands. Many NYC buildings constructed through the early part of the twentieth century were multi-layered with older wiring systems, and some have ungrounded systems that lack safety grounding conductors. Others have metallic insulation materials like aluminum or copper wiring that may actually increase the chances of electrical shock or fire. These older wiring systems, typically with 60 to 100 amps of service, violate current electrical codes and fall short of the standard minimum of 200 amps generally needed to power a home.
What if I just want to install new appliances?
Installing air conditioners, new kitchen appliances, or entertainment systems may seem simple but can quickly overwhelm an older building’s capacity. Your home’s electrical load capacity is like a surge protector on a much larger scale – if you have too many wires plugged into an outlet, the circuit may overload, which leads to tripped breakers and blown fuses that shut down all power. So, if your electrical system is not capable of handling additional load, a relatively straightforward appliance installation could become a much more invasive and substantial project that might involve installing a new electrical circuit panel or a complete overhaul of the electrical wiring.
How does rewiring work? How much will it cost?
If your place is in for a full electrical upgrade, you need to plan and budget for a labor-intensive and disruptive process. Your electrician will temporarily shut off power and your contractor will open up the walls. Since wires are attached to studs or beams within the walls, rewiring can be very invasive: your team might completely demolish entire walls to access all the old wires and replace them with a new set. To finish, your team will then plaster and paint the walls while the electrician connects remaining switches and outlets, closes up the new electrical panel, and installs light fixtures. The full life cycle of this kind of project, with demolition, permits, labor, materials, construction and painting can range from $10,000 to $15,000 and up depending on the size of your space and extent of work. If you are gut-renovating an entire home, a full electrical overhaul might represent somewhere around 5% of your total budget. If your renovation is more targeted and limited to a particular room (like a kitchen), you might find that a full electrical overhaul ends up matching or exceeding the total cost of the project you were planning.
Rewiring aside, what else might I need?
Contractors assess electrical needs and costs based on a series of questions:
1. What is already in place vs. what are you trying to accomplish?
Without getting too technical, the best way to think about this question is to identify what kind of light fixtures or electrical systems are in place and what’s not there? If you want to install lighting, put in a security system, or run a phone line in a particular location that doesn’t have existing wiring, contractors have to conduct an electrical “rough-in”, which is the preliminary step to lay out the basic wiring to proper specifications before connections and insulation are completed. The rough-in cost is generally calculated by the length of the cable lines installed (linear feet running from the circuit box to the point where outlets and switches are mounted), the cost of materials, and the labor rate. Rough-ins might also be charged at a flat rate of $250 – $400 per junction box, outlet, or switch.
2. What type of light fixtures and finishes do you want and how many do you need?
Contractors charge labor costs which include running cables to devices and connecting wiring to circuit boxes based on the amount and type of fixtures you want to install. Generally, swapping an old light fixture for a new one comes in at around $100 per fixture or at an hourly fee. Installing new fixtures like pendants and recessed LED lights comes in at around $200 – $400 per fixture and larger, heavier fixtures like chandeliers cost in the range of $500 – $800 per fixture.
3. How much amp service does your electrical panel hold? Do you have a shortage of circuits? Can you add circuits without changing the electrical panel?
Electrical panels in NYC usually hold 200 amps of service, so if your electrical load is short, you won’t have enough power in the circuit box to accommodate new demands. In this case, you need to upgrade your electrical panel, which can cost $2,000 to $5,000 and up for a new box. If you have an existing electrical panel with enough room for new circuits but you’re planning a renovation that might add some heavy-duty appliances, you may want to consider adding a new circuit breaker, which typically costs $300 to $800 per breaker in order to accommodate a higher electrical capacity load. Adding a new circuit to the panel allows you to install more outlets, which generally cost around $100 to $300 per outlet.
Permits and Process
For anything other than a fixture swap or a straightforward appliance installation, you will need an electrician licensed by the Department of Buildings who must first file an electrical application and pay permit fees in order to conduct electrical work. Once a permit is obtained, an inspection must take place, and a certificate is mailed to ensure that the work was properly completed and inspected.
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