The Insider’s Smart Buying Guide for Apartment or Brownstone Construction Services

A Complete (and Almost Foolproof) System to Avoid Added Costs, Unexpected Surprises, Frustrations, and Delays. Plus, insights into 5 costly mistakes you don’t want to make.

So, you’re looking to renovate your home or commercial business in NYC? What an exciting time for you to transform your property into a space that you’ll enjoy for years to come! This report was prepared as a guide to share knowledge and showcase what a successful construction project should be like, inclusive of your wants and needs, without the typical delays, unanticipated costs, stress and frustrations you might have experienced or heard about from others. Unfortunately, when it comes to renovation projects things often don’t go as well as anticipated.

We’ve heard many horror stories from consumers who don’t understand what’s REALLY involved in a construction project and as a result end up hiring the wrong contractor. Often these consumers come to us and share their past experience with other construction companies – major cost overruns, shoddy workmanship, late completion of projects and stress and frustration – all because they selected an unqualified construction company.

The good news is that if you’re armed with the right information you can avoid these negative experiences all together.

Here at SmartDesign NYC our passion is seeing that consumers are provided with a successful project whether you hire us or not.

Our hope is that this information provides you with the confidence to find the right team so you can avoid being another horror story and instead, get amazing results for your renovation. Although it’s impossible in one report to cover all that you need to look out for to have a successful project, (this requires firsthand experience within the construction business), we have put together a list of the most important do’s and don’ts when hiring a contractor…and much more.

This report will:

  • Save you time in when selecting the contractor that is right for you.
  • Reduce the number of headaches you’ll encounter when looking for the right contractor and also once they begin your project.
  • Save you thousands of dollars on your project, including potential change orders and unforeseen situations and issues that come up while still delivering the end results you are looking for. There are many “more money gotchas” and surprises you can encounter if you aren’t armed with the correct information. For example, if a contractor quotes the lowest price, beware of the tricks and tactics some unscrupulous contractors make, so that in the end it will cost you more money (sometimes exceeding the budget you have in mind.)
  • Explain why many people end up “ripping their hair out” during a renovation process (and, more importantly, how to avoid this)

*Warning Before You Keep Reading This Report:

To be honest and transparent… the “hard part” is following this guide. Sometimes our mind works to believe what we want to believe about an area we aren’t expert in, regardless of the facts. This is not unusual and that’s why we prepared this report to reveal The Real Truths About Brownstone and Apartment Construction Projects so that you may think about all of this in a different, more insightful way. I see this “belief obstacle” all the time with consumers making a decision because they want to believe that what a contractor is saying is true because it fits their needs and wants.

We hope you find this report helpful. It’s packed full of worthwhile information based on our years of experience in this business.

The Good, The Bad and the Ugly


Let me share the real truth about selecting the right contractor versus the wrong one.

Select the wrong firm and you may find that you will:

  • Spend hours and hours chasing down your contractor, trying to figure out why he hasn’t shown up in two days or has half his crew onsite.
  • Discover, as your project nears completion, that not everything will look as you expected. Fixtures may not be placed at the right position or appliances may not fit as you thought. You could also discover that the work completed has not been carried out in accordance with building code.
  • Have to spend thousands and thousands of dollars of unanticipated costs for many different reasons such as — additional work may be required to meet local building codes or the bidding contractor may not have anticipated other problems such as work that had to be done once the walls were taken down.


Pick the right contactor and:

  • Everything will go smoothly as you rest easy while you see an amazing dream space appear exactly as you anticipated. What could be better than that?
  • You won’t be misled by some unscrupulous contractors who will say anything to make you a customer regardless of what will happen to you. (Not every contractor is like this but, sadly, there are more of them than any of us “good guys” would like)
  • You’ll be able to evaluate bids in a smart way anticipating more than 70 different frustrating and costly problems that can occur on the way.
  • You will breathe a sigh of relief when your project is complete knowing that what you’ll be looking at it is exactly what you wanted your space to look like within your allocated budget.
  • You will avoid spending lots of unanticipated money paying interest and rental fees on the property you own while you are waiting for your construction project to be completed. This is a hidden cost many consumers never even consider although it can be quite costly.
  • Your will be completed on time per the promise of a contractor before he signs with you. Long delays are common in many projects when the construction project isn’t properly managed and coordinated.


