Co-ops

Buying in a boutique co-op or condo building? You'll likely get luxury and privacy, but often higher monthlies too

By Emily Myers | October 18, 2021 - 1:30PM 

The boutique building at 36 East 22nd St. in the Flatiron District has eight apartments. An apartment on the top floor is asking $3,995,000. 

Sothebys International Realty

In New York City, a boutique building refers to a smaller luxury development with fewer apartments and typically slimmed-down amenities. You may be wondering what are the attractions and challenges of owning in one of these types of properties.

Boutique buildings are generally more close-knit and, with fewer residents, your voice may be more clearly heard when it comes to decisions about capital improvements and other issues before the board. 

These buildings have always been popular and during the pandemic, buyers and renters have seen other advantages to living in smaller buildings. For example, residents don't have to share the elevator with dozens of others or pay for shared amenities they're not using. Nicole Hechter, a broker with Corcoran, says she's noticed a shift where buyers are looking for what she calls "a sense of community."

"Post-pandemic, people have been more interested in knowing their neighbors, which has not always been the case in New York City," she says.

If you're considering buying in a smaller boutique building, you'll want to do your homework on how the building is run and also make sure you're comfortable with fewer amenities, typically higher maintenance costs, and a level of familiarity with your neighbors. Here's what else to consider.

The size of a boutique building

If you're using the term "boutique" as a search criteria on a listing site, don't be surprised if your results bring up buildings with 140 apartments as well as four. The term "is somewhat subjective," says Vickey Barron, a broker at Compass.

Barron points out buildings with three or four apartments per floor can feel boutique but there may be others with elevator banks.

Ellen Sykes, a broker with Warburg Realty, defines a boutique building as one that has "fewer than 40 units, a doorman, and unique apartments in either their size, condition, or layout."

What's generally agreed is that the term "boutique" evokes a certain level of exclusivity and privacy. You'll typically find high-end finishes in buildings that have the feel of a luxury hotel.  

These types of buildings tend to be located on side streets or where zoning restrictions prevent developers from building very high but you can find them throughout the city. Barron lives in Walker Tower, a boutique building at 212 West 18th St., which has an elaborate brick façade and from the outside looks fairly large but only has 46 apartments.

"It falls on the cusp of a boutique building but certainly is a small building in unit number," she says. 

The range of amenities

"Most boutique buildings don't offer much in the way of amenities," Barron says. However, as with the size of boutique buildings, there's a good range. Some have a doorman and a concierge, even a garage, others might have arrangements with local facilities like gyms for discounts or have very little in the way of amenities. Remember: If there are amenities, you will pay for them through your maintenance or common charges. 

Many boutique buildings do have a doorman, but if you're considering one that doesn't have this amenity, make sure you find out how package deliveries are handled.  

Some boards may chose to pare back on staffing or if the building staff is small, Sykes says they may double up on jobs. "You won’t find the bells and whistles that come with the large maintenance staff of larger buildings," she says.

Community involvement

The boutique building 124 West 16th St. was completed in 2019 and all of the 15 apartments sold during the last year. Hechter says the reason for the building's success was that "it felt small and it felt safe and people wanted to know each other."

For many, this is a big plus, particularly after the intensity of the last year. Barron says there's "less traffic in your lobby, elevators, and hallways and it easier to know who your neighbors are. It doesn't feel like a hotel and less of a revolving door."

Sykes lives in a boutique building with 29 apartments on East 78th Street and says the residents "look out for each other in times of stress."  All the apartments have fireplaces and in winter the building buys firewood, which the residents collect in the evenings from the courtyard. She's hoping this year the building will revive its traditional holiday party in the lobby.

One consequence of a smaller building is that you typically have more decision-making power.  

"If you’re not on the board of an 80 unit building, you don’t have much say in the decisions," Hechter says, but if it is in an eight or 10-unit building and the board wants to make changes you‘ll be able to voice your opinion and be heard perhaps more than if you lived in a building with hundreds of apartments.

Monthly fees

Very often a smaller boutique building will have higher maintenance costs than a larger one because there are fewer residents to share the financial burden of capital improvements like facade repairs or a roof replacement. "If the boiler goes out there are fewer people to share in the cost," Barron says

In addition, small buildings need to have the same equipment, insurance, and building staff as larger buildings. One consequence of the higher maintenance fees is that it can brings down the resale price of units.

It is, of course, possible to find boutique buildings with lower common charges or maintenance. If there's no doorman, or pared back amenities, this will reduce the monthly charges. Hechter is selling apartments at 147 Ludlow St. on the Lower East Side, where monthly common charges for a two bedroom are just over $600. 

Sometimes it's more difficult or not cost-effective to bring in an outside management company for some of the smaller boutique buildings and they may be self-managed. This can save on costs but it could be a source of friction between residents if there's no impartial buffer of a managing agent.

Price point and other considerations

A lack of amenities is not necessarily reflected in the price point of apartments in boutique buildings. "There are some very expensive apartments in boutique buildings where there are under 15 units where buyers have written checks for $10 million and above," Barron says.

Sykes says small buildings are for people who like to live in a quirky place with charm and can afford to pay the higher maintenance fees. "They’ll need to be okay with not receiving the same kind of white glove service that you’ll find in first-class, luxury buildings," she says. She points out that with fewer residents you can get a more personalized service.

"I’m always struck by the way the staff in my building takes care of us," she says.

 

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