throughout this entire process, i have waited for the moment where things start to feel real. the moment where a construction zone starts to feel like some semblance of a home. and earlier this week, that moment happened.

my kitchen cabinets were delivered late last week, and my contractor promised that friday or monday, they’d start putting them up. true to form, after meeting him at the apartment on friday morning and reconfirming the layout, they got to work. and by early afternoon, i’d received photos of the cabinets in progress. EXCITING, right?!

i’ll be completely honest: when my contractor told me “had a guy” who “did cabinets” i was a little bit skeptical. that skepticism only grew when i found out the guy worked out of the back of an ACE hardware store in DEEP brooklyn (literally, i took the 2 train all the way to the end of the line). after exiting at nostrand and walking a few blocks past a target and an applebee’s, i came across a defunct meat market advertising “just killed!” chickens.

i almost turned around. surely, i was lost. signs ahead pointed to brooklyn college, but there was barely a soul on the street.


then i walked one more block, and saw a (small) sign for ace hardware. i stopped, and stared at the chain link fence surrounding the store.

this must be the place, i thought to myself. the place where i get swallowed up into some freaky alternate back in time universe where they kill chickens right in front of you and then ask you if you need semi gloss or eggshell.

there was a small parking lot out front; an old nissan altima was parked diagonally across two spots. beyond that, two double doors opened into a quiet neighborhood hardware store with no kitchen cabinets in sight.

i’d been told to ask for “chew” — but the woman at the checkout desk simply stared blankly back at me when i said his name.

“yo! is there a CHOO that works here?” she called out to the orthodox man working the paint counter in the back, payis dangling down from his hat.

“back here,” he motioned to me. “come back this way.”

suddenly, from the very back of the store, a small man poked his head around a doorway.

“hi sarah!”


chew! he did exist! in the back of this weird orthodox hardware store in deep brooklyn was an asian man who sold kitchen cabinets.

i spent the next hour with chew going over the type of cabinets i wanted (white shaker), ruminating over what size pantry i needed (18″ would suffice, anything larger was overkill), and discussing the pros and cons of soft-close drawers (i hate them, chew said they were standard these days).

at 7pm, ace hardware closed; by 6:55, i was out the door, waving goodbye to chew, who had, in the past 55 minutes, become my friend. chew understood the look i was going for (“you like the farmhouse style! but not TOO farmhouse!”). he knew i liked to bake and therefore needed space for my cookie sheets (“we’ll give you roll out drawers, two big ones, so they can stack! it’s too heavy otherwise!”). he’d agreed to customize a 16″ deep double cabinet for my island (“you need room for the legs!”), and to figure out a way to make the giant farm sink i wanted from ikea fit (“don’t you worry, sarah, we’ll make it work.”)


chew was a god among men. a god hidden in the back room of a hardware store in a strange no man’s land between midwood and flatbush.

he was, in other words, exactly the kind of smart, creative, small business kind of guy i hoped i’d be working with when i decided to pinch my pennies and go with the lowest contractor quote i’d received.

i’d budgeted $8k for my cabinets; shmulik had told me that depending on what i wanted, they’d come in between 6 and 8k. a few days after i met with chew, i received a layout, along with a quote: $7370–almost $600 below my max budget, with wiggle room for any additional filler pieces i might need last minute.

would i have loved to be closer to $6? of course. but i also wanted a pantry, and a small breakfast bar, and the two rollout drawers chew had got me all excited about. so i forked over a 50% deposit, and a few weeks later, a giant load of boxes arrived at the grand apartment.

a few days after that, the boxes were unpacked, and the cabinets went up on the wall.

and just like that, i had “the moment” – the one where i saw a home coming together right in front of my very eyes.