You now hold in your hands a guide to help you avoid all these pitfalls and to make a more intelligent selection of who to hire for your job. Not only that but after you select the contractor you’ll be armed with very valuable information to ensure that the work that is being done is being done in the most cost effective way.

Why All Contractors are the Not The Same

Before selecting a contractor for your project it is important to understand that different types of contractors can approach your project differently.


Sole Contractor

A sole contractor simply “swings the hammer” and does the work but doesn’t undertake other important tasks a successful project requires. His price is usually the cheapest but the service he provides is usually the worst because he is juggling multiple projects trying to keep all his clients happy, purchasing material, giving new estimates and trying to complete your project.


General Contractor

A general contractor oversees all the construction aspects of the project. He hires trade sub-contractors from Demo to Plumbing. He subcontracts the work to other independent workers whom he does not have authority over. The general contractor does not have a project manager to ensure that all the project tasks and logistics are well coordinated. He does not have backup support from others such as a secretary or someone to cover for him if he gets sick. The general contractor’s time is often spread thin because he is trying to coordinate multiple projects and manage sub-contractors. If you work with a general contractor you will find yourself dealing with your management company, having to purchase and coordinate delivery of 100’s of items which may or may not work, and need to verify that you are getting the correct quantities. You’ll also have to schedule deliveries while you are at your “day job.” You’ll also be dealing with items that are damaged upon delivery. Bottom line when you deal with a general contractor, you’ll find yourself spending hours and hours managing and coordinating your construction project. It’s like having a second full-time job.


Design Build Firms

A Design Build firm is usually a full-service company that handles everything including permitting, expediting with the DOB and your management company, designing your home, purchasing material, running the construction, managing the project, and getting signoffs. The disadvantage of Design Build firms is that they subcontract all the construction work. This often results in construction delays because subcontractor schedules and priorities cannot be controlled. With subcontractors there are often delays and hidden costs for your project.


Design Build 360

A fourth option is what we call Design Build 360. This type of firm is rare, and they are in high demand. There are only two companies in New York that work this way.

A Design Build 360 firm assumes total responsibility for your project and does not use subcontractors. This type of business does all the design work, project management, construction and even plumbing with its own full-time employees.

With a Design Build 360 firm you’ll avoid a multitude of errors, cost overruns, late completion of your project and will help you avoid spending hours and hours of your own time making sure quality work is performed, materials are properly coordinated and delivered, and work is performed according to local codes. Another benefit of a Design Build 360 firm is that you are dealing with only one company, one point of contact and a company that provides the strongest guarantees available.

If you pick a firm that is not a Design Build 360 firm it is important to understand the tradeoffs. Without working with a Design Build 360 firm you will: 

  • Encounter delays in your project because it is not managed properly, material doesn’t arrive on time and subcontractors a firm may hire, in trying to work on multiple projects, delays yours.
  • Be faced with added costs because, after the firm you hire provides you with a low bid, unanticipated costs are incurred.
  • Have to purchase hundreds of items for your project such as fixtures and having to schedule the work.
  • Deal with your apartment management firm rather than the firm you hired.
  • Be surprised that your completed apartment doesn’t look like what you expected.


Important Questions to Ask Any Contractor You Are Considering


Before you call any company in to bid on your project be prepared in advance with the questions you want to ask so that you can best evaluate the options. Below are questions to ask. For each question we also provide “insider background” so that you can evaluate the contractors answers without him just telling you what he thinks you want to hear.


Fixture and Material Delivery


Question: How do you work in terms of getting the needed material, such as fixtures, to the site on time?

Tip: Does the contractor buy all of the material before construction begins and have it at the site early or do, they buy it as they need it? Buying as needed can cause project delays because items may not arrive on time or may be damaged and require time-consuming replacement. Do you have to purchase the material or does the contractor do that.


