Brownstones and townhouses are seeing newfound interest these days because they afford a more socially distanced way of living that’s well-suited for the pandemic. But compared to a New York City co-op or condo, living in a brownstone is a much more hands-on investment that will put bigger demands on your time.
The main difference between buying an apartment and a brownstone is that the whole pre-sale process will be more thorough and require an attorney, lender, and insurance broker with brownstone experience. But that’s not where the differences end.
You’re probably aware that you will be foregoing the usual perks of high-rise living, like a super and someone to take your packages. The pluses, however, are many—especially now, when being around other people in common spaces, such as a laundry rooms or elevators, is not desirable. What buyers used to prize and what they shiied away from now has changed.
“One of the things that people used to find intimidating or unappealing about townhouses was the verticality and the separation of spaces,” says Lindsay Barton Barrett, a broker at Douglas Elliman.
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“Now that it being viewed differently, and the ability to create distinct spaces—for work, school, as well as places to come back together as a family—is a real asset. Additionally, the autonomy that comes with owning a townhouse, controlling all of the spaces, having a private gym, laundry, etc., has become newly appreciated.”
What you may not be counting on are all the other myriad responsibilities that can rear their head—at any time.
[Editor’s note: An earlier version of this post was published in December 2013. We are presenting it again with updated information for October 2019.]
“I always pre-warn buyers of the kinds of things they are going to be responsible for and to know at least the basics in case something crops up in the middle of the night,” says Kemdi Anosike, an agent at Warburg Realty. Think water leaks or a flipped electrical switch.
But he is also quick to point out that becoming a DIYer is a small price to pay in exchange for privacy, a backyard, and the power to make your home all your own.
If you’re considering buying a brownstone, here’s what you can expect.
1) Upkeep is your responsibility
Unlike with a co-op or condo, if anything goes wrong with the property, it’s your responsibility to hire a professional—no more calling your building’s super to say, “I’ve got a problem.” That goes for dealing with rodents, leaky faucets, and trash removal.
“Buyers for sure think about shoveling snow and tending the garden but not getting service contracts to keep mechanical equipment in working order,” says Barton Barrett, who owns a townhouse in the Cobble Hill Historic District. “It’s the ongoing but infrequent responsibilities, such as neglecting to check the boiler before turning on your radiators, that can create the most havoc," she says.
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Anosike has to remind brownstone buyers to pay their water bills, which you don’t have to do in a co-op or condo. “I’ve had clients call me two months after closing wondering why their water has been shut off,” he says.
You will need to be proactive about routine home maintenance, primarily for the boiler, furnace, and the plumbing as well as cleaning the gutters and making any roof repairs (or replacing it as needed, typically after 20 years for asphalt shingles, longer for slate).
Then there’s the matter of painting or otherwise keeping the facade and stoop in good repair. And be prepared to shell out bucks on replacing windows for better insulation and soundproofing.
The city also requires you to keep your sidewalk in good condition—and will hold you liable if someone slips on the ice or if a tree root comes up and lifts part of the sidewalk, creating a tripping hazard. (It happens a lot, per Barrett.)
Now for the good news: Odds are you won’t be going it completely alone. Anosike says neighbors can collaborate on hiring a communal super to handle all their needs. “It’s competitive out there and many supers will ‘own’ a block," he says.
Another idea if you’re coming from a co-op or condo and like your super there: Anosike had a client hire the super from their former co-op to come once a week to help out.
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2) You’ll have to do without amenities
So what if brownstones don't have amenities like doormen or concierges to handle your deliveries? Installing a remote doorman system, such as Virtual Doorman to receive packages is one workaround. Another is a Box Lock, which features a smart lock with a built-in scanner, and can be used with any container that can be secured with a padlock.
Barrett says some New Yorkers hire house managers who are there all the time to accept packages and meet the plumber or other workers, and who often have construction management experience. Or you can take another common approach and ask a neighbor who is home during the day if they will take your packages.
And because it's extremely rare to find an elevator in a brownstone, you should also consider how you’ll be moving furniture and appliances into your new dwelling. (Hint: Take careful measurements before buying anything.)
3) You need a title search
Any liens on the property, code violations, and open permits will be discovered by the title company when it searches and prepares its report, typically after a signed contract, although you can order the searches earlier.
You attorney will also conduct due diligence, and may uncover liens or violations in advance. You can also go to the Department of Buildings’s website to do your own research.
It’s worth bearing in mind that brownstones can easily be 100 years old or more in NYC and during that long history, “something may have happened,” Barrett says. In addition, because owners tend to renovate these homes, there’s greater potential for a contractor’s lien or open work permits.
Not that these are necessarily deal-breakers, but they can drag out the sale, by weeks or even months.
4) Be sure to check the C of O
If you are thinking of buying a brownstone as a multi-family in order to rent out units, you’ll want to check with the DOB to see what its legal designation is, because sometimes a three-family setup is really a two-family designation or a two-family home in a legit single-family one. If your plan is to buy a two-family with the goal of renting an apartment out, you want to make sure that the house is indeed a legal two family.
