Why I Spent $10K to Renovate the Kitchen of My NYC Rental

"I moved here when it was cheap." It's a phrase I utter all too often when I talk to newcomers to my Brooklyn neighborhood -- that is, anyone who moved to Park Slope after I did, in 1993. I live in a Brooklyn spot as notorious for its helicopter parents as it is desired for its trove of 19th-century brownstones (I don't live in one of those) and access to the glorious Prospect Park. I saw it transform from an enclave of social workers, teachers, city employees, and writers into an enclave of lawyers, corporate creatives, and more successful writers. I watched from my unrenovated rental apartment as the price of real estate went up and up and up. Just when I thought it had hit the ceiling, it went up some more.

I felt I was being swept away by the oceanic force of invasive wealth, my only protection against it my lease. So I took matters into my own hands: I'd likely never be able to buy and fix up a place of my own, so I paid to renovate my kitchen -- even though I don't own it.

It was a hard decision. My apartment was rent-stabilized -- New York laws limit the amount my landlord can raise it each year -- and even if many of my friends had all been forced to venture to cheaper, more distant neighborhoods, I could remain.

I had planned to do so, and then I got pregnant. And I wanted to move. I wanted to own. I wanted to properly nest in a place that didn't have wires jutting out of the old gas pipes and paint (probably lead) crumbling on the window sills. I'd had enough of my fourth-floor walk-up, despite the built-in exercise, and I dreamed of a magical thing called a dishwasher. I yearned for kitchen floors that weren't cracking, cabinets with doors that weren't hanging off, counters that weren't chipped laminate off-gassing formaldehyde, and -- the holy grail -- a washer and dryer. My kitchen, renovated at least 10 years before I moved in, was, if not disgusting, at least kind of depressing.

When I moved here, a nice two-bedroom rental ran about $800 a month and a brownstone was in the half-million range, which seemed crazy to me. (In the early 1970s my parents bought their house in upstate New York for $13,000.) A renovated two- or even three-bedroom co-op could be had for less than $150,000.

With the baby on her way, I finally had enough money for a down payment. Well, I had the down payment for a 1993 apartment. I scoured the real estate listings in my neighborhood, hoping something comparable to my apartment (but renovated) would appear in my price range, but anything within grasp was snatched by a cash buyer within minutes, it seemed, and then nothing was within grasp at all. The outlying neighborhoods my friends had decamped to became too expensive, too.

It took a few years, until after my second daughter was born, until I was able to shift through the stages of denial and arrive at acceptance. Our lives and friends and work were here, and we were not going to shuffle off to the suburbs or find work elsewhere. If I wanted to live a more comfortable life, I'd have to make it happen in my own rental space. I would wrest my kitchen from the clutches of depressingness and make it into something beautiful. Or at least nice. Functional. I would rearrange my notion of the American dream. I wasn't going to own a home, but I was going to nest in one. I was going to invest in one, financially and emotionally.

The prospect of spending a good portion of that 1993-size down payment on improvements to my rental, of course, made me anxious. Even with the protection of rent stabilization laws, there is a certain amount of anxiety that lingers, like a layer of dust -- make that another layer of dust -- in my space. If my landlord sold the building, the next landlord would likely go to great lengths to force me and the other rent-stabilized tenants out. At the same time, I feared that, even though he'd told me I was his favorite tenant and that I give him the least amount of trouble, and even though his MO as a landlord was "make me do as little as possible," he'd say no. I had gotten used to the idea of a 21st-century kitchen, even if I'd have to pay for it.

I had planned to go down to his bar (this is old-school Brooklyn I'm talking about) and make a pitch. Talk about how I had two kids now and I'd saved money for a down payment but it wasn't enough for anything within five miles of here and I would hire real professionals instead of pull from the collection of drunks he'd hired as handymen over the past two decades. Talk about how I wanted to live more comfortably with my kids, that we'd likely be there another decade until we were priced out of there, too, and when we were gone he could up the rent dramatically thanks to the fancy-ish kitchen.

I called him just to ask when he would be in. But somehow, he knew. "What is it you want to do?" he asked.

