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renovation in historical house

What To Know Before Renovating An Apartment In A Historical Building In Kyiv

When it comes to historical buildings in downtown Kyiv, there is a diversity of opinion with regard to their quality and value. Some value investors see the massive value that can be unlocked with some capital investment, while others think that only a deranged romantic would bother working with such dilapidated buildings because the risks far outweigh the benefits. Founder and CEO of Vestor.Estate shares some of his team’s vast experience in helping to fully renovate over 30 properties in historical buildings in the center of historical Kyiv.

TSAR VS STALIN

While there are many, many old buildings in the center of Kyiv, the construction quality and expected life spans vary greatly and most can be considered right away to not be of investment grade. The ones that should be excluded from consideration for significant capital investment, if we are talking about individual apartments, is almost anything that was built from the end of the 1950s through the end of the 1990s. If the building was reconstructed completely somehow, with new lifts and other structural work completed, then this could be interesting, but these rare examples are beyond the scope of this post.

So the two main types of buildings we recommend focusing on are Tsarist (Pre-revolutionary) and solid Stalin-era buildings, of which some were built before WWII and some after. In most cases these properties will need complete renovations, which includes replacing old sewage and water lines, updating the whole electrical system, installing new radiators and heating pipes, and in some cases strengthening the floor beams both above and below the property. None of these things are beyond the capabilities of competent builders to repair, but understanding what needs to be fixed or replaced before you buy is essential to ensuring that your investment makes sense from a return point of view while avoiding a “money pit” type of situation where you encounter unexpected problem after problem.

old house kyiv
old green house

Besides understanding what you can fix and what the approximate cost will be, it is equally important to understand what cannot be realistically fixed by you alone. Structural issues in the building, like large cracks in the exterior walls or foundation, often have a massive collective action problem or require permissions and support from outside parties that effectively render any solution unfeasible, which could decrease the return on your investment by half or more. Below we will share some stories and advice about how to deal with the most common issues that you will come across while renovating historical buildings.

NEW MEETS OLD

One of the major issues you will encounter is old water and sewer lines, which are closely and physically connected to your neighbors’. Even if you have planned to change them and accounted for the cost, you might find that your neighbors directly above you have not changed theirs in several decades. This means that your soon-to-be newly-renovated apartment will have the threat of leaky sewer and water pipes overhead for years to come because the neighbors above do not quite have the funds to make such upgrades. In these cases, we suggest biting the bullet to protect your investment, while also creating some neighborly goodwill. You should offer the neighbors above to change or repair their pipes just enough to eliminate the looming threat. Many owners balk at spending capital on improving someone else’s property, but given the reality of the situation, it will be money well spent and likely not have much of an impact on your budget, compared to what you risk losing if your apartment is flooded in the future.

PRO TIP :   Install a small water pump to improve the water pressure in the apartment.

Like the water and sewer pipes, the heating pipes also tend to need replacement, and this can be an opportunity for you to improve the flow of heat to your apartment while also collecting some more of that neighborly goodwill. During one renovation, we found out that a section of the heating pipe that brought the heat to the apartment was located in an unheated attic space, which meant a lot of heat loss for everyone in the building, who split the heating bill for the building among themselves. For the very little marginal cost, the owner was willing to take the heating pipe from outside into his apartment, where it would be properly insulated. This goodwill came in handy when the whole building lost heat for 6 hours in January as the heating pipes in the apartment were switched from the old to the new system.

When it comes to heating and cooling, you should also think ahead to avoid making a mistake that will not be easily fixed later on. For example, if it’s a mild winter during construction, don’t think that you can get away with smaller or few radiators, and don’t think to skip insulation or go cheap on single-pane windows. Whatever the recent trends, Kyiv is a winter city that can and reach deep zero temperatures, so make heating plans accordingly.

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EMPTY ATTIC SPACE IS EXPENSIVE REAL ESTATE FOR PIGEONS 

One of the most common requests we get is the desire to buy a top floor apartment and to privatize the attic space above. In most cases, these attics are covered by flimsy roofs that leak, and in one case a couple of years ago flew off the building in a huge chunk that crushed a parked car below. The dream of many owners is to take over this “extra” space and make a nice duplex or otherwise add this space to their apartment, which in theory means creating real estate at a much lower cost than purchasing it. From a construction point of view, this is not difficult and you should have no problem finding a team of builders ready to bring your dream into reality.

bright attic space

However, you should be very careful when pursuing such a project, and my advice to buyers is to never buy the last floor apartment if the privatization of the attic space is needed for the project to make sense. There are many potential pitfalls for owners who attempt to privatize this space, but the two main ones are dealing with city bureaucracy and needing the approval of all neighbors in the building to do so. The complications of dealing with the city are, I think, self-explanatory, but when it comes to dealing with neighbors this can be just as complicated if not more so. It only takes one scared or stubborn person to spoil all your plans. And even if you attempt to do some horse-trading by offering to repair the entrance, replace the entrance door, improve the lift, etc, it is not a guarantee that all the neighbors will see this as fair trade and they might obstruct you for reasons you will never understand. 

PAY IT FORWARD 

One lesson we have learned is that a little bit of money can go a long way towards improving the entrance and common areas of these historical buildings. If you are investing $50,000, or $100,000, or even more into the renovation of an apartment, we strongly advise you to put $500-1000 into the entrance itself. The first impression is a lasting impression, so whether you are hoping to rent out your property to good tenants or live there yourself, having a cleaner, brighter, freshly-painted entrance will be crucial, and more importantly, it will more closely match the shiny new apartment you are finishing. Many owners are hesitant to make such an investment, considering that the cost should be shared by everyone in the building, but given the wealth disparities among neighbors these days, it is better to just consider it an investment in your own property that others get to enjoy at no extra cost to you.

MANAGING RISKS

This post could easily be 10 times longer, but consider this an introduction to the basics of renovating in charming older buildings in the center of Kyiv. In general, we suggest being cautious, but if you find a competent team of workers with a good track record, then you should not fear the work. The center of Kyiv has been neglected for far too long, and it will take the individual efforts of many different owners to revitalize this charming and historic European capital.

Buying and renovating an apartment in Kyiv city’s historic building can be a very exciting and rewarding experience, and after reading our article, we hope you are more well-versed and are able to identify some of the pitfalls on the road to owning a piece of history in ancient Kyiv. 

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