grand street

you know what costs a lot of money? a gut renovation. you know where a gut renovation costs a SHITLOAD of money? in new york city, that’s where.

when i started this process, i had this idea that we would set a number in our brains of how much things could cost, and that would sort of be that. we’d find ways to magically save money, i’d stumble upon an amazing farmhouse sink (exhibit a, below) at the chelsea flea market, and things would just sort of fall into place.


let me tell you, as far as i can tell, that is NOT how this thing’s going to go. in fact, despite what you (or at least, i) might think about being able to save money, there are no two ways around it: this shit is majorly f-ing expensive. like, are we dealing in monopoly money expensive.

i have received estimates from two different contractors, and not only were their bid documents WILDLY different, but so too were the estimates themselves. as in, there was a nearly 30k difference between the two (that alone should give you an idea of how crazily expensive this will be).

maybe it’s the avid HGTV watcher in me, but you know, when they do this sort of thing on TV, and something goes wrong, the contractor always seems to find a way to make up for it elsewhere in the budget. this sort of thing happens all the time, right? you look at the electrical panel and you say, hmm, that’s from 1932. that will need to be replaced. but you think, well, whatever, i’ll just buy a cheaper countertop. and on tv, that’s exactly what happens. the property brothers tear open a wall, and they realize that all the wiring is knob and tube and could basically set the house on fire if it’s not replaced. so they replace it all, and they tell the homeowners that it’s going to cost them 12,000 to do so. and that they have to give up the amazing gas fireplace installation that they were SO counting on, because, you know, they live in middle of nowhere canada (where most HGTV shows are filmed) and it’s COLD UP THERE.

eHs0SIddXxs.market_maxresthe homeowners are usually all, “noooo! we had our HEARTS set on that fireplace!” and the property brothers say, well, sometimes we have to make tough decisions, and then the show cuts to commercial. in real life, the homeowners would not get a fireplace. in fact, they’d prob have to give up their new tub too. but on tv, what happens is that, unbeknownst to the homeowners (but obviously broadcast to the viewers), the PB’s decide that they really want to make the homeowner’s fireplace dreams come true, and they secretly install a super fancy one so that when they film the big reveal the couple is all, “OMG YOU GUYS!” and then usually they cry.

my point in all this is that i kind of thought that when my contractors told me that all my electrical had to be redone and that it was going to cost a lot of money and i might not be able to knock down the wall between the entryway and the kitchen to make a breakfast bar, i didn’t really believe them. because in my head, i thought that maybe the property brothers were going to pop in and be all, “you know what sarah, we know that you realllllly want that breakfast bar, and we’re going to find a way to make it happen within your budget.”


they ARE cute though, aren’t they?

sadly, tv is not real life. and the property brothers, cute as they may be, aren’t coming to save me, or my renovation, anytime soon.

in real life, you actually DO have to make the tough decisions. in my case, i have to make choices such as:

  • custom/semi-custom cabinetry (much more expensive, but also, way better and maybe a better investment) vs. ikea cabinetry (cheaper, but crappy quality)
  • recessed lighting ($$$) vs. some sort of weird under-cabinet + flush mount light situation ($-$$)
  • crown molding ($$) vs. no molding and therefore, less charm ($)
  • breakfast bar ($$$ but oh so amazing and OMG, open layout!) vs. no breakfast bar/keeping the galley kitchen ($ but ugh, galley kitchens)
  • new closets ($$$) vs. not enough closets ($)

all of these are, in my mind, tough choices. the hardest being the breakfast bar, which i really, really want, but which is also likely the greatest money saver should i choose not to do it.

the contractors have both been talking to me about “investment potential” and how it’s “better to do it now than later.” both of these sentiments are true and relevant. they are also expensive.

real talk (even when my heart doesn’t want to hear it): i do have a budget. that budget has a little wiggle room, because as unrealistic and green as i am in this process, i know that nothing ever costs what they say it will cost. but a budget exists. and i have to stick to it. and that hurts. i mean, WHO DOESN’T WANT A BREAKFAST BAR?

it would be helpful if i was just the tiniest bit handy, or could build literally ANYTHING on my own. which reminds me that in 7th grade, i was actually REALLY good at woodworking class, and that i made an entirely wooden car that still “drove” really fast, and a multi-sided photo box for my parents that they probably have buried in a box in my basement.

unfortunately, i am not just not handy, i’m also basically the world’s greatest idiot when it comes to ikea assembly, which means that even if i go for ikea cabinetry to try and cut costs, lord knows i’ll be paying people to put them together and install them.

