Reno 101 / By Carol Wang / March 21, 2017
Budget Basics: Renovation Costs Per Square Foot
A 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 $20k for kitchens and $15k 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.
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
– 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 kitchens, high-end kitchens, and baths, while this post delves into the details on electrical pricing.
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