Now Is A Great Time To Buy A Harlem Townhouse

A while back I wrote a post wondering if it was such a great idea to buy a townhouse. Well, the answer is, “yes, if you can get the right price” but maybe not if you’re trying to “flip” the property.

Pay 1/3rd of what you would have paid 2-3 years ago

Harlem townhouses that are wrecks and need major gut renovations have fallen about 65-70% in value since the peak in 2007. Even the ones in better condition have fallen substantially. Other real estate in Manhattan has fallen maybe 20%. I once had a friend tell me life is a lot like surfing – you need to watch waves and be prepared to get onto your next big wave and you need to do it before the wave gets too big. That analogy felt really apt as we sold our apartment at 15% off it’s peak value to purchase something that had fallen at least 65% from it’s peak value. It really felt like getting off one wave onto another that’s potentially much bigger.

Be prepared for volatility

But using the wave analogy a bit more… the Harlem townhouse market is still a market with drastic extremes. The fact that you can lose 2/3rds of the value in your home in 2 years will scare some people. There are a number of reasons for the volatility. The bottom line is that Harlem’s gentrification in the past 10+ years didn’t “stick”. Not enough got gone before the crash. The schools aren’t that great, the grocery stores are generally pretty bad, and there are still a fair number of empty lots and derelict buildings.

That’s why investing in Harlem today needs to be part of a long-term strategy. If you’re hoping to sell in a year or two – don’t do it. Harlem real estate could very well continue to go down in the next few years. Instead, look 10 or 15 years out at the next wave of investment/development and ask yourself which NY neighborhoods have the most upside potential. In Manhattan, Harlem is probably top of the list.

Signs of change – even now

If you’re not all that familiar with Harlem and it’s been years since you’ve been to Harlem try taking the ABCD trains to 125th Street and walking south on Frederick Douglass Boulevard (8th Avenue – the continuation of Central Park West). Years ago the place was pretty blighted, now the developers are calling it “SoHa” (South Harlem). Where once there was blight, now there are tons of brand spanking new buildings. Look closely at the buildings and you’ll see they’re quality building with decent design and above average construction. They’re a lot more like the new buildings you’d find on the Upper West Side than they are the drab new buildings you see in Washington Heights. At 124th you’ll see the new luxury Aloft Hotel being constructed. Around 120th go into Moca Lounge in the evening and see all the hip buppies. Around 119th go into Best Yet Market and see a grocery store that rivals downtown stores like Whole Foods and Gourmet Garage (it just opened a month ago and only had it’s official grand opening yesterday). There are great places to eat  all along that stretch – like Melba’s at 114th Street.  Yes, prices are down, but those new condos are still selling – even in this market. I genuinely think that type of development will spread to other parts of Harlem in the next upswing. If you’re patient enough to wait you can reap the benefits by buying now – at or near the bottom of the market (knock wood).

Pockets of long-time quality

There are certain parts of Harlem that have always had great townhouses and those neighborhoods are offering quality at a great price. Hamilton Heights / Sugar Hill (near the ABCD train at 145th) is one solid area. Strivers’ Row (138/139 between ACP and FDB) is another classic area that’s always been good. Mount Morris Historic District just south of 125 between 5th Avenue and ACP (7th Ave) is another solid neighborhood. And the blocks over by Morningside Park near Manhattan Avenue are great as well. Buying in an area with a reputation for stability is a pretty safe bet (long term). However, you really need to study Harlem to understand which blocks are solid and which aren’t since in some cases crossing an avenue can take you from one of the best blocks in Harlem to one of the worst.

Is the market going up or down?

Personally I think it’s leveled off. I don’t feel like it’s gone up or down much since about the middle of last year. Last July there were two sales in Sugar Hill that I saw as benchmark sales – 419 West 146th Street for $495K and 400 West 145th Street for $550K. When you looked at actual square footage both were at about $147/sq. ft. Both are in the historic district – with the one on 146 having the negative of a 12.5′ width, and the one on 145 having the negative of being on a busy street.

[The Department of Buildings has used two different ways to measure square footage over the years. As a result basement / garden levels are sometimes included and sometimes not. You need to determine the real square footage to determine the real cost per square foot.]

Doing the a 1/2 mile radius around those sales for the past 3 months we see prices haven’t changed all that much. The least expensive was 505 W 144 which sold for $122/sq ft. That’s one we bid on at one point and it’s outside the historic district on a “less than desirable” block. 400 W 145 sold for a 2nd time later in the year – this time for $650K – $100K more than it sold at auction for in July. 48 Hamilton PLACE sold for $450K ($143/sq. ft.) but it doesn’t have great location and I think it’s a fully occupied SRO. So, if anything I’d say prices have gone up slightly.

The higher end of the market is seeing similar stability. For almost a year now $300/sq. ft. will get you a habitable townhouse on a prime block needing significant renovation. In  the $400s/sq. ft. you’ll get a very nice fully renovated townhouse. And the exceptional townhouses will go for around the $500/sq. ft. mark.

Starting with a shell/wreck in a “decent” location (like ours), add about $20/sq. ft. for a prime block in a historic district or even a bit more the area in SoHa around Morningside Park & Manhattan Avenue. Or subtract about $20/sq. ft. for the worst locations. So the range for shells is just over $100/sq. ft. to about $150/sq. ft. on a prime block. It’s been that way for at least the better part of a year.

