Home Renovation With a Learning Curve

Eventually, he came across Semihandmade, a company that specializes in making doors that fit Ikea cabinets at a reasonable price. Using textured melamine cabinet fronts instead of complete custom built-ins saved the couple as much as $20,000, he estimated, freeing up money to spend on more prominent details like a $5,200 Krion waterfall kitchen countertop from Porcelanosa, the manufacturer and designer of tile, kitchen and bath products.

“We spent money on the things that are the most obvious,” he said. “No one sees your kitchen cabinets behind the doors.”


Before: The apartment had a closed off kitchen and wall-to-wall carpeting.

After: the renovated open layout.

Top: Jeff Thomas; Bottom: Linda Jaquez for The New York Times

The bathroom, they decided, needn’t be fancy, but the floor tiles there had to be laid in a herringbone pattern.

But as soon as demolition began, hurdles arose. The walls that had closed off the kitchen didn’t line up properly with the apartment below. They were “off by two inches, resting on nothing,” Mr. Thomas said. “It’s scary to think what was actually holding up our kitchen.”

The walls were so misaligned, he said, “we had to get permission to go downstairs to the apartment below to put in a support column.” Wood and metal columns were added in the garage below the neighbor’s apartment to ensure stability, and a ceiling beam was installed in the kitchen to help bolster the floor above, with the couple picking up the cost for all the work.

Permission was granted by the president of the co-op board, who happened to own the downstairs apartment and was renting it out. It didn’t hurt that the tenant happened to be a contractor. “He knew what these things entail, and he was reasonably O.K. with it,” said Mr. Thomas, noting that the new columns not only improved the stability of both apartments but also allow the downstairs neighbor to open up his kitchen should he ever want to.

The additional work meant that new permits had to be obtained and floor and ceiling joists realigned, increasing the budget and delaying the project by several weeks. In all, the renovation lasted 103 days and cost about $60,000 — not including the $8,000 the couple spent for four months in a rental in the building next door while the renovation dragged on.


Before: The bathroom had a pink toilet and wall tiles.

After: The renovated bath includes a sleek new vanity, faucet, rainfall shower head and floor tiles found on sale at Porcelanosa.

Top: Jeff Thomas; Bottom: Linda Jaquez for The New York Times

“It was a learning curve for both of us,” said Ms. Balaci, an Italian teacher. “I have to hand it to Jeff,” she added. “I picked a smart one, and he could see the big picture.”

While Mr. Thomas took the lead on managing the renovation, Ms. Balaci kept the budget in check, reining in her husband on expenses she deemed unnecessary, like buying a new hallway light fixture when the existing one looked perfectly fine. “He wanted everything new,” she said. “I’m the thrifty-daughter-of-immigrants type where you don’t throw anything out and try to salvage it until it’s on its last leg.”

To save money in the kitchen, the couple kept the existing stainless-steel stove and dishwasher. And they lucked into a high-end refrigerator at a cut rate. An elderly client of Mr. Thomas who found the door of the $2,000 Fisher & Paykel in her new apartment hard to open offered to trade it to him for an $800 model from Lowe’s.

Taking advantage of a sale at Porcelanosa cut their bill for the bathroom vanity, faucet, rainfall shower head and floor tiles by 40 to 55 percent. They splurged on the wall tiles there but found a less expensive Maax bathtub at a plumbing supply store. The pink toilet was replaced by an American Standard model. On the balcony, adding patio decking from Ikea at $3.44 a square foot and a $180 patch of fake grass from SYNLawn gave it a fresh look.

At the couple’s meticulously renovated apartment, it was clear Ms. Balaci appreciated her husband’s attention to detail, but she didn’t miss an opportunity to tease him about his thoroughness. “He has a Ph.D. in these lights,” she said, gesturing to the recessed lighting in the kitchen and prompting an impassioned speech by her husband about the differences between “remodel” and “new construction” housings. He is now well versed in the nomenclature for the various lights’ casings, he said, after he ordered a case of the wrong ones online before consulting his contractor.

The experience “was like a master class in renovations,” said Mr. Thomas, adding that he had enjoyed the renovation challenge but was not in a rush to do it again. “My contractor said, ‘Now you can be a general contractor.’ ”

Ms. Balaci agreed that the time and effort was ultimately worth it. “I love it — it’s the best place I ever lived,” she said, sipping a latte in the couple’s gleaming new kitchen. “This place, I smile when I come into it.”

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