Budget Basics: Renovation Costs Per Square Foot


gut renovation of a post-war Upper East Side apartment

When asked about how to budget for a remodel, our Sweeten contractors typically guide renovators to use $100 to $200 per square foot as a starting point for a full home renovation.* Planning a kitchen or bathroom renovation? Start with a broad, basic budget in mind—think $22k for kitchens and $16k for bathrooms and add to that if you choose custom or luxe features. In gut renovating a whole place, the building’s current conditions, alteration requirements, spatial challenges, and range of material selections can make coming up with an initial budget a near-impossibility! But Sweeten, a free service matching renovating homeowners with vetted general contractors, is here to help: read the breakdown ahead on how to gauge costs and you’ll be on your way to your new and improved space.

* Note that these estimate costs per square foot are for the entire home, averaged across both “wet” spaces such as kitchens and baths, as well as “dry” areas like living rooms and bedrooms. In a typical cost breakdown, dry spaces average $30 to $50 dollars per square foot, while baths start at $400 per square foot and kitchens start at $250 per square foot.

Are you really “gut renovating”?

The term “gut renovation” is often used informally for any project where all of the visible surfaces in a room are replaced, but technically, in a gut renovation, interior walls are stripped down to the studs and framing or knocked out entirely.

Comparing costs: Gut or non-gut

A gut will start at the higher end of that $100 to $200 per-square-foot range, while a renovation in which you re-do the space within the existing walls will be on the lower end. For example, in a 700-square foot, one-bedroom apartment, a renovation will come in around the $50,000 to $70,000 range, while a gut renovation will likely come in over $100,000. The non-gut renovation may involve a new kitchen and bath, as well as refinishing flooring, re-plastering and painting, and upgrades in materials and finishes. The gut renovation will include the above, as well as more extensive work such as replacing walls, installing new piping and wiring systems, moving doorways, and installing all new flooring. Given that New York City apartments vary widely and can present unique challenges, however, a per-square-foot estimate is merely a ballpark figure for you to get started.

Straightforward costs

When estimating price per square foot, the scope of work usually includes the following:

– Basic demolition

– Framing: the skeletal, load-bearing structure to which the interior walls and other systems are attached

– Insulation and drywall

– Wiring including outlets and switches

– Plumbing

– Heating/cooling systems

– All visible materials and fixtures in kitchens and baths (described below).

You’ll notice this doesn’t include appliances. Also, the choices you make in the visible materials, such as tile, flooring, millwork, paint, lighting fixtures, electronics, and other finishes, can significantly affect the price of your renovation.

At the $100 to $200 per-square-foot range, for example, the materials are generally prefabricated or stock items and in finishes that are available at common retail outlets. Cabinets in this price range will usually be made of MDF (medium-density fiberboard), while tiling will run under $10 dollars a square foot. Lighting will be standard but solid basics, while hardware can run as low a few dollars apiece. You’ll be able to include solid wood floors, but they may be shorter and narrower planks made of less expensive woods. The work will be careful, clean, and well-installed at this level, whereas projects completed for under $100 may show subpar labor and obvious shortcuts.

Next, at $200 to $300 per square foot, there is some customization on details such as joints, millwork, and hardware. Cabinets in this price range are custom or semi-custom, and can also include built-ins. You’ll also see natural stone or desirable man-made countertops such as Caesarstone or Corian at this level, as well as solid, wide-planked hardwood flooring. Projects at this price point are not usually gut renovations, but rather renovations that focus on the space within the existing walls.

Beyond basics

If you are paying $300 per square foot or above, chances are there may be complicating factors such as layout changes or structural work, such as combining apartments. Moving walls, adding staircases, shifting gas and plumbing, and electrical rewiring all contribute to a higher per-square-foot cost, as well as adding to the behind-the-scenes expenditures (see more below). And since pricing for kitchens and baths run higher than other rooms, more of those equal a higher price per square foot. For example, renovating a 1,000-square-foot apartment that has three bathrooms will be more expensive than an apartment of the same size with just one bathroom.

