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If you're accustomed to New York City co-op or condo living, buying a brownstone is a more hands-on investment. You need to know what you are getting yourself into because the demands on your time will be far more significant.
The main difference between buying an apartment and a brownstone is that the whole pre-sale process will be more thorough and require an attorney, lender, and insurance broker with brownstone experience. And after the sale, you’ll be foregoing the usual high-rise perks like doormen and on-site health clubs or even a super to handle the inevitable repairs.
[Editor’s note: An earlier version of this post was published in December 2013. We are presenting it again with updated information for October 2019.]
“I always pre-warn buyers of the kinds of things they are going to be responsible for and to know at least the basics in case something crops up in the middle of the night,” says Kemdi Anosike, agent at Warburg Realty. Think water leaks or a flipped electrical switch.
But he is also quick to point out that becoming a FIY (fix-it-yourselfer) is a small price to pay in exchange for privacy, a backyard, and the power to make your home all your own—and to live in one of NYC’s most coveted icons.
Below are some key points to consider before you become an urban homesteader.
1) Upkeep is your responsibility
Unlike with a co-op or condo, if anything goes wrong with the property, it’s your responsibility to hire a professional—no more calling your building’s super to say, “I’ve got a problem.” That goes for everything from rodents and leaky faucets to trash removal.
“Buyers for sure think about shoveling snow and tending the garden but not getting service contracts to keep mechanical equipment in working order,” says Lindsay Barton Barrett, broker at Douglas Elliman, who owns a townhouse in the Cobble Hill Historic District. “It’s the ongoing but infrequent responsibilities, such as neglecting to check the boiler before turning on your radiators, that can create the most havoc," she says.
Anosike has to remind brownstone buyers to pay their water bills, which you don’t have to do in a co-op or condo. “I’ve had clients call me two months after closing wondering why their water has been shut off,” he says.
You will need to be proactive about routine home maintenance, primarily for the boiler, furnace, and the plumbing as well as cleaning the gutters and making any roof repairs (or replacing it as needed, typically after 20 years for asphalt shingles, longer for slate).
Then there’s the matter of painting or otherwise keeping the facade and stoop in good repair. And be prepared to shell out bucks on replacing windows for better insulation.
The city also requires you to keep your sidewalk in good condition—and will hold you liable if someone slips on the ice or if a tree root comes up and lifts one of the stones, creating a tripping hazard. (It happens a lot, per Barrett.)
Now for the good news: Odds are you won’t be going it completely alone.
Anosike says neighbor-owners can collaborate on hiring a communal super to handle all their needs. “It’s competitive out there and many supers will ‘own’ a block."
He’s also had a client who ended up hiring the super from their former co-op, who they knew and trusted, to come once a week to help out.
2) You’ll have to do without amenities
So what if brownstones don't have amenities like doormen or concierges to handle your deliveries? Installing a remote doorman system, such as Virtual Doorman, that can receive packages is one workaround.
Barrett says some New Yorkers hire house managers who are there all the time to accept packages and meet the plumber or other workers, and who often have construction management experience. “This is NYC so you can get anything from a temp staffing agency,” she says.
Or you can take another common approach and ask a neighbor who is home during the day if they will take your packages.
As for the lack of building security, you can install wireless security systems with latch locks and motion sensors and more, such as by SimpliSafe and Vivint, for 24/7 security, or "get a more elaborate 24/7 ATV monitoring service," says Anosike.
And because it's rare to find an elevator in a brownstone, you should also consider how you’ll be moving furniture and appliances into your new dwelling. (Hint: Take careful measurements before buying anything.) Lugging strollers, bicycles and heavy groceries up and down the stairs will be your new normal.
3) You need a title search
Any liens on the property, code violations, and open permits will be discovered by the title company when it searches and prepares its report, typically after a signed contract, although you can order the searches earlier.
You attorney will also conduct due diligence, and may uncover liens or violations in advance. You can also go to the Department of Buildings’s website to do your own research.
It’s worth bearing in mind that brownstones can easily be 100 years old or more in NYC and during that long history, “something may have happened,” Barrett says. In addition, because owners tend to renovate these homes, there’s greater potential for a contractor’s lien or open work permits.
Not that these are necessarily deal-breakers, but they can drag out the sale, by weeks or even months.
4) Be sure to check the C of O
If you are thinking of buying a brownstone as a multi-family unit you’ll want to check with the DOB to see what its legal designation is, because sometimes a three-family setup is really a two-family designation or a two-family home in a legit single-family one. If your plan is to buy a two-family with the goal of renting an apartment out, you want to make sure that the house is indeed a legal two family.
And if you’re getting a mortgage, you need to the brownstone’s actual use will need to be in line with its legal use, otherwise your lender may not close on the loan.