the bottom line here is this: renovating things is expensive. renovating things in new york city is REALLY expensive. like, the kind of expensive where it hurts your soul and every dollar feels like someone shot a dagger straight into your heart. and even if i don’t want to admit it, 50% of my budget is going to go towards things i can’t see. like plumbing, and electrical, and subfloors. ouch.

the bright side? i’ll know that behind my freshly painted walls are some realllly fabulous, safe electrical wires that are prepared to handle all the gorgeous light fixtures i plan to install…

…that is, if i can find any in my budget.



the holy grail of kitchens, which belongs to alison cayne of haven’s kitchen.

recently, i read a post on food52 that proclaimed that subway tile was soo over. the market was over saturated, the blog posts overdone, pinterest ready to explode and vomit subway tile all over everyone and everything. and in typical new homeowner fashion, i felt a slight chill creep up my back. was i about to make the biggest mistake of my life?

was i about to use a tile that was soooo over in my kitchen?! 

i’ve been reading interior design blogs, and buying interior design books (shoutout to my two faves, erin gates and emily henderson!) for YEARS, now. like, almost a decade. and if there’s anything i’ve learned from them, anything can be trendy, and any trend can be overdone. but not everything can be a classic. and a classic, well, it never goes out of style.

today, riding the 6 train uptown, we stopped at 23rd street, and i meandered toward the exit, eying the walls in front of me. they were, of course, my beloved white subway tile. and as i looked at them, i thought to myself, screw you, food52.* subway tile is a CLASSIC. it CAN’T ever be over!

and then i went back to pinteresting the hell out of subway tiled kitchens. here are a few i’m using as inspiration for my own.


this kitchen belongs to michelle adams, formerly of domino. adams recently bought and renovated an adorable little house in michigan (you can follow along on her instagram account). her kitchen is the perfect example of classic done right: hardwood floors, stainless steel appliances, marble counters, white cabinets, and white subway tile backsplash.


another look at adams’ kitchen. i’d like to do some open shelving, but i think i’ll go natural wood instead of white to warm things up a bit.


you know, like this.


or this.


or this (sans children, for now, of course).


this pantry gives me heart palpitations (the good kind).


white grout or black grout? HELP ME DECIDE, tile gods.


this looks more like light gray grout. a compromise! i love everything about this, and i already have mostly white dishes, so i could make this happen.


hiii, farmhouse sink. i love you. those brass accents ain’t too shabby either.


small but mighty. i will thankfully have a good deal more space than this –  but it’s proof that if i need to go budget and try butcher block countertops, it won’t be the end of the world.


can you imagine coming home to this beauty every night? who wants to pack me into a suitcase and take me to morocco so i can bring home ALL THE AMAZING RUGS?!

so. what say you? subway tiles: yay or nay?

*food52, i actually adore you, and respect your opinion greatly.



i’ve been watching HGTV for about 15 years now, and of all the things it’s taught me, the most important one is this: when you look at a home, you can’t fixate on the little things (paint, tile, lighting, furniture). you have to look at “the bones” of the place; ie, the moldings, the windows, the ceiling heights, the square footage. bones, for the most part, can’t be changed. but the little things can.

i can’t count how many times i’ve seen a woman on house hunters throw up her hands in disgust at a pink tiled bathroom, squealing, “ew. THIS TILE! this is SO NOT US.” at which point, the camera zooms in on the aforementioned pink tile, demonstrating to us viewers just how horrifyingly ugly it is.

here’s the thing, folks: pink tile is FIXABLE. as are puke green walls, or a bathtub so covered in rust that you can’t even tell it’s white.

which is what i had to tell myself the first time i walked into the grand apartment.

deep breaths. this is ugly, but it is fixable.

my broker, knowing my pinterest-heavy heart, had warned me that what i was about to see wasn’t going to be pretty.

“it needs a lot of work,” he said, “but it has potential.”

