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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Giving a Soviet-Era Apartment a Taste of Reform

For the Russian apartment, April is the cruellest month. Fresh breezes stir dust bunnies from the corners and the strong spring sunlight exposes winter dirt, garish, gloomy wallpaper and buckling floors.

This is also the time of year when the word remont, or renovation, is likely to enter newcomers' vocabularies as people search for ways to spruce up apartments that have yet to enjoy the fruits of perestroika.

Now more than ever, there is a tremendous choice of Moscow firms capable of delivering a Western-standard remont -- known in Russian as evroremont -- for a wide range of prices. And, it is getting easier, with most reputable upscale firms giving estimates, signing contracts and making guarantees for their work.

Because expenses depend on the state of the apartment and the requirements of a specific customer, it is difficult to estimate the total cost of a renovation. Generally, judging from an unscientific survey of a number of Moscow renovation firms, prices range from $150 per renovated square meter to $600 and beyond.

Dmitry, the general director of Remtex (Tel: 200-2626), said that 90 percent of the Russian firms who claim to do Western-standard remonts do not come close to reaching that mark. No more than 10 companies in Moscow do top-quality renovations, said Dmitry, who declined to give his last name. Such a remont is marked by special features like double-paned soundproof windows and heated floors. The bathroom and toilet should be in the same room and walls should be perfectly smooth, he said.

The principal requirement of good remonts are their superb quality, marked by the contractor's choice of only top-shelf material, whether it be a sink or a light fixture or paint, he said.

For example, he said, be wary of a firm offering a remont at discount prices. "A really good door should cost at least $600, and if they offer it to you for $300, it will not be impeccable."

Remtex, which Dmitry said has renovated the offices of director Nikita Mikhalkov's film studio, performs extensive renovations for between $200 and $600 a square meter with an average price of $380 per square meter.

Apartment dwellers who can afford such prices are notoriously demanding. Take, for example, the experience of Rosenfields Holdings (Tel: 929-0768 or 0769) which was once a Russian-Australian joint venture but has lost the Australian side.

The firm's manager, Anatoly Dmitriyevich, who also declined to give his last name, said that Western laborers were simply unwilling to work with Russian clients. "Russian workers can accommodate our outrageously demanding post-Soviet clients better than even the Turks or Yugoslavs," he said, referring to two groups of construction laborers famous for the quality of their work.

For Anatoly Dmitriyevich, the Western-standard remont is not marked by the seemingly obligatory arch between the kitchen and the dining room or the $12,000 jacuzzi, but simply by attention to detail, like ensuring that every angle is square and that telephone jacks and light switches are located conveniently. At Rosenfields Holdings, labor costs run between $250 and $350 per square meter. Materials are about 150 percent of the labor cost, he said.

Among Moscow's best-known foreign-owned renovation firms is the Claremont Group (Tel: 291-9343 or 2323), which specializes in taking Russian apartments, renovating them and then renting them to foreign clients. For people looking to have a remont done on their own apartments, Claremont's prices range from $200 to $300 per square meter for a "cosmetic" remont, and at least $500 per square meter for a "capital" remont, said Viktor Rovny, the manager of the American-owned firm.

Sawyer & Company (Tel: 564-8559), an American-owned firm, does everything from "nice paint jobs" to remonts which are "fully Western-standard air-conditioned luxury pads," said president Cameron Sawyer. The firm's costs range from $200 to $500 per square meter.

Over at the Russian-owned Domovoy American Realty (Tel: 434-6734), remont manager Alexander Odintsov said his firm typically charges between $60 and $120 per square meter, depending on the difficulty of the job.

For those who question their own good taste as they spend thousands of dollars on a remont, most firms offer the services of an interior designer.

"Now you can find everything yourself at the store, but the most beautiful things don't necessarily match," said Tatyana Antoshina, an interior designer at Leningradsky Prospekt Design Center (Tel: 259-0661). "People have a flair for determining whether the elements are assembled tastefully or not, but this is not enough to be able to create a comprehensive design concept."

Besides creating the new layout and design, Antoshina supervises the work and is paid 10 percent to 15 percent of the total price of renovation.

In addition to those firms performing Western-standard remonts, there is a whole fringe industry catering to those with even more money to spend.

Take, for example, the 2R Studio (Tel: 954-0381) where workers will create a computer mock-up of the proposed new layout of an apartment and even create a computer-simulated video of what it would be like to walk through the new apartment.

2R Studio manager Yury Orlov refused to give an approximate price of the service, but, judging from the fact that it can take two months to produce a three-minute video, it's not cheap. Once the measurements and technical assessment are completed by experts, an architectural design is done and then the actual renovation work begins, said Orlov, adding that his firm deals exclusively with two Russian renovation companies it has found to be the most reliable. They are Nissa (Tel: 923-4115 or 928-7589) and Abak (Tel: 417-8786).

2R Studio also does troubleshooting with the city agencies that must be dealt with when a remont involves knocking down structural walls. Approval to demolish one wall, for example, typically takes a month and a half and costs at least $500, Orlov said.

Before embarking on a remont, it makes sense to talk the project over with the landlord, and perhaps work out a mutually beneficial deal. "If you are planning on staying in Moscow long time, one of the biggest advantages of remont, besides having a better-looking place, would be a possibility to negotiate a lower rent," said one American woman.

She and her husband live in a spacious four-room apartment on Pushkin Square, which could rent for $4,000 a month. Instead they got the apartment for $1,500 per month, renovated it themselves, and got the landlord to pitch in $5,000 for the work.

With hundreds of firms offering renovations and no mechanism available for checking their reliability, it makes sense to heed some of these tips:

?Check if the company has a license to perform remonts and how long it has been in business.

?Ask the firm to show photos of their previous work and provide references.

?Beware if the initial price seems like a bargain, because it may be just for labor. Make sure quoted prices are all inclusive.

?Before knocking down any walls, make sure you have the building plans and permission from the building owner.

?Get a guarantee, which most companies offer. The guarantee should last from six months to one year and require the firm to redo the work or reimburse the client if the work turns out shoddy.

?Make the contract as broad as possible, covering every conceivable aspect of the job and with built-in penalties.

?Try to make friends with your neighbors before the work begins, as they are likely to complain about the noise and dirt of the renovation.