Good Day: 243 W 120 Sells, Our Windows Clear Customs

It was a VERY good day yesterday. Our windows had come arrived in port Thursday morning, and managed to clear customs in a single day. Given all the other delays on our project I was half expecting to hear that there would be a 3 or 4 week hold for customs inspection. They’ll probably be delivered on Tuesday morning. Getting the building closed up will be a major step for us…

243 West 120th Street, HarlemBut the really big news is that 243 West 120th Street closed yesterday – just in the nick of time – it was the last day before the loan limits dropped over $100K – so things went right down to the wire.

I feel a bit of accomplishment with this sale… I had done a blog post ages ago (April ’10) about how I thought the place was an excellent opportunity. Location is just incredible – it’s just steps from everything that’s new and exciting on 8th Ave / FDB, and it has a really high FAR for anyone who wants to add space. It took about a year for the blog post to get noticed, but early this year I started hearing from blog readers that they saw the post and were interested in the house. One contacted, me, then another, then another…

In the end it was a bit of a battle between two of those three blog readers to get the house. One of them was working with the real estate agent we used when we sold/bought, the other went directly to the owner through a social contact. The one working with our agent contacted me on June 20th saying “…so it looks like we got the house…”, then on July 10th the reader who had gone directly to the owner contacted me and said “we signed a contract on the house on 120th last week”. I was a little flabbergasted that two people thought they had it and I knew both of them. Turns out the listing agreement had just expired so the seller was able to sell the place without paying a commission.

For those of you who are curious – the sales price was $620K plus a few thousand in other concessions to the seller. That works out to about $182/sq. ft. The place is possibly in worse condition than ours was when we bought it since demolition has not been done yet. But it did have a certificate of no harassment and it had approved plans with active permits to convert to single family – so it was pretty much ready to go.

You can see from the pictures I took nearly 2 years ago that needs tons of work…

243 West 120th Street hallway and stairs243 West 120th Street original details243 West 120th Street hallway243 West 120th Street top floor

Given the location and the fact that shells south of 125 are getting very hard to get, I think the new owners got it for a good price. They could do a $1M renovation and not over-invest.

It was a nail-biting closing. It turns out there was a lien on the property that was rather sizable and when push came to shove there wasn’t enough money to pay off the seller’s mortgage. No one was expecting it to be a short sale and people had to scramble to get the seller’s bank to approve the sale in time for the buyers to get their loan before the loan limits went down. It almost didn’t happen, but after a 5 hour closing on the last possible day, it did finally go through.

And after all that the new owners went to the house last night to check things over and left covered in fleas! So job #1 is to get rid of the fleas…

The Manhattan Avenue Historic District

There’s a little historic district just south of 125th Street that it seems no one knows about – the Manhattan Avenue Historic District. The buildings in it are not landmarked by the City, but the area is on the National Register of Historic Places. What that means is up to about $100,000 in tax credits for owners who renovate shells in the area or up to $50,000 to fix up ones that just need some work but aren’t shells.

Now, the sad part is that Wall Street Journal editor Julia Angwin got a public reaming in the comments on her blog when when she decided to rip out most of the original details in her house (because they were covered in lead paint and she was worried about her kids). It’s sad because I don’t think she even knew she was in the Manhattan Avenue Historic District. The $50K to $100K she could have qualified for would have more than offset the cost of keeping her original details and removing the lead paint. Instead, her house was essentially stripped of its original details.

There is a bit of a question about the actual boundaries of the historic district. According to the National Park Service’s web site the addresses included in the district are:

  • 242 to 262 West 120th Street (numbers seem wrong)
  • 341 to 362 West 121st Street
  • 341 to 362 West 122nd Street
  • 344 to 373 West 123rd Street
  • 481 to 553 Manhattan Avenue (West side)

Problem is the addresses on 120th street don’t make sense. There aren’t really a set of buildings that match those numbers. Mind you, I’d love for the addresses to be correct since I know the people who are in contract for 243 West 120, but something tells me the 120th Street addresses are wrong. At first I thought they probably meant 342 to 362, but those numbers don’t make sense either – they include a modern school building. The numbers that would make sense are 351 to 369 – but those aren’t the numbers.

manhattan avenue historic district mapIn terms of buildings in the historic district that are for sale – there’s not much… 533 Manhattan qualifies, but apparently the contract is out on it.

