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"Mad Men" apartments: what you need to know before buying in a post-war

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Somewhere between the old world glamour of prewar apartments and the glossy allure of a new condo, you'll find the overlooked everyman of the New York real estate world: the post-war apartment. Sometimes retro, often plain, these places are among the city's more affordable and plentiful housing options. If you're planning to buy, chances are a post-war or two will show up on your list of options, even if you're not specifically looking for one. And these places come with their own set of pros, cons and hidden costs. Here's what you need to know:

WHAT IS A POST-WAR ANYWAY?

Admittedly, "post-war" is a broad category, encompassing as it does everything built from 1945 up until the 2000s. However, the term post-war is usually used to refer to buildings that went up in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s—think the ultra mid-century apartment Don Draper moves into with his second wife Megan on Mad Men. "I tend to think of newer 'post-war' buildings built after the late 1990s as 'new development,'" Fenwick Keats broker Kinnaird Fox tells us. 

While the architecture in the older post-wars is often considered "cookie cutter" compared to the grandeur of prewars, you will get modern touches like gyms, laundry rooms, outdoor space, parking garages, more electrical outlets, and an elevator. "I tell clients that post-wars are the Honda Accord of New York apartments,'" says Gus Waite, a broker with Daniel Baum & Company. "It’s a solid, no-fuss, no-muss, easy thing—with great locations at comparatively low prices—but there’s not the sex appeal of pre-war or a brand-new building."

Not surprisingly, the architectural style of a building will depend heavily on when it was built: expect lots of white brick from the '50s and '60s (more on that below), and more modern amenities like fitness centers if constructed in the '70s or later, as we've written previously. For these mid-century buildings, comparatively low, eight-foot ceilings and the lack of a formal dining room tend to be negatives for many buyers, Fox notes. 

Post-wars are found all over the city, but they're more prevalent on the Upper East Side, Murray Hill, Midtown West, and Midtown East, all havens of newish construction, notes Citi Habitats broker Brian Morgan. They're less common in Brooklyn, particularly in brownstone neighborhoods like Park Slope and Clinton Hill, where residents worked to enforce landmark restrictions and blocked this type of new construction when it was going up,  says Donald Brennan, the principal of Brooklyn-based brokerage Brennan Realty Services.

THE POST-WAR DISCOUNT

Here's where we come to the major "pro" of buying in a post-war: you're more likely to find a deal on one of these apartments than on virtually any other type of housing in the city. Data guru Jonathan Miller, CEO of appraisal firm Miller Samuel, has previously told us that all things being equal ("a HUGE disclaimer," he notes), post-wars tend to be around 10 to 15 percent cheaper than their prewar counterparts. It almost goes without saying that they're a much better bargain compared to new construction. According to data from StreetEasy, as of August 2014, the median sales price of buildings that went up between 1945 and 2007 was $767,600, whereas in prewars the median is $875,500, and in new construction, a whopping $1,526,548. Once you factor out a 421A tax abatement—a tax break for buyers of new condos that gradually phases out, usually over 10 or 25 years—post-wars generally have lower taxes as well, Morgan notes, plus, as Fox points out, the older post-wars tend to have lower monthly charges than their newer counterparts. 

Then again, you may not necessarily see wealthy buyers snapping up post-wars as investment properties, so it may not be wise to buy one if you're counting on pulling off a major flip. "The prices just don't appreciate as much as with new construction," says Morgan, who calls these buildings "a nice option if you have a family and are looking to move into an affordable, decently sized apartment for the long haul."

EXTRA COSTS

You thought you'd land a cheap apartment with no real downside save comparatively ho-hum architecture here in New York, land of everything's a trade-off? With post-wars, it's the risk of assessments, when the co-op or condo board asks shareholders to shell out extra money for a costly repair.

"Our building has had a number of capital projects and assessments over the years—what has felt like way too much troublesome construction followed by even more troubling monthly assessments!" says Charlotte Kullen, a public relations executive who lives in a 1961 post-war in Gramercy Park. 

