A Brooklyn Brownstone Renovation “Flips” for the Better


Living space and rental come together in this Brooklyn brownstone renovation

brownstone renovation, Brooklyn

“After” photos by Kate Glicksberg for Sweeten

  • Homeowners: Bellamy, an executive at The GAP, and Zak, a senior environmental scientist, posted their project on Sweeten
  • Where: Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, New York
  • Primary renovation: Three stories of a 2,400-square-foot Brooklyn brownstone
  • Notable: Swapping the positions of their renovated garden rental and owners’ duplex
  • Result: Better functionality for the two-family building
  • Sweeten general contractor
  • Sweeten’s role: Sweeten matches home renovation projects with vetted general contractors, offering advice, support, and financial protection—at no cost to the homeowner.

Guest post by Sweeten homeowner Bellamy

Finding their circa 1900 Brooklyn brownstone home

After a grueling year-long search, countless open houses, and one house lost in a bidding war, we found our home. Remarkably, it had everything we wanted: it was a two-family home in the heart of “brownstone” Brooklyn, with original hardwood floors. Most of the houses in the neighborhood were built circa 1900. Many we viewed did not stand the test of time, but this home had been in the same family for years and did not show the usual wear-and-tear of a 100-year-old home. We were lucky, but it did need a major facelift.

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I was thankful to stumble upon Sweeten early in my renovation research for our brownstone in Brooklyn. While I had owned a home before, this was our first time doing a serious renovation that would require more than our DIY skills could handle.

The layout of the house and our budget did not afford us a ton of options, so the renovation was straightforward. We focused on structural changes to change the flow and use of the house. Thankfully, when we moved in, we were able to live in the garden floor apartment while we renovated the upper two floors where we would eventually live.

Salvaging and repurposing

We removed the original entry doors as you come into the entry foyer, but left the structural wall intact. This allowed the area to feel more open as you continue into the living area; it also gave back more livable space to work with. However, I loved the original details of the doors and wanted to find another use for them. Luckily, they just fit the ceiling clearance on the second floor and they found new life as the guest room headboard.

In the living room and through to the kitchen, we tore down two walls and exposed a long expanse of brick wall. The former owner had repointed the brick in the front room with black mortar, which was a real eyesore. When we exposed the whole length of the house, we were left with two walls that didn’t match. Limited by our budget, we repointed the half that was previously covered and experimented with painting techniques to blend the two together.

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An overhaul for the kitchen

I wanted the kitchen to be the focus of the home. There were three main obstacles: adding a door for backyard access, the ceiling height, and a non-negotiable double oven. I initially wanted to enlarge the back window above the sink to make it a focal point and let in more natural light. Not far along into the process, I had to abandon that idea since we were concerned with what the enlarged opening would do to the structural integrity of the home, given its age. It was also a huge expense so we chose to use those dollars elsewhere.

In the end, we actually made the window above the sink slightly smaller to allow for a proper backsplash. We replaced the second window with a door and added a small landing and stairs for easy backyard access.

The next question was how to vent the hood with 11-foot-high ceilings and open shelving left nowhere to hide. Ultimately, the ducting was kept exposed and vented directly through the wall outside. I love the industrial element it adds to the newly renovated space.

Lastly, where to fit the double oven? At first, I was concerned I would be giving up valuable pantry space, but the layout worked out perfectly and there was room for everything we wanted, even the custom built-in beverage taps. We are home-brewing enthusiasts and wanted a unique feature in our kitchen to showcase that.

WATCH: How Bellamy and Zak find their Sweeten contractor

Splurging and saving

The first-floor bath was an easy update. The layout was already functional, so we kept it as-is with a direct replacement—aka rip-and-replace—of all the fixtures. We were able to salvage the original door and reuse the existing tub. We later put our DIY skills to the test and added fun wallpaper and wainscoting.

My favorite splurge on the top floor was a heated bathroom floor—worth every penny in the winter.

The top floor previously served as a separate apartment complete with its own kitchen. We wanted to have a master bedroom, master closet, master bathroom, guest bedroom, and laundry room. The tricky part was figuring out where to put everything. The pre-existing kitchen allowed us to easily add laundry without a huge expense. Once that was decided, everything else fell into place.

The master bedroom closet is a dream spot that had been a small room that our contractor converted. My favorite splurge on the top floor was a heated bathroom floor—worth every penny in the winter.

Throughout the house, we did some major upgrades that elevate the whole space: we put up fresh drywall throughout the second floor, refinished the original floors in a dark walnut color, and replaced all the windows in the house.

