A native New Yorker and her husband plant new roots
Tina, a fashion designer and native New Yorker, grew up in a charming 1930s prewar co-op building in Sunnyside, Queens. Staying close to home, she lived in the building for about 20 years in different apartments owned by family members—one of which, her fiancé (at the time), Andrew, a cybersecurity consultant joined her in a one-bedroom.
Both dreamed of an opportunity to set down roots and invest in Sunnyside, which for them felt like home with a quaint neighborhood feel. “Let’s be patient,” Andrew said. “You know what would be perfect? If a bigger apartment went on sale right here in this building!” Famous last words. A spacious two-bedroom that needed a complete overhaul “seemed to manifest on command.” Undeterred, they posted their renovation project to Sweeten, a free service matching renovators with vetted contractors, and found a general contractor to help them breathe new life into a dated space.
We were living in a one-bedroom apartment on the third floor for almost a year when an opportunity came knocking. Tina’s father, who used to be the superintendent in the building, heard about this apartment through the grapevine. The two-bedroom, one-bath with an eat-in kitchen on the ground floor had been previously occupied by the same owner for decades. The apartment hadn’t yet been listed, so we didn’t know what to expect. As we eagerly walked in, it became clear that it needed a lot of TLC.
Its dimensions were a little over 900 square feet. We saw plenty of potential, but the original layout was partitioned and closed-off. The dated 1970s finishes and dark saturated colors throughout, made the space feel extremely dark and cavernous. It was certainly a fixer-upper, but we agreed it was worth taking on and jumped in feet first.
Living on the third floor of the same building, we could easily visit the space for measurements, planning, inspiration and, the actual renovation. Enter Sweeten! After interviewing nearly ten lackluster contractors, we discovered Sweeten and signed up immediately. Their contractors were a godsend, very professional, and responsive. We got an estimate the same day when others would take days or just ghost us completely. And they took the time to answer all our questions and negotiate prices before they were even hired. Choosing a contractor was probably one of the most stressful and time-consuming parts of the renovation process.
We had a very clear vision of what the space should look and feel like. Our challenge was to make it airy, bright, and modern while still complementing the building’s prewar style. Tina, a designer by trade, used her skills to sketch layouts, create mood boards, and research finishes. French bistros, Vermont farmhouses, and Hampton beach bungalows were inspirations. The apartment was grounded in light neutrals with navy blue and oak wood accents for a coastal look. We loved the clean lines and texture of details like shiplap, board and batten, and exposed brick. Touches of brass and Carrara marble helped warm up and elevate the space.
With limited natural light on the ground floor, some walls were removed to modernize the layout and allow light to flow through the space. To brighten the space further, we doused every surface with white paint, installed French doors to all the bedrooms, and stripped the carpets to reveal the original 1930s hardwood floors. To our relief, the parquet still had plenty of life left in them. We went with a clear matte finish to give it a natural look and feel.
The windows in the living room and spare room were recessed nearly a foot into the wall which blocked a lot of light from coming in. We knew exposing brick on these walls would open things up but were pleasantly surprised with just how much more natural light and space we gained. Our contractor built beautiful custom window frames to finish the windows off. From there, we used a natural limestone paint to whitewash the brick to give the walls an aged look while also—you guessed it—brightening the place up.
Bounce your wildest ideas off of the professionals; that is what they are there for.
After much speculation about what was inside some of the condemned walls, we took the plunge and opened up half the kitchen into what would become the living room—the brightest space in the apartment. The effect was immediate! It also added a nice chunk of square footage previously wasted with an awkwardly-curved wall. A small linen closet was removed to fit a large countertop between the kitchen and living room.
The kitchen instantly became the heart of the home. As a family that loves to entertain and cook together, we wanted a functional space with a lot of storage. Because kitchens take up a large portion of a renovation budget, we tried to be clever and save where we could. Instead of custom cabinets, we went with Ikea but purchased the cabinet doors from a company that specializes in stylish and modern cabinetry for Ikea kitchen systems.
We love the look of marble, so we used it on the backsplash instead of the countertop as marble tiles are a lot more affordable than a marble slab (and a lot less maintenance!). All of our state-of-the-art appliances were purchased at an outlet in Long Island where appliances were like-new floor samples. If you have the time and patience to hunt for deals, it can really save you a lot in the long run. We did splurge on the “jewelry” of the kitchen—the faucet and cabinet hardware. These little details make a huge difference. Our contractor also ran new wood floors into the kitchen so it flowed seamlessly with the rest of the apartment.