I completed almost one sentence -- "I want to make some improvements in the kitch…" -- before he interrupted me. "Do whatever you want," he said. "I'll pay you back when you move out."

There was no paper contract, but I had already been prepared to squander my fake down payment anyway, and I knew that someday I'd get some of the money back.

From dream to reality

So we ripped up the floor. We moved the stove from one side of the kitchen to the other, making room for a real washer and dryer (OMG). We put in a dishwasher. We tried to replace the scratched and chipped laminate countertop with something snazzy like a solid surface or Caesarstone, but it turned out you had to order those in advance. So we got some wood butcher-block slabs from Ikea. We kept our existing cabinets but painted them white. We put a row of cabinets above them for extra storage (also from Ikea -- there was far more Ikea than I'd imagined). We put shelves made from the extra butcher block where the cabinets no longer fit. And we got one of those over-the-range microwaves, an appliance whose existence I had never even contemplated.

The contractor told us we had to stay out for a week. Three weeks later, after our dear friends so generously housed us, we came home. Did it look like a magazine? My dream kitchen? No. It looked blindingly bright and like cheap Home Depot cabinets had been painted white. The washer and dryer stuck out a foot more from the wall than the counter, leaving very little room for the tiny table where my kids eat dinner (it's an eat-in kitchen as long as you're not much bigger than a troll). The promise that the dryer would be vented through the wall was broken, and they had to stick an ungainly pipe out the top window (which we can no longer open). The dishwasher did a decent job (maybe I should have bought the one that wasn't $400), but man, was it not gross. When the kids got a stomach flu, we could pop their vomit-strewed bedding into the washing machine, and then the dryer, and OMG again: It was clean! A machine washed our dishes. The microwave worked. The counters were pretty. I would have done some version of white and wood in our dream home anyway. Our conclusion: 100%, totally worth the $10,000, much of which was covered by our tax return anyway.

Besides the personal satisfaction and the delight in 21st-century appliances, there are some advantages to the way I went about this, even as a rent-stabilized tenant. In a private home or smaller apartment building (anything with fewer than eight units), a landlord can raise the rent however much he or she sees fit, whether making improvements or not. In a rent-stabilized apartment, the landlord can charge one-fortieth the cost of the improvements each month … forever. If he'd spent $10,000 renovating my kitchen, that would be a $250-per-month rent increase. After four years, I'd have paid more than the renovation cost anyway. Also, it costs at least $30 a week to send laundry out for a family of four, especially one with sporty people who wear a couple of outfits each day. We didn't do that often, but I pretended that we did, and that we'd be out $1,500 in one year -- less than the cost of our shiny new machines.

There was one major difference between renovating the rental and a home of my own. When they made mistakes -- installing the oblong tiles so they were aligned, instead of staggered like bricks; putting the shelf above the microwave 3 inches too high so the vertically challenged (hello) have a hard time reaching it -- I was less inclined to take the time to have them fix it. We just wanted it done. I would have spent more time picking out tiles, gotten new (or salvaged) cabinets, put in less butcher block (it's kinda high maintenance), and found some eco-friendly IceStone counters instead. I would have gotten a new fridge, instead of keeping the rock-bottom one my landlord had bought. I would have added a tile backsplash, changed the lighting, figured out a way to add some outlets after the washer/dryer swallowed the ones by the window, so we had no power on that side of the room. Well, yeah, that was the main difference: If it were my place, I would have gutted it.

In the end, though, we felt satisfied, doggone happy even, about the renovation, and about the money we spent. Because in the end it wasn't about the money. It was about living in a neighborhood that had been subsumed by wealth, about trying to keep a foothold in it so I can raise my kids in a safe and pleasant place in the city where my husband and I both work, where we are dug in with our friends and our community. I doubt I'll ever have a traditional piece of the American dream in this newfangled, ultraluxury New York. Or, maybe I will. It's a tiny piece, about 9-by-7, and it's painted as bright as the sun.

Actually, we can't see the sun from the kitchen. It looks out onto the air shaft. But we love it anyway.

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