At this level and beyond, you can also expect to see more extensive customization, fine finishes, and luxurious materials such as handmade tile, exotic wood grains, natural stone, and bespoke millwork details that complement the architecture of the home. You might also see custom door casements and extensive lighting details at this level. There won’t be much in the way of off-the-shelf materials, and the workmanship should be top-notch. Renovations that hit all of these notes can easily run over $500 dollars per square foot.

Behind-the-scenes expenses

In contrast to the costs attached to the visible material aspects of your renovations, pricing for the many “unseen” costs can be more difficult for the average homeowner to anticipate. While labor is a clear one, you should take into account that different forms of labor can be priced very differently. Wiring and plumbing work, for example, tends to be expensive. And unlike materials, which can vary widely and be within the homeowner’s control, many of these types of labor remain fairly fixed in price. As an example, plumbing for each fixture generally runs between $1,500 to $2,000 a piece in New York City, so it will run at least $4,500 for a licensed plumber to run new lines for a sink, toilet, and a bathtub. In general contracting, skim coating is the most expensive type of labor—so much so that it can be more affordable to tear down old, uneven walls and put up new drywall.

Additionally, you should note that from the contractor’s perspective, “labor” on the budget proposal may include not only the hourly rate they pay their workers, but also insurance, license, and other overhead fees that keep their business running. (Interesting fact: In the end, contractors take home about 10-15 percent profit—so for example, if they do $2 million worth of business this year, they are netting about $200k.) Below are some other unseen aspects that may contribute to higher per-square-foot expenditures.

Design

Depending on your general contractor and your level of involvement in the project, you may also need/want professional design services. There are other scenarios in which you may need to hire an architect: if you need to apply for permits, navigate a complicated approval system, or meet insurance coverage requirements. Architects can charge a flat fee or a percentage of the total project. Another option is a design/build firm, which combines design and construction services within one fee and contract. In these cases, the firm’s principal is capable of both aspects of the job, or there is usually a dedicated designer on staff or on retainer.

Building and city requirements

If you live in a co-op or condo building, you’ll likely need to submit your plans—thus necessitating an architect—to your building’s board. Co-ops generally are stricter about renovations than condo buildings. Buildings each have their own requirements, but some may call for insurance coverage minimums or alteration agreements. Some alteration agreements require a security deposit to cover the possible scope of damage, and may also ask that you pay the fees incurred by the condo or co-op board to review and approve your plan. You may find that contractors who can afford to work in buildings with more extensive specifications tend to have higher operating costs that meet higher insurance requisites.

The NYC Department of Buildings requires that you obtain permits for many types of renovation work, including plumbing, electrical, and various inspections depending on the existing and planned space. Permits can add up: an electrical permit can run close to $900, plumbing permits can run up to $2,000, and an asbestos inspection can be $500.

Site prep

This is one unseen aspect that often incurs unexpected budget problems: Depending on the state of the original space, you may need to do extensive preparatory work after demolition but before any installation can begin. Older apartments will almost always require stripping, leveling and plastering. Uneven floors and walls must be leveled before cabinets can be hung, doors framed, or tiling installed. These costs are determined by the general contractor, once s/he has a chance to examine your space.

Budget overruns

Once you’ve accounted for each line item in your budget, allocate an additional 10 to 15 percent as a cushion. Projects often come in over budget as a result of unforeseen circumstances, and this overrun will ensure that you will still have enough in the bank to complete the renovation.

Budgeting tips

As you can see, many factors go into the per-square-foot estimates. If you’re trying to come up with a plan to match your budget, though, here are some tips from contractors and renovators:

Mix high and low: This refers to materials, which should be selected for maximum impact. You may choose a handmade tile for the kitchen backsplash, while sticking to an off-the-shelf option for the second bath. Make a custom statement where it will really get noticed, and use standard materials where it won’t.

