In recent posts I found myself in a conversation with one of BRO’s frequent commentors Keith Szczygiel. In his posts he often referred to his home renovation project. His 19th century house is in the West Village preservation district. He has recently completed a top to bottom renovation of the interior and was fearful that preservation codes would force him to install an expensive slate roof when he started much-needed exterior repairs. The prospect of this major investment was causing him great concern. Ultimately his fears were unfounded as his proposed repairs were found to be a reasonable compromise by the preservation board. Based on his comments I knew that Keith had a great story to tell. He is relatively young and has leveraged his energy, skill, and foresight to create a beautiful downtown home for himself. I asked if he could give me some information on his renovation project for a BRO story. What he sent was better than I could have ever anticipated. We need to clone Keith and spread him across the city. Here is his story unedited:
- Purchase Cost: $50,000.00
- Purchase Date: November 2007
- Approx. Renovation Costs to Date: $40,000.00
- House Built Circa 1880’s
- Formerly used as an art gallery in the 1980’s-90’s
My background: Born and raised in Lackawanna, NY, I lived in New Orleans for a year while in college then pursued music and toured the US and Canada for a few years post college. I bought my first house at the age of 24 for $15k in Lackawanna. I renovated it and subsequently lived in that house for 2 years investing approx. $18k bringing that house back to life. I then moved to Naples, Fl and sold that house for $50k.
After about a year of living in the cookie cutter world of Southwest Florida, I missed the grit of my hometown. I left a decent job and reluctantly moved back in with my parents and took a very low paying job just to get started. Currently I am an assistant project manager at a commercial construction firm.
The Hunt: Armed with approx. $15k profit from the sale of my first home, I immediately started looking for a fixer-upper in the city. By happenstance, I was driving down Whitney Place to look at a house for sale that was way out of my price range when I stumbled on a small “for sale by owner” sign in the bay window of my future home. I jumped out of my car and peered in to the windows of the obviously unoccupied house. All I could see was half finished drywall and plaster ceilings falling and knew right away this was what I had been seeking. I called the owner who informed me the house was under contract. I asked her to call me if it doesn’t go through.
Getting Started: My first challenge like any large renovation was where to get started. After staring at the floor and walls for 6 months I got started by trying to level out the crooked flooring on the first floor. Since there was no original finished flooring other than the sub-floor, the decision was made to deconstruct the floor in the dining room first and work my way in all directions from there. The first hiccup came right away. I thought I could tear up just the floorboards, then attached new joists to the existing ones to make the floor level. The 130 year old joists wouldn’t have it and split as soon as I tore up the floor boards. I then decided to tear up all the joists in that room and install new ones which proved to be easier, cheaper and faster then trying to fix old twisted wood.
I then went room by room on the first floor hanging new drywall and leveling out other slanted and wavy floors by laying sleepers and new plywood sub-floors. Thankfully 10′ ceilings meant losing a couple inches from the new floor height was not an issue. As for the ceilings, I used a suspended drywall grid system that is similar to a dropped ceiling system designed for hanging drywall. After that my next challenge was to reproduce the only original wood work left in the foyer. That was actually simple with stock trim from Home Depot and some creativity. In hindsight, since I painted all the new woodwork I would have used MDF baseboard which was cheaper and had a nicer profile. Since I completed the first floor and had a new working kitchen and bathroom, I was able to move in after about six solid months of working.
The Second Floor: I stared and stared at the upstairs pondering for about a year before getting started. The issue was two-fold. First, the slanted floor looked like a tidal wave of wood that was certain to drown me at any time. Second, the whole upstairs had been gutted and vaulted by a previous owner leaving one giant room and a small bathroom. The solution to my first problem was actually pretty simple and cheap. Since I had 14′ ceilings and no walls, I decided to build a new sub-floor system on top of the existing floor, much like a deck. I was concerned about the added weight but I figured since all the original lath and plaster walls were removed that would offset the difference, not to mention the weight of the new floor would be more evenly dispersed. My second issue was the design since the upstairs is not symmetrical and has a lot of jogs in the layout. I racked my brain for months trying to figure out a layout that would include a living room, two bedrooms and a bathroom with laundry. Thankfully a fresh perspective from my brother provided the answers that I am very satisfied with.
What’s Next: This fall I am replacing the slate mansard roofs with asphalt shingles in the same pattern as the existing slate, which will satisfy the Preservation Board and keep the costs lower for me. After that I have landscaping and general exterior maintenance to complete over next spring and summer. Overall my project is mostly complete but I do plan on adding more woodwork throughout and of course there are some loose ends to finish that will probably linger for a few years, not to mention furnishing and decorating.
Advice & Afterthought: Always plan to spend at least 25% more that you think something will cost when planning a budget. If you’re on budget you will have that much more in your pocket for the next issue to tackle. If possible do not try to live in the house while major work is ongoing. You will get frustrated, lose your steam and rush projects that require more attention. Try to do major work items one at a time. Do not try to lay tile down in one room before you hang the drywall in another room. That way you can streamline the work as you go and you will feel more accomplished. Speaking of drywall, hire someone to finish the seams, it’s worth its weight in gold. Since I did all the work literally by myself the big thing for me is NOT trying to take on the whole house at one time. You will get overwhelmed, I promise.
The biggest piece of advice I can give is to ask questions and never give up. Everyone is capable of doing this type of work if they research the types of materials needed and the tools to do it, which you can get at any Home Depot. Some internet research and episodes of “This Old House” can go a long way. Furthermore, with limited funds to finish the work I was able to get a home equity loan once the first floor was finished. That allowed me to tackle the second floor. Once I was done (for the most part), I refinanced and have one low mortgage payment and no credit card debt left from the work. The house and its new value paid for itself and more.
Any issues that arise always have a solution and typically the solution is the simplest. When planning, bear in mind the flow of the house and how your particular lifestyle will work best in that design. My project certainly has its flaws both in design and finished product but overall those are things I can live with given the fact that I have the opportunity to live where I do and in such a grand old home for right around $100k all in, and all before my 30th birthday.