(this is a thing that brokers say to you when they want you to look past the fact that the electrical hasn’t been updated since 1936 and that the refrigerator has a sign on it that reads, “DO NOT OPEN. THIS MUST STAY CLOSED.”)

i first saw the grand apartment on a cold and windy night after work, and let me tell you, it is not smart to see a place that needs a gut renovation when it’s pitch black outside. see, darkness makes everything ugly look even uglier. daylight, by contrast, helps to smooth the rough edges; sunshine adds a sheen to even the worst 1970s linoleum.

i have to be honest, potential isn’t what i saw when i first walked in. i saw ugly, dated, and worst of all, SO dirty (a type A/OCD girl’s biggest fear). the cracks in the ceilings made them look like they could cave in at any moment. the only room with a true door was the bathroom, and the tile in there was gross enough to give me serious nightmares. the bedroom had no closet, the only lighting in the apartment came in the form of bulbs that dangled from the ceiling and could be turned on by yanking a piece of string, and the kitchen cabinets were straight out of an early 1900s tenement museum.

i tried to see the apartment like chip and joanna gaines would see it. i tried to channel the property brothers. but in my heart of hearts, all i felt was disappointment. disappointment that this ‘amazing lower east side 1BR’ was sort of a bust. disappointment that it would truly require a gut renovation. disappointment that the renovation would probably be out of my budget.

so i took a weekend and slept on it. and what do you know? as soon as my head hit the pillow, my brain turned into a pinterest EXPLOSION. my inner monologue was all, subway tile crystal doorknobs crown moulding tin ceilings and omg what about a farm sink i’ll need a lot of cabinetry and i wonder if i need a new kitchen aid mixer can i afford a smeg fridge how many burners do i need on the stove can i tear down the linen closet to open up the kitchen and create a breakfast bar how many types of penny tile are there how much does a clawfoot tub cost?

clearly, though my rational self was worried, deep down, i knew: just like my broker had said, this place had potential.

so i went back to see it again on a sunny day, and here is what i saw:

grandapt_before_entryway2 copy

standing in the living room, looking towards the entryway. that’s shitty linoleum you see beneath eric’s feet, but underneath it is relatively well-preserved hardwood from the 1930s, when this building was built. neat, right? if you look directly behind eric, you’ll see an ollllldy mc olderstein built in cabinet and drawer situation. there’s even a cutting board that pulls out of it! i don’t think i’ll be saving any of it, but it’s neat to think about all of the families that lived here over the years and stored their non-perishables on those shelves.

grandapt_before_entryway1 copy

standing in the living room looking at the entryway. when i first saw this archway, i was all, ‘awww, charm!’ except then my broker pointed out that it was fake, and we could bust it open to make a semi open-concept living/eating area. it’s hard to see in these photos, but i’m hoping to open the wall up to the right to add a breakfast bar, and maybe transform the space to see above into a giant (i use that term lightly, it’s manhattan.) hallway closet.


the living room, as seen straight on from the entryway. it’s not enormous, but it’s workable, and it gets great light. i’m thinking i’ll refinish the floors in a darker, ebony-like stain (all the better to hide the imperfections) – but they’re original hardwoods, which makes my heart happy.

grandapt_before_LR3 copy

the living room, as seen from the entryway, a little bit to the right. the floors can be restored, and i haven’t decided what to do with that odd trim. probably tear it down and add crown moulding on both the ceiling and the floor. as you can see, i’ve got space for a couch along that long wall, and hopefully, a little dining area at the right. the TV would go opposite the couch, and i might be able to squeeze a little extra seating along the windows. i wish i had the budget for a brand new sectional, but mama needs new electrical, so, current couch it is.


the bedroom, which isn’t nearly as dark as it looks here. the unit is a corner apartment, which means it gets lots of eastern light. the paint on the walls in here (okay, on all the walls) is PEEL CITY, PARTY OF THREE. but my contractor has assured me we can remedy it by thinning, scraping, and removing all of the years and years of bad paint and replacing it with smooth, beautiful, any-color-i-choose paint. isn’t it nice that the previous owners left a dorm light for me? #blessed.

grandapt_before_kitchen1 copy

the kitchen is definitely tied with the bathroom for “the worst room in the place.” that fridge literally has a sign on it that cautions you NOT TO OPEN IT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES. i have to wonder: are there body parts in there? am i about to be on an episode of SVU? regardless, it ain’t pretty. the stove is super old, but in a cute country kitchen type of way. i don’t think it’s safe to use; otherwise, i’d try and save it. some of the other units i saw online in this building had amazing giant farmhouse-style sinks in place. it looks like this kitchen had an “update” in the seventies and got that fugly looking thing you see at right. if anyone knows of anywhere to get a farmhouse sink (used!) in the NY metro area, HIT A SISTER UP.


