recordaras

Condo remodel: Help us avoid mistakes!

recordaras
October 17, 2019
last modified: October 17, 2019

We recently bought a condo - this is not our first time owning, but the first time around we were in our early 20s and had zero budget/desire to do anything other than deep clean everything and paint the walls and we got lucky with a virtually problem-free stretch of home ownership.

Fast forward ten years, and with the new place we really want to make it ours. Add lighting, change floors, move outlets around, nothing crazy or structural but to really spruce everything up and make it comfortable as we plan to spend the next 10+ years here. However, not having ever gone through even a minor remodel I find myself totally lost! Case in point: I was very happy with myself for having lined up several electricians for quotes before the sellers left (we were doing a rent back to them) and felt like I was totally on top of things! Only this morning I realized that both electricians are unlicensed, which I never in a million years would have guessed since they have a huge online presence and hundreds of positive reviews everywhere online which I assumed made them legitimate. Insert head slapping emoji here. And to complicate things we are in a new state with no local friends or family we could go to for referrals.

So that’s a very lengthy preamble to my question: what should I look out for? What advice would you give yourself if you had to do it all over the first time around? I’d love to learn from the experience of others!

Comments (51)

  • Denita

    Ask your Realtor for a referral to couple of licensed, insured electricians. Same with painters, flooring people etc. Still do your due diligence on the contractors, but at least you will have a starting point. Get appropriate permits. Don't skimp by skipping on permits. It will come back to bite later.

  • recordaras

    Decoenthusiaste, I wish we could! Sellers are moving out Monday and we have extended our lease month to month till early December. We have an 11 month old and a dog, so anything we don’t get done now likely won’t happen for a really long time... not to mention how ready we are to leave our 700 sq ft 1 BR rental that was supposed to be a 3 month quick stay while we house hunted!

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  • recordaras

    Thanks Denita, I was honestly quite shocked when I learned they weren’t licensed - we moved here (DC) from MA where you pretty much need some sort of license to leave your house and I was not prepared for this at all! Our realtor is a super sweet guy, but very young and new (it was actually an off market sale - I found the sellers via a local message board after 9 months of futile waiting), but still worth checking if he has some contacts!

  • cpartist

    Ask the management of the condo who they recommend. That's how we found our contractor when we redid our condo 9 years ago in a new to us town.

  • recordaras

    Thanks Cpartist! Now that you mention it, I’m pretty sure our welcome packet had some contacts listed which I dismissed for some reason.

  • Denita

    cpartist has a great idea. Also your Realtor can contact his broker and other agents in the office for contractors that have been tried and true to their respective professions.

  • PRO
    Patricia Colwell Consulting

    There is no way any of what you palnned is going to happen as fast as you wish. IMO find a designer that has contacts with people they work with. You will need to get permission from the condo board for things like flooring this also takes time.Very different situation than your single family home ownership. I sure hope you had lawyer to draw up this contract too.

  • ulisdone

    Always get Liability Insurance certificates and maybe even verify policy with the issuer (things can be fraudulently photoshopped).

  • Helen

    There are two issues going on - one is general advice on how to approach a remodel and the other is specific to remodeling in a condo.

    I just finished a remodel in a condo and as others have posted, your first step should be contacting management or the Board to find out the "house rules" governing construction/remodeling. My building has very specific rules which include deposits for damage - signing an agreement agreeing to adhere to rules and having all workers adhere to rules - using licensed plumbers, electricians and GC and providing their licenses and insurance information etc.

    Ask your management who has had work done and for their recommendations and then contact your neighbors as well as tradespeople recommended by management. Our manager is extremely honest so his advice is reliable - you may or may not have someone who is recommending honestly so it's good to also talk to neighbors who have work done.

    In general, for a condo it is extremely helpful to use people who do work in the building. This is because they already know the rules - know how to operate properly and they also know any quirks of the construction which is especially true for plumbing, HVAC and electrical work. I used the designer who had done recently done the lobby and the GC recommended by her who ALSO had done work in the building. Other people in my people have used another GC but one who has done other units. You might pay more but working in a condo is not at all like working in a single family home and someone who has never worked in a condo might not realize what they are getting into - e.g. limited hours for construction or having to deal with protecting common area surfaces every day or bringing up and down all materials including demoed materials.

    As for the universal advice - as others have posted - slow down and research carefully in terms of what you want and what is realistic within your budget. Since you have already moved in, there is no rush the way there might be to do things to avoid having to move out again for major construction.

  • recordaras

    Thank you all, the advice to go with management-recommended contractors seems to be universal, so I will start making calls today. Oddly enough I assumed the opposite for some reason - kind of like how you never take the hotel concierge’s advice on restaurants? So I’m definitely glad I asked.