HOLY GARBAGE PILE | living room looking into entryway/kitchen

once the first day of demo was done, things started moving quickly. work kicked off last thursday, and on friday, i stopped by the grand apartment before work to take a look at the progress. i’d gotten so excited at the photos i’d received from my contractor on thursday that he told me i should come by the next morning–so i could “feel like i was part of the process.” it’s like he read my HGTV-saturated mind!

i won’t bore you with the basics, but here’s what you’re going to see below: the living room/entryway, all demo-ed out, with a short description of what’s planned/where they’ll head next. suffice it to say i am THRILLED that things have finally started picking up, and i cannot WAIT for the next step (designing my kitchen, EEK!).

also, if anyone wants to volunteer to stop by and take a slo mo video of me knocking something down, please let me know. i was too embarrassed to ask shmulik to do it.

so, let’s get down to BUSINESS, and look at some pictures of “my dust and debris” (as my boss so lovingly referred to it).


this is the living room, in its current state. those drawers you see there were part of the old “built ins” in the kitchen. i would have saved them if they were in better shape, but they were literally sloping away from the ceiling/wall, and had about 12 layers of paint on them. alas, my new cabinets will be shiny and pretty and light and bright. sorry, old drawers. also, see that dark line up towards the ceiling? that’s where the picture rails used to be. i had shmulik take them all down, in hopes of installing crown molding throughout once things have been patched up and repainted. he also stripped the floor molding so that we can start fresh down there (and seal it off so that no roaches get in…YUCK).


so much garbage. the door frames were metal (you can see them sticking out in the middle right of the photo)


i decided to have shmulik open up the faux arched entrway between the living room and entryway to allow more light to seep into the space. as soon as i saw these photos, i yelped with glee. already, it feels SO much more open. having a nice wide open entryway is really going to make all the difference – especially once the breakfast bar goes in.


another shot of the entryway, straight on 

so, let’s talk about this angle. what you’re seeing above is living room to the left, entryway to the right. originally, when i discussed the plans with shmulik, i wanted to replace the closet i tore down on the right (to create space for the breakfast bar) with one in the space above (where that junction box thingamjig is hanging). i thought this was the perfect plan: i’d get my breakfast bar (!!) and i’d still get storage (even more of it!).


where i thought i could build a closet

these dreams were dashed on friday morning, when shmulik and his guy, george, informed me that if i added a closet in the space above, it would have to extend at least 24″ out. add onto that doors and such, and you’re looking at a depth of 28″, minimum. add onto that the depth of the breakfast bar that will be directly across from it, and i am, as shmulik put it, “making space only to close it off again.” effectively, i COULD have a closet in the space above–but it would mean a tight entryway that would diminish the light i’ve created by knocking down the wall, and make for a bit of a squeeze when people actually sit at the breakfast bar.


i could put a closet here, but then it would be in the living room. and that’s just weird.

BUMMER. like, MAJOR bummer. shmulik offered to build the closet on the short wall to the left of the entryway (aka, IN the living room), but i said no to that. i want to put a dining area there, and a little closet in the back right corner of the living room would be super wonky. design fail.

if only i were carrie bradshaw and i used my oven as storage! alas, no can do. my new plan is to get a REALLY sweet coat rack (if you see one, let me know), and a nice console table with baskets underneath for extra storage.

i am not 100% satisfied with this plan, but i think it’s my best option. also, it wouldn’t kill me to go a little marie kondo before i move.



baseball cap on one, yarmulke on the other. welcome to the lower east side.

guys, i know it’s been a wee bit quiet around these parts, but that’s because for a few weeks, i was waiting on things like permits and board approval and i didn’t want to bore you with the basics. but that’s okay, because i’m back, and WITH A VENGEANCE! that’s right folks, i have FINALLY started construction, and the first phase of that is none other than DEMOLITION, which i have literally been waiting for since i put my offer in on the grand apartment back in january (i know, i know. this shit took so freaking long).

see, as i’ve told you before (and as anyone who knows me even a little bit knows), i am an HGTV addict. like, check me into property brothers rehab, i have a problem, i can’t stop watching drew and jonathan tear down walls and build them back up again. if you, like me, watch property brothers (or really, any other show on HGTV), you know that “demo day” is a BFD (for my older readers, BDF = big fucking deal). demo day is where it all begins. it’s also where HGTV likes to insert scary/sad music jonathan knocks down a wall in the kitchen only to discover that it’s load bearing and the homeowners can’t do the open concept he’s promised. essentially, demo day is where stuff starts, and more importantly, where stuff starts to go wrong. why? well, you can’t know what’s behind a wall until you tear it down. and that’s what demo day is all about.

