Our Secrets (don’t tell!) About the Costs of Renovating a Brownstone

Living in a historic brownstone or townhouse in Brooklyn or Manhattan is a dream for many people. The original woodwork, beautiful plaster mouldings, grand staircases, and iconic stoops on tree-lined streets are too much to just to look onto from afar. You might have come to conclusion that the best path to have one of your own is to buy a fixer upper and build your dream home. Seeing the price tag of available listings is pretty straight forward, but what about the renovation? How much does it cost to restore those beautiful 100+ year old original features, build spaces for modern living, and repair the home to last another 100 years? It’s difficult to even understand if the purchase price you’re looking at is feasible for you without understanding the other side of the equation. If you’re ready to start searching for the right place, we can help! 

A good place to start is trying to get a handle on exactly how much work is needed. There are 2 basic things you’ll want to understand: What the condition of the place is and how much you’re changing the configuration. If you walk in to view a home, the kitchens and bathrooms are relatively where you want them and it appears to all have been modernized in the last couple of decades, you might be able to get away with a smaller scope cosmetic project. If you walk in and see aging mechanicals, deteriorating plaster, crooked floors, as well as a kitchen on the wrong floor and bathrooms in entirely wrong places, then the most likely scenario is that is that you’re going to be doing a fairly large scope gut renovation. That doesn’t at all mean that the historic features and charm would be removed, but it will take some work to restore it all and integrate it into the modern home with historic charm you’re dreaming of.

We have a secret to tell you. It might be the best piece of advice we have for anyone shopping for a fixer-upper brownstone. When you bounce around from open house to open house you’ll see places that you immediately know will be a huge project: plaster falling off the ceiling, carpet that reeks of cat urine, old dirty bathrooms, and ancient electrical panels. And you’ll see places that look entirely habitable: Freshly painted walls, historic charm in great shape, a kitchen that looks like it was installed within the decade (be it in the wrong place), and the electrical doesn’t look like a fire hazard. With the latter you might think you have hit the jackpot on a place that just needs some walls moved and some TLC. You might think, although the price tag is higher at least it is a smaller renovation. Our word of warning is the project size and cost may not be all that different between them. If your plan includes moving bathrooms, creating a big beautiful primary bathroom and closet, reconfiguring bedrooms, relocating the kitchen to the parlor floor where there is none, and adding a powder room – that is a major reconfiguration. After all of those walls are moved the floors and ceilings will need to be addressed, not to mention that crooked floors will look even more crooked next to all of the new features so those might need to be fixed too. You end up re-doing (or resurfacing) most of the walls, ceilings, and floors. Finally, once the plumber and electrician redo half of what’s there for the new layout, they’ll likely want (or need) to replace it all. There is code as recent as the 2,000’s that everything will need to be brought up to. Oh, and what about HVAC? The point is that although a building may initially look like less work since you feel you could move into it as-is if needed, it might very well be the same scope and cost to make it into your dream home as the place with carpet that reeks of cat urine, ancient electrical panels, and deteriorating plaster. So why pay more for the place that only appears to offer you a smaller scope project. 

Since a lot of things go into such a big project, we need a quick way to estimate costs and one of the quickest ways to get a general idea of budget is to use a price per square foot and apply it to the square footage of the home. A price per square foot for the entire house will give you a general idea of the total cost for a renovation and it takes into account that there is a new kitchen, a few bedrooms, several new bathrooms, electrical, plumbing, and HVAC…etc. While it’s not a bad way to generalize the cost of a complete home renovation, it’s really just to give you a quick idea so that you can have an estimation, for instance, if you’re trying to figure out if the fixer-upper you viewed fits your budget including the renovation.  Keep in mind that there may be a feature of your renovation that might push the costs up outside of the price per square foot, one big example of that would be adding an addition to the home which comes with many more costs than renovating within the home’s footprint. For something like that you might want to treat it as a separate line item. Ok! So you’ve got it and just want the numbers, we hear you, and we’re here to give them to you!

