Renovating During COVID-19: What You Need to Know

This drool-worthy kitchen renovation was completed before the New York State pause order. (Amory Wooden/354A Gates Ave.)

The quarantine has been wreaking havoc on individuals and industries across the city. But for NYC homeowners renovating during COVID-19, the pause is creating a uniquely stressful situation.

The NYC Department of Buildings (DOB) had to implement Governor Cuomo’s executive order to halt all nonessential construction, which impacts most residential projects. It has created a slew of problems for renovating homeowners, from permit issues to living in ongoing construction sites. 

For Amory Wooden, the Senior Director of Marketing at StreetEasy, the stop-work mandate created a mountain of questions about what will happen to her Fort Greene home’s gut renovation project. 

“Trying to get a construction loan during COVID has been a nightmare,” she says. “You can’t get an appraiser to come to the house, banks are hesitant, and it’s hard to get anything notarized. Plus, we only budgeted for the house to be vacant for a certain amount of time. We’re panicked.” 

Wooden’s situation is similar to many others. A recent New York Times article told several renovation-disaster stories. So, what are homeowners to do? Here, experts offer answers to some burning questions amid the pandemic. 

What Is Considered Nonessential Construction in NYC?

The Governor’s executive order halted nonessential construction across the state in late March. The DOB is responsible for identifying projects as essential or nonessential. Those deemed essential include affordable housing projects, utility projects, and hospital projects. Everything else, including apartment alterations, is filed under nonessential and has been put on pause.

According to NYC DOB Press Secretary Andrew Rudansky, that means more than 35,000 construction sites across the five boroughs had to shut down. However, even if your project was initially deemed nonessential, you can submit an online application through the DOB NOW system to try to flip the decision.

DOB plan examiners review each of these requests on a case-by-case basis, to determine whether the project is necessary and what work will be allowed to proceed. This application portal was created for projects such as emergency work, work performed by a solitary worker, and work where the developer is unsure whether their project is considered essential under state and city guidelines.

Are NYC Contractors Allowed to Work? 

While renovating during COVID-19, the short answer to this question is yes. But of course, it’s complicated. 

The list of approved essential and emergency construction sites that can work is shown on the DOB’s real-time Essential Construction Map, which is updated several times a day. Only locations on the map are allowed to continue construction.

General contractors like Stephen England of Capital Craftsmen, which specializes in high-end residential Manhattan apartments and townhouses, fall into the nonessential category. Therefore, they are on pause. “However, we are fully functional from a management perspective, bidding on projects and planning,” England says. 

It is important to note that New York State guidance does allow for renovating by a single worker during COVID-19 under the Solitary Work exemption, provided that worker is the only person on the worksite. Also, things like safety and inspection are considered essential, according to Steven Wakenshaw, an architect and partner with DHD. “There still could be things happening,” he says. “A contractor can be doing essential work on a nonessential job.” 

Can Residential Buildings Ban Renovating During COVID-19?

Even if you have just one worker in your apartment taking care of a portion of your project, individual condo and co-op buildings can prevent any work from happening. That could create problems with management and co-op boards. 

“Owners in this situation should be talking with their property management company contact as the first port of call,” says England. “If this is a nonstarter and they wish to pursue the matter further, they could inquire with a construction attorney. In reality, most owners will not go that route for financial reasons, and perhaps to avoid creating some tense relationships long-term.” 

Wooden also notes that it’s more likely a neighbor will complain, since more people are at home nowadays. “The volume of construction complaints is through the roof,” she says. “So trying to sneak the work in is not easy.”

Unfortunately, according to England, the best solution at present is to monitor the governor’s updates. Currently they show May 18 as the first potential day for construction. 

What’s the Status of DOB Permit Reviews?

The DOB is providing 100% of the services they did before the outbreak of COVID-19 in NYC, according to Rudansky. It continues to review work applications that are filed. But it is limiting the amount of in-person interactions at its offices. 

“Drop-off boxes are available for permits and permit renewals, yet some applications must be performed via the eFiling system,” said England. “So, the DOB is functioning, but be prepared for longer processing times. I would advise anyone who needs new or revised permits to contact their expeditor for specific help and timeframes, as per usual.” 

When Will NYC DOB Reopen?

The DOB offices are open, according to Rudansky. Due to the critical public safety role the department plays in NYC, they never fully closed down. All of the offices are currently open on weekdays from 8:30 a.m. – 2 p.m.

