There are few buildings more iconic in New York City than the classic brownstone, a type of building that emerged in the 1830s, when a new urban middle class of New Yorkers sought a home that looked fancier than brick and was more durable than wood.
[This story originally ran on February 2, 2016.]
Brownstone, which is a type of sandstone that gets its dark brown color from high concentrations of iron, was readily available from New Jersey and Connecticut quarries, making it a convenient option for new construction. The stone shipped easily to New York via barges, and then the rest is history. Today, it’s “an iconic and beautiful type of home in New York,” said Brown Harris Stevens broker Lee Solomon. It’s also one of the most expensive.
Besides the $1 million or more you’ll fork over for a brownstone, as with most older buildings, they also come with their own set of quirks and unexpected expenses. We spoke to Solomon, who has represented many Brooklyn brownstone properties; Angela Tiffin, the author of the Brownstone Cyclone blog, which chronicles her own brownstone renovation; and Ben Herzog, principal at the brownstone-savvy firm Ben Herzog Architecture, about the hidden costs buyers should know about ahead of time:
Though it may seem obvious, a brownstone is, yes, a house, and as such, the costs attendant to owning one are far more than what co-op and condo buyers inherit. For starters, there are utilities—electricity, heat, water, snow and garbage removal, the works. Basically, anything to do with keeping your home up and running falls on your shoulders.
“With condos or co-ops, your monthly costs are clear,” says Solomon. “With brownstones, the costs are not on paper, but you need a reserve if something comes up.” This could be anything from a $200 to a $5,000 extra cost, she says. (Some brownstone owners recommend a reserve of as much as $10,000.) As for utilities, it’ll depend on your brownstone’s energy efficiency, your personal usage, and if there are tenants occupying other floors. Last year Tiffin and her husband averaged about $110/month for oil, $30/month for water, $17/month for gas, and $150/month for electric on their two-family brownstone. They pay the full oil and water bills, and split gas and electricity with their downstairs rental tenants.
A brownstone is nothing without its facade. And although they sure look lovely, “brownstone is a horrible building material,” says Herzog. It's porous and flakes easily due to environmental factors like moisture. If the stone starts deteriorating, it’s better to take care of it immediately rather than wait until the entire facade needs to be replaced. Brownstone specialists can repair areas of the facade by cleaning, patching or replacing the stone. A full-on facade replacement for a three or four-story townhouse can cost anywhere from $70,000 up to six figures, according to Herzog.
Although brownstones were repaired with actual brownstone (often brown sandstone quarried from Connecticut) for many decades, today most are repaired with brown cement-based masonry. You’ll need an expert with brownstone experience to choose the proper color. If there are intricate architectural details carved into the facade, the expert will have to sculpt those back into the proper shape, too—brownstones with lots of intricate details are going to be more expensive to restore, Herzog says.
Facade maintenance is more than just brownstone upkeep. “Re-brownstoning” the stoop of the home costs about $15,000, he says. Also, custom cast-iron work can be “really, really expensive”—several thousands of dollars to repair short sections, or to find matching, custom-made newels, balustrades and rails.
Interior upgrades and changes
Brownstones are old buildings. That means most buyers look to renovate or upgrade them upon moving in, but even more than the typical reno, these projects can be a minefield of unexpected costs. Changes will also require an inspection by the Department of Buildings: “The DOB is [going to go] around your old house, looking at every detail that is not up to code because it was never renovated, and all the things you have to change,” Tiffin says. A significant cost, she and her husband found, would be the expediter—the middle-man that files changes with the Department of Buildings. The expediter’s cost varies depending on how much work needs to be done with the DOB; Tiffin and her husband spent about $9,000.
A C of O change
That $9,000 expense was higher than the couple expected because their home required a Certificate of Occupancy change. The C of O, according to the Department of Buildings, "describes how a building may be occupied, for example, a two-family home, a parking lot, a 40-unit multiple dwelling, or a store." Any change in use or structure will require a new C of O, and sometimes owners doing renovations on their own may neglect to get one.
When Tiffin and her husband bought their brownstone, they were told it was a legal two-family—an appealing factor because it meant that they could rent out the ground-floor apartment for rental income. But at closing, it was revealed that the family configured the brownstone as a two-family although it was still legally registered with the city as a single-family. That meant Tiffin and her husband, upon their purchase, needed to legally convert it into a two-family before they could move forward with a renovation. The process “added an extra expense with permitting and inspectors,” said Tiffin—hence the higher cost for an expediter.
To avoid misinformation about your brownstone’s configuration, do your work before you close on your property. Solomon recommends potential buyers dig up all the information they can about the home they’re considering on the Buildings website, which lists the building’s certificate of occupancy. The DOB is also a good place to check for violations or open permits on the structure; once you buy a brownstone, any DOB fines left open by a previous owner are yours to resolve. So do the extra legwork, and don't just take the sellers' word for it.
Many brownstones are in historic districts, meaning that the Landmarks Preservation Commission regulates any changes you make to the exterior of the building. That means if you’re redoing the brownstone, plans will need to be approved by the LPC—even more a reason why you’ll want to hire an expert to take the job on. But regulations go beyond the brownstone facade. “Any replacement of windows or front doors will have to comply with the landmark standards,” says Solomon. “That means if there are aluminum on vinyl framed windows, they will likely need to be replaced with more historic-looking wood-clad windows.”
Solomon says brownstone buyers in landmark districts should familiarize themselves with the LPC Rowhouse Manual, which offers advice on how to maintain, repair or restore air conditioners, windows, doors, walls, cornices and ironwork, as well as how to obtain a permit for changes to them. If you make changes without the LPC’s approval, they’ll slap you with a violation and fine between $500 and $5,000 depending on the severity of the violation.
Once you’ve bought a brownstone, you’re solely responsible for its upkeep. “With a condo or co-op, you know what your monthlies are going to be,” says Solomon. “The extra costs of a brownstone are not on paper, but you will need a reserve of funds if something comes up.” For a little extra cushion, do your research on types of home insurance. A neighbor recommended Tiffin and her husband pay $15 a month for water main and sewage main coverage—something that came in handy when the couple’s 100-year-old sewage pipe broke and the city held them accountable for its $10,000 to $15,000 replacement. (A water line break will set you back up to $5,000.)
More generally, your insurance is likely to be pricier, since insurance companies generally want you to insure for the full cost of rebuilding, which is expensive when you're dealing with an old brownstone. "If you want to rebuild a brownstone with its original architectural details, it can cost upwards of $600 per square foot," says Jeff Schneider of Gotham Brokerage. (Full disclosure, a BrickUnderground sponsor.) By comparison, a regular frame house would run you closer to $300 per square foot, Schneider says.
And if your brownstone comes with valuable interior details like plaster walls, pocket doors, and leaded windows, you might want an insurer who agrees to cover that. Sometimes, if a brownstone is damaged, the repair work might include replacing an outdated system to meet current building codes, which is another element not covered in standard homeowner insurance. Do your research and be prepared to pay a little extra if you want coverage for interior details or the associated expenses repairing them.