Sourcing and Purchasing Fixtures, Tile, Flooring, Accessories and Other Items


Question: How do you work when it comes to finding and purchasing required items such as fixtures, tile, flooring, accessories and other items?

Tip: The contractor should take on this responsibility for sourcing and purchasing, otherwise it will take a great deal of your time and energy to do this (more time than most people think).


Fixture Damage


Question: If a fixture is damaged or does not work when it is delivered do you take responsibility for replacement?

Tip: The contractor should assume total responsibility for this so that you do not incur the cost and time involved in replacing a fixture.


Worker/Contractor Relationship


Question: Are the people you assign to this project full-time employees on your payroll or do they hire subcontractors who take on other projects the contractor you hired is not responsible for? If requested can you show me W2s and drivers licenses to verify that the assigned workers are company employees?

Tip: Many contractors can’t afford to permanently hire full-time workers because of the added cost and because they sometimes don’t have enough work to keep full-time workers busy. Subcontractors are not as dedicated to the assigned project and can sometimes jump from project to project costing you added time and project delays. When a contractor hires subcontractors, he has no control over change orders. Subcontractors will often add additional change orders if a project is taking them longer than expected to recoup some of their losses because they get paid a flat rate no matter how long it takes. Subcontractor work quality is harder to control since their job is not at stake if they do poor quality work. In addition, if a sole contractor (many often are not a company with employees) gets sick your project will suffer.


Complete Construction Document Set


Question: Please provide a complete construction document set from two typical projects. What is included in your document set?

Tip: Having a set of construction documents is like having a step by step instruction manual for your project. Ever try assembling furniture without an instruction manual? It takes twice as long… and halfway through the process you often realize you messed up and have to back track and redo the things you already did. Now imagine a full home remodel without an instruction manual. Chaos, and worse – usually results. There are 100’s of details (electric, plumbing, lighting, framing, finishes) all from different vendors and contractors working on your home. It is impossible to make sure everyone is doing what they are supposed to be doing at all times. Having a construction document set gives them the tools they need to orchestrate a successful project, eliminating mistakes, backtracks, change orders that you thought were included in the price but were not because you didn’t have anything to base it off.


Spec Sheet


Question: Do you use construction spec sheets and, if so, please provide the related details.

Tip: Every construction project needs a spec sheet. A spec sheet contains written construction specifications, or specs, that focus on what materials will be used and how they should be installed. In general, the more detail in the written specifications, the better. Without spec sheets during the rough construction phase there will almost always be mistakes and redo’s during the final finish phase because the fixtures were not properly prepared for when the walls were open.




Question: Do you provide any type of guarantees? If so, describe what they are. If you don’t perform on the guarantee what financial compensation will you provide?

Tip: If the bidding contractor has a guarantee dig deeper and find out what the details of the guarantee are. When a contractor offers guarantees you are better assured that a quality, on time project will be completed. Financial remuneration for unfulfilled guarantees can be highly effective. Some important guarantee details that should be included are:

  • Ten-year warranty and total replacement of any defective plumbing and wiring installed at no cost to you.
  • Guaranteed project on time completion (as long as the scope of work does not change) with a reimbursement back to you for every day the project is late.
  • One-year warranty on construction material including natural elements such as plaster and wood that may have expanded and contracted because of changes in weather.
  • Up to five free return visits for minor touch ups to keep your newly remodeled home looking amazing.


Material Bid Inclusion


Question: Do you include the cost of materials in your bid?

Tip: If the contractor does this is, it can be misleading because some contractors include low cost material that, in the end, you may not want. Beware of this low bidding strategy. A better contractor would include a quote without material and provide a range of material costs depending on what you picked out.


Personnel Assigned to Your Project


Question: Who will be assigned to my project and what is their background?

Tip: Find out how much experience the project manager and designer have in the field. Also find out if the designer previously worked in construction management. This background is ideal because the designer will have knowledge of what construction issues may arise from certain design approaches. Some designs may look great on paper but do not consider construction realities based on the budget for the project.


Project Management Approach


Question: Describe how the project manager will manage this project to make sure everything is completed on time and on budget?

