5 hidden costs of owning a brownstone

By Emily Nonko | June 11, 2019 - 4:35PM 

Face it, if you’re like a lot of New Yorkers, you’ve probably fantasized about what it would be like to live in your very own classic, 19th century brownstone.

Sure, they’re nice. But they can cost, depending on where you look, anywhere from $1 million (a steal) to 10 times that (You can check out this article Brick Underground wrote about “affordable” Brooklyn townhouses under $2 million.)

But that’s just for starters: After you buy, brownstones come with their own set of unexpected issues and costs. Consider them the gift that keeps on giving, or in this case, taking.Which is why if you’re seriously considering buying one of NYC’s most iconic and popular housing options, you need to be fully aware of all of the potential expenses you could incur as an owner. (If you’re seriously in the market for a brownstone, check out all our advice on buying, selling and renovating these stately residences.)

[A previous version of this article ran in February 2016. It has been updated with new information for June 2019.]

1. Building maintenance 

As the sole owner of a building, you are responsible for its maintenance and repairs. (In a co-op, these costs are covered by maintenance fees; in a condo, owners pay common charges for the same purpose.)

The more obvious costs include taxes, heat/gas and electricity, but owners also pay for water, and even—surprise!—sidewalk repair.

(If you have a tenant in the building, they typically pay for their own gas and electric.)

Related: snow removal in front of your house is also your responsibility, so if you personally don’t want to do it, you need to hire someone who will. (Yet another unexpected expense: the lawsuit filed by the person who slipped on your un-shoveled sidewalk.)

But those are small expenses compared to the big ones that you can also be on the hook for: Replacing a roof, plumbing and electrical work, window replacement, exterminators and landscaping. If your brownstone has a special feature of some kind, like a working fireplace, maintaining it is your responsibility. 

As with most things, proactive maintenance and care can help avoid more severe problems later. (Here’s how to keep your pipes clear in an older building and here are common leaks in brownstones.

One thing you can be sure of: Something will go wrong or need work, and you need to budget for it.

“With condos or co-ops, your monthly costs are clear,” says Solomon, a broker at Brown Harris Stevens. “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.)

You might be seduced by the lower price tag of a brownstone that needs some work—key listing lingo to search: “Bring your architect!” and “Needs work”—but that “discount” will end up costing you. Most renovation projects run long and over budget, and buildings over 100 years old in particular can be a minefield of unexpected costs; you should budget for them.  

Changes will also require an inspection by the Department of Buildings, which can reveal code violations that need to be remedied, adding to the list of changes you need to make, and your expenses.

And unless you know your way around the city’s DOB and have a lot of time to stand in line to file documents and obtain permits, you’re likely going to need to hire an expediter—a middle-man that files changes with the Department of Buildings for you. Expediter’s costs vary depending on a variety of factors, but it’s very common to pay a fee of several thousand dollars.

2. Facade upkeep

Brownstone is aesthetically pleasing, but unfortunately, “is a horrible building material,” says Herzog. Its porosity makes it vulnerable to environmental factors such as moisture, causing it to flake easily.

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. (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.)

Whether you’re repairing or replacing, facade maintenance is expensive in part because you need someone skilled enough to do it properly.

Repairs are made with brown, cement-based masonry, which must be matched to the color of the existing stone, and intricate architectural details need to be sculpted to match as well.

It’s important to note that facade maintenance goes beyond the face of the building. Herzog estimates the cost of “re-brownstoning” the stoop of a building at about $15,000.

And those lovely cast iron fences and gates? Not available at Home Depot. Custom cast-iron work is costly, running several thousands of dollars to repair short sections, or to find matching, custom-made newels, balustrades and rails.

3. Change of Certificate of Occupancy

It may come as a surprise, but just because you own a building doesn’t give you carte blanche to do whatever you want with it.

Every building has what is called a Certificate of Occupancy, (or it should) which describes how a building may be occupied, or used—such as a single-family house, a store, a 40-unit apartment building, etc.

The problem is, not all “C of Os” are up to date. So, for example, if you’re buying a “two-family” brownstone that was converted  from a single-family without changing the C of O, you can’t renovate, or rent one of the apartments until you update it. The services of an expediter can help speed that process along, too. Here’s how to change your C of O.

To avoid any surprises regarding your brownstone’s configuration, do your homework 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 DOB website, which lists, among other information, 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.

4. The cost of character

Love the picture-perfect block a brownstone is on? It could cost you. Many brownstones are in historic districts, which means that the Landmarks Preservation Commission regulates any changes you make to the exterior of the building.

Plans will need to be approved by the LPC, and regulations cover more than just a brownstone’s facade. “Any replacement of windows or front doors will have to comply with the landmark standards,” says Solomon. “That means if there are aluminum- or 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. (Thinking of trying to skirt that process? Don’t. 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 infraction.)

5. Insurance

Expect to pay more for insurance than you would for a co-op or condo, 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. “These numbers tend to be higher than the square footage numbers for a small loss—total losses require  filings, architects, licensed workers with high insurance limits,” says Jeff Schneider of Gotham Brokerage (a Brick Underground sponsor).

"If you want to rebuild a brownstone with its original architectural details, it can cost upwards of  $600 per square foot," he says.  By comparison, a regular frame house would run you closer to $300 per square foot.

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.

One bit of insurance you should never forgo is water main and sewage main coverage, which is about $15 a month, but can save you from paying about $5,000 in the event of a water line break, and up to 15,000 if the sewer main fails.


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