However, the department has created online and mail alternatives for most of its filings/transactions and is strongly encouraging the public to use those options instead. “We are urging people to visit a DOB office only if it is necessary,” he says. “As a result of our efforts, we have seen an over 90% reduction in foot traffic in our offices.” 

Currently, the DOB does not have a date for when things will return normal.

How Much Does it Cost to Pause a Remodel During COVID-19?

This is probably one of the hardest questions to answer, and the scenario causing the most grief for owners.

“Every construction contract will deal with this differently,” says Wakenshaw. “And the cost to the owner will vary greatly depending on the project phase. Many contracts will have legitimate claims on the delay; others may have removed pandemic as a cause for delay. All pauses will have a cost. The contracts will decide who pays for it.”

In the residential space, property owners like Wooden are now having to stay elsewhere for longer and only had a set amount of funds set aside to complete the renovation project. 

“Our construction loan is only for a year,” she says. “If we can’t get permits or construction doesn’t resume soon, we’re going to have a big problem. We can’t keep paying our rent and our mortgage on the townhouse.” 

Of course, in addition to owners, contractors are losing revenue streams, and many construction workers are now unemployed or furloughed. “The financial impact across the board is big, and nothing we have collectively seen before in our lifetimes,” says England. 

What Are the Dangers of Doing Unpermitted Construction? 

During COVID-19, DOB inspectors are active and issuing fines. 

According to Rudansky, the maximum penalty for a single work-without-a-permit violation is $25,000. But, depending on the scope of the illegal work, and other violating conditions found, they might issue multiple violations. That’s in addition to issuing a stop work order, preventing any further construction from taking place.  

“As with any construction work that does not have the correct plans on the job site or the correct permits, the risk of violations is not something any owner or contractor should be taking,” says England.

What Can Owners Do While Construction Is on Hold?

Although current COVID-19 restrictions prevent a lot of renovation work from happening, there are legal things you can still do to keep the project moving forward. 

“It’s a great time to move forward with design, do your filing, submit to the DOB, etc.,” says Wakenshaw. “There’s a lot of processes that happen without anyone being on site. Use this time to have virtual meetings with your architect.” 

Wooden is using the time to order all the materials for her renovation. “I want to get the construction moving as soon as restrictions are lifted,” she says. “If everything is ordered and ready to go, hopefully we won’t have to wait any longer than we already have.” 

Original article on StreetEasy is accessible here;

Ways to Save on Your Kitchen Renovation

Renovating a kitchen is never cheap.

The average national cost to update a 200-square-foot kitchen, including installing new flooring, semi-custom wood cabinets and standard appliances, is roughly $62,000.00, according to Remodeling magazine, which tracks the cost of home improvement projects annually. Adding luxuries like stone countertops, a built-in refrigerator, a commercial-grade cook-top, designer faucets and top-of-the-line custom cabinets can bring the cost six figures, on average.

But there is another option. Instead of a full overhaul, consider giving it a face-lift with these helpful designer tips –


A bold paint color and modern hardware can can wonders for just ordinary cabinetry. Add some new graphic laminate flooring for added impact and you will have yourself a revitalized kitchen for an extremely cost-efficient fix. ($5,000-$7,000)


 For cabinet fronts made of material that cannot be painted or stained, consider refacing, also known as resurfacing, which involves keeping the existing cabinet framework and replacing all the doors, drawer fronts and side panels with new ones. The cost for all new cabinets would run in the $20,000 range vs. the refacing cost of about $2,500. Work with what you have. Create an accent wall to add depth and contrast. Add rollout shelves, a new range hood and modern light pendants for functionality, design and elegance.


If your cabinets are too far gone to reface, open shelving will reduce the cost of upper cabinetry. With this method, you are only paying for the piece of wood to make the shelf and the bracket to hold it up — not an entire cabinet box, which is a lot more in material and labor. It also eliminates the need for hardware, which can quickly add up.

Another way to reduce the cost of cabinetry is to use particleboard where no one will see it. Having all-plywood kitchen cabinetry, although sought after as required, your cabientry does not have to be made full of plywood. While plywood should be used under the sink (in case of a leak), using particleboard to build out the upper and perimeter cabinet boxes is a way of saving $1,000 , if not more depending on the size of your kitchen.


Look at it as not only a money saver, but as a possible stress reliever! It can be pretty easy to do over a weekend with a friend or spouse. First and foremost, you will want to switch off your circuit breakers, water and gas. Remove appliances and plumbing fixtures first, followed by cabinets, backsplash and counters.


