Our House Is On The Mount Morris Park House Tour This Sunday

Our StaircaseI know this is a bit late to be posting this, but if you’ve been reading this blog and want to see our end result, our house will be on the Mount Morris Park Annual House Tour this Sunday, June 9, from 11am to 4pm.

That’s our place in the picture to the left. It’s in rather stark contrast to what you expect in a Harlem brownstone (see pictures below) – but we had no original detail to work with.

Apparently something like 600 people will be traipsing through our house. But it’s all for a good cause. MMPCIA does some really great work. We bought those little surgical shoe covers for people to put on so they don’t track too much dirt through the house.

MMPCIA (Mount Morris Park Community Improvement Association) produced a rather good video about the house tour. It’s narrated by Syderia Asberry-Chresfield who lives on our block and has gotten to be a good friend.

Harlem brownstone stoop

Our entire house will be open – including the rental unit. (Our tenant was gracious enough to say yes to the house tour). That presented a bit of a staffing challenge for MMPCIA since they provide volunteers to monitor the people going through the house – but it all worked out.

We were hoping to get the garden to a point of completion. We’ve made progress, but it’s not quite there yet. We’re using old joists as “decking” that’ll be laid directly on the ground with pea gravel between them and under them. We’ve applied rot inhibitor to them but over time they’ll disintegrate. At some point we’ll do something better, but the joists will do the job for now and they fit our budget since they’re pretty much free.

Other than the garden, things are pretty much complete. We’re not fully decorated yet – we just have “placeholder” furniture in the living room, our master bedroom bed is just a futon on the floor, and we’re going to need furniture for the roof deck and garden – but we’re getting there. Harlem brownstone stairs on house tourWe’re a bit “house poor” at the moment – but grateful we got through the project and can afford to live here now that it’s done – even if we can’t afford all the new furniture we want 😉

More details about the house tour are available on the MMPCIA website. You can can also purchase advance tickets at a discounted price on their site.

So please join us on Sunday. And when you come through the house, feel free to say ‘hi’..

Townhouse Shells South of 125 Are Now $850K & Up

For a while now I’ve seen the market going up. Clients come to me and want a $500-600K shell south of 125th Street, and there’s just nothing I can do for them. I finally got around to pulling the comps to demonstrate what I knew from observation…

Here are the class C4 & C5 buildings that sold for less then $900K in the past 6 months south of 125…

  • 319 West 112 – $875K, 2/10/12
  • 53 West 119 – $250K, 2/13/12 – Too low to be a real sale – probably a partial interest
  • 254 West 121 – $895K, 4/2/12
  • 326 West 113 – $720K, 4/24/12 – This seems to have gone through a recent foreclosure. A shell a few doors down is listed at $1.4M and has multiple offers, so I think this sale is a bit out of the ordinary and not a true comp either.
  • 133 West 119 – $830K, 4/27/12
  • 164 West 123 – $618,400, 6/25/12 – Two doors down from me. The owner knew it was worth more. Last I knew he either wanted to bring in someone to help fund the development or he wanted to sell it. I suspect the new LLC is a combination of the old owner and a new investor who’s funding redevelopment – so it’s not a true sale either.

So none of the “real sales” were less than $830K, and take into consideration that those deals were probably all negotiated late last year. The market is much hotter now, so prices are even higher now.

Bottom line you’re probably looking at $850K or more for a shell south of 125 these days. And realistically, if you want to renovate it well you need to buy all cash. A pretty typical Harlem townhouse is about 3600 sq. ft. (18′ x 50′ x 4 stories). You should budget $250/sq. ft. for a decent renovation – so that will cost you $900K which is pretty much the max amount you get on a 203(k) to rehab a building to 2 family.

If you’re wondering what you get for $800K+, here are pics from one of the places listed above…

gutted townhouse in Harlem

fireplace in Harlem townhouse shell

staircase in harlem townhouse shell

I know it’s harsh to say you need $900K in cash to buy a shell south of 125, but it just is what it is… The good part is that you’re not over-investing. Things that are well renovated are selling for $2.5M+ (but that’s another blog post).

