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8 places to get more space for less when buying an NYC apartment

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In New York City real estate, apartment space is more prized than a perfect parking spot. If you're in the market for a place, are looking for the most amount of space for the least amount of money, and are willing to tolerate some potential downside for the ability to turn around without bruising your elbows, here are a few places to look. 

[Editor's note: A version of this story was first published in 2013. It has been updated here with additional reporting.]

1) A first-floor apartment

On average, according to appraiser Jonathan Miller of the firm Miller Samuel, "the price difference between a second and first floor apartment is 15 percent. The difference between a second-floor apartment and a third-floor apartment is probably another 10 percent," meaning that the difference in price between a first and third floor apartment can be as much as 25 percent.

The reason? People's perceptions about security, privacy and street noise.

“The exception, of course, would be a brownstone garden apartment,” Miller says. That will sell at a premium. The first floor in a walk-up is also a premium—think an inverse relationship of price to stairs.

2) A post-war apartment

It may not have the romantic cachet of a prewar or the new car smell of a new development, but post-wars (meaning those built during the post-World War II housing shortage) can translate into more space for less money.

"The square footage of a two-bedroom in a post-war is a three-bedroom in new construction," says broker Julie Rose, a broker with Citi Habitats. "There's definitely more value in post-war construction. You pay a premium for new construction. Even for buildings built in the past 10 or 12 years."

Some bristle at hallmarks of post-war buildings (sterile white exteriors and long, winding hallways for example) but once you're in your apartment, it may not matter, especially if you have room to roam. All things being equal, Miller says, there tends to be a 10-15 percent price difference between prewar and post-war, "but the differences tend to be that prewars have higher ceiling height, hardwood floors versus parquet, and better soundproofing."

3) An apartment with a slightly higher maintenance

Obviously you don’t want to burden yourself with a large, unrealistic maintenance fee each month, but sometimes a slightly higher maintenance can mean a lower purchase price (and down payment). It’s a trick that can helpful for those who want more space for a little less, assuming they have consistent money coming in each month.

But our experts say that there are several reasons to be slightly wary of high maintenance fees.

“Any broker or appraiser will tell you that higher monthly charges impact  the value of the apartment,” says Adam Stone of The Stone Law Firm.  “You also need to be sure to look into why the maintenance is so high. It may be something innocuous, like it has twice as many staff members as other buildings. But maybe there was litigation against the building, and there was a judgment they had to pay out, or maybe there are construction issues. That’s why you need to dig deeper into the financials and speak to a managing agent to get details."

Also, keep in mind that most co-op boards won’t allow buyers to take on a monthly maintenance that is more than 25 percent of their income, and you don’t want maintenance and mortgage together to be more than 35 percent, according to Stone.

4) An apartment with location issues

Heading far away from public transportation and away from popular neighborhoods can bring you a lot more for your money.

"Stretch your boundaries on location," Rose says. "If your cutoff is 100th Street, give another 15 blocks and see what that gets you. If it's 96th Street, go to 103rd. The same goes for going further east. Instead of Third Avenue go the First." 

But note that prices can vary from one street to the next.

“On the Upper East Side, for example,” Miller says, “prices go down as you go further East of Lexington, but they go right back up again when you hit East End,” he says.

5) Walk-ups and non-doorman buildings

Those looking in non-doorman buildings are likely to see savings of 10-15 percent on average compared to doorman buildings, according to Miller.

Those who are able to live above the second floor of a walk-up will see even more significant discounts.

“The discount is almost geometric as you go up,” Miller says. "Below the fourth floor, you’re looking at a price about 5 percent less on each higher floor. Above that,  it’s even more.”

Keep in mind that some lenders are reluctant to offer mortgages above the fourth floor of walk-ups. Yet the very fact that a mortgage might be a little tough to get means that you’re likely to snag a deal, especially if you can pay in cash.

6) Where banks are reluctant to lend

Sellers often offer small discounts for apartments that they know are not popular with the banks. Examples, according to one mortgage broker who wished to remain anonymous, include brownstones, walk-ups above the fourth floor, HDFC (income-restricted) co-ops, condos where a single entity owns more than 10 percent of the apartments, recent conversions where many tenants are still rent-stabilized, and anything with more than 20 percent commercial space.

“Also in buildings with a hotel component, you’re not going to get financed unless you have a lot of money and a private banker," the broker says. Also, “Of course, a cash buyer is always going to get a slightly better deal."

But before you jump on one of these deals (and/or try and muster up enough money to buy one in cash), think about why the lenders are wary.

“A purchaser may have the same concerns that the lenders are wary about,” Stone says. But sometimes the issue, like a fifth-floor walk-up for a totally fit person, can be overcome despite bank trepidations.

“If you can handle that, it’s an issue that’s easily overcome," he says. "But if it’s an issue like a sponsor still owns 50 percent of units, you really need to check with a lawyer about the risks. In that case, if the sponsor/investor falls on tough times, it could negatively affect everyone in the building."

7) A fixer-upper

Do you have the budget and stomach for some renovation? This could be the key to getting more space.

"For most people in the market they're looking for turnkey, but if you're willing to do the work, you can get a deal," Rose says. "In some cases it's not even a huge fix-up—a new kitchen or doing the floors, not a gut job." 

If you are game for a larger project, combining two units can also be an option. But beware of high common charges/maintenance charges, as combinations usually result in higher charges than for a same-sized apartment that did not result from a combination.

8) Challenging layouts

Open plans are most popular with buyers these days. People want more entertaining space (meaning larger kitchens/living rooms and dining rooms) and fewer bedrooms. So, those who don’t mind, or even prefer more traditional floor plans, with a closed-off kitchen, dining room, and living room, may get a lot more space for their buck. And of course, you can always choose to knock down a wall or two. 

"A lot of people don't have the vision for it," Rose says. "But if you do, you can get value out of that."