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In New York, buildings from all eras can go up side by side. (Image via CORE/Flickr - Anthony) In New York, buildings from all eras can go up side by side. (Image via CORE/Flickr - Anthony)
When you go on the housing market in New York City, building age will likely be one of your first considerations. After all, nearly all listing sites offer “pre-war” as a search option. While older buildings often deliver a ton of charm, that should never be your sole consideration when buying. After all, while older buildings may get top marks for aesthetics, they often come with other problems. This article surveys the pros and cons of buying in an older building. But first, it is important to clarify what “old” actually means in New York City.

Pre-War Versus Post-War Buildings

The oldest standing building in New York City is Wyckoff House, which dates back to the 1650's. But it is not for sale and likely won’t be in the future. In fact, it has been a museum for decades. On the residential side, the oldest known residence is generally said to be 203 East 29th Street. The site, sometimes known as the “floating farmhouse”, allegedly dates back to the 1790's, though no one knows for sure. Some historians have dated the building as late as the 1870's. If the floating farmhouse is as new as some historians suspect, it is not much older than the city’s oldest standing apartment house. Gramercy’s 129 East 17th Street dates back to 1879.
Compared to many European cities, then, New York’s oldest buildings are actually relatively young. Indeed, nearly all buildings categorized as “pre-war” originated in a narrow 60-year period stretching from the 1880s to the mid-1940s. But despite the city’s continuous population growth since the 1940s, much of the city’s housing was erected prior to the end of World War II. Still, pre-war units are no longer the only “old” buildings on the market.
Following World War II, New York experienced a tremendous housing boom. Much of the new construction took place in the suburbs, but a few urban neighborhoods were also transformed during the post-war period. In Manhattan, for example, both the Upper East Side and Upper West Side saw the construction of dozens of high-rise buildings. In fact, the post-war housing boom was largely responsible for turning the Upper East Side and Yorkville into North America’s most densely populated neighborhoods. In New York City’s current housing market, “post-war” is generally refers to any building constructed between 1947 and 1990.
New-York-City-01 In New York, buildings from all eras can go up side by side. (Image via Flickr - Anthony)

The Pros and Cons of Buying in a Pre-War Building

By and large, pre-war buildings remain a good investment. They also deliver a lot of value to buyers, especially those who plan to buy and hold for at least a decade. This largely reflects the fact that most pre-war buildings are co-ops, which are generally much less expensive than new condos. As an added bonus, most pre-war buildings also deliver on charm with high ceilings, ample built-ins, and original moldings. Pre-war buildings are also great for families. If you’re searching for an elusive three- to four-bedroom unit, narrowing your search to pre-war buildings is a great start. But these aren’t the only reasons to buy in a pre-war building. Pre-war buildings also have a lot to offer when it comes to stability.
Pre-war buildings have been around long enough to have established reputations and cultures. If a building has a reputation for being kid-friendly or dog-friendly (or, conversely, for being intolerant of noise), you’ll know long before you move in. Beyond offering an established culture, most pre-war buildings are also a safe investment. Just like buying shares in an established company, buying shares in an established co-op is usually a safe and sound investment.
Prewar-01 Prewar architecture on the Upper East Side via Flickr - Lucia
Pre-war buildings do, however, come with a few downsides. The most common complaints made about pre-war buildings are their relatively small kitchens, small bathrooms, loud radiators, and of course, the fact that they rarely feature central air conditioning. It is also important to bear in mind that not all pre-war buildings are built alike. While luxury pre-war buildings were often constructed using the finest materials, if you buy in a pre-war walk-up, you may be purchasing in a building that would never meet modern building codes. This can put you at higher risk and cause hassles if and when you attempt to carry out renovations.
A final potential problem of buying in an older building is the ever-looming possibility of an assessment. From time-to-time, co-op buildings need to carry out major repairs (e.g., brickwork on the building’s façade). Depending on the scale of the project, this can mean being slapped with a large assessment—one that may raise your monthly fees several thousand dollars for an extended period. For this reason, when shopping for a unit in a pre-war building, it is always important to ensure an assessment isn’t on the horizon.
Prewar-02 Prewar apartments are often rich in details and history. (960 Fifth Avenue via Warburg Realty)
Pre-war apartments for sale
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975-Park-Avenue-1 975 Park Avenue via Warburg Realty
173-Riverside-Drive-1 173 Riverside Drive via The Corcoran Group

The pros and cons of buying in a post-war building

Some of New York City’s ugliest buildings were built in the post-war period. These buildings are usually uninspiring red-brick boxes, but sometimes, these buildings are equally uninspiring white-brick boxes. Inside, most post-war units are just blasé with their predictable layouts, parquet flooring, and low ceilings. Despite the fact that many post-war units don’t offer much charm, they certainly shouldn’t be written off by prospective buyers.

First, because many of New York City’s post-war buildings privileged functionality over beauty, they are highly livable. Most post-war units include air conditioning, large windows, and generous closets and storage spaces. Compared to their pre-war counterparts, they are also surprisingly affordable. For example, it is still possible to find a one-bedroom in a post-war full-service co-op building on the Upper East Side for under $700,000. Similar units in pre-war co-op or condo buildings are generally twice the price or higher.
200-East-66th-Street-1 With post-war buildings, it's what's inside that counts. (Manhattan House via Douglas Elliman)
As an added bonus, many post-war buildings also offer layouts that can be easily converted. This reflects two common features. First, many post-war units were built as “junior fours.” Essentially, this means the unit has a small dining room that can be easily turned into an office, nursery, or additional bedroom if desired. Second, many post-war units were built with large living rooms that run anywhere from 20 to 30 feet in length. Again, this makes it easy to carve out an extra room on one end of the apartment by adding a standing or sliding wall. In other words, if you’re looking for a way to buy a two-bedroom apartment for the price of a one-bedroom apartment, a post-war unit is likely your best bet.
Finally, despite the fact that post-war buildings are slightly newer than their pre-war counterparts, they offer similar benefits. When you buy into a post-war co-op (and most post-war units are co-ops not condos), you’re still buying a home in an established community. With a bit of digging, you’ll likely be able to learn everything you need to know about the building’s legal and financial history and culture. Likewise, if you plan to buy and hold, most post-war units will ultimately offer just as good a return on investment over time.
Postwar-02 What post-war apartments lack in history, they make up for in flexibility and benefits. (Mayfair Towers via Douglas Elliman)
Post-war apartments for sale
1725-York-Avenue-1 Gracie Plaza via VHT/The Corcoran Group
200-West-79th-Street-1 The Gloucester via Bond NY
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Contributing Writer Cait Etherington Cait Etherington has over twenty years of experience working as a journalist and communications consultant. Her articles and reviews have been published in newspapers and magazines across the United States and internationally. An experienced financial writer, Cait is committed to exposing the human side of stories about contemporary business, banking and workplace relations. She also enjoys writing about trends, lifestyles and real estate in New York City where she lives with her family in a cozy apartment on the twentieth floor of a Manhattan high rise.
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