110 West 123 Collapses To The Ground

A little after 4pm today Dan and I felt what I thought was an earthquake. Our whole building did a quick, but major shake. It wasn’t an earthquake – a building down the street form ours (110 West 123rd Street) collapsed to the ground – only about 15 minutes after Dan walked past the building…

building collapse

A permit to do structural work had been pulled a few weeks ago, and they had started work earlier this week. First a construction fence, and then I saw the ground floor was pretty much gutted. Given what I had seen I thought for a moment about calling 311 and asking that a structural inspector check out the job to make sure everything is safe. But I didn’t call. Lesson learned on that one. Guess there are times when being a meddlesome neighbor is a good thing.

There was an empty lot to the left (east) and the block association’s community garden to the right (west). The building was sold late last September for $600,000. The last two SRO tenants had stopped living there around November, and the new owner put it on the market for $1.1M in December.

I had taken a couple clients through the house back in December/January. There were serious structural problems evident in the cellar. Here are some pictures of what the foundation looked like…

bracing to support failing structure

In the picture above you can see that they had put bracing in to support the structure that was failing. You can also see that a portion of the foundation had failed and was patched with cinder blocks.

In the picture below you can see another part of the foundation that failed was patched with brick…

brick patch of foundation

One of the times I went through it our contractor joined us. He told us he was “scared of the building”. That it was the type of building that could collapse without warning if you messed with it. He wasn’t worried so much about the patches as he was about parts of the foundation where the mortar was missing…

missing mortar in foundation

All in all it was VERY spooky to be in that cellar. You could just feel trouble. It wasn’t just that it was dark and dank – I go through a lot of places like that. It was all the bracing and patching.

The problems with the building were evident even outside the building. We were in the community garden next door a few weeks ago and I snapped this photo of the corner of the building…

problems at corner

Stuff like that just isn’t good – especially when combined with a wonky foundation.

The extension you see in the picture above is actually interesting. It hadn’t settled, but the rest of the building had. So at one point the floor sloped rather dramatically – probably went up 9 inches over as many feet.

The origin of the problems is that the townhouse used to be part of a row of townhouses, but over time all but this one were torn down. It was never designed to be a freestanding house. To be a freestanding house it needed a lot of reinforcement.

Our contractor said it would be best to tear the place down and start over. If it had to be salvaged you’d have to cocoon it and put walls all around it. Problem is, the garden folks didn’t want to give up land, and the party wall on the other side was already 6″ over the property line. I’m not sure there was really a way to save this building. At most, the façade could have been braced and the rest of the building demolished.

I will say it’s unusually lucky that the workers had left the site when the collapse happened and the community garden was closed and locked. Apparently no one was even walking past. While demolition was most likely what was needed – there are cheaper ways to demolish a building. The City is going to want to get paid all the overtime for their workers. NYPD, FDNY, Parks Department, etc. Apparently right now they’re taking every piece of the building out, spreading it on the street to look for body parts and anything else that can help them in their investigation – how much is that going to cost?

Inside it was a grand townhouse – 20 foot wide. There were some incredible fireplaces…

great old fireplace

And a grand staircase…

The ceilings were really high, and on parlor there were some that had great plaster work…

In fact the ceilings were so high that the 5th floor could see over it’s neighbors to the south – all the way to midtown.

It’s sad to see buildings like this die, but alas, it happens…

Shell Coming On The Market South of 125

I know some of you who read the blog are looking to do a project similar to what Dan and I have done. The problem is finding shells south of 125 that aren’t ridden with problems (legal, structural, etc) is easier said than done.

Just today I found out about a place in the Mount Morris Park historic district that’s about to go on the market. It will need a total gut renovation – so it’s a similar sized project to ours. It’s a good sized place (I estimate it to be over 4,000 sq. ft.) so the asking price is a bit higher than some other shells, but it’s got the square footage to justify the price.

There is a Certificate of No Harassment in place, so financing is an option, but even so you’re looking at a total investment (purchase + renovations) of around $2M for moderately high-end finishes. While you could do the project for less, that level of finish will result in the place being worth a bit under $3M when you’re done (assuming the market doesn’t drop) – so the project should be profitable.