One last thing, you should know that we do renovations in New York City and the numbers in some of our examples might be more in line with renovating in New York or other big cities. We provided a range so that you can adjust if you live in a place with a lower cost of living. The low end of the range can be used for areas where the cost of living is less and the high end is for areas where the cost of living is higher. That’s true for contractor and labor expenses, but costs for finish items would likely be the same since we get those items from all over the country and world and many of the suppliers we purchase from are national. Ok ok… the numbers! 

Total home reno price per square foot budgeting:

• Budget conscious reno with low-cost finishes, little to no structural work, and limited to no configuration changes: $125-$175 psf

• Mid-range reno with mostly basic finishes, some upgrades, some structural work, and some configuration changes:  $175-$200 psf 

• Mid range reno with nice finishes, some splurges, a fair amount of structural work, and a lot of configuration changes:  $200-$275 psf

• High-end renovation with structural work, total configuration change, and high-end finishes: $300-$400 psf 

• Super high-end renovation with a name recognition architect, designer, and all high-end best-of-class finishes. $400+ psf

Hopefully you can find yourself in one of those buckets and you can generalize the cost of renovating your fixer upper or existing home! There are a lot of ranges there so if you’re having trouble landing in one, we would suggest that the once in a lifetime dream home you are envisioning is probably in the upper $200’s-lower $300s psf.

If you are adding an addition to the building since there is so much foundation, concrete, steel, and structural work we would estimate that line item at $700-750 psf. 

Now, that gives you the hard costs of the renovation but there are other expenses you should take into consideration as well. Depending on the size of your project you will likely need an architect, engineers, and city filings. Those costs can vary depending on the scope you have but you’ll want to budget $35,000-$60,000 (but it could be higher as well). If it’s a larger project and you won’t be living in the home during the process (we highly recommend that you don’t) you’ll want to include carrying costs like the cost of the mortgage, insurance, utility bills, and/or alternative accommodations while the work is being done. These are all soft costs. 

Finally, don’t forget to include a 10-15% contingency. There are almost always additional expenses that come up during the renovation. Once walls, floors, and ceilings are opened up it’s quite possible that some repairs may be needed that were not seen before. You also may have to or want to alter a design to account for conditions onsite. These items are called change orders. They can be stressful, so if you have a budget included for them it can make the process much smoother. 

Restoring and renovating a historic home can be a perfect path to owning a piece of history. It will have had many owners before you, some who may have arrived at its doorstep in horse and carriage, and it will likely have owners after you. These well-lived homes are often part of a thriving community that we hold dear and being a part of its significant life is something that’s just very special. Happy renovating!

Thanks for reading! Subscribe below for updates and don’t forget to follow us on Instagram!

Christmas Cinnamon Rolls

Our new favorite tradition in our home on Christmas morning is making homemade cinnamon rolls. If your plans have changed this holiday season or you’re just looking for something to make we can’t recommend making these cinnamon rolls enough! Make sure to make some extra frosting… you will thank us later!

Merry Merry and lots of love (and good eats!), Jordan & Barry

Christmas Cinnamon Rolls 

adapted from ambitious kitchen



For the Dough:

  • ¾ cup warm milk (whole milk or 2% preferred) (110 degrees F)
  • 2 ¼ teaspoons quick rise or active yeast (1/4-ounce package yeast)
  • ¼ cup granulated sugar
  • 1 egg plus 1 egg yolk, at room temperature
  • ¼ cup butter, melted (salted or unsalted…. whatever your preference is!)
  • 3 cups bread flour, plus more for dusting
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt


For the Filling:

  • 2/3 cup dark brown sugar
  • 1 ½ tablespoons ground cinnamon
  • ¼ cup butter, softened


For the Cream Cheese Frosting:

  • 4 oz cream cheese, softened
  • 3 tablespoons butter, softened
  • ¾ cup powdered sugar
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla extract



