Here on the Sweeten blog, we translate insight from NYC renovators and contractors into information you can use to make better decisions about improving your home. New Yorkers are no strangers to small spaces and close neighbors, but when you own your place, you might expect to have some control over how the interior looks and works. And you do… sort of. If you a live in a condo or a co-op, you can probably have a go at re-doing the kitchen and bath, but there are some major hurdles and a few showstoppers to making layout changes. Even for townhouse and brownstone owners, where changes to the walls and windows and roof are fair game, there are real cost implications to moving things around. We’ve done the homework for you here to help you decide if a layout change is a feasible starting point for your project.
What constitutes a layout change?
New York City groups layout changes into two categories of work permits. The first group involves major structural modifications to the building. The second group indicates alterations that don’t change the building’s use or occupancy terms but necessitate work on the vital systems hidden behind the walls (re-routing plumbing lines, gas lines, electrical wiring, vertical piping, or ventilation ducts). NYC’s Department of Buildings classifies the first group as “Alteration Type-I” and the second group as “Alteration Type-II.”
If you live in a co-op or condo in NYC, there’s not much you can do to make structural modifications to the building, so you probably aren’t dealing with any Type-I alterations. But, if you are planning to expand or move a kitchen or bathroom, move fixtures in the kitchen or bathroom, add a new bathroom, or take down a load-bearing wall, these updates all require opening walls and may affect existing plumbing, gas, and electrical lines — the bread and butter of Type-II alterations. The bottom line: if your renovation goes beyond directly swapping out the surface components of a room, then you are probably dealing with a layout change.
Wet Over Dry
So, why is a layout change such a big deal and why might your plans get denied? With people living in such close proximity to one another, the City has to be exceedingly careful about water and gas line safety. Similarly, many co-op and condo boards want to minimize situations where residents might be exposed to loss or damage from renovations in adjacent units. This often means that building boards do not permit residents to move “wet” spaces like kitchens and baths over “dry” spaces like a downstairs neighbor’s living room or bedroom. A building’s pipe stacks run vertically up and down the height of the structure, so moving kitchen and bath lines can increase the danger of flooding and expand areas that are vulnerable to leaks and flooding.
Get Co-op and Condo Board Approval
You do have to play by house rules if you’re in a co-op or condo, and the building board is legally authorized to make rules and regulations for loads of things, including renovation plans. So, the first step is to check with your building management to see if a layout change is an option. Your building probably has a document called an “alteration agreement” (which details the steps and paperwork required to make any changes to your unit), and that document will probably require you to submit an alteration application for approval. These vary by building but typically detail the scope of work permitted, how work is performed, legal ramifications and indemnification, and insurance coverage requirements for the proposed plan. The board may also require you to submit architectural plans, drawings, and specifications prepared by a licensed architect or engineer that you hire, and they may engage their own architect or engineer to review the submission and mandate any revisions required to minimize disruption.
Get Department of Building Approvals and Permits
The City requires you to file your plans with the Department of Buildings (and possibly the Landmarks Preservation Commission depending on where your apartment is located) before any work begins. For most layout changes, you will need to hire a registered architect or professional engineer to file a permit application certifying that the plan complies with applicable codes and laws. Once the plan is approved, your contractor also needs to apply for a work permit to authorize the specific alterations detailed in your plan. The City’s flow chart on permits is helpful.
Plan for Costs and Timing
Getting approvals from building boards and the NYC Department of Buildings takes patience and perseverance. You can expect the process to take anywhere from two to six months (longer depending on a number of variables for a board review).
The documentation and services needed to get City approval comes at a cost, as does the physical (and more specialized) labor you may need for layout reconfiguration. Rather than thinking about cost per room, you may find it more realistic to think about cost per square foot. Major renovations involving layout changes typically start in the range of $150 – $250 per square foot, and include an additional ~20-35% for design fees, permit filing services, and permit and inspection fees that an architect, engineer, and expediter will charge. You need to be prepared for these design and administrative fees on top of your budget for construction materials and labor, and you may find that you need to hire licensed experts for more specialized mechanical, electrical, and plumbing work who charge a higher hourly rate than a typical handyman. For example, most electrical work needs to be performed by a licensed electrician, any work on gas lines must be performed by a NYC Licensed Master Plumber, and any plumbing work beyond the direct replacement of a fixture or a simple repair requires a licensed plumber. These skilled trades all required training and licensing that result in higher labor costs involved in projects where layout changes are occurring.
So, for example, if you’re planning to create an open kitchen layout in your 150 square foot space, the starting point for a typical kitchen renovation in NYC is $20K, but that’s just the starting point — if you want to take down a wall or move plumbing fixtures, you’re looking at a starting budget of $22.5K (150 sqft x $150), plus an additional ~20-35% ($4.5K – $7.8K) to account for design and permit fees, which puts your total estimated budget closer to at least $27K – $30K.
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