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Manhattan townhouses 'see more action' with demand up to 2015 levels

By Jennifer White Karp | March 16, 2021 - 12:30PM 

A Chelsea townhouse listing at 451 West 21st St. recently went into contract. The asking price was $6,495,000. 

Brown Harris Stevens

The pandemic shifted buyers’ attention to an underappreciated type of housing—the townhouse—and Manhattan townhouses in particular are having a moment.

It makes sense—Brooklyn townhouses have been on fire metaphorically speaking for months, as buyers who are no longer tied to an office chase deals on houses where they can get the kind of suburban privacy offered by multiple levels and outdoor space. Another plus: Lower monthlies, since you’re not paying maintenance or common charges. Also, you'll pay lower taxes (thanks to New York City’s quirky tax system) than comparable-sized houses in the 'burbs.

“This is a really great type of housing that’s totally underappreciated,” Lindsay Barton Barrett, a broker at Douglas Elliman, previously told Brick. She represented the sellers in a recent, record-smashing Brooklyn Heights townhouse sale for $25.5 million.

But for upscale buyers who want all of the above plus access to the city’s top restaurants and cultural destinations (when they open fully) Manhattan townhouses are where it’s at—and brokers say demand for this category hasn’t been this high since 2015. 

You’re not seeing bidding wars, but Chris Poore, an agent at Brown Harris Stevens, says but there’s lots of action around Manhattan townhouses. It’s a result of a “shortage of townhouses that are completely done,” he says. Townhouse buyers favor properties that are recently renovated and well maintained, he says.

(In fact the spread between the asking price for renovated and unrenovated Manhattan listings is widening dramatically.)

Poore has been involved in a number of Downtown Manhattan townhouse deals that have traded quietly off-market. These high-end sellers want to avoid marketing their properties publicly and are not as negotiable, so they’re able to command a higher price. 

“We’re seeing volume we haven’t seen, a return to levels we saw in 2015 and 2016,” he says.

His Chelsea townhouse listing at 451 West 21st St. recently went into contract. This five-bedroom townhouse was asking $6,495,000. It has over 4,400 square feet of interior space and 1,950 square feet of exterior space, plus a theater, gym, garden, and landscaped roof deck.

A 'golden age'

John Walkup, co-founder of real estate data firm UrbanDigs, is calling this moment the “golden age” of Manhattan townhouses. His take on the data echoes Poore's: Demand for townhouses hasn’t been this high in six years.

Looking back, demand for townhouses was rocked by the newly scaled mansion tax in 2019 and it plunged again during the pandemic. Now, it's back up and even higher than pre-pandemic levels.

“Currently, the data shows that more buyers want Manhattan townhouses than at any point since early 2015. That’s all to say that if there’s a hot commodity in Manhattan, it’s townhouses,” Walkup says.

A big turnaround

In its 2020 Manhattan Townhouse Report, Corcoran says townhouse sales in 2020 can best be described as a “tale of two markets.” Sales were down 35 percent for the first three quarters on a year-over-year basis. When in-person showings resumed, there was a resurgence, and by the fourth quarter, sales were up 43 percent year over year, the highest annual gain in eight years.

In addition, the number of fourth quarter closings over $5 million hit the highest level since 2012. This increase in sales at the high-end pushed the median sales price in the fourth quarter over $6 million, 10 percent above 2019 and setting a new record, the Corcoran report says.

Better bang for the buck

One key draw: Townhouses offer more square footage than most luxury condo or co-op apartments.

“In Manhattan, it is difficult to find apartments over 4,000-5,000 square feet. If you are seeking a large, sprawling space, a townhouse is often your best option,” says Susan Abrams, a broker at Warburg Realty Broker.

And there are fewer rules—actually, none.

“Many buyers are also frustrated by the rules and regulations regarding lifestyles and renovations in most condominiums and cooperatives,” Abrams says. They’re more onerous in luxury buildings, she points out.

More space for multiple generations

Buyers are often New Yorkers looking to trade up, brokers say. Townhouses are not something that most international buyers are interested in, Poore says, because of the upkeep and maintenance involved.

Families who have been sheltering at home for a year realized they need more space—from each other, says Elizabeth Helene O’Neill, a broker at Warburg Realty. She has done some recent Manhattan townhouse deals involving buyers who wanted space for adult children.

“This is probably driven not only by Covid, affording them the ability to safely quarantine together, but also potentially from socio-economic factors that have prompted a rise in grown children living with parents," O’Neill says. 

Another deal was for a family with younger children. They wanted a townhouse with room for the grandparents to move in. It’s emblematic of the “sandwich generation,” where parents with young children are also taking care of their parents, she points out, “a more family-centric lifestyle that is driving demand.”

 

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