Sylvan Terrace – Uptown’s Affordable Townhouses

Yesterday I went through one of the Sylvan Terrace townhouses with a client. They’re some of the smallest, and hence most affordable, townhouses you’ll find – and they’re really charming…

Sylvan TerraceSylvan Terrace is comprised of 20 wood frame houses built in 1882. Today they’re all Landmarked and in good to great condition. The narrow cobblestone street makes you feel like you’re on the movie set for a period movie.

Honestly I don’t know quite how they came to be. They’re said to be carriage houses for the Jumel Mansion (which is at the end of the street), but that doesn’t quite make sense. The Jumel Mansion is Manhattan’s oldest building – built in 1765 – before the War For American Independence. Why would someone build carriage houses 116 years later at a time when the street grid was being established? (Sylvan Terrace is a bit off the grid.)

Whatever the history, they’re completely charming, but they are tiny… Most of the ones on the north side of the street are 1,500 sq. ft (20′ x 25′ x 3 stories), while most of the ones on the south side are 1425 sq. ft. (19.5′ x 25′ x 3 stories) including the walls and stairs. Useable square footage is smaller yet – I’d guess it’s about 1,200 sq. ft.

Essentially you have one large room on each of the two lower floors and two adequate size bedrooms on the top floor (though I saw one that carved a 3rd small, double decked, kids playroom out of the top floor). Ceilings are quite high – especially on the top floor in the front.

While they’re small, they have sales prices that match their small size. Here’s a rundown of what places on Sylvan Terrace have sold for…

#14 – 9/25/2003 – $700K

#16 – 10/24/2003 – $321,600

#19 – 3/30/2004 – $590K

#12 – 12/31/2004 – $610K

#13 – 4/7/2005 – $482K

#15 – 10/5/2005 – $725K

#13 – 10/5/2006 – $1.05M

#15 – 2/23/2007 – unknown price

#14 – 12/17/2007 – $970K

#16 – 12/27/2007 – $990K

#5 – 3/11/2008 – estate – transferred within family

#18 – 4/3/2008 – $437K

The take-away is that the max price for one of these places at the height of the market was $1.05M and there have been no sales since the crash.

I’m not allowed to discuss other agents’ active listings, but I can talk about inactive listings 🙂  #2 – a larger, apparently nicely renovated end unit with more windows and better light – went on the market in November 2009 for $1.1M. It was finally taken off the market a few months ago. It’s final asking price was $800K. So it’s fair to say that the current market value of a nicely renovated Sylvan Terrace townhouse is below $800K.

sylvan terrace north side

The other item which should be mentioned is that, unlike most of the townhouses I discuss here, these houses are mortgageable with conventional mortgages. Most are legal 1 families, a few are legal 2 families.

When you think about the price you’d pay for a 1,200 sq. ft. 2 bedroom condo or coop, Sylvan Terrace could be a good deal – and you get a proper house in a charming little neighborhood with a small back yard (for barbecuing, etc.), and from what I hear the neighbors are nice and fairly close-knit. There’s also a subway stop 1 block away (the C train).

Feel free to contact me if you think Sylvan Terrace might be right for you…

40 Story Buildings In Washington Heights?

Our contractor took the week off this week (long story), so I figure I’d do a blog post I’ve been meaning to do for a while now… Whether really tall buildings are appropriate uptown.

Back in early May Quadriad proposed a set of 40(ish) story buildings for our old neighborhood – around 190 and Broadway. They’d literally tower over all the buildings around them. Here’s what they were proposing… Phase 1 would be three towers built on top of the 191 Street IRT station (the 1 line)…

Quadriad Phase 1 - 3 towers

Phase 2 would knock down a funeral home across the street and put up a 4th building that’s shorter…

Quadriad Phase 2 - 4 buildings

We got into a bit of a discussion with a friend of ours who lives quite near where these buildings will be built. She thinks they’re a horrible idea, but Dan and I sorta like them. Our friend’s argument is that they’re inappropriate for the neighborhood. Nothing in Washington Heights is 40 stories. I think the highest is 20-some stories. She prefers the “as-of-right” option the developers have proposed, which looks like this…

Quadriad As Of Right Proposal

To which Dan and I say “eh…” It’s just boring architecture.

Our friend’s other argument is that luxury condos (or luxury rentals) are a bad idea – that Washington Heights should remain largely affordable housing. The irony is that she’s one of those rare Manhattan Republicans. How a Republican can be opposed to the interests of developers beyond me – I thought that was one of the defining characteristics of Republicans in New York. The other thing is that the capitalist (Republican?) argument should be that more supply => demand is accommodated => lower prices. In other words, if you want Manhattan to still have affordable housing you need more units on the market to meet the demand since the more there is of something, the lower its price will be. Clearly there’s not much vacant land in Manhattan – that means you need to build up.