    Fortunately our board rules are pretty relaxed - no approval needed for anything other than major remodeling (moving walls etc), but they do require the contractor be licensed and insured and have set hours for work.

    And to clarify, the sellers are moving out Monday, but we will continue renting right down the street for another month while the work gets done. I want to get everything intrusive (floors, electric, backsplash, paint) done in the next few weeks, and leave anything that can be done later for after we move in (window treatments, light fixtures, faucets etc.)

  • Helen

    To clarify, relying on management's input is not infallible as it depends on the integrity of your manager. I have lived in my building a long time and know that our manager is a great source and operates with integrity.


    However, asking who has done work for other people in the building is extremely helpful as you can talk to them and get a sense of how they felt about the people they hired.


    Since I've remodeled, I've had a few of my neighbors come by to look at the work product and ask who I used.

  • recordaras

    Helen, I just remembered that we actually have a community listserv - I think I will reach out and see if anyone can recommend professionals they liked.

  • Helen

    Not to belabor but you can also ask your neighbors whether they rely on their manager for recommendations. If they vouch for his or her recommendations, then use the manager as a great source of leads. I only use plumbers recommended by my building because they know the quirky pipes :-).

  • recordaras

    That's a good question - we're coming from a tiny, 14 unit condo association that was largely self-managed, so a larger association with professional management is quite new to me. They actually employ full-time staff here, so it's a very different setup!

  • recordaras

    Actually let me dump some of my thoughts here, maybe folks can chime in if there are any glaring issues with my reasoning. Here's what we have so far:

    List of must-dos:

    • Refinish kitchen cabinets (already contracted and doors scheduled for pickup Tuesday)
    • Replace kitchen backsplash
    • Refinish or buff and coat upstairs floors, depending on what the flooring contractor suggests (we think they are engineered wood and appear to be in good shape; color would not have been my first choice but I could live with it)
    • Replace existing (gross) carpet and (ugly) tile on bottom floor with LVP (baby+aging dog+budget=LVP)
    • Repair trim and wall damage etc.
    • Paint everything
    • Clean up showers with fresh caulk and possibly new grout in some dingy areas
    • Electric:

    - install TPR outlets (baby)

    - add wall sconces to powder room and pendant to breakfast nook (while I guess this technically isn't a NEED, it's the one thing I really, really want)

    - move cable outlet to TV wall and add outlet and cable management for wall-mounted TV

    - swap out bathroom vent fan (could likely be done afterwards, but I figure it might result in some ceiling damage, so better do it before painting?)

    - swap 120v halogen under cabinet pucks for LED (possibly a DIY project?..)


    And these are our nice-to-haves:

    • Add crown molding and powder room wainscoting
    • Add 4 recessed lights to master bedroom (we are putting in a ceiling fan with no lights, and it would be nice to have something that turns on at the flick of a switch, even though I'm not normally a fan of overhead lighting in the bedroom. Keep going back and forth on that one.)
    • Refinish stairs (they seem to be in good shape and you can't really see them from the living/dining area, so not sure we need to tackle them right away unless we decide to stain the upstairs floors)
  • recordaras

    Looks like the sellers are finally out! Our walkthrough is tomorrow, hopefully no more damage to the space. Still waiting to get my quote from the GC I met with Tuesday, but he did send me the contact info of his electrician. I also got a GC referral from a neighbor via listserv, she highly recommended him and said he had a deep Rolodex of good subs. Emailed him Friday night and will follow up with a call tomorrow.

  • drdeb1234

    If you read through houzz much, you’ll see that a common thread in the advice is that its best not to rush the decisions. Obviously you would rather have everything done in this month before you move in, than have to live through renovations, but this sort of hurried approach sometimes leads to regrets. There’s something to be said for living in a space for a while so you have a better sense of what works and what doesn’t. That approach also allows you the luxury of time to make the best choices (and to find the best people).

  • recordaras

    I mentioned that this was an off market purchase so we don’t have any recent photos (the sellers really abused the space tbh), but here are some pictures from the 2014 listing to give an idea. I fell in love with it the second I saw them! We had been house hunting for what felt like forever (first 2 seasons in MA, then 9 months after this unexpected move to DC), and I am sooo happy to finally have our own place again.

  • recordaras

    I definitely understand the reasoning behind waiting, but in our case it’s unfortunately a matter of we either get it done now, or it likely won’t happen... Between a baby, a (crazy) dog, a husband who works a lot and no local close friends/family it would be too much trouble to pack everyone up 6-12 months from now.

