Decades after its last reno, a prewar condo takes on a new life

Finding the perfect apartment for one can be a challenge in New York City, let alone for a growing family that includes a 2.5-year-old, a 2-month-old, and pet, Maggie. Sometimes it takes pure luck to hit the real estate jackpot, other times, as in the case of lawyers Katherine and Chris, it takes vision. The couple’s dream home—a three-bedroom apartment in Park Slope—didn’t turn up fully renovated and as reasonably priced as they’d hoped. Instead, they landed on a two-bedroom, formerly rent-controlled unit and got creative with the design. To help see their vision through, Katherine and Chris called on Sweeten, a free service matching renovators with vetted general contractors, eventually hiring a design-build firm to turn the apartment’s existing kitchen into a master bedroom, gut renovate the bath, and create the family home they’d been looking for.

Guest blog post by homeowner Katherine

A 1.5-bedroom walk-up on the Upper East Side has its charms no doubt, but before the birth of our second child, the need for more space (and fewer stairs!) loomed. We had been looking in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn because one of the zoned elementary schools in the area is excellent. Chris’ parents also live in south Brooklyn and are very helpful with the kids, which was added incentive for our search. The problem is that when you’re searching in a desirable neighborhood with a desirable elementary school, good, fully-renovated three-bedroom apartments are hard to come by. And when they do crop up, they’re pretty expensive.

We set up alerts on StreetEasy for sales in the neighborhood within a certain price range and saw this listing come up: A 1,000-square-foot condo in a prewar (circa 1920) greystone building. Although it was a two-bedroom, we immediately recognized a floor plan that we could reconfigure to get the three bedrooms we needed.

When we checked it out, we learned that since the apartment is on the first floor and it wouldn’t disturb the upper units, we could likely move the kitchen plumbing from the back of the apartment to the front, creating an open living room-kitchen space up front and converting the former kitchen into our master bedroom. Plus, our estimated construction costs seemed doable.

From there, it was just a matter of whether we could find a contractor to do the renovation in a price range that made the overall investment make sense. Essentially, the purchase price and renovation costs needed to add up to the approximate market value of a renovated three-bedroom in the area.

(Above) A built-in integrates a pull-out pantry with a coat closet next to it

The pantry was also our contractor’s idea; I didn’t even know that pull-out pantries existed and wasn’t sure we’d have space. But it works perfectly…

The layout of the apartment was one thing, but there was a lot more work to be done beyond that. The apartment hadn’t been renovated in at least 30 years. The floors were warped from water damage, the hallway flooring was covered in industrial carpeting, and the kitchen floors were old linoleum. The kitchen had a lowered ceiling with crumbling tile and stains from an old flood. The walls had dozens of coats of paint layered on and there were popcorn ceilings throughout the apartment.

In the bathroom, fixtures were rusted, and the clawfoot tub was set up with the shower on the long wall of the tub rather than the short end. The closets and wiring also needed to be updated. Overall, we were looking for a bright, modern aesthetic but wanted to make sure that it didn’t feel cold or inconsistent with the prewar building style.

Enter Sweeten. We posted our project and our desired budget on the site and got to work interviewing contractors. Since we aren’t creative types, we definitely saw the value in hiring a firm that offered both building and design services, and we liked that the Sweeten general contractor we chose not only fabricated their own cabinets but provided 3D designs so that we could visualize the finished project. That really allowed us to participate in the process.

Additionally, when negotiating the price and scope of the project, our contractor was very upfront with us. When we suggested certain measures that could cut costs, for example, they would tell us if they thought we would be displeased with the result, but would then suggest another area to cut costs that would be less noticeable in the finished project.

Creating and maximizing space was another important consideration for us throughout the renovation, and that proved particularly challenging in the kitchen, where certain kinds of storage could have easily made the space feel cramped.

I felt strongly that we needed a coat closet in the living room to corral entryway clutter. Originally, I had large media units with built-in storage in mind, but our Sweeten contracting team suggested extending the kitchen cabinets instead, integrating the closet that way, which looks much better than a separate media unit. The pantry was also their idea; I didn’t even know that pull-out pantries existed and wasn’t sure we’d have space. But it works perfectly and allowed use of every inch of floor-to-ceiling space in the design. Now we can put things we don’t use much up top, as well as extra supplies.

(Above) The existing kitchen becomes the master bedroomThere was no closet in the old kitchen, so we had to add them to the master bedroom. We decided to build cabinets and closets around the bed to save space, rather than putting the closets opposite the bed, which would have eaten up precious floor space.

In the bathroom, things got a little tricky. We moved the tub from the side to the back wall to save space and make room for extra cabinet storage. That move required us to change the plumbing to a degree because we used the former drain from the toilet for the tub. Since there was asbestos tile in the bathroom we would have had to do an abatement if we cut a new drain for the toilet. Instead, we decided to use a wall-hung toilet, which ended up looking very streamlined and saved space, so it was a win-win.

There was also a heating pipe on the back wall where the tub was positioned originally that we tiled in. That required us to set the tub about 10 inches out from the window. Our contractors used that space to build shelves for the shower, which ended up being a beautiful design element as well. Penny tile floors added a nice tactile touch and the marble tile gives the space a luxurious look.

Looking back, we realized that other contractors had suggested making cuts in areas that we ultimately wouldn’t have been happy with (like keeping original doors that had been repainted too many times), but hadn’t suggested cutting costs in less noticeable areas the way this design-build team did. The contractors we chose were very honest and knowledgeable and ultimately tipped the scales in their favor to win the project.

In the end, they delivered a more beautiful apartment than we ever could have dreamed up ourselves. And on top of it, they got it done very quickly and were lovely to work with. I’d highly recommend them.

Thank you, Katherine and Chris. We loved seeing how your vision came to life!

KITCHEN RESOURCES: Rift and quarter-sawn white oak flooring in a birch stain, satin lacquer finish: Bona. Quartered walnut cabinets in high gloss Super White enamel and custom stain finish: Custom from general contractor. Asbury pull cabinet hardware: Restoration Hardware. Countertops and backsplash in Stella: LG Viatera. Standard pro 30″ undermount sink, #KHU100-30: Kraus. Graham pull-down faucet, #VG02014: Vigo. Refrigerator: Blomberg. Dishwasher: Bosch. Stove: Bertazzoni. George Kovacs Alluria 5-light island lighting, #P1355-618: Minka Group. Counter lighting: PUK. Wall paint in Super White, #OC-152: Benjamin Moore.

BATHROOM RESOURCES: Nirvana Snow rimmed 1″ circle ceramics tile: Tilebar. Statuary Marble honed 12″X 24″ X 3/8″ Stone Field wall tile: Artistic Tile. Asbury pull cabinet hardware: Restoration Hardware.  Graceline shower and sink fixtures in French Brass: Rohl. Sink: Kohler. Ash wood vanity in blue stain with quartz countertop: Custom. Aquia wall-hung toilet: Toto. Ford’s Mill swing arm sconce lighting: Rejuvenation.  Vintage recessed vanity mirror/medicine cabinet in brass: Pottery Barn.

LIVING ROOM RESOURCES: George Kovacs Pontil 6-light chandelier: Minka Group. Paint in Super White, #OC-152: Benjamin Moore.

MASTER BEDROOM RESOURCES:  Built-ins: Custom by general contractor. Morocco wall bed sconces, #IWF582A01BK: Canarm. George Kovacs Alluria 3-light semi flush ceiling fixture: Minka Group. Paint in Wickham Gray, #HC-171: Benjamin Moore.

Katie and Marcus renovated an apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

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

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