Tip: Is there a detailed project plan? Will the project manager visit the site daily to make sure everything is proceeding smoothly? What sort of checklists are in place to ensure that the walls and ceilings are leveled properly?




Question: Please provide five references that I can call with their name, address, phone number and a description of the project that was worked on.

Tip: Get specific reference details so that you are certain you are speaking to real customers where real projects have been completed by the contractor.


Quality Control


Question: What steps do you take to ensure quality of workmanship and material used in construction?


The contractor should indicate he has a procedure in place to inspect all fixtures when arriving on site to make sure none are damaged or have missing parts. If there are problems with any of these items, he should indicate he handles all returns. The contractor, and not you, deals with the supplier when there are problems. 

Find out if the contractor has a quality control checklist, ask for a copy and examine it to see how extensive it is. The checklist should include the following areas:

– Design plans
– Procurement
– Demolition/hauling
– Framing
– Rough plumbing
– Rough electric
– Sheetrock hanging
– Flooring/hardware installation
– Heating and air conditioning
– Carpentry
– Final plumbing
– Final electric
– Painting


Inspection Estimate


Question: Will you include in your estimate a plumbing upgrade if needed, special electrical setup such as appliances with dedicated lines, electric panel upgrades.

Tip: If a contractor fails to anticipate upgrades and other requirements project cost can substantially increase. Check the estimate to make sure such items are included as and any needed plumbing update, dedicated electrical lines for appliances and replacement of your electrical panel.


Mistakes to Avoid So You Won’t Get Ripped Off, Frustrated and Have to Pay More Money for Your Project

If you’re like most people hiring construction services for an apartment remodeling or brownstone you’ve either never done it or only a few times in your life. With that limited experience it can be hard to know what mistakes to avoid so they will not happen to you. As smart as you may be we often “don’t know what we don’t know”. Based on our years of experience with hundreds of projects here are five mistakes we see many consumers make. To avoid construction delays, surprising costs increases, aggravation, stress and frustration do not:


Be Scared or Think It is Smart Negotiation Not to Reveal Your Budget

If you don’t share your budget you will spend countless hours going back and forth on estimate revisions.

Let the professionals do their job and help guide you on what you can accomplish within your budget. 99 times out of 100 client’s expectations are unrealistic. Having a conversation about budget will help you find out exactly what you can get within your budget or if that service professional is someone you can afford. You may wait 2 weeks to receive an estimate from a contractor only to find out that his price is way more than you can afford. Having a conversation about budget will eliminate the unnecessary waiting and guessing.

People think giving out their budget will affect the price of the estimate, that might be the case with some shady contractors but those same contractors are usually the ones that give the low ball estimates and increase the price after the walls are opened. Most legitimate contractors or design build firms set pricing based on previous jobs. They know exactly how long a bathroom, or a kitchen will take, and they care more about getting the job and having a happy customer than making a couple extra bucks.

When working with a designer, the designer needs to have parameters to work within. They can spend hours designing a space that is way out of your budget, showing you beautifully designed kitchens and bathroom that are way outside your price range which will prolong the process, frustrate you, and waste your designers limited time.

– Waste lots of time and money because…



Pick the Lowest bid

When providers bid low, they often omit some costs that you will have to pay for to get your project completed. Contractors bid low for many reasons. For example, they bid low because they are hungry for your business but you can often be 12 the loser (what does this mean?) when they attempt to juggle multiple projects not giving you the attention, timely completion and quality work you deserve.



Pick the wrong bid because of not making an “apples to apples” comparison

Consumers often pick the lowest bid or the midpriced bid but this strategy in the end may not be best. It is important that you evaluate all bids on an equal basis; otherwise, what looks like a good bid may be a bad bid because all the bids have not considered the same. Evaluating bids can sometimes be difficult. To help you improve your evaluation at the end of this report we provide a bid comparison template. (not currently there) Although every project is different and not all items on this template may be relevant to your project this template should help you “level the playing field” to more accurately compare bids.



