Penthouse Plunge: Renovation Always Brings Surprises And Their Costs

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Part of my new $10,000 worth of sprinkler changes

It’s time to get real on renovation. You will spend more than you budget. I think the only way I’d come in under budget on any renovation were if I died in the middle. That’s partly down to the fact that I’m a “to the studs” renovator. Once the sheetrock comes off, there are surprises.

Moving from an un-sprinklered Athena to the sprinklered Claridge of my Penthouse Plunge, I didn’t consider that my renovation plans would require relocating and adding more sprinklers. And I certainly didn’t think I’d be spending $10,000 to do it. But that’s what safety and regulation sometimes cost.

Extremely Complicated Electrical

You wouldn’t think electrical work would be too difficult in a fairly modern building, but that too was a surprise. The 1995 renovation that joined the two penthouses together included a lighting designer and accompanying electrician who were seemingly paid by the inch for wire. Ceiling cans were attached to switches all over the place. I’d estimate it took three electricians two solid weeks to simplify the wiring in the place. I’m not kidding, when I opened a ceiling, it was a spider’s web of wires – everywhere. And I swear that somehow, time makes the tangle worse because I can’t imagine that’s how an electrician left it 25 years ago.

It wasn’t this bad, but it felt like it some days

And then there was the neon. Back in 1995, a strip of neon was installed in the curtain pocket surrounding the living room windows. Over time, parts had broken and so it made sense to uninstall it. The neon tube itself was relatively straight-forward, but the bevy of transformers was an added wrinkle. On the upside, the transformer cavities are the perfect location for placing power to run motorized shades.

Uneven Ceilings Everywhere

Speaking of ceilings, apparently workers in 1995 didn’t really care about uniformity. No two spaces had the same height ceilings. Sure, there were the expected lower ceilings in the bathrooms and hallways (where plumbing and HVAC run). But what I didn’t expect was that when removing a wall, the two rooms that supposedly had the same ceiling height didn’t. Invariably, one was an inch or two off from another – in one case it was a four-inch difference!  The amount of ceiling leveling was as shocking the bills. And then there were knock-on effects where recessed ceiling lights, HVAC ducts, and those darn sprinklers had to be lowered.

Small leak meant stripping out the powder room

Other things you see when walls and ceilings are opened are leaks. All high-rises have leaks and water is the bane of every high-rise. On the upside, many of them were the responsibility of Claridge maintenance to fix. But one leak happened early on in the powder room when a good leak sprung from above. The resulting damage required stripping out the drywall for the whole room because of the ceiling and corner coving.  This had a knock-on effect in tile because the now-square room was larger than when it had deeply-rounded corners.

Newly freed toilet drain

Plumbing Fixes Can Be Pricey

In other plumbing news, the 1995 renovation had converted a guest bathroom into a closet and buried the toilet and shower drains. Being able to restore the bathroom was critical to the unit’s resale. Since I had no way of knowing if the drains were still intact below the concrete, I sought permission from the resident below to open their bathroom ceiling to reconnect the drains from below if needed. They reluctantly agreed (it’s a big ask). Without that agreement, I wouldn’t have purchased the unit because a 2,770-square-foot penthouse with 1.5 baths isn’t salable.

On a happy note, my team recently made it to that bathroom and chipped away at the concrete patch in the floor. The drains were there and capped, making the bathroom’s restoration a whole lot easier.

You see, in a high-rise, plumbing stacks run from penthouse to pavement. Water supply lines and sink drains come directly out of the wall (easy-peasy). But bathtub, shower and toilet drains are affixed to the floor with the drains running down through the floor and across to the main wall stack (in the unit below’s ceiling). Moving a floor drain is typically prohibited or very, very difficult.

Why these pipes turned is unknown (and unneeded)

Along with the electricians, the plumbers seemed to have been paid by the inch of copper pipe they used. What should have been hot/cold supply lines running straight up/down through the unit, instead came down from the ceiling, turned 14-inches right, continued straight to the floor until a foot above the floor they turned back 14-inches to continue through the floor. Why was there a 14-inch offset? Why did the offset take the pipes away from a structural column that would have masked them? Who the heck knows?

But it was clearly the same guys who diddled the master shower. When you have hot/cold lines on one side of a shower/bathtub and want to move them to the opposite wall, common sense tells you to take the shortest path (typically up and over). Not these guys. They took the lines down to the floor and then curved them around the floor (like a girdle) to the other side. This resulted in a huge step to get into the shower.

Service That Makes You Want to Cut The Cord

And finally, there’s the idiocy of Spectrum Cable. I called to get connected and was told they had no record of The Claridge being over 17-stories – a building built in 1984. I had to get the building manager to call Spectrum and certify that the building was, and always had been, 19-stories. Meanwhile, there were existing cable drops in almost every room.

In addition to getting connected, I needed two of the drops moved. Once my floor miraculously appeared, they sent a technician. Upon entering the apartment, he said: “We don’t do that.” Before leaving, he did check the telephone closet and lo and behold, there was Spectrum equipment already there.

To review, both units had extensive cable wiring. The telephone closet located five-feet outside my door had cable TV equipment already installed. And yet, Spectrum didn’t know the top two floors of The Claridge even existed (for the past 35 years) and they sent a guy to do a job they didn’t do.

Of all the surprises I’ve encountered during this renovation, I have to say Spectrum service was the least surprising overall.

Remember:  Have a story to tell or a marriage proposal to make?  Shoot me an email Be sure to look for me on Facebook and Twitter. You won’t find me, but you’re welcome to look.  


Jon Anderson

Jon Anderson is's condo/HOA and developer columnist, but also covers second home trends on An award-winning columnist, Jon has earned silver and bronze awards for his columns from the National Association of Real Estate Editors in both 2016, 2017 and 2018. When he isn't in Hawaii, Jon enjoys life in the sky in Dallas.

Reader Interactions


  1. Dr. Timothy B. Jones says

    The realities of high-rise renovation. You REALLY got lucky on the bathroom sewer lines! Renovating is fun but not without headache. I appreciate the realistic (good, bad and ugly) characterizations your series has maintained! Your experiences are so valuable to anyone thinking about any high-rise plunge!

  2. Will says

    I work in apartment leasing and we had a similar problem where even though a few months before they had installed the drops a new move-in reported back that Spectrum insisted the building didn’t exist yet. It took weeks of back and forth of Spectrum pointing fingers at the building management. Keep in mind we already had residents in the property with working Spectrum accounts but they still argued we didn’t exist yet. The resident eventually went with AT&T who had assigned us a rep who took care of everything and had actually visited the property many times before. That rep had service up and running within a day…

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