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How To Renovate a Townhouse in Brooklyn Volume 1 Edition 11

Updated on August 8, 2020

The Fat Lady Won't Stop

Six months ago, Hubbie and I moved into our townhouse in Brooklyn.

From the day we first walked into the dilapidated 113-year old house to the day we officially moved in, it has been a dynamic journey complete with bank lawyers, tile layers, architects and day laborers - and just about every bit of humanity in between.

There were times when I wasn't sure if we would ever find a house, much less get a mortgage with a renovation budget, update the house from pipes to electricity to skylights to paint, and then move in.

Truth be told we are still moving in. There is no back splash in the kitchen, and the wallpaper that we picked out for the library is spending the winter rolled up in the basement.

The GC's scope ended with the priming of the walls, saving us thousands of dollars on the work of painting the walls and ceilings. Ten gallons of white paint later, we are about 15% of the way there.


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Finding our house in Brooklyn took us down countless unpredicted roads - one in a neighboring state that was literally called Redneck Road, but I digress.

We had originally set out to stay in Harlem and had spent the better of three years looking for a house north of 116th Street. But after a series of failed attempts in Harlem, we set our sights on the borough of Walt Whitman and Jay Z. We plotted out the borough neighborhood by neighborhood until we found a house in a historic district just off Prospect Park. It is a gem of an area filled with sprawling residential houses and little else. It is quite literally, an urban suburb.

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There are days when Hubbie and I reflect on all of the houses that we didn't get-the one on Convent Avenue where the bank financing fell through, or the one in Red Hook where a cash buyer swooped in over a holiday weekend with buckets of money-and we can't help but feel that it was somehow all meant to be.


In the end, our house had one of the lowest price tags of the countless houses we looked at, and was by far the best condition. It has more square footage than we ever dreamed of and, with four skylights in the roof, the house is literally flooded with light. It has a yard in the front and in the back, and if last summer is any indication, we throw the best block party for miles around.


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Reflecting on it a little over a year after buying the broken down old house, I find that most of my memories of the renovation project are anecdotal. Maybe the scope of something as enormous as peeling the inside skin off a house, replacing its organs and putting it back together again, is too massive to comprehend in a single thought. It's a noisy, dirty process that for us involved screaming at the bank, firing an architect, waiting for Landmarks and Department of Buildings approvals, running against the clock, forcing the workmen to relay the bathroom tiles which had been laid facing in the wrong way, and generally fighting all day every day to get exactly what you want at a price that you can afford..

Gladly, it's exactly mine and Hubbie's idea of a good time.

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So, if I were to give any notes to someone who want to take on a simliar project, I would offer the following:

  • You don't have to be rich. But you will need money. So save save and save some more. If this means cancelling your cable service and giving up drinking, do it. And then be patient-it will probably take years.
  • Start small. Our first project was a 700-square foot apartment with a back garden. It took us ten years to get it done.
  • Get a good lawyer. Or live to regret it.
  • There is power in numbers. If you do not have a Hubbie to share your costs with, find a friend who shares your dream and go for it.
  • Educate yourself. Your GC will cheat you if you do not know enough. Guaranteed.
  • Do your own shopping and project management. You can save yourself a lot of money and avoid contractor grade products which are all just terrible.
  • IKEA makes a good product-do not let anyone tell you differently. And they all will. Also, use Ebay liberally.

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Yesterday we celebrated New Year's Eve in our house. It was a perfect holiday setting with lights twinkling on the tree, the heating system humming away in the basement, and the festive sound of fire crackers in the distance hailing the new year. We were drinking champagne (a gift from our architects) and looking at design magazines and pictures of motorcycles online.

"Imagine if we could buy the house next door and go through the wall like some people do with their New York apartments, make a double-sized house," I said, "I mean, it would be an outrageous amount of work but just imagine."

I fully expected Hubbie to tell me that I was cut off from the champagne. Instead, he instantly replied "Are you kidding? That would be amazing."


"It's too crazy of an idea," I replied.


"No, it's not crazy at all," said Hubbie, looking up from the Triumph he been ogling. "I am sure that it can be done."

And we're off.


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