Whether you’ve long been smitten by the romantic idea of buying and renovating an apartment in an historic building, or if you’re a steely-eyed value investor who anticipates an attractive return on such a purchase, buying into one of Kyiv’s Tsarist (pre-1917) buildings can present special challenges for your renovation project. This article provides advice on what you should know before buying and renovating an apartment in one of Kyiv’s older buildings, including how to choose an apartment, things to watch out for, how to estimate the scope of renovating a particular apartment, and specific factors that will affect your renovation budget.
When it comes to Tsarist buildings in Kyiv, you’ll find two types on offer - those that were partially reconstructed after WWII and those that were not. Apartments in non-reconstructed buildings will have old water and sewage lines, old heating systems, no ventilation, and floors with the original wooden floorboards. Apartments in partially reconstructed buildings will have concrete floors, partially updated heating, water and sewage systems, and no mechanical ventilation systems. Early in your property search, you should find out which type of Tsarist building you’re looking at. This way, you will have a better idea of the scope and cost of renovating your apartment.
If you are buying an apartment with old pipes, then your goal should be to go as deep and as far as possible in replacing the vertical “in” and “out” pipes for water, sewage and heating. You may also want to install a small water pump to improve the water pressure. Before proceeding with these upgrades, you will want to find out whether your neighbors have changed the pipes in their apartments. When replacing wooden floorboards with steel or concrete, this should be coordinated with your neighbors directly below your apartment. If you have a larger budget and are considering buying an apartment in one of Kyiv’s older buildings, then you could try to buy two apartments one above of the other in order to create a duplex and add modernized flooring complete with ventilation systems under one set of floors.
Modernizing heating and cooling systems in Kyiv’s older buildings can entail special challenges and restrictions that should be borne in mind. Your apartment will be connected to the city’s central heating system and you cannot install a meter to monitor your usage. This is because there isn’t a single entry point for the heating into your apartment. Instead, each of your radiators will be connected by a separate vertical pipe. You may want to consider augmenting the heating system to give you more climate control and lessen your dependence on Kyiv’s central heating system by adding insulation and installing electric heating. Prior to installing an electric heating system, you will need to find out the load capacity of the electricity in your building, which could be a limitation if it is an older building that has not been renovated. Independent gas boilers can be another option for heating, but they aren’t as safe as electric heating and utilities pricing for gas is on the rise. If you have bought an apartment in an historic building, then you cannot install an air conditioning unit on the building’s façade. You will need to mount an A/C unit on a side of the building that does not face the street or on the roof of your building if you have access to it.
Top floor advantages
A top floor apartment in one of Kyiv’s older buildings is the most valuable for a few reasons. If you receive the consent of all your neighbors in the building (a process that is more art than science), you may “privatize” the attic space. This opens up several design possibilities such as adding a rooftop terrace, skylight windows to improve indoor lighting, or creating a mansard and/or split-level interior. Roof access would allow you to install an air conditioning unit and even the option of installing solar systems for heating and power. In planning such design projects, you should keep in mind that you are not allowed to radically reconstruct the roof in a way that alters the silhouette of the building. You should also make extra space in your renovation budget to modernize the roof itself to protect your investment.
While it may be a bit shocking to readers from Western Europe and North America, property owners in Kyiv generally have a free hand when renovating apartment interiors in Kyiv’s older buildings. Owners may not remove load-bearing walls, and they must preserve the color and the shape of the exterior of their windows. However, there are no requirements to retain interior design elements such as ornate plasterwork of apartments designated as “historical monument” buildings. Most rules on preservation of these buildings are limited to their exterior and common areas. Of course, many owners choose to buy into such buildings for their character and diversity, which includes a building’s location and facade as well as the original interior accents of their apartment, but they are not obligated to undertake an expensive restoration of these historic interiors.
While investor risks for buyers of individual apartments in Kyiv can sometimes be overblown, buyers should be cautious when they find apartments for sale in older buildings that seem too cheap to true. There have been cases where owners of neglected buildings have used dubious means to get a building condemned, evict its residents, demolish the building, and replace it with a new, larger and less aesthetically pleasing building to take advantage of an older building’s prime downtown location. One good way for buyers to screen out risky buildings is to check that the local authorities are performing timely and adequate maintenance.
With special thanks to Kyiv architect Svetislav Grbich for his expert contribution to this article.