Pick a firm that subcontracts out the work to subcontractors

This should be avoided completely because lots of problems can result that will impact your project – problems like long delays in project completion as subcontractors switch back and forth between projects and lower quality work because subcontractors can’t be quality controlled as much compared to a firm that has full-time employees whose job is at stake if they do a poor job. Here’s a tip – some firms say they don’t subcontract when they do. Make it a condition of the work, included in the contract, that the company you hire provides W2s and matching drivers licenses of the workman.



Getting an Incomplete Bid

Some bids can be incomplete. For example, they don’t include such factors as plumbing upgrades, bringing your location up to building code or needed upgrades such as plumbing required by your building or dictated by building codes. (See quoting template referred to earlier.)



Not Get a Full Rendering of What Your Property Will Look Like Before Work Begins

Without a full rendering you may have in mind one final look but when the project is complete the finished property may not look as envisioned. When it comes to rendering, however, be careful because if that rendering does not include what construction material is used you may be misled. You could be misled because you do not know the details of the related cost.



Not Getting a Strong Guarantee for the Work Performed

The guarantee should include:

  • Ten-year warranty for parts and material. For example, if a pipe leaks the construction company should fix it at no cost to you.
  • Late project reimbursement. If the contractor does not complete all work by the agreed upon deadline, the contractor should pay you for each day he is late (Assuming the scope of the work has not changed.)

Here are some things you should look for when this question is asked:

  • Who manages the project? Does my designer manage the project? Designers know your project better than anyone else because they designed it, but they may not have the construction experience to make sure the execution is done properly.
  • How much experience does the designer have? Senior level designers should have a minimum of 15 yrs experience to fully understand both aspects of design and construction. Junior level designers will make a lot of costly mistakes and will bring you over budget due to their lack of knowledge for how much certain things cost to implement.
  • Is there a foreman onsite? Do they speak English?



Being Misled if a Budget for Material is Included in the Quote Unless You’ve Seen and Approved What Material You Are Getting

Some contractors may give you a “total quote” including material such as floor tiles using inexpensive material just so their quote is lower. The problem is you may not like the material the quote is based on when you actually see it.



Not Understanding the Fixture Purchase Process

Different contractors approach fixtures differently. Some rely on you purchasing the fixtures, handling fixtures that are damaged or that don’t arrive on time delaying the overall project. Make sure the contractor you hire takes total responsibility for buying the fixtures, fixture damage and getting them delivered before work begins.



Not Realizing That Low Bids, In the End, Can Be Hazardous to Your Project’s Success

The low bid is almost ALWAYS missing crucial upgrades mandated by the NYC building code or your building management company. In addition, low contractors often overlook those important details because they are obviously cheaper but be warned – your project will cost you more in the end than a low contractor quoted. NO contractor is going to lose money on your project. You’ll wind up paying for underbidding in the end.

  • Don’t make the mistake of believing what you hear from low bidding. To avoid surprises, your own project horror story and unexpected costs.
  • Find out your building hours in advance and let the contractor know before he bids. Not sharing these limitations will only cost you more down the line.
  • Find out what exactly your building requires in a renovation and have your contractor include it in their bid. Things that are common are:
    1. Bathroom & Kitchen plumbing upgrades (very costly)
    2. Electric panel upgrades (high cost items)
    3. Laticrete 9235 waterproofing membrane (highly, highly costly)
    4. Floor soundproofing
    5. Electrical upgrades for each appliance, air conditioning units, and outlets near water.

These are just a few NYC DOB & Building requirements, there are many more but if your contractor includes these items in their cost it is a HUGE indication that they are not trying to hide anything.

Please note that even if your building does not require you to do the electrical and plumbing upgrades it is a SIGNIFICANT MISTAKE NOT TO. When the walls are opened it is your only chance to do this, not doing this will cause very costly problems such as future leaks resulting in 1000’s if not 10’s of thousands of dollars in repairs, not to mention headache that you will wish you never even renovated in the first place.



We hope you found this report helpful to assist in making the important decision of what firm to hire for your construction project. If you have any questions about the report or have a construction project you would like to discuss pick up the phone and call us at (646) 217 – 4250.

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