And if you’re getting a mortgage, the brownstone’s actual use will need to be in line with its legal use, otherwise your lender may not close on the loan.
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5) Your offer depends on the inspection
The general thinking is that any offer should be contingent on the property passing a site inspection, which you should schedule before you sign the contract. Ask your broker or mortgage banker for a home inspector recommendation (or search for one here).
“It’s a good idea to work with a licensed inspector who is experienced with brownstones, which have a whole set of potential problems not associated with modern buildings,” Anosike says. Those include the presence of lead paint, mold in the basement (“that’s very common”), problems with the facade, foundation, or roof, a leak from an oil tank, and an outdated heating system or electrical wiring.
6) What landmark status means
If the brownstone is in one of the city’s coveted landmarked districts you’ll have to go through the Landmarks Preservation Commission to get approval for exterior renovations. This can be a timely process, and you’ll be limited in what you can do.
“It does add a layer of complication when renovating, but I personally think it’s not as much of a pain as people think it is,” Barrett says. Simple updates can be approved at the staff level, for example, rather than having to get a full review.
Except for the rare instance where the interior is also landmarked, you will be able to make changes to the inside of the building, though you’ll still have to submit all the design plans.
“But if you want to add another story or modernize the exterior, a landmarked brownstone may not be for you,” Anosike says.
7) More units mean a bigger down payment
It makes sense that for higher-priced properties, you’ll need a larger down payment, says Keith Furer, a mortgage broker at Guardhill Financial Corp. Also, the required down payment goes up depending on the number of units, something to keep in mind if you are buying a multi-family dwelling or will be a landlord.
That of course limits how much you can borrow.
There’s no real difference in interest rates for a condo, co-op, or brownstone. Rather, the rate will depend on factors such as purchase price, loan amount, property type, and your profile (e.g., credit score and post-close reserves).
On another note, a Federal Housing Administration loan, which is more readily available for brownstone purchases, allows you to put down as little as 3.5 percent for a down payment. But the loans are capped at $765,600, which may not work for expensive NYC properties.
8) Existing tenants may be protected
If you’re buying a brownstone and plan to be the sole occupant, your attorney should make sure the building is being delivered vacant. Otherwise, if you intend to be a landlord and use part of the property for income, you should know that being landlord isn’t what it use to be, says real estate attorney Adam Stone of The Stone Law Firm, who also acts as a property manager for clients who own rental buildings.
“It’s trickier now, thanks to the rent law changes of 2019. There are more rules to follow,” he says. “For example, you either need to offer a lease renewal or provide notice if not renewing lease—and the length of notice depends on how long the tenant has been there. There’s a lot that people wouldn’t know.”
Stone teaches course on buying brownstones and townhouses, which is being held online now because of the pandemic. It’s a continuing education course geared to brokers, however buyers are welcome to attend as well. Contact him for more details.
Rent-regulated tenants generally pay less than market value tenants, which can factor into your financial equation. They also have automatic lease renewal. To keep you on top of these requirements, you can hire a property management firm or a law firm with property management experience.
9) Get the right insurance
When you buy a brownstone that requires renovation, your insurance "can be an issue because anything more than basic cosmetic work can void a standard policy," says Jeff Schneider, president of Gotham Brokerage (FYI, a Brick sponsor). "Buyers have to inquire if several months of vacancy or renovation work will require a different kind of policy. (The general contractor’s coverage is not sufficient, even if you are named an additional insured.) The right coverage can be expensive, but not as much as an uncovered loss,” he says.
There are other insurance considerations for living in a brownstone. If there’s a fire or heavy winds, most insurance policies will not cover the costs of restoring a brownstone to its original construction (meaning they won’t replace crown moldings or mahogany wood, Schneider says.
The policies that do cover extensive repairs are considerably more costly; be prepared to spend as much as 40 percent more than what you would on a standard insurance policy.
“With more erratic weather and an aging infrastructure, meaning older dwellings with old pipes, insurance companies are very sensitive to water issues,” he adds. Many companies will require you to have water-flow cut-off switches on higher-value or renovated brownstones to limit water damage after a broken or frozen pipe incident. They may also want sump pumps with back ups.
FEMA flood coverage is almost always available, although it too can be very expensive.
But standard insurers tend to shy away from the coast even though they do not provide flood coverage. Some companies will no longer cover homes within 2,500 feet of the shore, “especially if you are on the water side of the BQE.” As Schneider explains it, they are concerned about wind and big storms, like Hurricane Sandy, where it is not always clear whether flooding or wind-driven rain did the damage.
You may still be able to get the standard fire/theft/wind coverage, “but your choices may be limited and that’s something to be aware of,” Schneider says.
10) Property taxes are the silver lining
It may seem like NYC brownstone owners pay more for everything else, but they do get a break on property taxes. That’s because one- to three-family homes are in a different tax class than co-ops and condos.
This certainly rises to the top of the “to buy” column.
And as Barrett sees it, you can put these tax savings—and any rental income—toward increasing the level of services and quality-of-life features in your bespoke brownstone home.
—Earlier versions of this article contained reporting and writing by Leonara Desar.
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