If you’re interested and want to know more, send me an e-mail – jay@beatingupwind.com

Change Requires Participation

“Beating Upwind” is sailing into the wind – it’s hard work, but there are times when it’s necessary to accomplish your goal. At one point I thought when the house was done we could relax and do some downwind sailing (so to speak). And yes, things will get more relaxed and less crazy once we’re settled, but as we get to know Harlem we realize there’s more work to be done. Harlem is at a cross roads – schools are starting to improve, more and more gentrification is happening, bars restaurants and shops are getting better, but there’s still more to do…

community board 10Along those lines my partner Dan has thrown his hat into the ring and is trying to get onto Community Board 10. As you can see in the map to the right CB10 goes pretty much straight up from Central Park – it quite literally is Central Harlem. Our neighborhood, Mount Morris Park is the in the lower part of CB10’s territory – around the notch on the eastern side.

The community board is pretty badly broken and one of the things in Harlem that needs to be fixed. If you go to a board meeting you’ll see just how big of a mess it is. Much of the thinking on the board seems to reflect the failed policies that have kept Harlem a depressed area with a relatively high crime rate, lackluster schools, etc.

To change things people have to get involved (problems rarely fix themselves). Dan’s running instead of me because he’s better suited to being on the community board than I am. Where I can be a bit standoffish until I get to know someone, people generally really like Dan when they first meet him. He’s also more of a consensus builder – he genuinely wants people to get along and see eye-to-eye. But when push comes to shove he’s got a backbone and when a line needs to be drawn in the sand, he draws it and stands his ground.

Dan Wong in a construction site

Here are some of the issues we’re concerned about… I say “we”, ’cause Dan and I agree 95% of the time and I’ve agreed to attend meetings with him to ease his misery.

  • Crime in Harlem is unacceptably high.  Specific things we’re disturbed by are:
    • The rate (per 100,00 residents) in Harlem is generally more than double what it is in Inwood & Washington Heights or even East Harlem south of 116. On top of that there’s been essentially no reduction in crime 10 years in Harlem, while other precincts have brought down the crime substantially during that time.
    • We don’t feel NYPD is aggressive enough in combating drug dealing – there’s always a drug dealer available somewhere in Harlem. Given the number of drug treatment facilities in the neighborhood, the combination of lots of addicts and readily available drugs has predictable outcomes.
    • We don’t feel NYPD is trying hard enough to get rid of the dirt bikes and ATVs that disturb the peace and safety in the neighborhood on warm days.
    • We’re not happy with NYPD’s relationship and interaction with the community – they haven’t built trust with residents.
    • We support Stop & Frisk, but are not happy with how it’s implemented. We want to see NPYPD use “Courtesy, Professionalism & Respect” when they stop people.
  • Development in the area needs to favor owner-occupied units and quality construction. Owners generally care more about their communities than renters. And if something is constructed poorly, people will treat it poorly. We want residents to have a sense of ownership and take pride in their homes and in their neighborhood. When people care it makes a huge difference.
  • Shops, Restaurants & Bars are needed to support the growing demand of the middle and upper income people moving into new condos, higher end rentals, and renovated townhouses.
    • You can never have enough high quality grocery stores, bake shops, coffee shops, etc.
    • The community board approves liquor licenses and some members of CB10 have been trying to have Harlem bars close two hours earlier than anywhere else in the City – which will really dramatically slow the growth of interesting places to hang out in the neighborhood.
  • Schools in Harlem need to improve. This is a bit of a touchy issue since there’s a high concentration of charter schools in Harlem. Dan’s actually a big advocate of public schools since many of his students at CityTech (CUNY) come from public schools. Part of his job at CityTech is evaluating high school graphic design curricula. He sees how hard the public school teachers work and understands that they need more support in order for them to improve. He even testified on behalf of The High School of Graphic Communication Arts which was one of the schools spared from the latest round of closures. At the same time I sort of like how the charter schools are holding public school’s feet to the fire – showing how miserably the public schools have failed some students – that the problem isn’t the students, it’s the schools.

There’s a lot of other issues I could go into, but those give you an idea of where we’re coming from…

It’s not like the community board will change over night because Dan gets on it – if he gets on he’ll be one of 50 people on the board. But CB10 won’t change at all unless people like Dan get involved. I’m sure there are already some great people on the board – there just need to be many more.

I, meanwhile, have already started working with some of the people from the Mount Morris Park Community Improvement Association on issues around our immediate neighborhood that require attention. More on that later…

So if you’re planning on moving to Harlem – think about how you can better the community once you get here. If enough of us participate, we can make things better.