I'd like to renovate a 3 family rental property but don't know which floor is best to start on. The house was built in 1896. The electrical was recently updated prior to purchasing it in 2008. The kitchens and bathrooms are in dire need and this is the area where I am not sure if it is better to do the 3rd floor or the 1st floor first if I need to replace plumbing.

I also can't have all 3 apts vacant at the same time. The 1st floor is leaving Jan 1st 2012 but paying until end feb due to breaking her lease 3 months early (may 2012) so I have 2 free months to start on the first floor.
Of course back then, they put all the bathrooms under neath stair wells. The 2nd floor bathroom is the least attractive since it is so small and the sloped ceiling. The 1st is then next worst and the 3rd floor bathroom is the most modern/attractive since it is not under a staircase.

What are some things to consider? If I started on the first floor how do can I prepare so that when I am ready to refurbish the 2nd (and 3rd) floor bathroom(s) I can do it without ripping into the 1 st floor? The 2nd floor is not vacant.

  • I can't really answer the question directly, but I can give some advice. I would install access panels, like what you see in some houses behind the shower. Normally, that allows access to the bath plumbing in case there is a leak or a valve needs to be replaced. In this case, you could add a panel in the wet-wall that could allow you to replace pipes to the other floors. It might need to be larger than your typical panel, though.
    – user4302
    Dec 28, 2011 at 4:51

5 Answers 5


I don't think there's a good answer to this because plumbing needs a full stack, from the drain in the ground, to the vent in the roof. When you move utilities from one location to another, if you haven't changed the room above, you're stuck with lines on both new and old locations in the floors you've renovated until you're done with the renovation. And if you try to move utilities without first renovating the rooms below, you either have to open the rooms up below or run connections from the new back to the old location. In the end, I fear that you're going to spend more money trying to do it one part at a time rather than saving up until later and doing it all at once.

To partially answer your question, when we are building a new home, we construct from the ground up, for structure, and it's also the source of utility lines so they go the same way. When we finish the build, we go from the top down. This way we aren't tracking dirt over finished carpeting and scratching up freshly painted walls.


Speaking as a multiple multi-unit landlord myself.

If you have to update the internal infrastucture, then close the whole building, work bottom up on the infrastructure, then top down on the finish work so you can rent out the quieter upper floors first.

If you can't do that cause you need cashflow you have bigger issues - you're over exposed. Consider selling.


As Karl Katzke said have a contingency plan for if things go wrong with the plumbing. Renters not having running water could become a very large issue very quickly.

Another thing to look out for is if you are pulling permits for the work, there may be requirements for you to bring various other things up to code in the process. With a replacement of a drain pipe I've had localities want everything hooked to the pipe brought up to code at the same time (sink, laundry) which could complicate your plans. If you end up just replacing fixtures you shouldn't run into anything that complicated.


I would probably start at the highest floor and work my way down if I didn't want to open up walls in the lower floors after they've been finished. That being said, assuming your replacing plaster and lath with drywall, it is just drywall. Cut out what you need, make a patch and mud over.

If theres a common wall across all 3 floors, you could use that wall as a main utility wall and run as much as you can though there. It may obviously not work well for plumbing, but for electrical, cable, network, etc... it may not be a bad idea.

In our house we started on the 1st floor with the kitchen and I know for a fact after remodeling a bedroom adjacent to the 2nd floor bathroom, that I'll need to open up a wall in the dining room on the 1st floor to redo the plumbing on the 2nd floor. I'm obviously not happy about this (the dining room is still plaster and lath, but the floors have been refinished) but so it is when the time comes and I'll deal with it appropriately.

If your remodeling for the better (not just to repair) I'd think most tenants would be fine with a little construction, as long as it gives them a better living space in the end.


It's probably best to work from the ground floor up. When you have the ceiling open above you, you'll be able to see a lot of the issues with the units above you, which will help to guide your renovations of those units.

The problem is that you will likely end up discovering problems that require the ceiling below it to be open. I would see if you can work out some arrangement with the tenants in the unit above to have some temporary plumbing outages while you fix things like rusted cast-iron pipes below the tub and toilet above, replacing plumbing supply lines that supply both the ground floor and the two floors above, and fixing issues from old leaks that you discover such as rotted or weakened wood or places where structure was cut to run plumbing. Trying to do this work from above generally requires gutting the bathroom AND tearing up the floor; doing this work from below is quite a bit less invasive.

As you're working from the ground floor up, you might consider installing shutoff valves that will let you isolate bathrooms or entire apartments from the rest of the building without interrupting water flow to the rest of the building.

And while we're at it, figure out a contingency plan for what happens if you need to shut the plumbing off in the building overnight... or longer. An apartment building I was in where this happened due to a burst pipe in one ground floor unit offered free access to a gym, which had showers, reimbursement of laundromat expenses, and had a porta-potty out front. It sucked, but it got us through.

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