Plus, all major development projects these days include affordable housing units. The bigger the project, the more affordable housing units you’ll get. So if you want affordable housing in Manhattan you should be in favor of projects like this one.

I’ve also heard people say tall buildings uptown will overburden the transportation infrastructure. But the Quadriad site is literally on top of a subway stop and less than a 5 minute walk to another subway stop. We’ve got pretty good subway access uptown that’s no where close to capacity. They could easily double the number of trains if they needed to, or extend the C train to 207. Transportation isn’t really an issue.

So what this boils down to is aesthetics and zoning and perhaps historic preservation. I had an architectural design professor in college who said “if you break the rules you need to do something really special”. Yes, the 40 story towers break zoning rules, but Dan and I think they’re good enough to warrant the rules being broken.

That isn’t always the case. For example Graceline Court (the silver and pink building in the picture below) stands out on the Harlem skyline, but it’s just incredibly boring…

Graceline Court - tall building in Harlem

Harlem is generally zoned lower than Washington Heights, so this is potentially a bigger issue in Harlem than it is in Washington Heights. I’m actually very much in favor of tall buildings going up in Harlem – but I want them to be interesting to look at, and I don’t want (too many) historically interesting buildings torn down in the process. Graceline Court is just dull – I want something better than that. I’d love it if they build a 40+ story building on the empty lot at 125 & Lenox where the rumor mill says a Hyatt (?) may be built.

So I say Go Tall Uptown (and make it interesting)… What does everyone else thing?

“Disco House” Sells for $700K

In our hunt for a townhouse we looked at 30 different places. A few of them were far more memorable than the others. One of the memorable ones was 642 West 158th Street, which we saw in August of 2009. Entrance of 642 West 158th StreetIf you’ve ever driven up the West Side Highway and gotten off in the 150s, you drove past it – it’s on the block just as you get off the highway.

Well, it sold January 21st for $700,000. It had been on the market since June of 2009. It’s original asking price was $1.1M, which had been dropped to $895K – so the buyer negotiated $200K off the asking.

It’s a nice wide townhouse – 18 2/3rd feet wide. Including the solarium extension and the room under it, the house has roughly 3,800 square feet, so it sold for about $185/sq. ft.

The house was memorable because it had been completely rehabbed at one point – probably in the late 70s or early 80s and made into the dream house for a playboy. There was a dance floor, red satin curtains, an overly opulent swan faucet in the parlor bathroom, cedar lined closets, and so on. In it’s time it was an over the top “party house” renovation. As we walked through it you could almost envision the parties, the lines of coke, and the sex in the bedrooms upstairs. The house definitely left an impression…

Dance floor in party townhouse

Opulent swan faucet
Red curtains + chandelier

On the upside, while it needed a major renovation, what it needed was largely just cosmetic – but we’re talking major cosmetic work. There was also some cracks in the front façade which might indicate structural issues, and the rear solarium was leaking and there was a pretty serious mold problem because of it. But all in all, the house was solid and probably had newish electrical and plumbing.

Besides the taste issue, on the downside was location… The only subway close to it is the 1 train. There’s lots of traffic passing in front of the house off the Westside Highway – so it’s not a cute tree-lined brownstone block. The neighborhood isn’t as good as some others, etc.

BUT – with just a little work the house was completely livable if you can deal with the decor. So this is another (just north of Harlem) Washington Heights townhouse that’s selling at a pretty economical price. I’d guess it would cost about $150/sq. ft. ($570K) to renovate the place properly, so the total cost is under $1.3M and under $350/sq. ft. But you could spend less and have a perfectly nice townhouse for under $1M. So there are still good deals available if you need space and can only afford to spend under a million.

Interesting Comp – 944 St. Nick Sold For $935K

I haven’t actually delved into it too much, but I get the sense that townhouse prices are going down a bit again. It’s not really what we want to hear, but it is what it is…

Case and point is 944 St. Nicolas Ave (between 157 and 158). It’s technically in Southern Washington Heights – but just barely outside the northern boundary of Harlem (which ends at 155), and historically it’s in Carmansville – most of which is now called Sugar Hill, which is part of Harlem. Anyway, it just sold for $935K (291/sq. ft. including basement). I’d say the buyers got a great deal – a perfectly livable townhouse for under $1M. If you look at the pictures below you’ll see it was in pretty good shape and appears to mostly just need a little cosmetic work to suit the tastes of the new buyers. (That said, 100 year old townhouses always need some sort of work – sometimes it’s substantial despite pretty pictures).

There are some negatives though… Subway access is OK, but not great – just the A & C trains. It’s in a pretty sleepy neighborhood, and not in a historic district. Aspects of the layout are slightly awkward. It’s “renovated”, but it looks like each of the bathrooms was renovated in a different style. And it’s on a short, 50′ lot with just 10′ of back yard.

Still, it proves good deals are out there for any of you who have budget issues…