Sweeten hand-picks the best experts for your renovation project

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Pricing Guide: NYC Landscaping Costs

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I’ve been psyched to look at landscaping projects for weeks, but Mother Nature seems to be moving a little slowly. Nevertheless! This week, I decided to do some digging (yes…pun intended) on options and costs for landscaping work in NYC. Upfront disclosure: my landscaping expertise begins and ends with succulents on my coffee table that appear to be surviving without water, and one of the reasons I live in NYC is to avoid yard work of any kind, so I was grateful to have Sweeten Expert Corey and Sweeten Expert Jonathan share their take on urban green spaces for this post.

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Window box and balcony basics

Corey explained that the starting point for the most basic green endeavor might begin with window boxes or planters for a small balcony. Here, you are essentially paying for what you see: prices for boxes and planters are based on dimensions and materials. (more…)

Posted by: Categories: Cost Guide, Landscaping 2

This week, I checked in with a few of Sweeten’s interior designers to see what’s taking shape in apartments across the City. I found simple and smart ideas that bring a fresh eye to any home. Below are a few spring-ready snapshots, highlighting some of my favorite themes:

- white basics and natural wood/green accents to freshen and organize a space
- glass and lucite accessories as ways to lighten and brighten a space
- mint and gold as new color update options

Natural Accents and Easy Green Companions

Design accents inspired by nature can go a long way to satisfy our desire for fresh air and extra daylight. Sweeten Expert Jill took this five foot East Village kitchen and made it gorgeous and functional with a singular focus on white kitchen and storage basics, highlighted with natural accents using greens and wood grains. This is a great reminder that the form of everyday kitchen basics can be beautiful and that low-maintenance plants like succulents and philodendron are super stylish options for areas that need warmth and color.

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Statements in Glass and Lucite

I’m making an extra effort this year to appreciate the extended daylight hours that come with the season. Transparent materials like glass and lucite (more…)

Posted by: Categories: Inspiration, interior designers 1

Last week, we looked at the upfront and behind-the-scenes costs of a basic NYC kitchen renovation. This week, we’re continuing with part two of the kitchen pricing guide series to break down options and costs for a high-end kitchen renovation.

Sweeten Expert Peter reiterated a few points from last week: you can go sky-high on luxury appliance costs but the real value of a high-end kitchen comes in the soft costs of precise design and infrastructure upgrades, and the investment of custom millwork and installation labor.

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Design and layout

Peter explained that the first place you start to see a move toward a high-end kitchen is when the homeowner is looking to re-work or expand the layout of the existing kitchen. Dropping walls, moving gas lines, re-routing plumbing lines, and re-wiring electrical options automatically hit a cost threshold above the $20,000 you need for a basic kitchen gut. Homeowners looking to do that kind of transformative work in the kitchen need architectural designs from a registered architect that can add a minimum of $15,000 to $20,000 to the budget, and generally necessitate expensive permits, thorough building approvals, high insurance coverage requirements, and more involved management from a general contractor overseeing the project.

These “soft costs” – expenses critical to the success of the work but often invisible and unforeseen for the homeowner – can represent 15-30% of a high-end kitchen renovation.

Below: Luxe kitchen renovation with custom, white lacquer cabinetry and custom oak paneling by Sweeten Expert Peter

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Custom cabinetry

Cabinets are generally the most cost- and labor-intensive physical aspect of a luxe kitchen renovation. Peter explained that many homeowners looking for high-end finishes tend to go in one of two directions: they opt for minimalist sleek cabinetry with concealed hardware, or they turn to decorative cabinetry with highly custom visual details. Either way, Peter explained that the starting point for basic custom cabinetry is $1,000 per linear foot (more…)

Posted by: Categories: Cost Guide, Inspiration, Kitchens 0

In March, we took a look at the cost breakdown of the average NYC bathroom renovation. This week, we’re moving on to the first of a two-part series on kitchen renovation pricing. We talked with Sweeten Experts Valeria and Eduard as well as Sweeten Expert Peter for a transparent look at the basic and variable costs of a typical kitchen renovation.

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The realization that struck me after talking with these experts is that homeowners have a lot of choice in managing costs on some material aspects of a kitchen renovation, but there are other costs that are less-obvious, labor-intensive, and tremendously critical to the work overall, no matter what you choose to spend on materials. Let’s take a look at both the straightforward and behind-the-scenes costs.