my first reality check came in the form of a sewage pipe, cleverly disguised behind the wall separating the entry to the kitchen and the closet directly to the right of it.


giant sewage pipe that literally runs the length of the entire building. of course i bought the unit where the sewage pipe lives. 

last wednesday, i met my contractor, shmulik, at the grand apartment to discuss plans (mostly, to remind him of which walls we were knocking down. thursday morning, he met me outside my current apartment to pick up the keys (which i had stupidly forgotten the morning before). and by thursday afternoon at 3pm, my phone was dinging with the pictures above. demo had officially begun! and with it, bad news had arrived: behind the wall that i intended to (mostly) tear down didn’t just contain the electrical junction box. it was also hiding a gi-NORMOUS sewage pipe that housed ALL THE POO IN THE BUILDING.

if these walls could talk, they’d have some serious potty mouths.

that was the worst joke i’ve ever made. ANYWAY, let’s get into the nitty gritty, shall we?

where the workers are standing used to be a) a set of “built ins” in the kitchen and b) a coat closet. i had shmulik demolish both to create room for an L shaped breakfast bar that will wrap from the kitchen into the space you see above (out into the living room). the goal was to bring more light into the space, open things up (while i can’t do total open concept, i wanted to create a sight line from the kitchen into the living/dining area), and add extra counter space/storage below.


another angle of the pipe. it’s enormous. 

that plan was all well and good until they started knocking things down and discovered that the “wall” between the kitchen entry and the closet was there for a reason. a very large, brown metal reason that starts with “sew” and ends with “age pipe.” GROSS. i asked shmulik if it could explode and rain poop all over my pretty new home and to his credit, he didn’t laugh, but instead, assured me that no sewage would be exiting the pipe and entering my new space. HALLELUJAH.

so, what does it mean? thankfully, my breakfast bar can still happen. but the “tiny little pillar” i intended to construct to house the electrical panel (you can’t really see it above, but it’s there) will need to be about a foot wide to house the sewage pipe too. it’s not ideal, but it’s also not the worst thing ever. so my tiny little pillar becomes a rather large column. so long as it hides the poop chamber, i’m satisfied. and if we can make it look cute (maybe some crown molding up top? some art on the wall?), all the better. renovation = compromise, and so long as i still have a place for two people to sit their booties down and swing their legs while they happily sip wine and chow down on pasta, i’m happy.


my architect anjie cho and her drafter measuring and taking notes to draw up the official renovation plans for the apartment

you know what’s really exciting? standing in your soon to be apartment with a real, licensed architect, and talking through the official “plans” for renovation. after the disaster that was my first interaction with an “architect” you could say i was a little weary of moving forward. B had quoted me $3k, all in, to draw up the plans, hire an expeditor, and get everything submitted to both the management company and the city. that number sounded REAL GOOD to me.

but then he went all donald trump on me and basically said, “YOU’RE FIRED (as a client)!” and that was that. it was on to plan B (or, actually, plan A). in this case, A stands for anjie cho, another name my contractor gave me after B fell through. unlike B, who i quickly learned wasn’t even a licensed architect (holy shit new york city what kind of place are you?!), anjie is the real deal.

and guess what?! SHE’S A WOMAN! hell yes. no dicks around here (literally and figuratively). my initial interactions with anjie were so painless, i could barely believe they were happening. i emailed her on memorial day while on the train back from massachusetts. i figured i’d hear from her later in the week, once she was back in my office, but gave my phone number just in case.

to my surprise (and delight!), anjie called about 15 minutes after receiving my email, and proceeded to fill me in on a few things:

