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What makes a true loft, and where to find one

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In theory, owning an airy, open loft is the city dweller's dream. But is loft living really as glamorous as it seems? The Corcoran Group's Sandy Mattingly—​the self-described Manhattan Loft Guy—​gives a rundown of this singular type of apartment in this week's Buy Curious.


I want to buy a loft in Manhattan, but I want to make sure I’m getting my money’s worth. What makes an apartment a real “loft”? What are the pros and cons of loft living? What kinds of neighborhoods should I look in to get one? What can I expect to spend?


What defines a loft:

To a Manhattan loft snob like me, a “loft” is not truly a loft unless it’s had a prior life as a commercial space—manufacturing, warehouse or office—before being converted to an apartment. The hallmarks of classic lofts are big spaces (think 2,000 to 3,000 square feet and up) with high ceilings, big windows and open kitchens or “great rooms”; few, if any, walls because the weight of the interior structure is supported by columns or exterior walls; and often exposed mechanical systems like visible air conditioning ductwork and plumbing risers.

Originally, lofts were the territory of artists, who found it difficult to do their work in smaller, conventional apartments, and lived (sometimes illegally) in these vast commercial spaces, many of them downtown. They were often sold as is, meaning the remnants of the spaces’ past lives—exposed brick, rough columns, distressed flooring, industrial-sized freight elevators—survived.

Though lofts were first used with efficiency (not aesthetics) in mind, the loft look became fashionable starting in the 1970s. Now, developers regularly build new structures that have many classic loft features, like open layouts, high ceilings, big windows, open kitchens, even distressed finishes. That said, lofts have accounted for only about 10 percent of Manhattan sales for the last couple of decades, so they can still sometimes be pricier or harder to find for buyers. ​

The good:

Some like the feeling of "volume" that a high ceiling plus a large room plus big windows can bring—a place will seem bigger than the square footage alone. Others like the flexibility of an interior that’s a blank canvas, where a buyer could put walls anywhere or nowhere, or install a master bathroom or closet bigger than most bedrooms. Lofts are also a good fit for those who entertain, and some like the sense of history that comes from living in a space that used to be something else.  

The bad:

Some tire of living in the open, with kitchen mess that remains visible; in other cases, they prefer the privacy that lots of rooms (and doors) afford. It can also be difficult to decorate such a huge space; a decorating scheme has to apply across multiple rooms and areas at once, if you’re interested in keeping it coordinated.

Also, many loft buildings lack the features you’d expect in new condos, like doormen or gyms, and quite a few are located in mixed-use neighborhoods, where your building might share the block with light manufacturing.

And since there is so much diversity in how people configure lofts—with different bedroom and bathroom counts and renovation results even within the same building—it can be difficult to measure how much a place is worth. A recent sale upstairs does not automatically mean that the loft downstairs is worth the same amount. This means that buyers might not be able to trust listings or average sales prices​.

And where to find 'em:

You’ll find a concentration of lofts in Tribeca and Soho, though these tend to be the most expensive areas in the city, and don’t have a lot of smaller units available—which means you’ll wind up spending even more. 

Chelsea and the Flatiron District have a better mix of prices and sizes, as well as a broader range of offerings, from units with no-expense-spared renovations to others that have barely been touched. 

(ProTip: If you're not seeing enough homes for sale in your price range or target neighborhood -- and/or you'd like to avoid a bidding war -- consider expanding your search to "off-market" listings. NYC real estate brokerage Triplemint, a Brick Underground partner, uses technology to mine public records and identify owners who may be ready to sell, meaning you can meet and deal with owners before their homes hit the market. Click here to learn more.)

You can also find (relative) bargains on the West Side in the 30s, 40s and 50s, as well as the Seaport area in Lower Manhattan, on the Lower East Side and in Central Harlem. In many cases, lofts are located on blocks that are (or were recently) mixed use, so these blocks are often grittier and more commercial than a more highly concentrated residential block. 

Because of the range of lofts out there, it's tricky to pin down exactly how much you'll spend, but suffice it to say that there's a loft out there for just about any budget. (For what it's worth, Manhattan lofts on the market now range in asking price from about $300,000 to $48 million, according to StreetEasy.)

All in for loft-living?

Chelsea two-bedroom/two-bathroom co-op, $3.95 million: This 4,050-square-foot loft at 141 West 26th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues has 12-foot ceilings and a 450-square-foot patio.

Flatiron two-bedroom/two-bathroom co-op, $2.7 million: The windows in this 1,750-square-foot loft at 105 Fifth Avenue between East 17th and East 18th Streets are 9 feet tall. The L-shaped footprint has been renovated to accommodate two bedrooms and two bathrooms.

Tribeca two-bedroom/two-bathroom condo, $2.1 million: This loft at 48 Laight Street between Varick and Hudson Streets was built in 2006, and comes with large casement windows, 12-foot ceilings, wide-plank hardwood floors, stainless steel kitchen appliances, custom kitchen cabinets and a Juliet balcony. 

Garment District one-bedroom/1.5-bathroom co-op, $1.75 million: With just one bedroom and two walls of windows, this apartment at 347 West 39th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues maintains classic loft features.

Harlem two-bedroom/two-bathroom condo, $1.2 million: This 2008 condo conversion at 223 West 135th Street between Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Frederick Douglass Boulevards doesn’t look very loft-y, but the 1,318-square-foot space does have a floor plan that looks like a long-and-narrow loft with some exposed brick. There’s also a 746-square-foot garden.


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