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How to Buy

A New York City Apartment

STEP 5: Finding the Right Building

A brief guide to NYC apartment buildings--white glove, prewar, Mad Men and more

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Before you start shopping, it's wise to master the lexicon and the nuances of the various types of apartment buildings in New York City.

'Full service' and 'white-glove' vs plain old “doorman” buildings:  A 'doorman building' may sound fancy, but it can be as no-frills as a part-time doorman building that has a live-in super. 'Full-service' implies all the trimmings you would expect such as porters, a resident manager, and possibly a concierge in addition to round-the-clock doormen. A truly 'white glove'  building is full-service with a five-star-hotel level of service and cleanliness. 

Your monthly charges will reflect the level of staffing, and generally speaking, there is an economy of scale: It can cost less per apartment to staff a 300-unit full-service building than it does to staff a 125-unit building.  Holiday tips in a full-service building can range from $1,000-2,500 per year, though there is no obligation to tip.

“Attended elevator” buildings: This is a rapidly dying breed of smaller prewar buildings that still feature old-fashioned manually-operated elevators. The elevator is operated by a uniformed attendant who functions as a doorman when not ferrying passengers. However, there is not a separate doorman, so package acceptance and other types of duties cannot be reliably carried out at all times, with the attendant toggling back and forth between the front door and the elevator.

We can’t really think of an upside to this arrangement (besides delaying the cost of upgrading the elevator).   All things being equal, we’d rather have a doorman.

Elevator buildings:  Compared to luxury full-service buildings, these are generally on the smaller side, topping out at around 10-15 stories.   At most, they are staffed with a live-in super and maybe a part-time porter/handyman to help out.

Many people swear they would never live in a non-doorman building, citing safety and convenience. Others find that a good live-in super who accepts packages is an excellent trade off for increased privacy and significantly lower monthly charges.  These days there are also sophisticated remote doorman systems that can perform many of the functions of a traditional doorman.

Walk-ups: These five- or six-story buildings are usually very competitive pricewise. Many if not most rely on help from a part-time off-site super, and some require that owners take up some duties usually performed by a super, such as shoveling snow.

Prewar vs postwar vs new:

Prewar buildings were built before World War II and generally but not always embody the elegant, iconic architectural styles associated with “old” New York.  On the positive side, they tend to be very solidly constructed (resulting in less sound transmission between apartments, except in tenement-style apartments and brownstones) with more gracious proportions, from room size to closet size to ceiling height.  

On the negative side, prewar buildings tend to have fewer amenities, and unlike the newest crop of construction, comparatively few allow in-unit washer dryers, though there is some progress being made on that point as prewar buildings revisit plumbing issues to try to remain competitive in the resale market.  Due to their older vintage, most prewars are co-ops rather than condos.

Postwar buildings basically span the period from World War II up until the latest circa-2000 construction boom.  These buildings include the huge middle-class housing projects like Stuyvesant Town, to the 60s-era white-brick high-rises plentiful on the Upper East Side east of Lexington Avenue (currently in retro-chic style for fans of the popular television show Mad Men), to red-brick cookie cutter construction that characterizes much of the 1980s construction.  

While there are exceptions, the cookie-cutter nature and lack of architectural detail of many of these buildings can make them a more affordable option than prewar or the newest construction.   They are likely to have amenities like laundry rooms and fitness centers, and their windows, bathrooms, and elevators are often larger than prewar, but many are also known for their low ceilings and slapdash construction that shows up in noise-transmitting walls and floors.

New construction buildings born in the most recent (post-2000) construction boom and afterward tend to lavish much attention on style and design.  Hallmarks include an emphasis on floor-to-ceiling windows, open kitchens, and amenity spaces that can range from full-service gyms and screening rooms to pet spas, landscaped roof terraces and children’s playrooms with a full schedule of classes and activities.  Many units were designed to accommodate washer-dryers.

All of this comes at a cost:  The sense of spaciousness provided by huge windows and open kitchens allow developers to shave actual square feet from living areas. Amenities boost the common charges.  Many newer buildings (1-3 years) are still experiencing growing pains related to construction defects and sponsor control that is not always in the best interest of residents. Depending on the developer, noise transmission and air quality issues can also be a problem. Newer buildings may be less conveniently located than older housing stock. Also, because they are condos with characteristically lax sublet rules (unlike co-ops), and because they attract investors who neer intend to live there year round, newer buildings can have a higher proportion of renters than some live-in owners are comfortable with.