By cleverly using limited space, a first-time renovator nails it
When Martha, who works in preschool special education, first saw the Hamilton Heights co-op in upper Manhattan she would eventually buy, she passed because it needed a lot of work. She continued looking, searching for a permanent space to share with her daughter, Sofia, a 4th grader. But after a year and no luck, when her realtor encouraged her to take another look, a lightbulb went off. No longer daunted, Martha embraced the possibilities of the apartment’s pre-war flourishes, including 10-foot ceilings, french doors, and transom windows.
To transform the 700-square-foot apartment, Martha, a first-time renovator, posted the project on Sweeten, a free renovation platform connecting homeowners with vetted general contractors, chose her contractor and got down to business creating their home.
“After” photos by Miao Jiaxin for Sweeten
Guest blog post by Sweeten homeowner Martha
We were living in a great apartment nearby for four years. But after my divorce, I knew I needed to find something to purchase in order to control my housing costs. Since I’m a full-time, working, single parent, the more I can get my costs under control, the better off we’ll be in the long term. I had an amazing real estate agent who looked at places in my price range for a full year.
The apartment I ended up buying was the first home I saw when I started my search! But it needed so much work that I automatically said no and we moved on. After my realtor encouraged me to take another look, I saw it with new eyes. I saw the potential in it, and not just the work that needed to be done.
One of the biggest challenges was that I had a tight timeline—I was paying rent along with a mortgage plus maintenance, and I couldn’t afford that for long. So I had to use only materials that were in stock. It was limiting, but I think we made do! I wanted to open things up and make a home that was cozy and colorful, that would reflect our personalities and be welcoming.
The first few days during the demo were the best part of the process, because I could finally see what things were really going to look like.
The highest priority with the renovation was to cure the ugliness! The apartment hadn’t been touched since the ’70s. There was fake wood paneling in the hallways, old linoleum plunked down over the amazing original hardwood floors, and layers and layers of paint. The space was tight and there was a lot of wasted space in the kitchen that I wanted to find a way to utilize.
The first few days during the demo were the best part of the process, because I could finally see what things were really going to look like. I was most excited to take down the wall between the kitchen and the living room. It made all the difference in creating an open, warm area. Once we knocked that down, it gave us space for a table and chairs that we wouldn’t have otherwise.
In the kitchen, we installed new custom cabinets, plus more cabinets next to the stove. I went for a 30-inch stainless-steel farmer’s sink, quartz countertops, and a new stove. My favorite thing in the whole house is the kitchen backsplash; I love that funky design.
My contractor really wanted me to lay a new floor on top of the old one. But I loved the color variation in the original wood so I insisted it stay. We kept all the original flooring, just refinished and stained.
The biggest challenge was that the apartment has zero closets. I didn’t have the budget to build them so we bought a couple of big wardrobes and a funky metal gym locker for a linen closet and made it work. At least we had more vertical space to work with because after we removed the dropped ceilings, we gained at least two feet!
I’m a first-time renovator, so I really needed someone who would listen, do good work, deliver on time, and stay within budget and I got all of that. My Sweeten contractor was great and I really had no headaches with my renovation, which is amazing! He was really communicative, and anytime something needed to be changed or wasn’t going to work according to plan, he explained everything to me. Then we worked towards solutions together, which was so helpful. It went as smoothly as one could ask for.
When you’re renovating, remember that there will inevitably be something or some things that don’t go according to your plan. Try to see the big picture and not freak out about the details.
I wanted our forever home to be a place of joy that you can see. Our home makes me feel free.
Thank you, Martha and Sofia, for sharing your new home with us!
KITCHEN RESOURCES: Floor tiles, backsplash, lighting, paint: Home Depot. Cabinet hardware: Hobby Lobby. Faucet, fan: Wayfair.
LIVING ROOM RESOURCES: Fan: Wayfair.
BEDROOM RESOURCES: Fan: Wayfair. Paint: Home Depot.
Sweeten founder and CEO weighs in on what to know before renovating a brownstone.
Sweeten handpicks the best general contractors to match each project’s location, budget, scope, and style. Follow the blog, Sweeten Stories, for renovation ideas and inspiration and when you’re ready to renovate, start your renovation on Sweeten.
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