  • Ig222

    nice place.

    definitely ask the condo unit for their rules, which may differ from one HOA to the other. our asks the contractor s for a copy of their insurance and license, has strict rules for the outside, and basically let us free for the inside as long as it's permitted and inspected (we're in a townhouse. it is probably different for apartments).

    I would do what needs to be done before you move in (floors, walls). with a baby, it would be a pain, and wait for the rest.

  • Ig222

    the other question is how hard it is to find good contractors ready to work on a short delay. here in Western Mass, it would have been 8 weeks to have a contractor to install the floors,for example.

  • cpartist

    And to clarify, the sellers are moving out Monday, but we will continue renting right down the street for another month while the work gets done. I want to get everything intrusive (floors, electric, backsplash, paint) done in the next few weeks, and leave anything that can be done later for after we move in (window treatments, light fixtures, faucets etc.)

    I'm sorry but you're dreaming if you think a contractor will be able to do your condo in the next month. The best contractors are booked up for months. Anyone who is available you don't want!

  • cpartist

    You wrote, "Help Us Avoid Mistakes!"

    You avoid mistakes by not rushing to get something done.

  • recordaras

    Interestingly enough none of the contractors I’ve spoken with so far have said that our timeline is unreasonable - maybe because it’s slower now than in summer months? I mean, in the grand scheme of things we want to paint 1400 sq ft, rip out 600 ft of carpet and refinish 600 ft of wood. None of this seems like it would be extremely lengthy?.. We could consider staying in our rental for an extra month of course if the GCs can’t make it work.

  • Danette

    Do jump on the floor refinishing. Depending on finish, you're going to want 30 days of cure time before putting down rugs (or letting the crazy dog rampage). I was able to get my refinishing appt with about 3 weeks lead time (outside DC. May be more options downtown). Nice condo!

  • Helen

    All of that is completely doable on the time frame subject to contractors being available. It is completely typical to paint and refinish floors before moving in. I have never heard anyone advise differently in terms of "living with the space" as it's such an enormous hassle to pack up for refinishing floors and repainting.


    Installing carpeting is much easier to do after one has moved in but installation is generally extremely fast.


    There is no need to rush into getting a backsplash done because it is very easy to do after one has moved in and you would then have the ability to select tiles leisurely.


    Other stuff is also minor stuff which isn't particularly disruptive. An advantage is consolidating some of the "handyman' type of stuff and having it all done in one visit since that is more attractive to a tradesperson in terms of the scope of the job.

  • recordaras

    Thanks Danette, I have a GC whose specialty is floors coming in Tuesday, so I’m aiming to get all bids and final decision made by end of the week. Fingers crossed there’s availability for at least one of the three. Interestingly enough when I tried to secure them for the job a few weeks ago they didn’t want to commit to anything till the sellers were out.

    Helen, thanks! I was starting to feel quite defeated there. While we can stay in our rental for an extra month, it would be a significant extra expense (around $3500 for a 700 sq ft 1BR), and I’d rather only do that as a last resort. Good point on the backsplash, although with a small condo kitchen there’s so little of it and I chose a fairly simple subway tile, so I can’t imagine that would add a huge amount of time to everything else. But it’s nice to keep in mind that some things don’t have to be 100% ready before we move in.

    And fortunately our condo association has two full-time salaried handymen who can do projects at a discounted rate. I’ve heard nothing but great things about them, and since they are already here they have a minimum charge of only 30 minutes and take on even the smallest of jobs. I’m definitely going to utilize them as much as I can!

  • Denita

    OP, I'm a little concerned about the reference to "GC whose specialty is floors".

    A GC is a general contractor that " hires and organizes all necessary workers for a construction job. He or she also provides materials, obtains necessary permits, schedule inspections, complies with all building codes and sees the project through to completion." (Def per google)

    Nothing you are planning to do in your new condo needs a GC in my opinion. I'm concerned that you would be paying more and getting less than if you went with someone that is a flooring specialist with a great reputation. Please see if you can find other vendors/contractors for your floor refinishing.

    I realize this is semantics, but I find that someone that puffs themselves up to be something they aren't (such as a GC) has a potential to either be a scam or a rip off. JMO. Tread carefully.

  • recordaras

    Thanks Denita. We went back and forth on this quite a bit, but in the end after my electrician fiasco I feel that having one point of contact would make life easier. Trying to coordinate a flooring crew, a tile guy, painters, cabinet refinishers, an electrician and a carpenter who have not previously worked together sounds like a bit of a nightmare.

