9 things Manhattanites need to know before buying in brownstone Brooklyn

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It’s finally happened. The weekend brunch trips, visions of brownstone stoops on tree-lined blocks, and the possibility of snapping up an entire townhouse (or duplex!) for the price of an Upper East Side two-bedroom have convinced you: it’s time to take the plunge and move to Brooklyn. 

But don't be fooled: Although  New York City's hippest and arguably hottest borough is just a subway stop away from Manhattan, not all your real estate skills will find a direct translation.

When it comes to Brooklyn newcomers, "there is usually a mismatch between budget and what they think they can acquire," says Donald Brennan, the principal of Brooklyn-based brokerage Brennan Realty Services and the host of a free monthly webinar, Brooklyn Real Estate 101. "I talk them through the average price points of most of the brownstone neighborhoods and then suggest they go out with me or one of my agents to see what type of home and neighborhood matches with their budget."

Here are a few things to keep in mind, says Brennan:

1. “Brooklyn” doesn’t exist 

In reality, the borough is a warren of different neighborhoods, each with its own streetscape, housing stock and price point.

“Once you get down on the street level and go neighborhood to neighborhood, there are nuances that are specific to those neighborhoods,” Brennan says.

For instance, walking along the sidewalks of Carroll Gardens, you'll still find small family shops and men's clubs, like "Sons of the fill-in-the-blank," says Brennan. Meanwhile, in Greenwood Heights, you'll find narrower streets and more wood-frame houses than in nearby Park Slope. 

The conveniences that you’d expect in a teaming city—organic grocery stores, high-end restaurants, national clothing retailers—are no longer confined to one or two areas, but available in multiple parts of the borough. There are many opportunities to find the nabe that’s the best fit.  

2. You’re not necessarily going to get a deal

A big misconception about Brooklyn is that it’s a place to find bargains. “It was always thought that, ‘I’m going to get more for my dollar.’ Not so anymore,” says Brennan. Plenty of properties have similar price tags, regardless of what side of the river you’re standing on.

Also, even though property taxes tend to be lower on standalone houses versus co-ops (at least on a per-square-foot basis), and you won't have monthly maintenance or common charges to worry about, you'll probably spend a comparable amount over the course of the year because of the "lack of efficiencies in scale in a single-family home versus, say, a 200-unit co-op," Brennan says. 

The opposite is true if you're looking at co-ops and condos. Many buyers find that lower real estate taxes translate into monthly carrying costs that are lower than what they'd pay on a similar apartment in Manhattan.

3. Competition is fierce 

Just like Manhattan, renters far outnumber owners in brownstone Brooklyn, but the housing stock in Brooklyn tends to be one- to four-family townhouses, rather than apartment buildings with dozens or hundreds of condo or co-op units. In the first quarter of 2014, for example, some 3,307 apartments sold in Manhattan, compared to only 1,572 apartments and houses across Brooklyn, according to a market report from appraisal firm Miller Samuel.

The upshot? Not much is available at any one time, and you’ll need to be prepared to face stiff competition for the place you want. Just like in Manhattan, sellers like buyers who can pay all cash and close quickly—and they can often take their pick from several bidders. 

4. Don't get tunnel vision over the commute to Manhattan

Thanks to public and private initiatives in Downtown Brooklyn, the Brooklyn Navy Yard and Dumbo--the so-called Brooklyn Tech Triangle--many more offices and shops have opened up in this part of the borough over the last few years, and lots more are on the way. It's becoming increasingly common for Brooklynites to live and work in the borough.

Translation: If you're buying, it's just as important to factor in the home's convenience to Brooklyn's business district as it is to think about the time it takes to get to Manhattan. It's "less important to be near a subway as opposed to a reasonable walk or bike ride," Brennan says.

5. Sweat equity may be your best investment 

If any kind of place sells at a discount to Manhattan prices, it’s a townhouse in need of a facelift—or major surgery, says Brennan. That could mean gut renovating or even buying a just to get the land underneath, tearing down the house, and building what you want. 

6. A free wall will help a fixer-upper

If you’re up for buying a place that needs a little TLC, a freestanding house or corner lot is ideal, since it will give workers easier access and lessen the chance of making enemies with your neighbor—making the renovation easier, Brennan says.

"Any bit of separation goes a long way in reducing irritation of immediate neighbors," he adds, since noise and vibration transfers through shared walls.

More common semi-detached houses with a side alley or walkway between them--like this one or this one--will also help, since workers won't have to tromp through your home to get to the back of the building.

7. You can close faster

If you're buying a townhouse, you'll skip the headache of a condo or co-op board approval, which means the deal can often happen much faster, particularly if you don't need a mortgage.  Depending on the specific circumstances, a townhouse sale could close in 30 to 60 days, versus 60 to 90 days for an apartment, Brennan says. 

If you’re renovating, that means you can get started quickly. But if you’re selling a condo or co-op in Manhattan or dealing with the strictures of a school calendar, a speedy closing may be unwelcome. 

8. Historic districts are a blessing and a curse

Swaths of Park Slope, Brooklyn Heights, Fort Greene and elsewhere in brownstone Brooklyn are protected as historic districts, meaning that owners will face restrictions if they want to add on to their homes or alter the facades. Any major upgrades will have to be approved by the community board and Landmarks Preservation Commission.

“You may be restricted inside the landmark more than you want to be,” Brennan says.

On the flip side, if you buy outside a historic district for the flexibility, remember that none of your neighbors face limits either. That parking lot next door could be tomorrow’s flashy new condo tower.

“If I’m going to pay a certain amount for something, I want to make sure that the guy next to me is not going to do something that devalues my property,” Brennan says. Or ruins your quality of life for the two  years it's being built.

9. An “up and coming” neighborhood is not the only place to profit 

Gentrifying parts of Brooklyn, like Bushwick or Crown Heights, may  grab all the real estate headlines, but even stately old areas like Brooklyn Heights provide opportunities to buy a place whose value will appreciate. 

Indeed, many townhouses that were built as single-family homes, then converted to multi-family buildings, are now going back to single-family, Brennan says. 

Larger contiguous spaces trade at a premium, so the (relatively) simple act of converting two small spaces into one big space can add value, as can tearing down a small house and building one that takes full advantage of the buildable square footage of the lot. Another way to add value is to extend the home, such as adding a roof deck or covered space in the backyard. (Brennan has even seen plans to build a subterranean pool below the yard.)

For that reason, you may want to bring an architect or designer along to assess whether a place is ripe for these kinds of renovations, Brennan says.

More from Brennan Realty:

5 all-too-common renovation shortcuts--and how to spot the serious ones

Donald Brennan, president of Brennan Realty Services, is a real estate broker specializing in brownstone Brooklyn.  You can register here for his next free Brooklyn Real Estate 101 webinar, promoted exclusively on BrickUnderground.

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