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The pandemic has changed what matters for New York City’s buyers and renters. For instance, large buildings with shared amenities are suddenly less attractive—and feel less safe—than more private boutique buildings and townhouses.
There’s another type of apartment that is now expected to be in demand: The ground-floor apartment. With the public health crisis likely to continue for months, if not longer, New Yorkers looking to move will opt for ground-floor apartments that make social distancing easier. A ground-floor apartment also means you won’t have to worry about catching the coronavirus from riding the elevator with your neighbors.
Before the pandemic, living in a ground-floor apartment often got a bad rap in NYC. These types of apartments tend to give you less natural light and, if your windows face the street, less privacy. You’ll be closer to noises, smells, and potential pest problems and security issues might also be a concern but these downsides often mean you’ll see ground-floor apartments listed at lower prices or rents than similar apartments on higher floors.
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Beyond saving some money, there are a lot of New Yorkers who actually prefer living in a lower-level unit. In fact, the public health concerns related to the coronavirus mean ground-floor apartments might be getting their moment. For starters, you won’t have to depend on the elevator to access your apartment. It might also be easier to move into a ground-floor apartment (especially in a walk-up), and they can be an obvious choice if you’re elderly, have mobility or health issues, children, or a dog that goes out several times a day.
In addition to meeting your lifestyle needs, some ground-floor apartments have features that can actually make them more desirable—and luxurious—than units on higher floors.
[Editor's note: This article was originally published in May 2020. We are presenting it again here as part of our summer Best of Brick week.]
1. Location, location, location
Given that some of the chief complaints surrounding ground-floor apartments have to do with their proximity to the street and all its fracas and stenches, an apartment's actual location in the building can make a world of difference. If you're situated toward the back of the building, for instance, you'll have much more peace and quiet—and maybe even a backyard (more on that later). A more-secluded location can also protect you from the noise of the building's lobby, stairwell, or elevator.
In new developments or recent renovations, you'll often see developers make an effort to put ground-floor units toward the rear of the building, or at least ensure that the bedrooms aren't facing the street to maintain some relative quiet.
Similarly, many of these apartments are oriented so that the main entertaining spaces like kitchens and living rooms are facing large back windows into backyards to avoid street noise and let in more natural light.
Being on the ground floor can also protect you from noise complaints if you have kids. Gerard Splendore, a broker at Warburg Realty, knows first-hand the benefits of living on the ground floor. “Our apartment was located over the laundry and storage rooms. My two children, as well as the other two who lived next to us, could—within limits—make as much noise as they liked and jump and run without concern about bothering neighbors below,” he says.
Another advantage if you’re dealing with strollers, scooters, or bikes is that you can come and go fairly easily without squeezing into an elevator. As we continue social distancing in the face of the pandemic, avoiding the elevator has even more advantages.
Bottom line: You still may not get all the light you want, but if noise is your primary concern, don't necessarily rule out a lower-level unit because where it’s situated could mitigate those concerns almost entirely. And if you’re the one making the noise, the situation might be exactly what you need.
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2. You may have a backyard to call your own
One of the most common perks that may offset the potential downfalls of a ground-floor apartment is the all-important backyard, a coveted amenity in a city with precious little outdoor space and something that’s even more important as New Yorkers are asked to stay home to stop the spread of coronavirus. It’s also an important consideration if you have a dog.
If you're hoping for outdoor space but don't want to overspend, you may be able to score a deal by looking in the colder months—when the nice weather hits, outside space is quickly added to everyone’s wish list.
Bottom line: A terrace or backyard might not seem especially enticing in the doldrums of February, but if you snap it up ahead of time, you've got a good chance at avoiding more stiff competition.
3. The lower level comes with extra space—and storage
Particularly in apartments that are located on the ground floor of a townhouse or brownstone, there's a good chance you'll get access to the building's basement, which could mean extra storage and even your own laundry room.
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"You have your own private entrance, under the stoop, and get a sort of mudroom via that common hallway that leads down to the basement, but that nobody really uses," says Win Brown, a broker with CORE. "And besides the backyard, owners will usually give tenants access to the basement for laundry and extra storage, which means more space overall."
Even in newer developments, you may see the space below-grade (aka, below the sidewalk) rejiggered as amenity space rather than a glorified darkroom.
Bottom line: Pack rats, consider this a potential solution if you don't feel like springing for a storage unit.
4. It's a maisonette with multiple floors (and a private entrance)
If you've got a bigger budget to play around with, developers are increasingly turning ground-floor units into elaborate, townhouse-style maisonette duplexes or triplexes, with high ceilings, multiple floors, and luxury finishes.
"[These are ideal] for the buyer who wants a townhouse lifestyle and more square feet, but doesn't necessarily want to be responsible for shoveling snow," says Emily Beare, a broker at CORE. "You have the townhouse feel, but the beauty and convenience of being part of a building—you have a doorman, your own private entrance from the street [and an entrance from the lobby]."
The high ceilings in these newer maisonettes also generally come with tall windows, solving the problem of natural light.
Bottom line: Architecture is everything. Just because it's on the ground floor of a building doesn't mean it can't feel like a house.
5. The price is right
High-design maisonettes are all well and good, but if your budget is more down-to-earth, then consider first-floor apartments an opportunity for savings—or haggling.
There's no rule of thumb for how much you might save on a ground floor—it will depend on a variety of factors including light, location, and outdoor space. That said, typically a first-floor unit can be up to 15 percent cheaper than something comparable on a higher floor—or more if the apartment's less than ideal.
"If it's really close to the lobby and facing the front, that could be 20 percent less," says Kobi Lahav, senior managing director at Living NY. "If it's facing the back and quiet but there's no light, maybe 10 or 15 percent less," he says.
One real-life example from Lahav is the case of two identical apartments on the Upper West Side. The second-floor unit sold for $1.55 million, while the one in the back of the ground floor went for $1.35 million. If the ground-floor unit had been facing the front, Lahav says, the price may well have been knocked down further to $1.2 or $1.25 million.
"The front is really a deal breaker for a lot of people," he says. "And if it's something where the window is directly facing a bus station or something, that's going to be a 25 percent discount."
Ultimately, it's all about sussing out the units with potential, and knowing what your deal breakers are, as in the rest of the apartment hunt.
But here’s something to take into consideration: The sales market is in the middle of a major reset, so selling any apartment right now could be a struggle. And if that apartment’s on the ground-floor, it could be even harder.
“People realize they can get better deals on higher-floor apartments, so they find that they might not have to compromise on a ground-floor unit and that their budget can take them further,” Lahav says.
Bottom line: You could get more for less money—and that, for many, is definitely a luxury.
—Earlier versions of this article contained reporting and writing by Virginia K. Smith and Nikki Mascali.
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