Let’s say you bought an apartment in a Tsarist or Stalinka building in Kyiv, or perhaps an Austro-Hungarian-era apartment in Lviv. You did your technical due diligence of the building beforehand and, based on research (or gut instinct), you believe that your investment will benefit from future gentrification of the neighborhood. Now comes the fun part - renovating your antique apartment. This will entail not only financial investment, but also significant investments of your time, emotions and nerves. It will pay dividends if you know what to expect.
Working with designers and architects
If you decide to work with a local architect and designer, make sure that you convey your vision to them and check-in frequently to confirm that you understand each other, especially early in the process. Many Ukrainian architects and designers seem to have an affinity for putting in curves instead of straight lines (which would be more consistent with the style of older buildings in Kyiv and Lviv). Assembling a “mood board” can be a great way to share your vision with your designer and architect. This way, they will have a mounted collage that will serve as a reminder of the visual effect you are trying to achieve.
Finding the right specialists
Much like the rest of Ukraine’s real estate services sector, the home design and renovation industry is incredibly fragmented. In big cities like Kyiv it’s possible to find foreign-owned and operated firms that will do turn-key renovations, but you can expect to pay a high price for such services. Local companies vary widely in quality. Many companies can do more than one task but few do everything well. Connections between different workers do exist - your electrician might know a good painter - but it is not like the US, where an argument with one contractor puts you on a blacklist with all of the contractors in your area. Ukraine is a long way from having professional guilds, associations, and unions for tradesmen.
Finding architects, designers, and contractors is something that your real estate agent, lawyer, or notary can often help you with. For expats (and those who understand English), Facebook groups, online forums, and expat clubs can also be good sources for recommendations. If your budget won’t allow you to use a turn-key design and building firm, then be prepared to carefully vet and monitor your contractor and laborers much more than you would in Western countries. While it might sound pessimistic, you will want to check that workers know the basics. Laborers are often just people picked up at the train station. This can mean that the man tearing down your plaster might not really understand that he is supposed to leave the cornices up.
British expat Ashley found a local contractor for his Lviv renovation project by word of mouth. He was fortunate that the man he hired worked with an architect and a team of builders. The contractor was able to deal with obtaining local permits, saving the owner considerable hassle. Ashley was impressed by the craftsmanship of the workers, who were able to replicate the original woodwork around the Austro-Hungarian-era doorframes and do an excellent job with the plumbing and flooring. The keys to this success were providing clear instructions to the workers, having a shared vision of the renovation among the whole team, and being hands-on and available every day after the renovation moved from the design stage to the gutting and rebuilding stages. If left to their own devices, builders may take the easy option (and often the cheaper option). When it came to sourcing materials for his renovation, Ashley found that it was best not to delegate everything to the local contractor. This way, you can avoid any mark-ups or cutting corners.
Building permits and utility connections
In Ukraine, you don’t need a building permit to start renovating your apartment if you don’t intend to change the planning (“planirovka”) by removing or moving walls, or somehow changing the overall layout. Otherwise, you will need to submit your plans and wait for approval. In Kyiv, the relevant body is the Kyiv City Bureau of Technical Inventory (BTI). If you do your renovation without approval from the BTI, then you could face hefty fines and/or problems when you sell the apartment. When dealing with BTI and similar authorities, you should prepare yourself well beforehand and demonstrate maximum awareness of the legal and construction aspects during meetings. Owners who hint at bribes for “expediting issues” can often create more headaches for themselves. You should budget for up to two months to receive approval from BTI, provided your renovation will not involve any work on your building’s facade or significant reconstruction within the building outside your apartment. In such cases, much more time will be required.
For standard utility hookups, contact your utilities service center with an application and explain which services you require. The steps for standard connections are usually described on their websites. Expect the process to take a few weeks. Non-standard requests can often take several months and will require full understanding of the issue and your dogged persistence to force the local utilities to take action.
Fortune favors the romantic
Ashley in Lviv believes that a certain naiveté for first-time owners of apartments in historical buildings can be a prerequisite. “Restoring an apartment in an older building gives you the chance to live in luxury. But you need to love the architecture because there will be headaches and surprises. Apartments in these buildings can have an unpredictable cost of ownership. But for me the process has been well worth it.”
Special thanks to James Hydzik and Anna Kryvenko in Kyiv and Ashley in Lviv for their contributions to this article.