    The one coming Tuesday is NWFA certified - they specialize primarily in floors but also hold a GC license and have subs for all the other things we need. Since the bulk of the cost of our project is flooring, I’m hoping this will be a good fit. I’m pretty particular about reviews, and both of the ones I selected have a good spread of positive feedback across multiple sites. The third is a neighbor’s recommendation without much of an online presence.

  • PRO
    Sorell Interiors

    First of all--congratulations on your purchase! This is the beginning of a new chapter in your life and you should enjoy every aspect of the journey. With that said, you should hire an Interior Designer who can oversee the whole project from start to finish. The designer will work with the contractor and sub-contractors, so that you are alleviated from this burden. This way, you work directly with the designer who is used to doing all of the things that can be very daunting to someone who is not familiar with the process. This will enable you to be on your way to living in the home that you envision.

  • einportlandor

    For what it's worth, here's my advice. Bite the bullet and extend your lease for another month. Painful, yes, but next year this time you won't even remember the pain. A major time consuming part of remodeling/decorating is choosing and procuring products. Choosing the wrong product/color is a very expensive mistake so unless this condo is a flip, take your time and do your due diligence. I'm concerned with your tight timeline you will wind up with products that are in-stock rather than something you will love in the long term. Here's what you're facing:

    You'll want to visit a good quality paint store (not a big box) and bring home a zillion color chips. Agonize for a few days. Then go back and buy a few pints of your favorite colors to test on the walls. Repeat. Hem and haw for several more days before finally deciding on the perfect color. The fastest, easiest thing to do is paint the entire condo a single color. The painters can then spray much of the space and get the entire place done in a few days. More colors = more time.

    You should visit several flooring stores to look at (many) products, bring home samples and then return them, read reviews, compare prices, etc. Repeat. This is not something a GC can do for you. Once you've chosen the product it has to be ordered and delivered, which takes time. Most flooring stores have a list of installers they work with, so it's a good place to start looking.

    The guy who refinishes hardwood floors is not the same guy who installs carpet/vinyl tile so will have to be scheduled separately. You'll want to choose a stain for your hardwood floors. Have your floor refinisher put a few samples on the raw wood so you can see how it will look on your floors, not a sample floor. Ponder for awhile. Remember that you won't be able to access the refinished floors for several days after the work is completed so add that to your timeline.

    Two days here, four days there, add up quickly. Throw in a holiday, a product delay and a flu outbreak and you could easily find yourself staying in a hotel with the baby and the crazy dog for a several weeks, with your furniture in storage ($$$$). I say this as someone who has moved about 20 times including a few relocations with kids, dogs and cats. You're right that you should get the work done before you move in, but a few more weeks in your apartment, although expensive, beats a finished product you're not happy with. As my wise mother used to say, it's cheaper than a psychiatrist. Good luck with your move.

    P.S. Moving electrical outlets/fixtures may require sheetrock repair. Are you sure you need to do this?

  • recordaras

    Thanks and yes, we have until 11/4 to decide on whether to give our 30 day notice. I’m hoping to have more clarity on choice of contractor and timeline by then, and the last thing I ever want to deal with is trying to exist with our crazy household in a hotel...

    I have had all the time in the world to agonize over finishes and have a stack of Samplize samples ready to go on the walls!

    We actually stopped by just now. What was supposed to be a happy moment was slightly marred because there was some kind of very bad smell coming from the kitchen. I was just there Tuesday and spent a ton of time in the kitchen - everything smelled fine. Either there is a dead mouse somewhere (ugh), or it’s coming from the garbage disposal...

  • recordaras

    Also, regarding outlets - the cable outlet is in the dining room area, far away from where the tv will be in the living room area. The current solution is a wire running against the baseboards which is extremely noticeable and that kind of stuff drives me insane. I’d love to avoid the added expense, but I do think it might be worth it in this case.

  • einportlandor

    Call the cable company and see if they'll move the line for you. You may not need an electrician for that.


    Is the refrigerator still in the kitchen? It could be the odor culprit, inside or behind. Run some baking soda down the disposal and see if that helps. Good luck!

  • recordaras

    That’s a fantastic idea, I never would have thought of that! And the fridge is still in. It doesn’t smell inside - I opened all the appliances and the odor was definitely most concentrated around the sink and cabinet under the sink. I will be pulling everything out to see if we can find anything if deodorizing the disposal doesn’t help. What an annoyance, although I was frankly expecting to find huge holes in the wall and lots of left over dirt, so in the grand scheme of things could be worse I guess. Also it prompted me to take a closer look at the disposal - a Badger - and decide to preemptively replace it.

  • Helen

    It’s definitely worth it to have that kind of wiring done and It’s not a major expense.


