Repat Reno on Whitney

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. 

Renovation-3-Buffalo-NY.jpgAfter 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. 

Thumbnail image for wlarge3.jpgA week later I followed up and sure enough the sale fell through, it was mine if I wanted it for $50k, sold. (The initial financing hurdle is a completely different story for another time.)

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. 

wlarge6.jpgI 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.  

wlarge.jpgThe 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.

Renovation-2-Buffalo-NY.jpgAdvice & 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.  

wlarge4.jpgThe 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. 

 

About the author  ⁄ david steele

23 comments
brownteeth
brownteeth

I am friends with Mark and Beth at Hero and Sound on Allen st and the USMC pieces were the very first pieces of work that they designed and made when they started their screen printing business in a friends basement. I made the plywood frames so they let me keep those. Check out their store on Allen or their website for more great hand printed posters.

The Kettle
The Kettle

Looks terrific. Nice blend of old and new.

STEEL
STEEL

By the way anyone is welcome to submit a story or idea for a story to BRO. There is contact info at the bottom of the page. If you have a compelling renovation or know of one drop us a line.

LouisTully
LouisTully

Why cover up the fireplace?

You should be very proud, what an awesome job. I couldn't imagine living in a cookie cutter out in the middle of nowhere over an incredible home like yours. Congratulations.

Rare to have no negative comments on BR. Must be universal admiration of your accomplishment. Nice USMC pictures, story behind those?

LouisTully
LouisTully

The whole lack of jobs thing I find interesting. There are plenty of jobs out there.

Arch
Arch

This is pretty impressive... I am an architect, and looked at this house back in '04. It was basically gutted and was too big of a project for me at the time. I always hoped that the right person would find that gem, and it looks like that has happened! CONGRATS, on a job well done!

townline
townline

I agree. And I think "less impressive" renovations might be just as interesting to a lot of people. I'm always looking for projects I might be able to tackle myself that can really improve the house.

We just bought our house a few weeks ago and have a lot of plans for improvement, but most of them will not be huge, strip-to-the-studs total re-do's. We're going to replace a floor in the kitchen, sand down the cabinetry and paint it, put in a backsplash ourselves, new countertops, etc.. I'd love to see what others have done on any scale - for some inspiration and new ideas...

Beautiful job Brownteeth!

Slobadan Melosivic
Slobadan Melosivic

totally agree - thanks for writing and brining to the magazing - would love to see a series of these if available

have one myself but the reno is not nearly as impressive as this

great job

BuffaloByChoice
BuffaloByChoice

Thank you! You make good points. Hopefully a house cheaper than a new car can attract people despite our snowy winters and now-nationally recognized poor political/powerbroker leadership.

benfranklin
benfranklin

Thanks for the response. I've got a room with an I beam cieling (an addition tacked onto a victorian in Allentown), but the height isn't very high. I'd like to do something as close to the beams as possible, wondered if this would provide a way... anyway, I'll look into it, thanks.

I'll have to check out the video, was that there earlier?

brownteeth
brownteeth

Thanks for all the great comments. It's nice to share my project with people who appreciate it! I too would love to hear more reno stories from other homeowners around town.

brownteeth
brownteeth

It is made by USG and can be bought at Building Specialties, HBS or any drywall supplier in town. It really does help as you can have a brand new ceiling and run new electrical, data, cable, speaker or any other wiring above the ceiling without as much hassle or disturbing structural framing.

STEEL
STEEL

The faux slate cost almost as much and sometimes more that the real thing

city_girl
city_girl

Thanks for the story. Being close to finishing my crazy rehab of a 19th century carriage house, it is great to see a finished project and the lessons learned. In my case, I really lacked the skills to do the work myself, so I had to relay on a rehab mortgage for first time home buyers. Your experience points to the reality that rehab of historic homes is not an overnight process, but a lot of unexpected issues with structures and becoming knowledgeable of searching "this old house" articles to discover how others encountered your unexpected issues. And, keeping focused that you are engaged in a problem-solving exercise that will provide you a living space that is unique to your own lifestyle. My process was also around $100,000, but my property was purchased from the city at a much lower price. Having a general contractor added about an additional $50,000 to the rehab cost. Again, this is a story and experience that BR could build on to give those interested in saving some of the cities historic dilapidated structures.

sbrof
sbrof

Yeah they are finally starting to come out with some modern materials that maintain the feeling of older homes. Hardie board, some of the slate options very nice actually. It isn't as much about keeping everything historically accurate but keeping the community character intact. I think some of these modern materials can and will do just that. Although there is still something to be said about materials that are carved from the earth: simple, nonpolluting, inert.

Travelrrr
Travelrrr

Paladino doesn't help much with the image either.....

benfranklin
benfranklin

Congratulations, and very nice work. Even like the colors and other choices, and what a great window. (I've got very similar trim work above the interior doorways in a building in Allentown.)

You mention some type of drywall-grid-hanging system for the ceiling. Could you mention a brand name or something to search for online for more information? Thanks.

downtown resident
downtown resident

To Buffalo by choice: As a native New Yorker (city), I loved your post and couldn't agree more. When I show people the type of residences we have here, they're shocked. Especially when they hear the cost. However, our lack of jobs scares would be residents and the media doesn't help when they broadcast about 2 feet of snow in East Aurora while Buffalo may still be green. My downtown apartment would be unattainable in NYC. If we can only get some corporations to see that, maybe they too will invest.

jim
jim

I don't know how the preservationist feel about faux slate but there are some really nice synthetic 'slate look' shingles out there which look real and are green (made from recycled material and recyclable). In fact one company is in Springville..worth checking out!

BuffaloByChoice
BuffaloByChoice

My story isn't too much different.

Moved to Buffalo from Long Island. Took odd jobs and rented while I scouted out homes. Found my home on Prospect Ave. while looking at a home, ironically, on Whitney. Got the home livable in less than a year. Moved in and continue to remodel. The exterior is the next pending repair. Bought the home for $30k. Have spent more than that on renovations, but the result has been rewarding! Now work at a bank.

I think you'll find these stories common...which makes me really happy!

One more thought: homeownership is not tangible for most young Long Islanders when homes usually cost over $300k (ten times more than mine) and salaries are maybe 1.5 to 2 times more than Buffalo. My taxes are also about ten times less than the average Long Islanders. Hopefully that should end the long-standing complaining everyone in WNY does about taxes.

Another thought: How come Buffalo isn't making more of a concerted effort to attract out-of-area homebuyers? With one of the most affordable housing markets in the country, we have a lot to offer.

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