the bathroom is BAD. but it’s workable. it has space for a toilet, a pedestal sink, and a tub (clawfoot gods, can you hear me?). and there’s a window! the square footage in here is pretty tiny, so if i can afford it, this will be the one place where i splurge on tile. nothing like some marble hexagon business all up in your footsies, amiright? more than likely, i’ll end up with inexpensive, but classic: subway tile all around the tub, penny tile on the floor (white with black grout, maybe a black border), a pedestal or mounted sink, and a new toilet. just close your eyes and imagine a black clawfoot tub in here…ahhh, bliss.


standing in the bedroom, eyeing the linen closet (which will likely be knocked out to open up the kitchen) and the little bathroom. how about that medicine cabinet, folks? rough, right? but again, you can see that in its heyday, this little bathroom served its purpose. cleared out and freshened up, it’ll be a little beauty.

grandapt_before_moulding copy

taking a look at the doorframe between the back hallway and the living room. it appears all of the doors in the apartment beyond the bathroom door were removed and discarded (whatever happened to privacy?), but you can see that the moulding was, at one point, really beautiful. it’s simple, but i’ll take simple over my 1950s BORING doors any day. this too may be going away to open up the kitchen…but i’ve got the same thing around the bathroom and bedroom doors, so it will get preserved someway, somehow.

SO. that’s the before. god, i LOVE a good makeover. let’s just hope that my “after” is so freaking spectacular that someone puts their hands over my eyes before i walk through the front door and says, “SARAH, ARE YOU READY TO SEE YOUR NEW HOUSE?!” i can’t wait to squeal with delight at my so fresh and so clean clean NEW HOME.


when i first moved to new york eight years ago, i lived in a teeny tiny shoebox of an apartment that i paid way too much for, along with two friends. we found our humble abode in a single day of apartment hunting, squeezing the search into our last week of senior year at skidmore. we’d heard the east village was cool, so when our broker found us a “pre-war 3BR with exposed brick” we jumped at the chance to take it.

nevermind that the brick was a dingy, disgusting, not-at-all-cute dark brown, as were the wood cabinets in our “kitchen” (more like a single wall with some cabinets on it). nevermind that the bathrooms were tiny, and that only one person could fit down the hallway at once. nevermind that we barely had room for a futon couch, let alone anywhere to eat.

my bedroom had a single window, but the fact that it faced a neighboring building’s exterior pretty much negated its purpose. guessing at the weather each morning was futile; my view looked the same on sunny days and rainy ones. the best thing i got outside the window was the constant cooing of pigeons singing me to sleep while they shit on their side of the pane.

for this palace, i paid $1333 a month. god bless new york, right?

what’s funny is that during this, our first year in the city, we didn’t care that we lived in a shoebox. it mattered not that we could barely open the futon all the way – friends slept on it anyway. we were young and free and living in the greatest city in the world. what did i care if the only walking space i had in my bedroom was a one foot radius that circled my bed?

fast forward to now. i just turned 30, and somehow, i still haven’t left new york. after that first year, during which i couldn’t find a single person to hire me to write and during which i was pretty sure i’d have to move home and tell everyone i’d failed, that i couldn’t hack it, i told myself, just one more year. give it another year.

so i did. and then i gave it another, and another, and soon, i’d been here 5 years. five whole years. longer than i’d lived anywhere besides my childhood home. somewhere along the way, i had a staggering realization: the shy small town girl who could barely order chinese food, let alone talk to strangers–she’d become a new yorker. a fast-talking, fast-walking, subway-navigating new yorker.

i ordered mexican food to my door at 2am just because i could. i stayed out too late and walked home alone along avenue c too many times to count. i had one night stands and no night stands and way too many cranberry vodkas. i cried on the subway. i cried on the bus. i cried in the middle of the sidewalk outside the CVS on 23rd street when a homeless man called me fat.

i got a job. i lost that job. i got another, and left it. i got another after that.

i lost friends. i made new ones. i tried new things and failed miserably at them. i tried new things, and succeeded.

one day, i woke up, and just like that, i didn’t just live here, i had made a life for myself here. and it occurred to me that i wasn’t going anywhere.

what’s a girl who isn’t leaving new york to do?

buy herself a teeny tiny little piece of the apple, that’s what.

so that’s just what i did. i bought myself a little apartment on the lower east side, a place where my people, the jews, have lived since they came to this country. and now, i have to renovate it.

i intend to document every step of this process, and in doing so, get back to my one true love: writing just for the sake of putting words on paper (well, internet paper, but you get the gist).

i hope you’ll follow along. welcome to the grand apartment.