Renovation, Interrupted – The New York Times

Marina Tarasova and John Levy were five months into the renovation of their two-bedroom co-op on the Upper East Side — contractor willing, just three months to go! — when word came from the co-op’s management company in mid-March that all construction and renovation projects would have to stop because of the coronavirus.

Another email soon followed as if for emphasis: The halt would be immediate.

“We were beside ourselves,” said Ms. Tarasova, the co-founder of Paloma Health, a virtual medical practice. “We’d been renting elsewhere and the expense was much more than we’d budgeted for. And now the rental would be prolonged.”

It isn’t exactly news that the coronavirus has upended everyone and everything. Those with an interrupted home renovation have good reason to feel especially unmoored. What should be a haven, their one safe place in the midst of chaos is perhaps now a welter of exposed pipes and partially tiled floors, an Everest of rubble around which they navigate at their own risk, or worse yet, flat-out uninhabitable.

In accordance with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s executive order, certain construction projects — like hospitals, homeless shelters and affordable housing — are considered essential and thus, permitted to go forward. But apartment alterations appear to be prohibited, said Steven D. Sladkus, a real estate lawyer. “Still,” he added, “even without the governor’s order, practically all buildings are prohibiting renovations during this time anyway to limit foot traffic.”

Nationally, the pandemic has caused almost one out of two contractors to stop work on current projects or delay jobs scheduled to start in the next 30 days, according to a recent survey by the Associated General Contractors of America. Further, 33 percent of those responding to the survey said they had been notified by suppliers that deliveries would be late or canceled altogether.

In these uncertain times, homeowners who are stopped mid-renovation can be certain of at least two things: the project is going to stretch out for months longer than they’d planned and cost far more than they’d anticipated.

Marc Solomon was told by his contractor that 70 to 90 days would be a sufficient chunk of time to allot for the renovation of his one-bedroom co-op in Park Slope. The job included turning the kitchen into a second bedroom, and creating a kitchen/living room area. Accordingly, Mr. Solomon, an associate broker at the real estate firm Compass, and his wife, Rainbow, a stay-at-home mother of two young daughters, signed a lease for a three-month rental nearby, and cleared out.

At the beginning of March, the apartment was gutted. In mid-March, a Sunday night text from a member of the building’s co-op board informed the couple that the renovation was being frozen.

“We were devastated,” Mr. Solomon said. “We were already feeling the anxiety of the pandemic. We had money in the stock market, which was gutted. And now, here we are having to pay our mortgage, our maintenance and our rent.” And, he continued, they have to use money they had set aside for the renovation to cover day-to-day expenses.

Of course, having taken that rental close by so they could monitor the progress of their home improvement job more easily, Mr. Solomon and his wife are now reassessing. With the renovation on hold, he said, “we’re not sure why we’re here and we’re not sure where we’re going to go.”

Ms. Tarasova is similarly at sea. With the renovation postponed indefinitely, she couldn’t justify the outlay for extending the lease on the rental. Instead, the family is bunking with her husband’s parents on Long Island.

“But when things get back running,” Ms. Tarasova said, “our apartment still won’t be ready immediately and we’ll have to take on the expense of another rental because the commute to Long Island is two hours each way.”

Even in the best of times renovations create upheaval. In these particular times, it’s upheaval squared.

When the one-bedroom next door to hers in a Sutton Place co-op became available last year, Gail Eisen pounced. She’d long wanted to expand her two-bedroom penthouse space; here, finally, was the chance. “I’m in my 70s and I wanted a project — it would be fun, illuminating and a great present to myself,” said Ms. Eisen, a former television news producer.

Work began last September and Ms. Eisen was pleasurably contemplating the “fantastically large living room” and “fantastic apartment” she would have in six months.

Everything was humming along right on schedule. The walls were plastered, the floors scraped and sanded, the millwork and a wall of cabinets all done. One day in mid-March, Ms. Eisen was in the lobby of her building, and the staff member who stands sentry at the service entrance gave her a somewhat cryptic heads-up: “no more.” The next day she got the official word from the management company.

