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5 Things to Know Before Renovating Your Apartment

By Amy Zimmer | January 21, 2015 7:50am
 Jessica Eckert and Jason Spies rehabbed their grand first-floor two-bedroom in a Park Slope brownstone themselves.
5 Tips to Know Before Renovating
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MANHATTAN — Jessica Eckert and Jason Spies weren’t intending to sell when they rehabbed the grand first-floor two-bedroom in Park Slope they purchased for $880,000 in 2012.

But their keen sense of design — playing up the home's original details and adding a new "classic yet modern" kitchen with Wolf range and Sub-Zero fridge — clearly upped the glamor of the 19th century space.

The home, listed for $1.495 million at the end of last year — a jump of 70 percent from its price a couple of years ago — is now in contract, after a few weeks on the market.

Renovations can have a big financial impact on the value of a home. But projects can be costly and don't always translate into higher price tags. Before embarking on a remodel job, owners should think carefully about whether it's something for the owner to enjoy for the next several years or just for the purposes of selling, experts advised.

“It’s a pretty standard question we get from owners," said real estate agent Dan Bamberger, who recently blogged about the top renovations for apartment dwellers. '‘What should we do to improve the value of our apartment?’”

Here's are tips to help homeowners get the most from their renovations:

1. Consider the “5 year rule.”

If you plan to remain in your apartment more than 5 years, don't worry about whether your renovations will make your home more likeable to would-be buyers, experts said. Design for yourself.

But if you plan on leaving sooner, treat it like you’re flipping the home.

"You want to spend as little as possible to make it look great for curb appeal," said Fraser Patterson, who founded Bolster, a service that lets New Yorkers get independent reviews on renovation bid prices.

2. Start with inexpensive fixes like new paint, new knobs and clean windows.

If you’re planning to sell, it’s important to make cosmetic changes, like washing windows and painting, many brokers said.

“Painting a place can change the whole thing. Even painting kitchen cabinets — you paint them white and get some cool knobs and you're good to go,” said Debra Bondy, of Corcoran, who listed Spies and Eckert’s home.

“Unless something is really broken, I wouldn't suggest renovating. It's too much money," she said. "I don't think you'll recoup the value.”

3. What buyers are hot for: washer/dryers, central air and heated bathroom floors.

Even if a building has a laundry room, residents prefer their own machines, and having a washer/dryer could increase your apartment’s price tag by 5 percent, experts estimate.

Especially in Brownstone Brooklyn, central air systems add a lot of value, as do energy efficient split air systems that mean you don’t have to waste precious window space with bulky air conditioners, Bondy said.

A lot of buyers are also excited about radiant-heated bathroom floors, said Bondy, advising owners who are doing gut-renovations anyway to add the feature.

4. Most popular renovation: bathrooms

Bathroom renovations are most common because they get used the most.

"There’s more wear and tear," said Patterson.

In New York City, projects average from $4,000 to $30,000, he said, noting that the cost skews higher in Manhattan and that prices vary depending on the quality of the materials and contractor.

According to Remodeling Magazine, you can expect a 2 percent return above the cost of your project when doing a “mid-range” project priced around $20,000, which would include replacing all fixtures.

For a major upscale renovation, costing upwards of $59,000 — a gut that would replace and relocate fixtures, adding a customized tub, ceramic tile shower with glass enclosure, heated towel bars and floors — you can expect a return of about 85 percent of the cost — so there’s less of profit when doing a higher-end project.

5. Kitchen renovations can yield big returns.

Kitchen projects across the city, average between $10,000 and $50,000, though again in Manhattan, “the sky is the limit,” with cost, and many hit $80,000, Patterson said.

A “minor” project, which could cost roughly $20,000 — replacing the fronts of cabinets and getting a new counters, sink and energy efficient oven — could yield a 6.5 percent return on investment, according to Remodeling Magazine.

There’s a smaller return on a major upscale project, costing roughly $128,000, which would include custom cherry cabinets with built-in sliding shelves, stone countertops with imported ceramic tile backsplash, a built-in fridge, a 36-inch commercial grade range and vent hood and build-in combo microwave/convection oven.

Owners typically recoup about 74 percent of the cost, the magazine found. 

Even doing small-scale changes, like updating appliances, can be a smart investment, Bamberger noted.

When two apartments in the same line at 225 E. 36th St. sold, one on the 10th floor with stainless steel appliances went for $300,000; one on the 15th floor — without such appliances — sold for $286,000.

“You just want to one-up your neighbors, the local competition on your block and in your neighborhood,” Bamberger advised.

In Murray Hill, where he specializes, buyers aren’t looking for “high-end flashy, but a clean, nice feel that won’t hurt their pockets," he said.

"You have to understand what's the perceived added value to the buyer."