    I recently remodeled and went from having a Medusa’s nest of wires for all my electronics as well as having inadequate inconveniently placed outlets so I had extension cords and power strips running all over the place and I had to crawl around whenever I got a new upgrade for my computer or media stuff.


    I added outlets and had them run wiring in the walls and in the ceiling for the television. I also had a few outlets added at a higher level which makes it much easier to plug in the vacuum cleaner as needed.

  • recordaras

    Okay, thought I’d post an update. I reached out to 4 GCs: one recommended by a neighbor, one by our realtor and two that I found via good reviews here on Houzz and other places. The neighbor’s recommendation did not respond to multiple calls, voicemails, text or email, so I gather he does not have much availability. The realtor’s contact did not leave a great impression (he suggested tiling over existing backsplash for example), and he never got back to me with a quote. One of the remaining two had some scheduling conflicts, so we have the remaining one starting tomorrow!

    I am however going to get a few more quotes for paint - we contracted for everything but that since $10k seems awfully steep for 1300 sq ft with 8” ceilings...

  • mmcgee2

    Good luck - I hope it's all gone smoothly! I was in your spot three years ago when we moved into our current place and am really glad we got the floors and painting and closet systems installed before we moved in. We do need to do a complete reno at some point - but I'm so glad I haven't been living with the beat up floors and ugly stager paint for the last three years. Also, I'm also in DC, and that quote for painting seems huge. We didn't have baseboards or ceilings done, which are the pricey bits, I know, but our 1700 sq ft place was under $2k in 2016.

  • recordaras

    Thanks so much for checking in! Things are moving along - it seems that every time someone enters the condo some new issue pops up, but overall knock on wood nothing too terrible so far. The GC has been great, there have been a few things we’ve had to deal with (like two days of Schluter trim drama), but he has been very responsive and willing to fix anything that I’m not happy with.

    I got 4 additional painting quotes and 3 were for 9-9.5, and one was for $16k (!!!!), so we decided to stick with our GC for timing purposes. I’m sure part of it is the NW DC premium, but on top of that we added crown molding and replaced baseboards, so that’s a lot of caulking... plus stair risers, plus lots of drywall repair. Pains me to pay so much but considering how close all the quotes were I’m leaning towards that being a fair price. My understanding is that for 2 coats we’d need close to 30 gallons of paint and that alone is $2k right there if you get Regal Select.

  • recordaras

    Kitchen status

  • recordaras

    New Supercore LVP in the bedrooms - shoe molding coming soon

  • recordaras

    New backsplash

  • mmcgee2

    That's a cool backsplash! Hope the reno went well and you had a great Thanksgiving in the new space.

  • recordaras

    @mmcgee2 thank you! I wish we were already in the new place, ha! But as predicted everything is taking longer, so it’s still very much a work in progress. The cabinet refinisher rescheduled last week, which caused a chain reaction of scheduling conflicts with our GC... But on the bright side we have some color on the walls and I absolutely love it! We were also able to add a vent fan to the second full bath which I’m pretty excited about.

  • recordaras

    One thing I’m struggling with (might make sense to do a separate post) is the master bedroom and dressing area. I know I want rugs there and under the bed, but not sure if they should match? Coordinate?
    Also wondering about a room divider. The previous owners had IKEA track panels and they look much nicer in the photo than in real life. I’m not really a fan of barn doors, plus there are currently door on 3/4 walls, so adding another doesn’t seem like a great idea. So maybe get track panels again, but mount them differently?..
    And I have zero ideas about a light fixture to replace the way too low swagged chandelier they used to have.

    Here are the old listing photos and current status

  • einportlandor

    Do you need a room divider? My inclination would to leave it open.

  • recordaras

    My husband can be up for work at odd hours, and since the dressing area leads to the master bathroom it might be nice to have something there to minimize the light/disturbance... We should probably start off without and see if we feel a need for something there. I actually prefer the way it looks without, the room feels a lot bigger and “airier”.

  • recordaras

    Also trying to figure out curtains. We’ll have blackout cellular shades for night time, but I think I‘d like something for daylight privacy as well. It’s a garden style development, and our bedroom windows are on the ground floor. With the lights off it’s pretty hard to see inside (I checked), but it would be a little weird feeling to get dressed when there’s someone walking their dog right outside your window...

  • Danette

    look into top down bottom up cellular shades

  • recordaras

    Thanks - the lower floor with the bedrooms is actually slightly below grade, so while we’re getting TDBU for the living/dining area windows upstairs, they won’t really work downstairs since passers-by would be looking in from the top part of the window. Hope that explanation made sense! So I might do sheers, or something like the slightly thicker linen IKEA Aina curtains.

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