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Managing the renovation budget and process

While I would not necessarily recommend living in a renovation (so much dust), it did allow us to check on the progress and be more involved in day-to-day decisions such as outlet locations and doorknob height. We optimistically thought the renovation would take three months, but we did add on some significant projects that stretched the timeline. Overall, the project took about five months to complete the top two floors with some minor updates in the garden apartment.

The budget was our major obstacle, but our Sweeten contractor was great at working with us to determine where we could splurge and where we could save. Once our contractor realized we were quite handy, we were able to figure out what we could do ourselves versus what we should leave to the professionals. For example, we chose to take on all the painting, which was a huge undertaking. I’m talking all ceilings, all walls, all trim, and multiple coats! I don’t think we understood what a huge task it was—and that in certain spaces, the contractor was unable to move forward until we completed painting. I’m glad we did it, but it was a grueling several months and I’m pretty sure I gave myself carpal tunnel.

Switching the brownstone layout

The biggest change in terms of the function of the home was separating the garden floor apartment from the upper two floors. In dividing the two, we were able to gain a coat closet in the apartment and additional storage space for us before the basement level. The ground floor is now available as its own standalone rental unit, while we live on the two floors above. Now that the house is done, I am so thankful we splurged on what we wanted—replacing the windows, skim-coating, and repointing the brick; those are some of my favorite things in the house.

Thanks to Bellamy and Zak for sharing your beautiful and unique Brooklyn brownstone renovation story with us! Here’s how they renovated their new garden rental space on a budget.

SHOPPING GUIDE

FOYER RESOURCES: Merola floor tile: Home Depot.

LIVING ROOM RESOURCES: Vega brushed brass blush-mount lamp: CB2.

GROUND FLOOR BATH RESOURCES: Merola hex black floor tile: Home Depot. Jeffrey Court Fresh White wall tile: Home Depot. Devine Color Speckled Dot peel-and-stick wallpaper: Target. Delta Foundations shower fixtures: Home Depot. ENSEN faucet: IKEA. Black towel bar hardware: CB2. The Copper Factory doorknob: Overstock.com. Godmorgon/Odensvik vanity and sink: IKEA. Framed fog-free wall mirror: Home Depot. Hinkley Lighting vanity light from Ainsley Collection, 56552PN: Build.com.

KITCHEN RESOURCES: Merola floor tile, FRC8TWED: Home Depot. Kitchen cabinets: Custom. Omnia cabinet knobs, 9153/18.3: Build.com. Drawer pulls: Custom. Quartz countertops, 1141: Caesarstone. Jeffrey Court Fresh White backsplash tile, 96012: Home Depot. Olde London apron-front farmhouse fireclay sink, OL33SG: Home Depot. Kenmore refrigerator, 70423: Sears. Bosch dishwasher, SHVM78W53N: Sears. Whirlpool self-cleaning double electric wall oven, WOD51EC0AS: Lowe’s. Kenmore slide-in gas cooktop, 34913: Sears.

MASTER BATH RESOURCES: Carrara marble hex mosaic floor tile, C33XH: MarbleOnline.com. Jeffrey Court Fresh White wall tile, 96012: Home Depot. Jeffrey Court Retro Octagon White Dot shower floor tile, 96025: Home Depot. Towel bar and toilet paper holder: CB2. Delta Porter shower fixtures, 142984C-BN-A: Home Depot. Godmorgon/Odensvik sink and vanity, 291.852.39: IKEA. Vanity cabinet fronts: Semihandmade. Hinkley Lighting vanity light from Ainsley Collection, 56552PN: Build.com. Home Decorators Collection framed fog-free wall mirror, 81160: Home Depot.

PAINT RESOURCES: Trim paint in Totally Black, HDC-MD-04: Behr. Wall paint in Pure White, PPU18-06: Behr.

See the downstairs rental results from Bellamy and Zek’s Brooklyn brownstone renovation story!

Remodel the brownstone of your dreams with help from our guide on purchasing and renovating a townhouse.

Refer your renovating friends to Sweeten and you’ll both receive a $250 Visa gift card when they sign a contract with a Sweeten general contractor.

Sweeten handpicks the best general contractors to match each project’s location, budget, and scope, helping until project completion. Follow the blog for renovation ideas and inspiration and when you’re ready to renovate, start your renovation on Sweeten.



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A Trinity House Restoration Soars to New Heights


Like a phoenix, this rowhouse rose from the ashes

Trinity rowhouse renovation

“Before and After” photos by Kingston Ko Photography for Sweeten

Today, we’re taking a look at the rebirth of a trinity townhouse in the Bella Vista neighborhood of Center City Philadelphia. The house, built in the style of a trinity, a slim structure that became popular during a population boom in the early 18th century, caught Nel’s eye while she was looking to purchase her first home. Two years later, the house was severely damaged by a fire that ravaged the entire street, resulting in a total gut.