Straightforward Costs – Materials and Appliances 

Take a quick walk around your kitchen or any home appliance store and you can start to get a feel for the obvious costs of a kitchen renovation. You can expect to spend under $400 or up to $3,000 (and well beyond) on each of your stove, fridge, and dishwasher selections. You can find basic sink options for under $100 and up to $2,500, and faucet fixtures for under $40 and up to $1,200. (more…)

Posted by: Categories: Cost Guide, Kitchens 3

The last six months have brought big-time changes for Blaise, Kristin, and their family of five. After welcoming their third child and moving from Manhattan to Brooklyn, Blaise and Kristin were ready to prep their new home in Prospect Lefferts Gardens for the long run. First up: a kitchen and laundry room update. We stopped in to take some photos along the way, but the rest of this story is told by Blaise, himself.

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“Sweeten made it easy to communicate our vision to contractors before they even set foot in our home.”

- Blaise C., Prospect Lefferts Gardens homeowner

When we moved into our new home six months ago, we almost didn’t notice how limited the kitchen was. Living out of boxes and welcoming a newborn, it took us a few weeks to realize that we were having trouble finding space for groceries and that we had accidentally made a habit of storing kitchen basics in the basement. The move just about doubled the total space of our home, and yet we were struggling to find a place for everyday kitchen stuff.

Our punch list was pretty classic: kitchen storage was sorely lacking and countertop space was a joke. We are working parents who don’t cook that often, but we were ready to move our pots and pans out of the oven. We also realized that the bar-height counter was inaccessible for our kids and wanted to create a central gathering spot with a more standard counter height.

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The kitchen had been recently renovated and we liked the look, so we initially entertained the possibility of a quick fix like purchasing a kitchen island, but ended up deciding to use what we had and expand on it. At first, I tried to juggle contractor bids on my own, but with kids and jobs, that turned out to be decidedly easier said than done. I posted the project on Sweeten and added to the plans to create a laundry room in the basement by enclosing our washer/dryer with built-out walls and solid doors. (more…)

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Meet Kerry, Sweeten’s New Blogger

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Renovations are expensive and messy, but more than that, a renovation can feel destabilizing because it challenges our sense of control over what few square feet we have. If you’ve been following along with the Sweeten blog during the last few months, you have seen us take on topics that demystify the renovation process and help homeowners and professionals build more informed partnerships. These blog posts can be more dense and less glamorous than our standard before-and-after features (we will keep those coming, too!), but we’re hoping to fill out the picture of what things cost and what to expect so that you can get more work done in your home on your terms. This week, meet the blogger behind these new blog posts, me, Kerry.

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I bought a 340 square foot apartment in the East Village after a decade of living in apartments with classic city charm: sixth floor walk-ups, living room showers, and bedrooms without closets. The new place was already in good shape – kitchen and bath had been renovated within the last few years and I had taken the plunge with new floors after moving in. But in a space this small, I found myself fixating on details like damaged baseboards and wall marks, and my efforts to freshen the apartment with a new coat of paint were only semi-successful; you can see where I got tired of re-painting the white hallway walls and left an uneven strip of the old white paint along the top. (more…)

Posted by: Categories: Before 7
Thursday, March 20, 2014

What to Expect When Combining Apartments

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As a nomadic New Yorker who lived in ten apartments over twelve years, I used to have an oddly pleasant recurring dream: in the dream, I would “discover” a hidden room that I had never seen before in my otherwise tiny home. Without fail, I would wake up happily imagining all of the things that I could put in the new room – a perfectly natural closet-and-dining-room-and-guest-room-and-outdoor-patio all in one. For some New Yorkers, this dream is a real possibility. If you have managed to scoop up multiple adjacent apartments and are planning to combine them, you may be looking at a host of layout options and renovation decisions that are unique to the process of combining apartments. To help us envision what to expect, we connected with Sweeten Expert Andrew, an architect who partnered with Sweeten Expert Graham, on a Hell’s Kitchen  combination that created an open loft with stunning Hudson River views.   

Andrew first talked us through renovation issues that are specific to combining apartments. Homeowners with adjacent apartments have the unique luxury of multiple layout options but also need to work within a unique set of constraints to create the new space. “Clients often look first at how to capitalize on the overall flow of the space, exposures, and views of the apartments,” Andrew explained. The photos below demonstrate Andrew’s vision for unifying multiple entry points and living spaces in one open plan. 