[If the townhouse is close to the FDB corridor and has the new R8 zoning with a commercial overlay, then it’s worth significantly more given the development potential. 243 West 120 is a building that falls in that category.]

That said, in our experience very few owners price their townhouses anywhere close to where they’ll sell. Chances are you’ll get around $200K off the asking price. We got $270K off what the asking was at the time we started bidding (they lowered it $100K while we were bidding to attract other offers). Any owner who scoffs at an offer $250-300K below their asking probably won’t be selling their place any time soon.

How much do the renovations cost?

When looking at places don’t underestimate how much work has to be done. Even places that look half way decent can require $200-250K in renovations. In addition to the little stuff, most of the townhouses have original(ish) plumbing and electrical ($150K or so to replace). Most of them will have rotted floor joists near the bathrooms. Most of them will need all new kitchens and bathrooms ($200K to replace). Then there are things like repointing brick, replacing old, inefficient boilers, etc.

For an “average” wreck you’re probably looking at $500K in renovations. Our place is a complete shell with nothing left inside. We’ve budgeted $700K ($550K for construction + 10% overage contingency + $50K for architectural + $50K to cover the mortgage during construction) and that’s a very tight budget – $800K would be better, but we just can’t go that high. And god forbid you have problems with your contractor – then things can get VERY expensive.

Make sure the numbers work in the short term

Even though you may be buying as a long-term investment, be conservative and make sure the numbers work in the short term. Over-estimate on your renovation budget and timeline and under estimate your rental income. Get to know the rental market, figure out what your rental unit(s) will rent for, and then only assume that you’ll receive 70-75% of that since the market may go down or you’ll have vacancy between tenants.

If you’re in the market for a shell make sure that if push came to shove you can sell it when you get done if you have to without losing too much money. So if you buy at $125/sq. ft. and put $200 sq. ft. into it then you need to be able to sell it for $325/sq. ft. It’s really easy for a architect and contractor to give you a price of $800K to renovate your place, but you may find that the market only warrants spending $500-600K. Do all the numbers before you buy – some places just don’t make sense to buy. But if you really like the place put in a lower bid based on those numbers. Never be afraid of a low ball bid that makes sense when you crunch the numbers.

Pay attention to the certificate of no harassment

In the 1980s landlords started evicting tenants who were in rooms in townhouses so they could flip the building or have  units that were more profitable. Those rooming houses are called “SROs” in NY which stands for Single Room Occupancy. Since around 1985 it is illegal to convert an SRO unless everyone who’s lived there for the past three years signs a document saying that they were not harassed to leave. This protects NY’s poor who often can’t afford the rent of a full apartment. It’s not uncommon for landlords to pay $10,000-$15,000 to get someone to sign.

If you purchase a building that is considered an SRO – even an empty one or one that doesn’t seem to be an SRO, you may need to wait 3 years before you can apply for a certificate of no harassment. Then you’ll need to wait about 9 months to actually get the certificate, and then you’ll have a year of renovation. If you absolutely love the place and don’t mind waiting 5 years to live there, go right ahead, but otherwise always insist on seeing the certificate of harassment before you even start bidding on the property.

It’s amazing the things brokers will say when they don’t have a certificate of non-harassment. Sotheby’s claimed an SRO on Strivers’ Row was a 2 family. I’ve also heard “it will be delivered vacant” as a response (as if that changes anything), or “we’re in the process of getting it”. As much as you like the place, if they don’t have the certificate – move on…

Loans are available

Financing is a critical component of buying a townhouse and Wells Fargo seems to be the bank most eager to issue rehab mortgages on Harlem shells (they’re possibly the only bank doing those loans). Your interest rate will be a bit higher, you’ll have some extra expenses to cover their management of your construction, and there will be a lot of hoops to jump through – but it is possible to get a loan. We recommend speaking with Michael Stein ( if you’re in the market for a townhouse.

Just imagine – lots of space in Manhattan…

When it’s all said and done, if you can get the numbers to work for you, you’ll have a wonderful home with tons of space in Manhattan. Space is a pretty rare thing to have in NY. So all of the hassle really is worth it…

And on top of it all, in 30 years when you’ve paid off your mortgage you’ll still have rental income that will more than cover your housing costs. So you’ll live rent-free in Manhattan. Not a bad deal – but at this point it’s all about the long-term investment.

I genuinely believe that in 5 or 10 years Harlem will start going up again very quickly and dramatically and next time the gentrification will stick. If you’re well positioned on the wave you’ll have a great place to live, at an affordable price, with solid rental income, and tons of equity in your home. All in all, a very good deal…

4 thoughts on “Now Is A Great Time To Buy A Harlem Townhouse

  1. This is a very thorough post! I have been in the market for over 2 years now and agree with a lot of what you’ve written. We’re now in contract on a place in Hamilton Hts. What did you end up doing for homeowners insurance? We’re hitting some dead ends, and our place is habitable.

  2. @Salar – Apparently abandoned buildings are hard to insure. Our insurance agent (David Bodansky, (212) 561-8990 x201) got us a policy with Chubb that covers both the rental apartment we’re in and the house for a little more than we were paying for rental insurance. I think it’s just liability on the house. Our agent wanted us to get more “in case it burns down”. We told him it had already had a fire and there wasn’t much more to burn. When we start construction we’ll need to add on a “builder’s risk” policy – that’s quite pricey.

  3. In retrospect you were dead on correct in your predictions. We just bought in Harlem and the market has already gone up again since. The gentrification process is well underway again in as is the development of the area.

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