WSJ Editor Moves In After Renovation

For those of you who are looking for what it really costs to renovate a townhouse – Julia Angwin, an editor at the Wall Street Journal, has been blogging the renovation of her brownstone that’s an avenue and a half from ours – just down 123rd Street, west of Manhattan Avenue. Well, she’s “done” and has moved in…

Her blog is one of the few that discusses cost. She and her husband bought the place for $800K in February of 2010 – just a month before we bought our place. Their townhouse is 16′ x 60′ x 4 stories – so 3,840 sq. ft. That means she paid $208/sq. ft. That may seem a little high, but theirs was not a shell – just a place in need of major renovation.

Their renovations were estimated to cost $350K, but wound up costing $420K ($109/sq. ft.) They went 20% over budget in part because they jumped right into renovations with very little planning. They hadn’t planned on replacing the roof (only patching it). They hadn’t planned for a back deck, etc.

Stairs in Julia Angwin's house before renovationSo they say they spent $1.22M in total. Let’s call it $1.25M since I’m sure there were at least some costs that weren’t reported. That means their total investment was $325/sq. ft. which is very close to what I estimate our cost will be when we’re done – the difference is they’re moving in after 13 months and we’ll move in after 21 months (if things go smoothly).

One thing that should be noted is that they’re not really done yet. They still need to get a new C of O. Without a new C of O they can’t legally rent the basement apartment. Apparently, the process of getting a C of O can be a bit tortuous. I wish them the best, but there are things I don’t quite understand about what I see online concerning their renovations. For example, I’m a little confused about their sprinkler situation. Their Alt-1 filing says there were no sprinklers in the building, but I see them in the “before” pictures – so not sure what the story is with that. I think I see flush sprinkler heads in some of the after pictures – but I’m not 100% sure whether they’re there or not. The Alt-1 doesn’t mention sprinkler work. I’m guessing because they were spending less than half the value of the building on renovations they got in under more lenient rules. I just hope they don’t encounter major problems with their C of O inspection.

Anyway, here are some before and after pictures… I love the picture of the stairs (above and right)… I actually really love the blue wallpaper and how it combines with the maroon and green in the picture. Not sure I’d want to live with it, but it photographs beautifully. There were actually quite a few interesting colors in the house before renovation. On other blogs people have criticized her for stripping the soul out of the place. Personally, I think it just needs a little color – most everything is now white. Here’s an after shot of the stairs. Unfortunately (IMHO) they removed the wainscoting…

The stairs after renovation

Here’s some of the rooms before renovations… Some of them make me want to shoot an art film… The rooms are beautiful in some respects, though I wouldn’t want to live in them – just pretty in pictures…

Here’s the future kitchen before…

Green room before renovation

And the kitchen after…

Julia Angwin's kitchen

And another before shot…

Bedroom before renovation

Here’s what will be the ground floor rental (looking forward)…

Messy room before renovation

And the rental after renovation (looking back)…

Rental unit's kitchen

The fireplaces were something they took a lot of heat for in blog comments. They were concerned their kids would get lead poisoning from them, so they took all of them out and only left one in their master bedroom.

Fireplace after renovation

The master bath was another problem area. The glass hasn’t been installed around the shower so it looks a little bare right now, but the problem was the bathtub. The contractor didn’t leave enough space for the deep soaking tub they wanted, so they got a shallow tub which is useless – it’s not much good as a bathtub and they don’t need two showers in one bathroom.

Master bathroom with shallow tub

So that’s the type of renovation you can pull off in 13 months with a total investment of $1.25M. That gives you a 2,600 sq. ft., 4 bedroom owners triplex and an 870 sq. ft., 1(+) bedroom rental unit (minus space for stairs).

And as far as the payoff… CONSERVATIVELY her place is now worth $1.6M ($417/sq. ft.) so with $1.25M invested they just netted $350K (on paper), but it could very well be worth more – they’ve got an excellent location – very close to express trains and to Columbia University.