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With a general idea for entry and living spaces in mind, homeowners can make a decision that most of their neighbors will never have to face: which kitchen to keep! Andrew pointed out that you can decide between existing kitchens, or create a new kitchen space altogether, but you need to keep plumbing lines in mind because New Yorkers are generally (more…)

Now that we’ve taken a first shot at understanding the cost breakdown for a full home renovation, we’re digging in this week with a look at pricing a bathroom renovation. We’ll spare you the clichés about how bathrooms are zen sanctuaries – if you are a homeowner looking to re-do an outdated or less-than-functional bathroom, especially in New York (land of showers, sinks, and toilets that are three centimeters apart), you need a transparent look at the basic and variable costs of your project. To get started, we talked with Sweeten Expert Aleks, the man behind the scenes at Ben and Therese’s Brooklyn Heights bathroom upgrade, and Sweeten Expert Alan, the key player in Sanaya’s Clinton Hill kitchen and bathroom renovations (–Sanaya’s bathroom renovation pictured in this post).

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Where do you start when planning your budget if you want to renovate your bathroom?

Alan explained that the bare minimum begins with swapping out an individual fixture or two. You can replace a toilet or vanity for a fairly limited cost, and pay a la carte for the cost of the new fixture and the hours of installation work. “The only way to stay under $5,000,” he explained, “is to focus on a straight swap of the toilet, vanity, and accessories like towel rods and hooks.” Aleks estimated that you could go one step up with new fixtures and some limited tile work and stay in the $8,000 or $9,000 range. Both Alan and Aleks agreed that the minute you decide you are opening walls or touching the plumbing, the job becomes a more holistic project and you will need an average of $16,000 to $20,000 to get it done. Alan noted that even if you are just re-doing fixtures and tile work, you may find that you need to replace the sheetrock on the wall and address issues behind the walls (old valves, ancient drain pipes, etc). These expenses can be surprising for homeowners who are just envisioning upgrades to visible fixtures and finishes.

Can you walk us through the material elements of a bathroom renovation that a homeowner needs to think about? 

Aleks noted that because of space demands, most homeowners start with ideas about the placement and function of the tub or shower. “Do you want to leave what’s there?” Aleks asked, “Convert an old tub to a new tub? Convert a tub to a walk-in shower?” Homeowners tend to focus next on the vanity and related storage (cabinetry, shelves, niches, etc). Aleks noted that he often sees homeowners opting to use the vanity and medicine cabinet to stretch their budget and pick higher-end, custom fixtures because these are focal points that can have a more immediate visual impact with higher quality materials. Next, you need to decide on the toilet, tile, faucets, lighting fixtures, and hardware accessories like hooks, towel bars, and cabinet pulls.

Alan helped to shed some light on the range of materials, noting that both toilet and vanity options can start as low as $250 (for options available from big-box retailers) and range up to $3,000 (for higher-end or custom pieces) and beyond (for highly specialized, European, or customized options). Alan noted that homeowners can add to their expenses if they decide on sinks that leave piping exposed under the sink, because they then need to spend more on decorative drain pipes. Specialized options like tubs with jets can also bring the cost up because they require more plumbing labor and have an electrical wiring component. Homeowners can opt to limit or stretch expenses for materials like tile and stone, which can start as low as $1.50 per square foot and range up to $35 per square foot and beyond.

Here’s a look at Sanaya’s bathroom, renovated by Alan after being matched on Sweeten:

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Both Alan and Aleks agreed that homeowners need to look at the work holistically. “When you are renovating a full bathroom, you can plan for the right sequence and the most cost-effective methods,” Aleks explained. While it can be tempting for homeowners to try to apply a la carte prices to individual elements of the work, a full renovation is necessarily more integrated and it can be mis-leading to try to break up and price out each step.

What do homeowners get wrong when thinking about the cost of a bathroom renovation? Are there any unexpected costs that we might not anticipate?

One unexpected and non-glamorous theme that both Alan and Aleks flagged is that the requirements of individual buildings can play a significant role in dictating budget needs. Building demands can range from insurance coverage minimums, which limit your ability to work with professionals who aren’t carrying high-value insurance policies, to general alteration agreements that require anyone doing any work in the building to have far-reaching coverage for problems they may never encounter, like asbestos removal or explosion and collapse scenarios. The contractors that can afford to work in buildings with more extensive requirements tend to have higher operating costs and can meet higher insurance requirements, more stringent debris removal expectations, limited noise and hours-of-work requirements, and stricter parking rules.

