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The Best Digital Tools for Designing Your Apartment

By Amy Zimmer | February 12, 2014 7:42am
 These four digital tools can help New York City buyers and renters envision whether a new home will be a good fit.
Digital Tools to Help House-Hunters
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MANHATTAN — Envisioning how to make a new home work for you by studying floor plans or walking through an open house can be daunting. Would your furniture fit? Could you carve a nursery out of that dining nook?

Perhaps you're wondering if the building has a history of violations.

While several technology firms are making it easier to search for New York City homes, other digital tools and apps are helping house-hunters with the next step  — allowing users to virtually move walls, get decorating inspiration, look up public records and communicate directly with brokers.

Here are some of the best new digital tools for house-hunters:

This site allows users to virtually move walls in floor plans. 

Buyers can share their ideal layouts with brokers and upload photos of wished-for rooms. Brokers, designers and contractors can also use the tool to show clients the possible ways a space can be reinvented through alternative layouts, explained Homebildr's Doug Perlson, who also helped launch the online brokerage firm RealDirect.

“It’s a floor-plan editor that meets Pinterest,” Perlson said. “Having that kind of interactive ability to look at a home and reconfigure and reimagine is important, especially because inventory is tight, so if you can make a three-bedroom out of a two-bedroom, you’ve added a ton of value for that buyer."

The onus is on the buyer, broker or contractor to find out whether the reconfigured layouts are structurally feasible or whether they conform to the sometimes stringent renovation rules of co-ops or condos.

In the next three to six months, the designers of the site — which is in beta mode and still being tweaked — plan to add a tool where users can drop different furniture into a floor plan, Perlson said. It would use, for instance, icons for king- or queen-sized beds drawn to scale, possibly helping house-hunters see beyond the often imprecise square footage measurements used in listings.

Want inspiration for turning a dining area into a “glam” bedroom or how to paint stripes on your floor? This massive site full of interior design and decorating ideas has more than 2 million photos, organized by room and style, to help dwellers figure out how to makeover their homes.

It also has a tool to help you find local architects, contractors and designers.

“The Houzz app is totally addictive,” expert real estate appraiser Jonathan Miller said. “You look at a bunch of apartments and then you go home and flip through ideas. You’re trying to imagine living there and this will enable it."

It provides a lot of fodder for those faced with the "quirky spaces" common in New York City apartments, he added.

Among Houzz’s New York users, 70 percent said they planned to remodel or decorate in the next two years and of those, 81 percent who were planning to remodel said they were doing it to improve the look, feel, flow or layout, according to a survey the company did in 2013.

Bathrooms and kitchens were the most commonly renovated rooms, with $40,000 spent, on average, for kitchens and $16,400 spent on bathrooms, the site said. More than half of those surveyed said they went over budget for renovations.

NYC Buildings app
There’s no better way to “get under the hood” of a home than by looking at public records. Are there any building permits filed, complaints about work or any construction violations?

“The NYC Buildings app gives you access to a lot of raw building information,” Miller said.

Though the information isn’t put into context, it could provide leads for a house-hunter to research further.

“I’d want to know if there’s anything that stands out,” Miller said. “If there are a lot of problems with the building, maybe that’s a management issue or maybe there’s infighting with the tenants."

If you’re wondering why one building is more affordable than another, Miller suggested this data might hold some clues.

Buyers planning to remodel could check out contractors who have worked in the building, which would expedite the process, since those contractors most likely know that particular building’s insurance requirements and hiring them might create “less friction with the [co-op] board,” said Fraser Patterson, founder of Bolster, which offers remodeling insurance in New York.

If you’re thinking of buying two apartments and combining them, you might be able to find out if others have done that in a building to “give you some confidence of what can be done,” he said.

Though the year-old app isn’t terribly user-friendly and tends to crash, "it’s good for sniffing around buildings in general," Patterson noted.

Along with many real estate search platforms' own tools to help manage searches or the popular Evernote app, some brokers use Agentfolio, a subscription-based site that allows them to communicate with house-hunters about listings.

"You can ask, 'Did we go to the Dunhill?,'" Lee Williams, of Rutenberg Realty, said of a condo on East 84th Street. “And I can remind them, 'Yes, but we didn’t like the layout or didn’t like the price.’”

With the site's price alert, it's easy to find out if anything changes.

When new apartments come on the market, Williams said, he’s able to guide his clients through the particulars, such as whether a unit faces the back.

“No matter what the technology,” Williams added, “you still need someone at end of the day who knows the building, the neighborhood and if there are things like bed bugs.”

The site, originally called Buyfolio, was bought in 2012 by Zillow, which recently acquired Streeteasy. Its name was changed in June.

The most popular search parameter for New Yorkers beyond price and the number of bedrooms and bathrooms was for doorman buildings, according to an Agentfolio spokeswoman.