Lofty Ambitions

Taking a page from Flashdance

Brick walls.  Concrete columns.  Exposed ductwork. You were into industrial chic way before you even knew there was a term for it. You’ve fantasized about living in a former factory since watching an edited-for-television version of Flashdance while sitting in your mom’s lap. And nothing gives you more pleasure than witnessing a project materialize from idea to blueprint to the real thing.

You’re in good company. These days, risk takers all over the country are reviving urban neighborhoods by turning commercial buildings into residential properties.  Red Hook, Brooklyn. The Meatpacking District, Manhattan. SoMa, San Francisco. Wynwood, Miami. If you wanted, you could probably find a loft space in an old manufacturing building that has  been spiffed up with polished concrete floors and metal cage pendant lighting in the kitchen.

You’ve fantasized about living in a former factory since watching an edited-for-television version of Flashdance while sitting in your mom’s lap.

But you’re a visionary, less interested in the idea of purchasing a property someone else has converted than starting with a run-down old butter factory and making it your own. The question is, where do you begin, and what exactly does it take?

As with any type of real estate, every property has its particulars, but the following suggestions should get you started on the right track:

 Do your research

Look for commercial listings in areas that are in transition.  The likelihood of finding a space eligible for rezoning is much higher if the neighborhood has been targeted for revitalization. If you can find an unconverted space in a building that has already undergone the conversion process, you’re less likely to run into snags surrounding building violations.

 Consult the experts

You’ll want a broker who has knowledge of commercial and residential markets as well as a history of seeing properties through the whole conversion process. A land-use lawyer or an architect can help you interpret the zoning rules.  The architect will also help you understand what’s possible (and what’s not) in the particular property you’ve set your sights on.

 Embrace the strange

While it’s important to have an idea of what you want before you start your conversion project, it’s equally important to allow your vision to adapt to the space itself. You might not have originally planned for that cast iron column in the center of the bathroom, but even if getting rid of it is possible, it may be more headache than it’s worth.  And besides, it could be a great conversation starter. Part of the fun of a conversion like this is being the only person you know whose bathroom was once the churning room in an old butter factory.

 Prepare for the Unexpected

It’s important to note that financing might not be an option.  Commercial-to-residential conversion by a private citizen isn’t always a risk banks want to take.  And remember—once your chosen property is zoned for residential use, it may still need construction changes to meet code requirements for air, light, and ventilation. Along the way, you could also run into surprise asbestos, lead paint, or other cost-increasing delays. In order to maintain your sanity, it’s probably best to avoid putting  tight deadlines on the project.

In a nutshell, the task of converting a once-was to a now-is requires vision, adaptability, and patience galore.  And, of course, a contingency fund. If you have a checkmark by each item on this list of must-haves, then we’re guessing you’re the right girl for a job of this magnitude.  Just think: you could potentially save 20 percent or more than you might have with the purchase of a more traditional apartment. Plus, in the end, you’ll have a one-of-a-kind modern space that says you all over it. Oh, what a feeling.

Photography: Peter Cook/View/Corbis

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Elizabeth Salaam
Along with her work as Senior Contributing Writer for Girl's Guide, Elizabeth Salaam writes for the San Diego Reader. Her work has also been published in Elle Magazine. | Most inspired by: Contradictions. | Favorite room in my home: The Master suite. The windows have views for days! | Best design idea I may never do: Adorn my enclosed toilet room with library book wallpaper and a chandelier. | Will never: Bungee jump. | Have always been: Rebellious. | Dying to: Live in a Paris flat with herringbone wood floors.
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