Remodeling a Rental Unit in the City

After buying a building in Brooklyn, Tom Bencivengo turns a rental unit into an open, inviting one-bedroom apartment with smart storage solutions.


Photography by Charlotte Jenks Lewis, Styling by Jen Jafarzadeh L'Italien

Photography by Charlotte Jenks Lewis, Styling by Jen Jafarzadeh L'Italien

By: Jen Jafarzadeh L'Italien

With years of experience in real estate, Tom Bencivengo knew exactly what he was looking for when he purchased a multi-family apartment building in the hip Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. He wanted a space that was in need of repair.

The first unit to get a gut remodel was a one-bedroom apartment on the first floor of the building. While Tom had no trouble renting out this remodeled apartment, the original space was in bad shape. "Nothing was worth saving," he says.

The original layout of the apartment felt dark and cramped as a one-bedroom rental. "The space is very long and narrow with the windows on opposite ends, which made access to light an issue," says Tom. "The apartment was divided into three unnecessary rooms, so opening it up was the only way to go."

After removing the divider walls, Tom came up with the clever idea of using a custom glass sliding door to separate the bedroom from the living space, but filter in some of the light from the windows.





Urban Kitchen With Exposed Brick Wall

Urban Kitchen With Exposed Brick Wall



Tom completed the entire remodel of the rental unit for about $35,000. "This was my first renovation project, so there were a lot of things I missed budget-wise at first, and it was hard to anticipate costs on things like the bathroom," says Tom.

The biggest surprise from his first remodel may have been discovering everything costs more than you think "We also found dog bones in the wall — weird," says Tom. Another unexpected surprise was finding many of the floor joists were rotting and had to be replaced.

The Scope of the Remodel Project

As Tom put it, this apartment got "the works."

  • Expose the brick wall behind the old drywall
  • Gut the ceiling and walls
  • Add new insulation and drywall
  • Install new appliances
  • Remove the flooring down to the subfloor
  • Install new hardwood floor
  • Add new cabinets in kitchen
  • Install tilework and fixtures in bathroom

A Rustic, Industrial Rental Unit

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A New Start

With years of experience in real estate, Tom Bencivengo was after this multi-family apartment to transform. The first unit to get a gut remodel was this one-bedroom apartment on the first floor of the building.

Taking Down the Walls

Tom removed the two non-load-bearing dividers in the rental unit that originally boxed in the kitchen, living room and bedroom. "Everything stayed in its same spot, just without those silly divider walls," says Tom. He didn't find much that was worth saving when they started the remodel.

Bad Beginnings in the Bathroom

The bathroom was the biggest space-planning challenge for Tom. "The original bathroom was simply a toilet in a 3' x3' shower with a drain on the floor," says Tom.

Through the Sliding Glass

Tom custom-ordered the glass door that divides the living room from the bedroom. He had it installed so there was enough room for a reasonable-sized bedroom. "The glass door was simply a way to maintain the one-bedroom status of the apartment while introducing as much light and openness into the apartment as possible," says Tom. "It's a very utilitarian apartment given its tight size, so every inch counts!"

An Open Floor Plan

The living room flows into the kitchen and home office area. There used to be kitchen cabinets where the home office desk now sits.

Keep It Clean

The kitchen was completely gutted in the remodel. "I tried to keep things as bright as possible, so I used white cabinet faces," says Tom. "Just keep it modern, simple and clean was the plan."

Starter White

Tom had the entire rental unit painted an eggshell white. "I don't go too crazy with paint because people generally like to do their own thing when they move in," says Tom.

Bring in the Light

With the divider walls now gone, the living room fills with light from the kitchen windows. The original lighting in the apartment was adequate, so Tom simply updated the fixtures.

Where to Go Green

During the remodel, Tom found it was difficult to efficiently source green materials and rein in the cost. "I remember going to a couple of kitchen deconstruction places, and they were expensive," says Tom. "I came to terms that I didn't have the funds to afford reclaimed denim insulation, nor the time to find the perfect-sized stove on Craigslist for the apartment."

Energy Efficient Elements

Heating is provided to the rental unit via hydronic radiators through a tankless gas-fired boiler in the basement. The HVAC unit also makes hot water for the apartment on demand. It's very efficient. "There's no central air, but perhaps someday I'll get around to installing one," says Tom.

Rustic, Industrial Style

Tom had a good sense of the general apartment style that would attract people in the neighborhood. His tenant built this shelving unit from reclaimed wood and pipes. Tom designed the entire apartment with a similar modern industrial style to fit in with the creative, artsy vibe of the neighborhood.

Sealing the Space

Tom had energy efficient windows installed in the bedroom, which makes a difference in the utility bill. The floors are hardwood.

Salvaged Brick Walls

One element that was worth saving was the exposed brick wall that was hidden behind plaster when Tom purchased the building. The warm red brick infuses character into the space and captures the quintessential Brooklyn charm of the apartment.

An Open Closet

The original apartment had closets that were torn out during the remodel. This built-in closet was part of the remodel project. "I would have liked to have made more closet space in hindsight, but it's just hard in such a tight space," says Tom. His current tenant painted the closet black.

Sliding Doors

The custom glass sliding doors create a sense of privacy for the bedroom and make the apartment marketable as a true one-bedroom. Unlike a divider wall, the translucent glass lets light into the living space.

The Pricey Porcelain Toilet

The wall-mounted toilet looks sleek and is a true space-saver. The tank and the flush mechanism are hidden behind the wall, so all you see is the toilet bowl. But the fancy toilet came with a hefty price tag. "I'll never spend that much on a toilet again," says Tom.

Expanding the Bathroom

The bathroom was the toughest challenge in this remodel, since it was so small. The shower, sink, toilet and tile are all new. "The bathroom simply had to be enlarged — there was no other option," says Tom. "So I built it out into the apartment by a couple feet so at least one person could fit in there."

Shelf Storage

Tom had shelving built into the bathroom to double as a medicine cabinet and linen closet, since the sink space was too small to install a vanity. The shelves act as a great storage solution and they don't take up space in the teeny bathroom.

Tom used as many eco-minded materials as possible that fit into his budget. The apartment building is now certified Energy Smart. The building is weatherized via the DHCR's Weatherization Assistance Program.

Eco-Friendly Elements

  • Green foam and cellulose insulation
  • New windows throughout for energy efficiency
  • New tankless heat/hot water boiler
  • Water-saving toilet and showerhead
  • Roof and rainwater collection system for the building

Rather than remodel room-by-room, Tom and his crew worked on the whole apartment at once, since the space is so small. "It's quicker and cheaper that way rather than breaking it down by room," says Tom. "I like to think of these projects more in layers, rather than stages. Peel back the old layers and install the new stuff in reverse order."

Tom's decision to remove the divider walls and install a glass sliding door was his best remodeling decision for this tiny first-floor apartment. The glass divider door creates privacy and a true separation of bedroom and living space, which allows him to market the unit as a one-bedroom rental, as opposed to a studio, and get more rent for the space.

The remodel transformed the unit from a dark railroad layout to a light-filled, open apartment. And first impressions are everything in the rental world.

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