“You know, if the building wants to protect tenants, you go with the flow and that’s all you can do. I still have a habitable place to live and that’s the important thing. But time is precious, especially now, so I’m not happy about the delay,” said Ms. Eisen, who is even less happy about the current state of her living room. She’s sharing it with a washer and dryer, some industrial machinery, a hillock of furniture encased in plastic, a rolled-up carpet, her piano and a poinsettia from last Christmas.

Some, like Ms. Tarasova and Mr. Solomon, were initially hopeful that they could make their co-op boards see reason. “My husband and I felt the board was overreaching and how could they control what was going on in our apartment,” Ms. Tarasova said.

“I was thinking ‘how is this not essential?’ she continued, referring to the standard for deciding whether businesses can continue operating and projects can progress during the pandemic. “I thought we could work something out. I thought the men on our job could wear masks and gloves and just go straight up to our apartment in the morning, stay there and come down at the end of the day.”

Mr. Solomon was thinking along somewhat similar lines. “Our contractor volunteered to keep one guy in the lobby whose sole job was to sanitize the door handles and such,” he said. Alas, the board was having none of it.

“Shareholders have pushed back against boards. They all think their circumstances are different. They all think they’re the exception,” said Marc Kerner, the owner of Infinity Construction who’s also on the board of his co-op on the Upper West Side. “But there can’t be any exceptions,” added Mr. Kerner, who himself is in the middle of renovating his bedroom and bathroom, a project that was stopped a few weeks ago. “I had workmen in my apartment who wanted to keep going and I told them they had to leave. I told them, ‘Guys, I’m on the board of the building.’ ”

In fact, some buildings have been willing to bend the rules just a bit. Pembrooke & Ives, an interior architecture and design firm was in the midst of work on the 6,000-square-foot penthouse of an Upper West Side co-op when they were directed to disappear for the foreseeable future.

“We had just installed all the millwork and floors, which would be destroyed if the humidity on the site wasn’t controlled, said Alexia Sheinman, Pembrooke & Ives’ director of branding and communications. “We had to make a special arrangement with the building to allow one contractor up every morning to maintain the humidifiers.”

A shareholder in the midst of a big renovation elsewhere on the Upper West Side persuaded the board of her co-op to allow the delivery and installation of a stove so that her kitchen would be at least partially functional while she was sheltering in place.

“But then she started parsing what Governor Cuomo meant by ‘essential’ to try to get us to let her workmen continue refinishing the floors,” said a member of the board who requested anonymity to avoid conflict with a neighbor. “People like that are just selfish.”

Delays are likely to continue long after residential buildings open their doors to cabinetmakers and carpenters once again.

“Let’s assume we’re back to normal June 1,” said Mr. Kerner. “Every client with an unfinished project is going to be asking their contractor ‘when can you get here?’

“And then all the new clients who booked a contractor for a June 1 or July 1 start are also going to be asking ‘when are you going to get here?’” Mr. Kerner continued. “But we can’t be everywhere at once. Quality is going to start suffering because we don’t have a lot of bench strength in this business.”

Meanwhile, Gabriela Gargano, the founder of Grisoro Designs, an interior design firm, is anticipating a scarcity of plumbing fixtures and fittings because of coronavirus-related factory shutdowns, as well as keen competition for luxury materials.

“We had several slabs of Calacatta Viola on hold,” Ms. Gargano said, referring to a burgundy-veined marble. “And we received an urgent call from our vendor about whether we were purchasing it. With all the shipments of marble from Italy on hold until further notice there was a huge spike in demand.”

Ms. Tarasova is very gamely trying to look beyond past and future interruptions. “It’s painful at the moment, but I know this will pass,” she said. “I just picture us when we’re finally in our apartment.”

But, she added, “If people I like are looking for a place, I’ll beg them never to buy something that needs renovating.”

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