The bedroom with two large closets became the master bedroom. We ended up combining those two closets into one big walk-in closet (a rare thing in New York City!). The room was covered in emerald green wallpaper and carpet and had shutters on the windows so we stripped everything, painted it white and added board and batten paneling on one wall for a bit of dimension. Our favorite part of the master bedroom is the double french doors (also in the spare room) our contractor installed. They make the room look grander while allowing natural light to flow through.
The bathroom was on the smaller side and didn’t see a need to sacrifice any space to expand it, so we kept this a pretty straightforward gut and refresh job. We chose white subway tiles on the walls and marble hexagons on the floor, and included some fun touches, like a brass light fixture above the vanity (plus dimmer switch!) and a vintage-style exposed shower body. The extra-wide medicine cabinet helped make efficient use of limited space, and the custom-built vanity added much-needed storage.
Our contractor and his team deserve a lot of credit for their hard work and patience with us. Everybody should know that these jobs are never simple. Scheduling can get tricky. At one point, we had the kitchen contractors trying to installing cabinets while the floor guy was burning through heavy-duty sanding pads grinding down a strangely thick layer of old glue. There were little pebbles of hot, semi-melted rubber everywhere. Needless to say, we had to do some rescheduling.
Being detail-oriented and working with a contractor you can communicate with were really important to us. The contractor we ultimately hired had no problem emailing back and forth about even the smallest detail. Bounce your wildest ideas off of the professionals; that is what they are there for.
One thing we would caution is the amount of work, if any, you decide to take on yourself. To keep the budget under control we decided to paint and do some other finishes ourselves. We saved thousands of dollars but doing all that work when we both have full-time jobs was exhausting.
Our new home really feels like a dream come true, and we feel very fortunate to call it our own. It was no cakewalk, but we had a blast every step of the way. Coming after work and seeing the progress made was so exciting. The hope and promise of creating a space all your own, to us, is what renovations are all about. The permanence alone is priceless, not to mention the satisfaction of having a brand new place designed just for us. We hope our fellow renovators find it as rewarding of an experience as we did.
Thank you, Tina and Andrew, for sharing how your new home came together!
KITCHEN RESOURCES: Kitchen cabinets: Super matte shaker cabinets in white and light grey: Semihandmade. Massey cabinet pulls: Rejuvenation. Classic 1 ¼” pulls: House of Antique Hardware. Honed quartz in Smithtown: CitiQuartz. Carrara Venato marbled honed subway tiles 4”x8”: The Builder Depot. C-sput bridge faucet with sidespray in Polished Nickel: Rohl. Fireclay sink: Alfi. Refrigerator and stove: KitchenAid. Dishwasher: Bosch. Thomas O’Brien Eugene pendant lighting: Circa Lighting. Bar stools: Vintage.
BATHROOM RESOURCES: 3” Carrara hexagon marble floor; 3”x6” subway tile walls: Home Depot. Vanity hardware: Rejuvenation. Oxford thermostatic shower fixtures: Signature Hardware. Vanity/sink: Custom. Vanity paint in Hale Navy #HC-154: Benjamin Moore. Faucet: Barber Wilsons. Corbelle toilet: Kohler. Thomas O’Brien Vendome triple scone in Antique Brass and Sienna small-flush mount overhead light in Chrome: Circa Lighting. Cerridale medicine cabinet: Wayfair.
LIVING AND DINING ROOM RESOURCES: Leighton pendant light fixture: Room and Board. Wall paint in Chantilly Lace, #OC-65: Benjamin Moore. Brick limewash interior/exterior paint in Avorio White: Romabio. Olde Bricke Lighting glass dome sconces in Matte Brass: Etsy.
MASTER BEDROOM RESOURCES: Mia faceted crystal pendant overhead light: Pottery Barn. Cylinder accent table lamp and Imbrie articulating sconce: Rejuvenation. Wall paint in Chantilly Lace, #OC-65: Benjamin Moore. Shade: The Shade Store. Ceiling light pendant (outside in hallway): West Elm.
SPARE ROOM RESOURCES: Overhead light: Luna pendant rod in Natural Brass: Schoolhouse. Desk light: West Elm. Wall paint in Chantilly Lace, #OC-65: Benjamin Moore. Brick limewash interior/exterior paint in Avorio White: Romabio.
The cost per square to renovate a home in New York City.
Sweeten handpicks the best general contractors to match each project’s location, budget, scope, and style. Follow the blog, Sweeten Stories, for renovation ideas and inspiration and when you’re ready to renovate, start your renovation on Sweeten.