The $30 million facade fix at 2 Fifth Avenue that made headlines this summer is a particularly jaw-dropping example. Elsewhere, one 10-building post-war complex is spending $100 million (or around $40,000 per apartment) to replace its 1960s-era heating and ventilation system, according to its lawyer, Dean Roberts, a real estate attorney at Norris McLaughlin & Marcus who works with co-ops and condos. When assessments hit, they can hit hard.

Another thing to keep in mind: post-wars are generally condos, rather than co-ops, meaning that if repairs come up, buildings don't have the option of spreading out the costs via a series of payments towards the building's underlying mortgage—which can be re-financed to cover the cost of repairs—as a co-op might. Instead, in a condo building, major work will either have to be paid for with all-at-once assessment charges to residents, or a loan for capital improvement repairs, which can spread the payments out over the course of up to 10 years, says Mary Alex Blanton, senior vice president of National Cooperative Bank

As with any apartment purchase, you (and your lawyer) will want to do the due diligence, checking into the board's financials, reserve funds, the state of its maintenance charges (and if they're being systematically and appropriately raised to cover costs), and in a co-op, the state of its underlying mortgage. ​

WHITE BRICK RED FLAGS

White brick buildings have become notorious for leading to added assessments, as they sometimes require re-pointing—the pricey, painstaking process of updating brick work—and expensive repairs to something called the "cavity wall" behind the main facade, which often causes water retention and damage to the outer walls of the building. (Cavity walls were a popular—but often poorly implemented—new construction technique in the 1950s and early 1960s.) Another thing to check into: the building's ventilation—post-wars rely on a rooftop system that services the whole building—and whether or not it's clean and up to date, or potentially in need of pricey repairs.

"When I have a client who’s buying in a building from this time period, I ask about white bricks, and if the building has addressed any issues with them," says real estate attorney Steven Wagner of Wagner Berkow.   "And if nothing has ever been done, and the building is from that era, I tell clients to count on a large assessment. When you see buildings that are having the entire face redone, it’s always white brick." On the bright side, the potential for assessment fees shouldn't affect your chances of landing a mortgage, notes Blanton.

With white brick buildings in particular, it's helpful to check into the building's history of repairs—if the work is done right, a big fix only needs to happen once, so if the building's already taken care of it, you're likely in the clear, says Wagner. Keep in mind too that "an assessment isn't always a bad thing," says Fox. "I'd rather see a short-term assessment than a history of maintenance increases—a high maintenance fee can come back to haunt you when you try to sell." 

White brick buildings are a bargain, but tend to require costly repairs (Photo credit: Barbara L. Hanson)

THE BLANK SLATE OF APARTMENTS

When it comes to the apartment itself, the boxy '60s architecture may actually work to your advantage—it can be a perfect canvas for renovations if you're looking to customize your space. "It's possible to create a very contemporary feel in a post-war building," says Fox. "Especially those that have higher ceiling height."

As we've written previously, post-wars are generally much easier to renovate than their pre-war counterparts, and Waite tells us that many owners of mid-century apartments decide to ditch the traditional galley kitchen, changing up the apartment's layout to a more open floorplan. (For more on the pros and cons of an open kitchen, check out our "Would You Rather" feature on the subject.)

Post-war buyers have a penchant for "ripping up the parquet floors" and replacing them with hardwood, Waite notes, and doing major updates on the bathrooms, which sometimes still come with truly retro touches like pink bathtubs and green tiles. (A little anecdotal design evidence to add to the mix: just writing about post-wars has left my Google ads suddenly and mysteriously filled with suggestions for "mid-century" furniture options.)

THE WALLS HAVE EARS (MAYBE)

The downside of this relatively malleable construction is the reputation post-war buildings have developed for thin walls. "The walls aren't particularly thick," Kullen tells us of her building, "which means that it's easy to combine units, which a lot of people have, but also that you can feel 'very close' to your neighbors and their choice of music, pets, and life events at times, too!'"

But this is varies from building to building, experts say. For example, the Upper West Side's Schwab House as an example of a mid-century building with thick walls that'll help maintain your privacy, Fox says. More than anything, you'll want to check in with the doorman, the super, the neighbors, and so on, to get the scoop on an apartment's noise level before signing on the dotted line. 

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