  1. Warm milk to around 110 degrees F. You can do this by simply warming some milk in a microwave-safe bowl. Transfer warm milk to the bowl of an electric mixer and sprinkle yeast on top. Add in sugar, egg, egg yolk and melted butter. Mix until well combined. Next stir in flour and salt with a wooden spoon until the dough begins to form.
  2. Place dough hook on stand mixer and knead dough on medium speed for 8 minutes. Dough should form into a nice ball and be slightly sticky. If it’s TOO sticky (meaning it’s sticking to the bottom of the mixer, add in 2 tablespoons more bread flour.) If you don’t want to use an electric mixer, you can use your hands to knead the dough for 8-10 minutes on a well-floured surface
  3. Transfer dough ball to a well-oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap and a warm towel. Allow dough to rise for 1 hour to 1 ½ hours, or until doubled in size. This may more or less time depending the humidity and temperature in your home.
  4. After dough has doubled in size, transfer dough to a well-floured surface and roll out into a 14×9 inch rectangle. Spread softened butter over dough, leaving a ¼ inch margin at the far side of the dough.
  5. In a small bowl, mix together brown sugar and cinnamon. Use your hands to sprinkle mixture over the buttered dough, then rub the brown sugar mixture into the butter.
  6. Tightly roll dough up, starting from the 9-inch side and place seam side down making sure to seal the edges of the dough as best you can. You will probably need to cut off about an inch off the ends of the dough as the ends won’t be as full of cinnamon sugar as we’d want it to be.
  7. Cut into 1 inch sections with a serrated knife or floss. You should get 9 large pieces. YUMMMM!
  8. Place cinnamon rolls in a greased 9×9 inch baking pan or round 9 inch cake pan. (We lined our sheet pan with parchment paper as well, in case any of the filling ends up leaking out.) Cover with plastic wrap and a warm towel and let rise again for 30-45 minutes.
  9. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Remove plastic wrap and towel and bake cinnamon rolls for 20-25 minutes or until just slightly golden brown on the edges. You want to underbake them a little so they stay soft in the middle. Allow them to cool for 5-10 minutes before frosting. Makes 9 beautiful and delicious cinnamon rolls.
  10. To make the frosting: In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine cream cheese, butter, powdered sugar and vanilla extract. Beat until smooth and fluffy. Spread over cinnamon rolls and serve immediately. you might want to double this part… just saying Enjoy!


Our New Kitchen Obsession- The Kraus Workstation Sink

Any design element that makes a kitchen more functional and aesthetically pleasing has our seal of approval! Our latest obsession is the Workstation sink from Kraus. We’ve spent a lot more time in the kitchen the past year, trying new recipes and preparing almost all of our meals. So we are more aware than ever of what can make it all go a lot smoother. When we were in the design process for #breakandreno, we knew this was the perfect sink for the space. 

The culinary phrase “mise en place”, comes to mind. It’s the concept of keeping the area where you are working neat, tidy, and efficient. Prepping, cleaning, and organizing so that the process of cooking a meal is smoother and more enjoyable. You can imagine how important this is for professional chefs as they prepare to cook for possibly hundreds of people, but we can adopt this concept in the home as well. 

The Workstation sink from Kraus has an integrated ledge that’s designed to serve as a platform for accessories to slide across the sink. You can prep and clean up without sacrificing any workspace on the kitchen counter. The cutting board and drying rack keep the mess off the countertops, and water and liquids simply run right into the sink. As a result, prepping and cleaning up is easier, your workspace stays cleaner, and you can enjoy cooking even more. 

Here at our latest renovation project, #breakandreno, the kitchen is a contrast of dark smoked oak cabinetry, natural industrial concrete countertops, and a bright pop of an organic feeling spruce green backsplash. The granite finish is a perfect medium to compliment the other bold choices in the space. This kitchen needed a sink that is unique, dramatic, and highly functional. The granite workstation sink really checked every box for us. 

Many professional kitchen products like faucets, ranges, ventilations hoods, etc are not only highly functional but also add to your kitchen’s aesthetics. The pro look correlates the high-end functionality of these items directly to beauty of the design. The workstation sink is no exception. The seamless integration of functional accessories will add a touch of professional design to any kitchen.

A lot of kitchen trends come and go, but we think our latest obsession, the Workstation sink from Kraus, is the future of food prep and kitchen design.