For a clean-looking countertop on the cheap, nothing beats butcher block. You can get one for as little as $99 at Ikea, which sells precut butcher-block counters in standard sizes. Butcher block brings warmth to an otherwise sterile kitchen and has a number of practical applications. Look at it as having a built-in cutting board throughout your kitchen.  Keep in mind that there is some maintenance involved in keeping butcher-block counters looking new: They need to be sanded and oiled regularly — typically twice a year.


Moving walls, electrical and plumbing is where you will see your costs significantly increase. But while you’ll save by keeping those components in place, you shouldn’t skimp on functionality. If moving that corner sink will improve the flow of your kitchen, don’t hesitate to adjust the layout. Or find an alternative that solves the problem.


Types of Stairs

Making one design decision leads to what seems like a million other to-dos; take tile for instance. What color tile? What size tile? What pattern? – The same applies when it comes to your staircase. This goes beyond the style of the steps, the risers or the banister. The first thing you’ll need to consider is the actual shape of the staircase. Here are several popular types of stairs; bring your favorites to your architect and contractor to discuss what makes the most sense for your home.


This one is straightforward, literally. Straight stairs feature a single linear flight with no change in direction.

L-Shaped – a.k.a. Quarter-Turn

The classic straight style, zhuzhed up a little. In this design, the stairs make a 90-degree turn at some point, going left or right after a landing.

U-Shaped – a.k.a. Half-Turn

If you’ve ever promised yourself you’d take the stairs every day at your office, you’ve seen this back-to-basics style. The bend is taken even further to form a full U shape, and similar to the L-shaped staircase, a landing separates the two parallel flights.


The slightly more complicated sister to the L-shaped staircase. A set of winders—treads that are wider on one side than the other—takes the place of the landing to save space.

Trick of the trade – How to Cut your Countertop Cost in Half

 Marble countertops are timeless, refined and luxurious. But budget-friendly? Not really. That is until you employ this genius design trick.

The strategy: Fake the thickness of any countertop so it looks a hefty three inches tall, but is, in fact, just 3/4 of an inch. The look of a thick, substantial stone top is well sought after but it can often be cost-prohibitive. This is an elegant solution to achieve a chic look while on a budget. We’re not talking penny savings here – we’re talking cutting the cost of your countertop in half ! Depending on the size of the surface, you could potentially save up to 40-50% on material costs.

The execution: Once you have your marble slab selected, your contractor will begin with measurements. If the space calls for a 24-inch countertop, your contractor will add a couple extra inches of width to achieve the subjected “trick-of-the-trade.” Your contractor will template your countertop to have a “mitered” edge (or mitered book-matched edge). A mitered edge adds more stone to the underside of a countertop slab creating a distinguished look through the illusion of a thicker slab. 

Do’s & Don’ts of Keeping your Contractor Happy

Working with a new general contractor is like any fledgling relationship—you’re a little nervous, a little excited, and wary to make any wrong moves. Do you offer your contractor water or do you not? Do you hang around at all times or do you give him or her some space? Here are some simple dos and don’ts to guide you during your renovation –

DO you speak your mind? – Open and clear communication is the single most important aspect to building a good relationship with your contractor. This starts at the very beginning of the project and includes a signed contract, and agreed-upon timeline and budget. Establish other ground rules up front so issues don’t crop up later. And be sure to voice any questions you have, no matter how silly they sound. Don’t make any assumptions.

DO establish a point person – Everyone involved in a renovation has thoughts and ideas. It is important and recommended that one member of the household works directly with the contractor. Compile thoughts/ideas throughout the day and whether you have daily or weekly site meetings with your contractor; bring these ideas into action then. This keeps for a steadier and smoother project.

 DO have a plan if you’re not on site – The complexity and length of the project and how long you’ve known your contractor can determine whether or not to be home. For convenience, some homeowners will provide a key or pass code so the contractor can work without interruption. However, you shouldn’t do anything that you’re not 100 percent comfortable with.

 DON’T leave out fragile valuables – Take the time to relocate your valuables from the main work areas. If you have a spare room that is not included in your renovation you can relocate your items here. If you are taking on a full gut renovation, we recommend an outside storage unit. This takes stress off of you being concerned with your belongings and stress off your contractor to not damage.

DON’T let kids & pets run free in the work area – Safety is first for both the job crew and for your family. Something involving an addition or whole-home remodeling may require that the family relocate during the construction process.