  1. she’d heard of B. he was a well-known character in the lower east side real estate game. he got the job done, but he wasn’t exactly above board, if you know what i mean. in fact, he wasn’t even a licensed architect. WTF?
  2. real architects cost more than $3k. anjie’s fees, along with her expeditor, were going to put me around double that. but that was the cost to have things done right, and most importantly, by the book (aka the law).
  3. if i didn’t do things by the book, i could risk legal issues when i went to sell the grand apartment later on. HELLO, danger zone, nice to meet you…NOT.
  4. the first step in this process was the management company. they were the ones who decided whether or not city approval was required. and if it wasn’t, i’d save a hefty chunk of change.

it was basically like being baptized. unlike B, who had literally told me nothing and given me nothing, anjie filled a sista in. BIG TIME. she made me feel like i could understand the process, and that she’d help me through it–and that she would do it in a way that would ensure i wasn’t getting screwed. because who wants to get screwed by a guy who’s not even licensed? NOT ME.

anjie was such a breath of fresh air that i basically said YOLO to the increase in price and resolved myself to find some cheaper lighting fixtures and maybe give up my fancy bathroom tile. or at least, to find some freelance work to make up the difference (holla if you need a writer, friends!).

did i want to pay double the original quote? definitely not. but do i want it done right, and only done once? YOU BET. i won’t be able to confidently say this until i’m on the other side, but my gut tells me that when things are suspiciously cheap, it generally means there’s some under the table BS going on. and when things are on par with industry standards, price-wise (and i should note here that i got multiple quotes beyond anjie’s and she was by far the most reasonable, and the one i liked the most), there’s usually a reason for it. it means you’re getting good work done by good people who know their shit. given that i do not know my shit at all, i need someone who does.

so i signed the contract, handed over my deposit, and we GOT TO WORK. well, really, anjie got to work. i just let her into the building.

tomorrow, the fruits of her labors (and my super high level design plan, eeep!).




lots of work to be done here. hence, the need for an architect.

when i first started this process, i figured i’d have to deal with an asshole or two. this is new york, this process is complicated, the industry is filled (mostly) with me. assholes were bound to be a part of the puzzle.

still, i hoped to be wrong. and for the initial six months, i was. my broker, eric, is nothing short of an angel. my lawyer andy thinks i’m the most obnoxious person ever placed on this earth, but he has yet to yell at me. and doug, the mortgage broker eric referred me to, is a man with a never-ending supply of patience. he has answered approximately 5,000 questions, assured me that i’m capable and smart, and promised me that not only will he not let me fall flat on my face, he’ll see me through all the way to closing.

those are the good men. but the bad ones–well, let’s just say they’ve made me question my faith in dudes. one of these bad ones is an “architect” (quotes are necessary, i will explain why in a bit) we’ll call B. B was referred to me by my contractor, Shmulik, who has, thus far, also placed himself firmly in the “wonderful and helpful and very much not an asshole” category.

but let’s back up a bit. why, you might be wondering, do i even need an architect? that’s a good question. it’s one i had myself. turns out, when you want to renovate an apartment in new york city, you can’t just bust down walls and go all peter paul and mary “if i had a hammmmmmmer” on this bitch. quite the opposite, actually. first, you have to get approval from the management company in charge of your building, and by virtue, their engineer and architect. then, once management has approved, they can (and usually, will) dictate that your plans are submitted to (and approved by) the new york city department of buildings. you know those permits you see pasted on the windows of construction zones? if you want to renovate your teeny little totally not important to anyone apartment, you’ll need some of the babies below.


and guess what? you can’t do any of that on your own. first, you have to hire an architect, who will draw up the plans for renovation, and help you prepare what you need to submit to the management company. then, you’ll also need an expeditor, a person whose sole purpose is to go down to the DOB and wait on line for you, moving your shit along so that you don’t have to wait 6-8 weeks for DOB approval. your expeditor usually comes from your architect, as does an asbestos inspector (also needed for DOB approval).