In addition, Aleks explained that homeowners often don’t anticipate how expensive plumbing and permit costs are. Plumbing alone can cost $2,000 to $3,500 (or higher) and plumbing permits (when necessary, as required by the City’s Department of Buildings) can run to $2,000 per permit. If you’re removing an outlet or doing electrical work, you may need an electrical permit, which can run close to $900. You may also need an asbestos inspection, again depending on the building requirements and your plumbing plans, which can cost around $500.

 Finally, Aleks and Alan pointed out that homeowners need to factor in costs that ensure the success and longevity of the work, including prep work to protect floors and valuables (which can add $600 to $900) and waterproofing steps (which can add $1,000).

Does having a small NYC bathroom make renovation more expensive because the professionals have to maneuver in a tight space?

Aleks and Alan both agreed on one uncontentious point: bathrooms in NYC are small! Thankfully, this doesn’t directly correspond to higher renovation costs for New Yorkers. Aleks noted that small spaces require fewer materials, so you might see lower costs for material purchases that depend on volume, like stone and tile. That said, homeowners should note that small work spaces may mean that contractors need to use a separate area in the home for staging and prep. Alan pointed out that the challenges (and costs) of urban living can extend beyond bathroom size, and that contractors need to consider things like parking and elevator availability as they scope out the time and cost of a project.

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Thinking about getting started? 

Both of our experts encourage homeowners to pick their fixtures upfront so that you can plan for installation specifics with your contractor as you are assessing the total cost of the work. Take a look at projects already posted on Sweeten and get yours going! Here is a quick snapshot of the cost considerations we’ve talked through to get you started.

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Posted by: Categories: Bathrooms, Cost Guide 4

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We know first-hand how daunting it can be to envision renovation options as you’re standing in a crowded open house. This week, we are beyond psyched to share a first look at our new partnership with Corcoran, New York’s preeminent real estate group. We’ll be partnering with Corcoran to help buyers and sellers demystify the renovation process, understand design options for particular properties, and break down potential upgrades at various price points. Over the next few months, you’ll see more information for first-time buyers about how to value renovations for properties on the market, ideas for new homeowners looking to undo the renovation decisions of prior owners, and guidance for sellers looking to maximize their re-sale value or refresh a property before it gets listed.

In our first video take, Sweeten founder and CEO, Jean Brownhill Lauer, and Sweeten Expert Kent run us through kitchen renovation options, in under a minute, for a one-bedroom apartment on the market for $525,000.

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To keep the budget in the $10k – $30k range, Jean focuses in on the most immediately visible elements of the kitchen: new tile and backsplash, under-cabinet lighting, painting cupboards, and a possible high-impact splurge on new countertops. With a $30k – $60k budget, Jean and Kent help us picture a more transformative project: opening the kitchen up to the living room, creating a custom prep and dining island, bringing millwork finishes from the living room to new kitchen cabinetry, and re-doing the kitchen floor. Now press play!

We’re just getting started with this new Corcoran collaboration and can’t wait to share more with you as the spring real estate market warms up. Stay tuned for more in the works from Jean and Team Sweeten.

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This week, we connected with Sweeten Experts Chip and Mike for a nuanced look at the construction costs involved in a full home renovation. After glancing at a photo of work underway at a Sweeten project, Chip made an off-hand comment that struck us as interesting. “That is solid $400 per square foot work,” he said. That is what…? How did you…!? Intrigued by how Chip could distill such a key piece of information from a momentary glance, we asked him to help us understand the basic elements and variables of construction costs per square foot for homeowners undertaking a full home renovation.

Where should homeowners start when estimating construction costs per square foot for a full home renovation?

Chip and Mike: First, we need to understand the scope of the work. Is this a gut renovation, a renovation, or a la carte work?

Homeowners often confuse “gut renovations” and “renovations.” A gut renovation means that all interior walls come down. A renovation means that you are re-doing the space within existing walls, which is most common in NYC. It’s important to understand that difference because you can make costly mistakes if you aren’t planning for the right scenario.

Next, you need to plan for the material costs and labor costs. These can be fairly evenly split: almost half the cost of a renovation typically comes from the materials used in the finishes: tile, stone, millwork, paint, lighting fixtures, metal, glass, electronics, etc.

Got it. So if material costs and labor costs can be somewhat evenly split, that must mean that there is wide variation in the cost of labor, just like there is wide variation in the cost of materials that a homeowner might choose. How does that work?

Labor costs can vary significantly. We look at a scale that runs from AAA to C to classify categories of labor specialization. AAA, or “triple-mint,” is considered the highest quality and most labor-intensive work because (more…)

Posted by: Categories: Cost Guide, Renovation Resources 9