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5) Your offer depends on the inspection
The general thinking is that any offer should be contingent on the property passing a site inspection, which you should schedule before the signed contract. Ask your broker or mortgage banker for a home inspector recommendation (or search for one here).
“It’s a good idea to work with a licensed inspector who is experienced with brownstones, which have a whole set of potential problems not associated with modern buildings,” Anosike says. Those include the presence of lead paint, mold in the basement (“that’s very common”), problems with the facade or roof, and an out-dated heating system and electrical wiring. (You can read up on “What does it mean when a house has 'foundation problems'?”)
One of the most expensive fixes is a leak from an oil tank, whether it’s underground or in the cellar, something Barrett says puts you in a whole new category of repair costs. “That’s one thing you should always be on the lookout for.”
6) What landmark status means
If the brownstone is in one of the city’s coveted landmarked districts you’ll have to go through the Landmarks Preservation Commission to get approval for exterior renovations. This can be a timely process, and you’ll be limited in what you can do.
“It does add a layer of complication when renovating, but I personally think it’s not as much of a pain as people think it is,” Barrett says. Simple updates can be approved at the staff level, for example, rather than having to get a full review.
Except for the rare instance where the interior is also landmarked, you will be able to make changes to the inside of the building, though you’ll still have to submit all the design plans.
“But if you want to add another story or modernize the exterior, a landmarked brownstone may not be for you,” Anosike says.
7) More units mean a bigger down payment
It makes sense that for higher-priced properties, you’ll need a larger down payment, says Keith Furer, a mortgage broker at Guardhill Financial Corp. Also, the required down payment goes up depending on the number of units, something to keep in mind if you are buying a multi-family dwelling or will be a landlord.
That of course limits how much you can borrow.
There’s no real difference in interest rates for a condo, co-op, or brownstone. Rather, the rate will depend on factors such as purchase price, loan amount, property type, and your profile (e.g., credit score and post-close reserves).
On another note, a Federal Housing Administration loan, which is more readily available for brownstone purchases, allows you to put down as little as 3.5 percent for a down payment. “But know they have a maximum loan amount of $726,525,” says Furer.
8) Existing tenants may be protected
If you’re buying a brownstone with the intent of sole occupancy, your attorney should make sure the building is being delivered vacant.
Otherwise, if you intend to be a landlord and use part of the property for income, "depending on the number of units, there are also a number of laws to stay on the right side of," says real estate attorney Adam Stone of The Stone Law Firm, who also acts as a property manager for clients who own rental buildings.
"As the owner you must know the laws, comply with them, and file the proper paperwork with the proper city or state department," he says. For example, the owner of a building with three or more units must comply with NYC's window guard law which requires landlords to, among other things, send a window guard notice to each tenant each year and to properly install and maintain approved window guards in apartments where children 10 years old or younger reside, or if the tenant requests them for any reason.
Complicating matters is the situation where you are buying a brownstone with existing tenants. Rent-regulated tenants generally pay less than market value tenants, which can factor into your financial equation. They also have automatic lease renewal.
To keep you on top of these requirements, you can hire a property management firm or a law firm with property management experience.
9) Get the right insurance
In the event of a fire or heavy winds, most insurance policies will not cover the costs of restoring a brownstone to its original construction (meaning they won’t replace crown moldings or mahogany wood), warns apartment insurance broker Jeff Schneider of Gotham Brokerage (FYI, a Brick sponsor).
The policies that do cover extensive repairs are considerably more costly; be prepared to spend as much as 40 percent more than what you would on a standard insurance policy.
“With more erratic weather and an aging infrastructure, meaning older dwellings with old pipes, insurance companies are very sensitive to water issues,” he adds. Many companies will require you to have water-flow cut-off switches on higher-value or renovated brownstones to limit water damage after a broken or frozen pipe incident. They may also want sump pumps with back ups.
FEMA flood coverage is almost always available, although it too can be very expensive.
But standard insurers tend to shy away from the coast even though they do not provide flood coverage. Some companies will no longer cover homes within 2,500 feet of the shore, “especially if you are on the water side of the BQE.” As Schneider explains it, they are concerned about wind and big storms, like Hurricane Sandy, where it is not always clear whether flooding or wind-driven rain did the damage.
You may still be able to get the standard fire/theft/wind coverage, “but your choices may be limited and that’s something to be aware of,” Schneider says.
10) Property taxes are the silver lining
It may seem like NYC brownstone owners pay more for everything else, but they do get a break on property taxes. That’s because one- to three-family homes are in a different tax class than co-ops and condos.
This certainly rises to the top of the “to buy” column.
And as Barrett sees it, you can put these tax savings—and any rental income—toward increasing the level of services and quality-of-life features in your bespoke brownstone home.
—Earlier versions of this article contained reporting and writing by Leonara Desar
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