{for more on this process, see this nytimes article – which nearly gave me a heart attack}

in short, an architect is pretty important. you can’t do it without them. so it’s important you find one that you a) like, and b) can do the job and do it right.

now that we’ve got the basics covered, back to B. B was, i was told, a guy who could draw up the plans and help me submit to the board. he was fast, and he was cheap. those two things alone should have been a giant flaring WARNING WARNING symbol to me, but as a girl who knows she likes pretty things, anywhere i can save money and reallocate it to, say, a lighting fixture, i’m inclined to do so.

i first spoke to him on a friday morning. he was the epitome of a fast talking new yorker, a guy that seemed determined to “educate” me on the phone about all i didn’t know. i wanted to work with him, so i kept my mouth shut when he talked down to me like a stupid child who didn’t know her ass from her elbow. he said he had plans of my unit in his files, and he’d send me something by the afternoon.

the afternoon rolled around, and guess what? nothing came. he’d asked me to email him some info; i’d done it first thing. no response to the email either. i waited until monday to follow up, at which point he made an excuse about being busy and said i’d have it first thing tuesday.

by friday, i still didn’t have anything. that was week 1. the same thing happened in week 2. i’d follow up, he’d promise to get the plans to me, i’d receive nothing. by memorial day, i was fed up. so when i got him on the phone that morning, two weeks after his initial promise to get something out to me same day, i told him if he couldn’t get it to me when he said he was going to, i would find someone who could.

i meant it to come out as a firm but respectful missive. just because i was a woman didn’t mean he could walk all over me. i might be new to this process, but i know when i’m being jerked around.

to say that B did not respond well to being threatened is an understatement. he inhaled deeply, and then said, practically vibrating with anger, “GIVE THE JOB TO SOMEONE ELSE. I DO NOT WANT IT.”

and then he hung up on me. HUNG UP ON ME! what is this, kindergarten?! the only person who ever hangs up on me is my mother, and she’s allowed because, well, you know, she birthed and raised me.

i was so shocked that i literally stood on the street with my phone in my hand, staring at the screen, wondering if that had actually just happened. i waited a few minutes for him to call back and apologize. he did not. so i called my contractor, and told him that if he didn’t mind, i’d need another recommendation for an architect.

lucky for me, he had another name. to read part 2 (and to see the renovation plans!), come back tomorrow. 

Taylor-Kinney-Going-Make-One-Superhot-Husbandrecently, i met my dream man. he was experienced, smart, nice, helpful…all the things you look for in a man.

did i say man? i meant contractor. recently, i met my dream contractor. his name was charlie, and he was experienced, smart, nice, and oh so freaking helpful. like, the MOST helpful, even though he legitimately owned me nothing and had no reason to be so.

that’s not him, above. that’s taylor kinney, who is ACTUALLY my dream man (and could easily be my dream contractor too, with those muscles).

let me back up a bit.

at the advertising agency where i work, we have a process called “triple bidding.” it refers to bidding a given job out to three different companies/people/production houses at once in order to a) find the best (wo)man for the job and b) get the best price.

my broker advised me to do the same thing for the grand apartment: do a walkthrough with three different contractors, get three different estimates, and go from there.

so that’s what i did. the first contractor, jan, came highly recommended from my broker himself. the second was manny, a recommendation from a family friend, a woman who swore (in her thick new york jewish mother tongue) that he’d “done some really nice stuff” at her place. the third was a man who i’d followed on instagram for a year, following his feature on design*sponge. his name was charlie.

let’s start with contractor 1.

contractor 1 (jan):

a soft-spoken, enterprising new yorker who comes from the czech republic, and boasts a lot of work experience on the lower east side.

estimate: around 65-70k


a kitchen done by contractor 1

above is an example of jan’s work. it’s not bad, not by any means. it’s simple. it’s not necessarily my taste. but it’s workable. after touring my soon to be space, jan walked me over to an apartment he was currently working on a few blocks away. when i entered, three workmen were chipping away at installing sheetrock and fixing plumbing. the space was clean, and the renovation appeared to be moving along smoothly.

