During the late 19th century, so many brownstone homes popped up in New York City that they quickly became the townhouse of choice for developers. If you own a brownstone or are thinking of purchasing one, then taking on its next renovation can be exciting and extremely rewarding, but it won’t be without its challenges.
Brownstones throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn are known for their charm and historical significance, but these same characteristics can make them especially challenging as luxury home renovation projects.
Fortunately, you can overcome the following challenges associated with home remodeling in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the rest of NYC — especially when it comes to brownstones:
The Landmark Preservation Commission
Almost any home renovation in New York requires filing with the Department of Buildings, using a licensed contractor, and applying for building, electrical, and plumbing permits. But brownstones that are designated landmarks by the Landmark Preservation Commission (LPC) require additional applications. The LPC must also approve all of the materials and design aesthetics before you get started. To be sure, preserving a brownstone’s historic value is worth it, but the process does add time and costs to a renovation.
As with any other project, you can meet these demands more successfully by working with a contractor who has experience with other landmarked properties in New York. Your project is not the time for a contractor to learn the ropes of dealing with the LPC and complying with its requirements, so ask all prospective contractors for a list of landmarked projects they’ve already completed.
Previous owners’ piecemeal shortcuts
Considering the age of most brownstones, it’s common to find work that previous owners completed piecemeal. There were no overseeing bodies like you would find in building co-ops and condo boards until long after they were constructed, and these prior occupants often hired handymen or did the work themselves. In worst-case scenarios, some shortcuts can seriously compromise a building’s structural integrity, and correcting them might require the help of a structural engineer.
It’s nearly impossible to track down every single handyman special, but a good home inspector or experienced contractor will be able to locate the most significant ones. Checking electrical panels, exposed plumbing, and the quality of finish in previously renovated rooms will help you manage your expectations. It will also help your contractor judge between minor issues and major risks that need to be remedied.
Inadequate structural work
Aside from risky shortcuts, old construction methods also pose a few challenges. For example, balloon framing was popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In this method, framing and wall cavities run hollow from foundation to roof with no platforms to break up structural beams on each floor. Therefore, things like insulation and moisture control problems, unleveled floors, and buckling beams could pose significant challenges for your current renovation.
Taking out old balloon framing and installing platforms is extremely costly, but there are more affordable things you can do to remedy the issues that come from it. Insist that your contractor insulate the walls and use a vapor and moisture barrier. This is crucial for combatting energy loss and moisture issues, including mold. In addition, your contractor should look out for uneven floors where sistering beams might be necessary for leveling and structural support.
Asbestos and outdated electrical and plumbing
Unless your brownstone’s electrical and plumbing systems have been redone recently, it’s safe to assume that they will have to be done during this luxury home renovation. Brownstones characteristically used galvanized plumbing that both deposits sediments into the water and causes buildup that restricts water flow. They also often include plumbing that was insulated with asbestos — which must be professionally removed if they are being disturbed. When it comes to the electrical systems in brownstones, it is important to keep in mind that they weren’t designed to handle today’s average electrical consumption.
Besides redoing electrical and plumbing, you might also need to schedule a controlled removal of asbestos from your brownstone’s walls. This can add a significant cost to your renovation, so have an experienced engineer or contractor perform a thorough inspection beforehand. The time and money you spend upfront for precautions like snaking a camera through your walls and waste lines can help you avoid costly, time-consuming surprises.
Sewer lines and cellar water
Brownstone owners know well that sewer clogs and backups are unfortunately common. Inspecting the sewer and waste lines before your renovation can help you avoid this. However, things like tree roots and the fronts of some homes can still lead to clogging and overflowing lines within the building. Brownstones near high water tables, which are common in Brooklyn, can also be prone to water issues in their cellars.
If your cellar is unfinished, then some signs of water issues might be obvious, such as water stains and lumps along the floor. A good contractor will look up the property’s permit history and advise whether or not you should schedule testing before starting the project. For instance, if the last plumbing permit was filed in the 1980s, then it’s definitely worth considering a thorough inspection before your renovation.
Finding a brownstone-experienced contractor
Finding the right contractor for any home remodeling project in New York is no small feat, and finding one that also has extensive experience with brownstones can be a bigger challenge. Make sure to do your homework before settling on a firm for your project. Start by ensuring your contractor carries insurance and is licensed — check with the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs.
After that, ask the contractors you’re considering whether they can start tomorrow. If they can, you might want to look elsewhere. Busy contractors are busy for a reason, after all. They’re highly sought-after because of their reputations and the quality of their work. Finally, pay attention to whether a potential firm acquiesces to every one of your requests or occasionally pushes back with logical explanations. A good contractor should act as an advisor, not a yes man.
When you embark on your next brownstone renovation, whether it’s a kitchen remodel in Brooklyn, a bathroom renovation in Manhattan, or a complete home remodel, make sure your contractor is ready to tackle the challenge. Our team at Gallery Kitchen & Bath has extensive experience working with brownstones, and we would love to help with your next project. Contact us to set up a consultation today.