Look Mom! I Bought a Brownstone

Part 2: The Renovation

WWS Exclusive

By Caren Chesler


Last week in Part 1: Look Mom! I Bought a Brownstone we shared the author's white-knuckle odyssey through the wilds of a real estate purchase and finance. Although it was a harrowing tale, it turns out the almost-six-month escrow was the easy part. Hard to believe? Read on…

Those who know such things say a construction project always lasts 30% longer and costs 30% more than you think it will. They underestimated. My renovations budget started out at $215,000 (which I thought was a huge chunk of change); by the end, though, it reached a jaw-dropping $290,000. And there seems to be a never-ending series of codas -- I still find myself shelling out $100 here and $100 there to replace soft floorboards or patch holes in the brick.

Look, the shape the building was in when I bought it was not a secret. I converted a dilapidated five-story boarding house into a four-family home, and to do that the building needed serious work --- and a seriously large budget to go with it. I had to do certain things to meet code, like installing a sprinkler system and putting fire-rated walls around the boiler. There was also a lot of cosmetic work, like repairing wood doors that were kicked in during what must have been a drunken night, or patching plaster walls that were damaged by fire.

And then there are the best laid plans. I also redid the entire plumbing system so I wouldn't have to deal with leaks. Ha! Just last weekend I walked into the main entrance on the parlor floor – which, because it's the floor where all the home's entertaining took place in bygone days, is by far the most beautifully ornamented floor of the house -- and just above the mahogany fireplace mantels with lions carved out of wood was a crack in the ceiling and a steady stream of water dripping from it. The water had already run down the wall, creating a bubble in the paint. I put a garbage pail underneath the drip to protect the wood floor. When the plumber arrived, he busted through three plaster walls on three different floors with the hopes of finding the hidden pipe that was leaking. Turns out it was a faulty faucet on the second floor. He changed the washer.

My renovation was destined for trouble from the outset because I broke a cardinal rule: I mixed business with pleasure. I dated my architect and made him my contractor. When a month passed after my marathon closing and construction had not yet begun, I fired them both, er, him. I had to threaten him with a lawsuit to get my architectural drawings back. Needless to say, we broke up.

I hired another contractor, but he abandoned the job after several months. He had so underbid the job that he had eaten clear through his profits and actually risked financing the project if he remained. And so, in addition to my paying job as a freelance writer, I had to be my own contractor and complete the job on my own. For three months I ran around New York City picking up building supplies. Thankfully, the back seat of my Saturn folds down, enabling me to get several eight-foot studs and ceiling molding into my trunk. I hired and fired subcontractors, negotiated contracts, and coordinated all of the trades so they didn't close up walls before electrical wires had been installed. By the end, when I was nearly broke, I started hanging sheetrock and taping and spackling myself.

And then there were plenty of mishaps: The appliance store delivered my 800 lb. stove to the wrong floor. The carpenters tiled the floors after the plumber had run his pipe work, which raised the bathtubs so high the drainpipes no longer reached their connections in the floor. The duct installer put a vent in my bathroom that exhausted directly into the basement near the boiler, creating a chimney that promised to set my house ablaze if ever there was a fire. I realized too late that the newspapers the plaster guy used to plug holes in the sheetrock were my clippings from an 18-year journalism career.

The lowest point was the day I had to fire Wayne, a floor sander one of my carpenters met on the street. Wayne always needed money to pay for the rental of his floor sander because he claimed his own machine was in the shop being repaired. He was slow, he was late, and that's when he would show up at all. At one point, he was holding up the entire project, so I had to let him go. We stood outside my house yelling at each other and he said his wife was going to kick my ass. I left to go to the bank to get him the last of his pay. I threw in an extra $200. "You must think I'm just crap under your shoe," he said. I cried when he left.

During the day, I managed a construction project. At night, I was alone in this five-story house. I slept with the television on because every noise sounded like someone breaking into the building.

The project is now done and the building is filled with tenants. It took months to get the plaster dust out of my hair. Adversity had forced me to get over my fear of a circular saw, but now I find it hard to hang a picture. I'd rather call a handyman.

Caren Chesler is a freelance writer living in New York City. She writes about education, politics and finance. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Investor's Business Daily and Bloomberg.


Copyright © 2005 WomensWallStreet, Inc. - All Rights Reserved.