jan and i had a slight language barrier, which was probably exacerbated by the fact that i don’t really speak dude, and i REALLY don’t speak construction dude. but all in all, he was lovely, albeit quiet.

now on to contractor 2.

contractor 2 (manny):

a fast-talking, native new yorker who mostly works in westchester but swore he and his guys could do a bang up job in manhattan proper.

estimate: 89k

despite the fact that the only other manny i’ve ever known was my 8th grade boyfriend, who i routinely drunkenly hooked up with in the backseat of cars throughout high school, i really, truly, wanted to like manny. i wanted him to be the one. my mother loved him, because her friend susan loved him. and my mother’s opinion means a lot to me.

when manny did his walkthrough, he brought his cousin, who walked around with a measuring tape and took very official-looking notes. i thought that manny and i spoke the same language, though he talked as fast as a born and bred cabbie from deep brooklyn. i had faith in manny. manny promised to send examples of his work, along with references.

he did neither. and then his estimate came in 20k more than jan’s.

so i did what any reasonable girl would do. between a rock and a hard place, i decided to reconsider charlie, who i’d essentially been online stalking for a better part of a year. okay, online stalking is extreme. what i’d been doing was following his work, and hoping that maybe, someday, i’d have a home like the ones he designs. see exhibit A below.

contractor 3 (charlie):

charlie (also known as dream contractor), whose company, cw property group, specializes in taking old, decrepit spaces and turning them into something fresh, pretty, and livable.


exhibit a: my dream kitchen, designed by charlie, executed by his company

in my heart, charlie was clearly the most qualified man for the job. so despite my gut feeling that he’d be waaaay out of budget, i emailed him, and asked him if he’d come and look at the space.

well, folks, turns out, my gut was right (guts and mothers: never wrong). after doing a walkthrough of the space last week, charlie called this morning, and told me his guys hadn’t even finished the full estimate, but they were already close to 100k.


finding your dream man, and then finding out he’s too expensive…it sucks.* ain’t no two ways about it, hearing a number like that hurts. honestly, hearing ALL the numbers above hurt. this isn’t monopoly money, it’s real money. it’s money that belongs to my family. money that is the result of hard work. it’s hard to think of parting with such giant sums–and even harder to think that those giant sums don’t even cover it.

but, you know, buying a home is expensive, and so is renovating it. at least, that’s what i keep telling myself. that, and inhale. exhale. inhale. exhale.

so where does that leave me?

while i’ve been advised not to go with my cheapest option, because that’s a potential recipe for disaster, i will likely be awarding the job to jan. here’s why:

  1. he’s the only one i can afford. the truth hurts, people.
  2. he seems like he really WANTS the job. manny on the other hand…not so much.
  3. the in progress space he showed me a few weeks ago looked pretty damn good.
  4. one of the references on his list is “mr. jeremy piven” who i am obviously assuming is THE jeremy piven. that’s a reference i WILL be calling.

also, if i play devil’s advocate…

cost doesn’t always dictate quality. in fact, charlie (contractor 3) flat out told me his guys “were not the cheapest.” not going to lie, ripping off that bandaid hurt

my (not at all educated) guess is that part of the difference in price will manifest as a) a little less “customer service” (aka, i’ll have to do lots of checking in and following up) and b) a little jerry-rigging in terms of finding my cabinets, appliances, lighting, etc. all on my own.

a note to self (and to anyone else who tries to do this after me):

i’ve learned that most contractors do NOT include any surface materials beyond sheetrock, paint, baseboards, doors, etc. in their estimates, so everything from countertops to tile is on me. likely, those will be the places where i’ll be hunting on my own, tracking things down, getting them shipped/delivered, and perhaps, most importantly, making sure they’re budget friendly. if anyone has any tips on budget friendly places for tile, fixtures, lighting, appliances, etc. HIT ME UP. 

in the meantime, in the words of alessia cara, i’ll be over here, pining over my dream contractor, and hoping that someday, somehow, i’ll be able to afford his services.

*i recognize that this is a total champagne problem.