Townhouses in New York City may be among the most extraordinary real estate in the city, but owning one is more than the sum of the width and height and outdoor area. It’s buying into a lifestyle—privacy, space, numerous bedrooms, gardens, and often landmark historical details.
“Townhouses are the pinnacle of what a lot of people consider the very finest thing they can buy in New York City after they’ve already bought their condos with the view on a high floor,” says Dexter Guerrieri, founder, co-owner, and president of Vandenberg, Inc.—The Townhouse Experts. “At some point, they want to be near the earth, and they want to live in these historic buildings where they can control their own destiny with their own construction and their own front door. We call it the townhouse lifestyle.”
Townhouses are the pinnacle of what a lot of people consider the very finest thing they can buy in New York City after they’ve already bought their condos with the view on a high floor
Privacy and vertical living characterize the lifestyle. “The townhouse is really the only way to live self-sufficiently in the city,” S. Christopher Halstead, executive vice president of Halstead, told the New York Observer. “As a result, the way of life is very attractive to some buyers, and equally unattractive to others.” You’re responsible for salting your icy stoop, taking the garbage to the curb, and maintaining the boiler and HVAC. But on the other end, you don’t need board approval for renovations, and you won’t have to worry about a downstairs neighbor complaining about how much noise you’re making.
The experience of buying (or selling) a townhouse is very different from buying an apartment, starting with the process of looking at a property. “I take buyers through it in a completely different way than I would take them through an apartment,” says Guerrieri. “There are so many more spaces to cover and only the finite attention span of the typical New York buyer.”
There’s also a whole different list of items to evaluate. One of those items is width. The wider the townhouse, the more valuable. The average width of New York City townhouses is 18 – 20 feet. Anything below is considered narrow (and harder to resell), anything above 25 feet is called a trophy property (or a mansion). However, width in a townhouse is about more than value. The wider the townhouse, the more air and light, the better the flow between rooms. Wider, shorter rooms are easier to furnish than longer, narrow ones.
The wider the townhouse, the more valuable.
Of course, there’s location location location. But even location parameters are different when looking for a townhouse. “Most difficult, and the most fundamental thing as well, is understanding values vis-à vis location,” says Guerrieri. “It's very different in a townhouse than in apartment buildings. There are apartment buildings that have wonderful amenities, but they're on a slightly inferior block, and it doesn't make such a difference. With the townhouse, what’s on the block can make a huge difference in terms of value.”
What is it that makes one street more valuable than the adjacent one? When you're evaluating townhouses, says Guerrier, it depends on how they back up to the houses behind them, the houses that are beside them, and the houses across the street. The most valuable townhouses are on blocks with rows of townhouses on both sides of the street. The factors that bring the price down include a firehouse, police department, or school on the block. “The values are generally going to be less because there will be more noise and more traffic.”
So what are the hot locations in the townhouse market? That depends, says Guerrieri. If you’re on the Upper West Side, it’s in the 70s on the block between Central Park West and Columbus that has “historically the highest priced sales.” On the Upper East Side, it’s near Fifth Avenue, with the priciest block between East 70th and 71st. In Chelsea, the most valuable townhouses are found on West 21st and 22nd Street between 10th and 11th Avenue. There can be a significant difference in price from street to street. Buyers should do their research to avoid sticker shock.
One factor that can bring the price down for a townhouse on a prime street is tenants. “The best buys are townhouses that have rent-stabilized or rent-controlled tenants in them,” says Guerrieri. “You can only have a limited-sized owners unit for yourself, but then you can afford to be in the neighborhood that you perhaps wouldn't have been able to purchase in. The value has been discounted due to those rent-regulated tenants.” On the flip side, if you are looking to renovate the entire building, rent-regulated tenants can make that difficult.
For sellers, Guerrieri says that it’s a transition market with a disconnect between the way sellers and buyers appraise a property. “What sellers have continued to do is price their townhouse 15 percent higher than what the neighbor's sold for.” Buyers, however, are bidding 15 percent lower. These days, sellers are being more realistic about what can be achieved and are transitioning to more realistic expectations. There are also things a seller can do to raise the value of their property, such as putting in a garden at the front of the home. "Curb appeal really matters," says Guerrieri, but he does suggest consulting an expert first.
There are certain townhouses that stand out. The Benjamin N. Duke House, a landmarked 1901 Beaux-Arts townhouse at 1009 Fifth Avenue is among the most extraordinary. One of the few remaining private homes along Millionaire’s Row, at 27 feet wide, it qualifies as a mansion. Purchased by Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim in 2010 for $44 million, he put it on the market in 2015 for $80 million. It was taken off the market in the beginning of 2016.
One of Dexter Guerrieri's notable listings is a Passivhouse at 53 West 71st Street, one of only two certified passive townhouses in Manhattan. “It's basically sealing the house like a furnace. There's better air quality, less noise, less dust, and the energy savings are enormous.” It has a double-height ceiling on the garden floor, five floors, four different outdoor spaces, a glassed-in roof deck, and a cellar with high ceilings. It’s currently on the market, and you can have it for $15 million. That’s around $10 million more than it sold for in 2012.
Contributing Writer Jillian Blume Jillian Blume is a New York City based writer who has published articles widely in magazines, newspapers, and online. Publications include the New York Observer, Marie Claire, Self, MSN Living, Ocean Home, and Ladies Home Journal. Jillian received a master's degree in Creative Writing from New York University and teaches writing, critical reading, and literature at Berkeley College.
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