Don’t skimp on plumbing and electrical infrastructure: While these aspects probably won’t garner any compliments at your dinner party, you still need licensed and qualified experts for these jobs. If you don’t, there may be pricey problems to deal with in the long run.

Focus on kitchens and baths: Spend your money here! These rooms have the most resale value potential.

Consult experts upfront: If you are inclined to hire an architect or designer for a major transformation, getting him/her onboard early on may help to save money on your project by mapping out more of a clear plan to avoid changes mid-stream. Set aside 15 to 20 percent of your budget for this professional. In general, hiring licensed professionals will prevent insurance headaches later on.

With home renovation, it can be difficult to be guided by per-square-foot costs of past projects. Get in touch with Sweeten so you can get tailored estimates for your project from our experts!

This post is an updated version.

You can also check out our in-depth posts on renovating kitchenshigh-end kitchens, and baths, while this post delves into the details on electrical pricing.

Sweeten handpicks contractors to match each project’s location, budget, scope, and style. Follow the blog for renovation ideas and inspiration and when you’re ready to renovate, start your project on Sweeten.

  • Katharine

    Really helpful insight into the process. And excellent advice about the financing. I feel as though I’ve been given insider information!

  • P

    So If I’m renovating a place that’s 1000 sq ft, expect to pay 400,000 if it’s at 400 sq ft?

  • Jonathan Ticr

    $400 per square foot is absurb… Contractors in NYC will accept as low as $100 per sq feet and almost all will accept $250 per.

  • Tommy

    Given the fee scale for b level and c level contractors, I can’t even afford d level contractors. Don’t know about you, but who has $200-400k cash to drop on a 1000 sq ft apt renovation project. That’s a lot of cake. I might as well use that money for a down payment on a new fully refurbished apt. There needs to be a reality check to this article…not sure if most of NYC is part of the 1% club. Maybe I need to find another profession.

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  • lisa

    This article highlights how out of touch Sweeten really is! I am solidly middle classed and cannot afford any type of renovation apparently. Imagine I entered the website one day looking for basement renovation. I was shocked to see that the webpage would not accept any proposals with a budget LESS than $60000! For a basement! That is sick.

    I find this type of article writing irritating, pretentious and dishonest. Dishonest because it gives the impression that all New Yorkers are paying these ridiculous prices…why shouldn’t everyone?

    Please. Get Real.

  • debra

    I’m going through a restoration project right now in Los Angeles and I can tell you that the estimates/sq ftge in this article are most decidedly NOT out of line. EASILY $250. It all depends on what you want. If you are satisfied with vinyl windows, then sure, $200 or under is achievable. However, if you want custom wooden windows, then you’ll pay a lot more. Laminated counters will be cheaper than stone. Basic trim or detailed trim? Molding or no molding? Stand-out light fixtures? Tile flourishes? Marble in the bathrooms? In-wall A/V wiring or no? Labor involved in custom work is INCREDIBLY expensive. And good GCs don’t come cheap, either. Then there is the architect and designer. We are acting as our own contractors, architects and designers, with a crackerjack core group of laborers and lot of skilled tradesmen, and I can tell you that we are running close to $300/sq ft. Were we to have an architect, designer and contractor on board, we would be closer to $400/sq ft.

  • lisa

    @debra

    No one mentioned vinyl windows or laminated counters. And LA is not the same as New York. Despite the hype, you can get nice fixtures without going bankrupt. I know several people who have done so at a more reasonable cost. The flaw with this article is that it does not represent the TRUE range of costs…just those of the high end big-name contractors who work only for a small target demographic (ie the 1 %ers as someone mentioned).

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  • william leeds

    This is accurate information for NYC.

    Thank you

    William AIA

  • AAA

    I am going through a renovation project on a 1700 sq ft apartment on the upper east side of Manhattan and after considering architect, contractor, AV, etc.. the all in price is approximately $550 per sq. ft. The work does contain many custom elements, marble countertops and top name appliances but it is by no means over the top. So I do beleive that this article is accurate.

