With Townhouses, Width Means A Lot…

When we bought our place we kept having people tell us “that’s narrow” (it’s 15′ wide – 13 1/2′ inside brick-to-brick). It’s not as narrow as some – we looked at a few that were 12 1/2 footers, but it is narrow. Harlem Bespoke’s post about 148 W 121 reminded me about the importance of width… Consider the following…

168 West 123 (our place) 148 West 121
Dimensions 15′ x 60′ 18′ x 50′
Stories 5 5
Square footage 4,500 4,500
Sale Price $530K $750K
Previous Owner TPE Townhouses Harlem TPE Townhouses Harlem
Sale Date 9/15/09 3/3/10

To me that’s pretty remarkable… Same previous owner, same neighborhood, same square footage, yet they paid 41.5% more for their place than we paid for ours.

But the reason is pretty simple – width… 18 feet is the width when developers start getting interested in a townhouse. Building code requires a 3′ wide staircase and 3′ hallways. You’ll need one public hallway for the staircase and then another inside the apartment. Even if you do exposed brick, you’ll have at least 8″ of wall, so you need 9′ 8″ just for the required parts. In our building that leaves less than 4 feet for a bathroom, which isn’t enough. On a standard 18 footer that has about about 17 feet brick to brick you have over 7 feet of room for the bathroom, closets, etc. – which is plenty…

That means if you’re looking for a bargain on a Harlem townhouse shell and you just want it to be 2 or 3 family, then you should go narrow… You’ll get a better price on a 15 or 16 footer than you will on an 18+ footer, ’cause you won’t be competing with developers.

UPDATE: One thing I forgot to mention is that once a narrow townhouse is renovated it can sell for good money as is evidenced by the recent comp over on 119. So this really does seem to be a supply vs. demand issue. There’s just more demand for wider shells than there is for narrower shells. You pay a premium at 18+ feet because you’re competing with developers.

6 thoughts on “With Townhouses, Width Means A Lot…

  1. Just discovered it, but love your blog! Agree about the width being important to value but also that going a little narrower is a great way to get a bargain – you just need to be a little creative with space. Question for you – you mentioned on an earlier posting that the back of your brownstone is adjacent to brownstones being converted to affordable housing. Where is this affordable housing? Wasn’t aware they were turning brownstones into affordable housing.

  2. @Karen – Thanks for your comment.

    The affordable housing I was talking about is on ACP middle of the block between 122 and 123. They’re tan colored brownstones and they’re just finishing renovations on them. The signs up on the building said the building would be affordable housing which fits with the story of a guy living in the basement in the building next to us – he’s waiting for them to finish renovating his apartment after which he’ll move back in. So former residents were only temporary displaced – they get to move back in when it’s all done…

  3. Jay, i found your blog today and read all your real estate entries. it’s really informative; i copied a lot of stuff into my own notes. i’ve been looking for a TH in harlem for a few months, but with the spring finally here (when it’s actually nice to walk around), i’m planning to make a more concerted effort. hope you will keep your blog going as you renovate. best of luck and thanks for the posts!
    BTW did you ever try to buy an empty lot from the city to build ground up? any thoughts?

  4. Hey Jay,

    Amazing Blog! You are doing a wonderful service to harlem in bringing more transparency to the townhouse market! I am looking for a shell myself, however I noticed that the majority of the shells sold are not posted anywhere. I have been looking at streeteasy, nytimes and property shark. Would you recomend other places to look for postings?

    All the best,


  5. @Peter – My philosophy when we were searching was that anyone who is serious about selling will advertise aggressively. However, towards the end of our search I realized that wasn’t true. I had a friend who had a horrible real estate agent who never publicized his property (for over 2 years while he was bleeding money on the mortgage). Apparently she wanted to keep a full commission. So unfortunately you have to really hunt after you’ve gone through the well publicized ones and find all the little real estate agents who aren’t in REBNY and don’t want to publicize their listings.

  6. @Peter – The problem with empty lots is that the foundations can be incredibly expensive because you risk undermining the adjacent buildings. Talk to SEVERAL EXPERIENCED contractors to understand the cost of a new building – it’s generally less expensive to start with a shell.

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