How to Survive a NYC Renovation

Pay in rubles, calculate job length in dog years and get ready to snort lead

Illustration by Fred Harper
Illustration by Fred Harper

Renovating a New York apartment is like undergoing a little nip and tuck. It’s expensive and painful. Things look worse before they look better. But everyone’s doing it, and if all goes well, you’re in for a major upgrade.

Often, however, the emotional scars are worse than the physical. We all know our project will run over budget and behind schedule, yet we’re shocked and outraged when it actually happens. Some people, like Steven Soderbergh, lose the will to go on, as evidenced by the recent listing of his Tribeca loft after it was reportedly stripped down to its steel columns. In extreme cases, a remodel can even demo your relationship. Just ask Chris Kooluris, the public relations executive who purportedly lost his fiancé after turning his Murray Hill apartment into a video arcade.

My husband and I, 30-something Upper East Siders, recently revamped our 93rd Street kitchen. It was a minute undertaking in the realm of Manhattan construction, but I learned some monumental lessons. And although I held onto my marriage, I did lose my shirt, my temper, and at times, my mind. If you’re going to bring in the wrecking ball, follow these tips to prepare for the inevitable damage to your life. 

Currency Converter

When making your budget, convert your estimate into Russian rubles. So $50,000 USD becomes 1,806,663 RUB. Now add a dollar sign. Your real budget should be $1.8 million American dollars.

Dog Years

This is the measure by which you should calculate your construction schedule. My accommodating contractor agreed to a 14-day timetable, and 56 days later, he finished. In the meantime, I cancelled Thanksgiving. Then Christmas. Then New Year’s. To plan properly for the upheaval, multiply the predicted number of days/weeks/months byabout  seven. This new timeline will be far more accurate.

Man Hours

When renovating a co-op, don’t expect to see a lot of progress each day. Your house rules may preclude work outside the hours of 9 to 4. Expect your crew to arrive at 9:22, recap until 10:17, set up until 10:45, work until 11:35, lunch until 2:45, and clean up at 3:07. Actual time worked = 1 hour and 12 minutes. If you have your own job, and can’t supervise theirs, reduce by 60 percent. Actual time worked = 29 minutes.

Holiday Stays

Anticipate that your co-op will forbid work on weekends, holidays and cool-weather seasons. Saturdays and Sundays are off-limits. So is Groundhog Day. Wright Brothers Day. White Cane Safety Day. And these are the flexible buildings; some preclude work in the fall, winter and spring. For roughly 340 days of the year, the tools will stay in their belt.


Be on the lookout for mistakes. The drawers will be the wrong style. The handles will be too short. The blue wall paint will be rolled onto the ceiling. Double check everything, then check it again. Or enjoy a ceiling that looks like a summer sky

Damage Control

When your workers lay a tarp over your 90-year-old oak floor, don’t presume they are trying to protect it. Assume they are covering up damage they already caused, and that they’re hiding screws they dropped but didn’t feel like looking for. You will find the first on day 28 when it penetrates the bottom of your foot.

Lead Pudding

Upgrade your health insurance plan. Ever wonder who eats the lead paint all those pamphlets warn about? As you wipe a dust-coated spoon on your sleeve, you will realize that person is you.

Goodbye to All That

If you’d rather not ingest 50 years’ worth of lead paint dust, increase your budget to include a room at the Carlyle.    

Plan B

If you can’t afford 56 nights at the Carlyle, you may need a hard hat to protect you from your spouse. Budget for a couple’s counselor to ensure that your union is not demolished with the old laminate cabinets. Living in a construction zone can make even the most beautiful souls as ugly as that vomit-green Formica counter you’re replacing.

Check, Please

No matter what your contractor demands, withhold your final payment until every last paint chip is fixed. After you write the last check you will never see your crew again, so don’t pay up until you’re ready to say goodbye. How to Survive a NYC Renovation