  • Zabra

    I am an architect in NYC. All projects that I work at my place of work fall in $500-$1200 range – luxury residential.

    I am helping friends with their 750 sq.f. condo partial renovation – floors, bathroom, kitchen, ceiling, minor electrical – with all the appliances, plumbing fixtures, custom millwork taken OUT of the contract, and IKEA cabinets for the kitchen – $140 per square foot is as low as I could get B- / A- level contractors’ bids.

  • Max

    I’m a contractor and I always find the Cheap people around end I do my best to avoid them.
    Well, you buy a 2 million dollar apartment in Manhattan, BECAUSE you want be Manhattan show of people..
    Cool…. After you can not afford a $. 200,000-renovations????
    And you go to hair the handyman with no license and insurance, you go to buy Home depot tiles and home depot manuals..He he he…..End bum badabam..your cash handyman fall down from the stair, brake a water pipe, flood the downstair apartment.
    So… The handyman will take an easy cash opportunity to bring you in court, downstair apartment also…..After this the building department and license dept and OHSA will eat your last money an the apartment…You’ll become a Hobo……He he he.
    Why don’t go to live in UpState , take the Train and come to work in the City???

    Advise.
    If you buy an apartment to renovate be able to have at list the 10% of the apartment value in cash to pay the project.
    Use ONLY contractor with license and legal workers
    Use an architect to do the right things.

    At the end you’ll have the renovation done properly an legally at less cost that “” do it yourself in the short way””

  • Lee

    Very, very accurate for the higher end costs to work with professionals who do their jobs very well. If you want to ‘fix-up’ a place vs ‘renovate’ and more important — to what level and detail — that is what will determines the cost, time quality, and outcome. This article is providing a great service to help educate about the process and the huge range of costs to achieve different types of work and the starting point of high quality, professionally executed projects vs. doing some work to a place.

    Deciding what is the right thing for you is the most important part so you can be prepared PRIOR to making an offer on an apartment to know what the costs may be and if the places you are looking at make sense for you on an all-in cost. Don’t forget the cost for a designer or architect to plan the work for you up front (typical cost ranges for theses services in Manhattan run from 20% – 30%, and even higher, of the cost of the construction budget) and get the approvals from the board and subsequently file with the DOB (and LPC depending on where the apartment is located).

    The time frame to get the approvals through the co-op or condo board is a process that needs to be done by professionals and can take anywhere from two to six months — this is largely out of the control of you or the architect who is executing this on your behalf and there are many more variables that determine the turnaround time on the board review.

    This is all elective work and elective spending but important to know if you choose to buy and renovate and swim in these waters it is imperative to understand the process.

  • Kate

    I’m working on a renovation right now in Brooklyn, and I think the information here, including pricing, is totally accurate and fair. For reference, I’m a teacher, and I live in a 1200-sq. ft. apartment with my partner and two kids. My partner works in education, too, so it’s not like we’re rich. However, the fact is that getting work done well in NYC is expensive. If a person buys Ikea products and installs them themselves, the price is obviously going to be much lower, but so is the quality and the life of the work. It’s important to be realistic about the costs involved in your choices. If you have to re-do your kitchen every five years, obviously that comes with costs beyond just money, like the annoyance involved.

  • Anthony

    Sorry if I’m displaying my complete ignorance here but I’m just a middle-class guy looking to purchase a 1700 sq ft. coop for 500k in Brooklyn and according to this article I would have to spend 1700 x $300 = $510,000 to get a B-level gut renovation done? Am I missing something here? Most of the apartment is drywall and empty space, where is half a million dollars going for work that is barely above the C grade?

    • Zak Van Buren

      where in BK are you buying for <$300 sf ???

  • kate

    great article, numbers on points for NYC!

    Kate AIA

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