The 1,200-square-foot home has three stories—plus a basement and roof deck with amazing city views—and had to be rebuilt from the studs up. Nel decided to keep the original floor plans intact—the first-floor dining room and kitchen, second-floor living room plus full bath, and third-floor master bedroom and bath—and bring them back to life.

With her renovation plans in mind, she came to Sweeten, a free platform connecting homeowners to vetted general contractors, to restore the house to its former glory and find a new tenant who would love it just as much as she did.

 home renovation Philadelphia

Sweeten: 
What motivated you to purchase this trinity house and what led to the renovation?

Nel: In 2014 I was looking to purchase my first home, and when I saw this house I absolutely fell in love with it. The house is a 100-year-old trinity located in the Bella Vista neighborhood of Center City Philadelphia. I’m not sure if you have seen many trinities, but they are a pretty common home type in Philadelphia where the house is three stories tall and each floor is typically a single room. I met Greg shortly thereafter and the two of us lived in the house up until we got engaged in April 2016. We decided to move out because we were thinking about starting a family and wanted to find a home with a second bedroom.

I was a bit attached to this house and since I work in real estate we decided to try our hand at renting it versus selling it. We found great tenants and everything was going well until the fire last October. The fire destroyed six houses—so basically, the entire block! It was heart-wrenching to watch something I had so many happy memories in be destroyed by fire. But, very fortunately, we have been able to rebuild, which actually has been a funny process because we were able to make some of the upgrades and changes we previously wanted to do when we lived there.

trinity house floor plan

(Above) Example of a trinity floor plan that’s similar in size and layout to Nel’s house

Sweeten: What made you choose the neighborhood back when you were looking to purchase a home?

Nel: The Bella Vista neighborhood is truly one of my favorites in Philadelphia. We have a 100-year-old Italian bakery at the end of our street and so there is always the wonderful smell of something delicious baking in the air. We are also just around the corner from a park with a bocce court, as well as from the 9th Street Italian Market. I love the neighborhood’s vibe and all of the small independent businesses and restaurants that are at our front door.

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Sweeten: What’s your favorite part of the house?

Nel: I think one of my favorite parts, aside from the 360-degree views from the roof deck, is the exposed brick wall. It feels like a piece of history which is really neat.

Sweeten: What it was like working with your general contractor?

Nel: This is actually our second renovation in 12 months, but our first time using Sweeten. I can’t tell you how wonderful our Sweeten contractor has been. He took a very stressful situation and guided us through it with ease, and we couldn’t have been happier with how everything has turned out. Greg and I have actually joked about moving back in!

Sweeten: Now that the house is finished, what are your plans for it?

Nel: We are going to keep it as a rental for now and who knows…maybe someday we will live there again!

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Sweeten: What were the challenges you faced while renovating this trinity house?

Sweeten contractor: It was the amount of work that needed to take place in the small footprint of the house. We needed to add new code-compliant systems to a home that was designed to have a small footprint over 100 years ago! Several homes on the same block that were also damaged in the fire were under construction at the same time, so parking was limited. Material deliveries on the small street were very tough, if not impossible. All of the materials for the roof deck and drywall needed to be loaded in by hand. Also, work on the roof deck was held up due to permits.

Sweeten: What was the damage done by the fire?

Sweeten contractor: The entire home was flooded by the water used to extinguish the rooftop fire. The house was dried out and all damaged organic materials were removed prior to us being hired by a restoration company.

Sweeten: What major work did you and your team tackle during the renovation?

Sweeten contractor: We installed all new electric, some plumbing, a new high-efficiency HVAC, insulation, drywall, and new finishes.

Sweeten: Did you encounter any delays during the process?

Sweeten contractor: Yes, the roof deck had to be designed by a licensed architect—we couldn’t replace what was there under the permit for the interior. The drawings for the roof deck also needed to be completed and reviewed.

Sweeten: The results are simply stunning—all of your hard work has definitely paid off!

Sweeten contractor: Overall, it was a great project, Nel was a wonderful client and we couldn’t have done it without Sweeten making the match. We are very proud of the work we did here and how the home turned out.

Thanks to Nel and her Sweeten general contractor for sharing their story, both the good and the bad, and giving us a look inside this reborn trinity!


TODAY-NEWS


Renovating in Philly? Check out our guide on kitchen renovation costs—and where that money goes.

Sweeten handpicks the best general contractors to match each project’s location, budget, and scope, helping until project completion. Follow the blog for renovation ideas and inspiration and when you’re ready to renovate, start your renovation on Sweeten.



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