A Townhouse In Sugar Hill For Under $1M? Yup.

If you’d like a townhouse but worried you can’t afford one – there are places out there that you just might be able to afford. While Washington Heights townhouses are generally less expensive – affordable townhouses are available in Harlem as well.

470 W 148 - front façadeCase and point is 470 West 148th Street – which is just outside the Sugar Hill historic district. It sold recently for $915,000 after being on and off the market for a quite a while. In fact it was on the market for around a million when we were looking in 2009. It was one of our fallback places in case we couldn’t find something we could afford.

So what do you get for $915,000? More than you’d think…

On the plus side you get a great single family home with 3,000 sq. ft. (12.5′ x 60′ x 4 stories) that’s in generally good condition. There is some original details left and a very peaceful back yard.

The biggest problem is that it’s not the entire building you see in the picture above. It’s just the left half of the building – that means the townhouse is only 12 1/2 feet wide. On the plus side it is 60 feet long and doesn’t feel as narrow inside as you might think, but there’s no denying it’s small. While it’s technically about 3,000 sq. ft. – that includes walls. Usable square feet are closer to 2,550 (11′ x 58′ x 4 stories).

Another issue is that while everything seemed like it was in decent shape, the renovation was minimal – sort of “rental grade” in terms of quality. Doors were a bit flimsy, the sheetrock was uneven, etc. But that’s something that can be fixed without too much trouble.

Other than width, the issue that really bothered Dan was the “fashion boutique” next door. Because the two townhouses look like one building, it’s more of an issue than it would be in a wider building. Here you can see what the entrance looked like and how prominent the signage was for the store next door…

470 West 148 - entrance

In the following pictures you can see that there is some original details left, but generally the level of renovation was just “OK”…

470 W 148 - bathroom

470 W 148 - ground floor office

470 w 148 - kitchen

470 West 148 - bedroom

In that last picture you see that the narrowness of the house is a bit of an issue. There’s not a whole lot of room between a queen sized bed and the fireplace. But compared to new build condos with their tiny bedrooms it’s not all that bad – just not as good as other townhouses in Harlem.

470 West 148 - original fireplaceThere are some nice original details left – like the fireplaces. They do add some nice character to the house.

Back when we were looking the comps were lower and if my memory serves me, I only felt it was worth something like $650 to $700K (to us) – which was well below the $1M asking.

Comps are higher now and all in all the sales price was probably about right. $915,000 comes out to $305 per square foot. Comps with better renovations are getting $400 to $450 per square foot (or more). And honestly the renovations in some of those comps aren’t really all that much better than what you have here. But there is the issue of the width and the signage on the sister townhouse. All in all I think it’s a great little house at the price of a so-so condo or coop.

And don’t forget – this place is completely mortgageable with a conventional mortgage. There are no renovation loan hassles (or renovation hassles). So it was a good deal.

The moral of the story is that if you’ve got limited funds there are a few townhouses out there that you can buy. You just may need to get a “starter” townhouse that’s narrow…

Postscript: There’s a funny story with this house… When Dan and I first saw the place we were killing time looking at open houses while our our agents were doing an open house for our coop. We had our dogs with us since they couldn’t be home while our agents were showing our apartment. So we’d go in one at a time while the other stayed with the dogs. Dan went in first and then I got a call – he and the agent had managed to get themselves locked in the back yard! Luckily they left the front door open, so I took the dogs in and opened the back door and “rescued” them. But the story doesn’t end there. A few weeks ago I was going through another house with a client during an open house and I saw the agent from 470 West 147 with one of her clients. And guess what happened? I got locked in the back yard with my client. Luckily the listing agent heard our knocks and got us out of the back yard quickly. Not sure what it is about the listing agent for 470 W 148 – but I now know to avoid back yards when she’s around. 🙂

540 West 149 Sells for $609K – $183/sq. ft.

facade of 540 west 149Yesterday I went over a low comp in Sugar Hill that sold for $79/sq. ft. But there was another sale recently – just 3 blocks south of the other one. 540 West 149th Street sold on 6/30/11 for $609K. The building is 16.67′ x 50′ x 4 stories – so 3,334 sq. ft. though officially it’s 3,400 sq. ft. At the lower square footage it nets out to $183/sq. ft. at the higher square footage it’s $179/sq. ft. So while the prices are just $119K apart, on a price per square foot basis the 149th Street property is more than twice as expensive.

So what do you get for the extra $120/sq. ft.? You get original details and a better location. This building still isn’t in the Sugar Hill historic district, and the buildings immediately west (542-548) are low-income housing. But unlike the 152nd Street property the block is predominantly brownstones / townhouses. The low-income housing next door is very nicely done (though they have the tell-tale wheelchair ramps you rarely find with owner-occupied houses). And the ever critical subway access is somewhat better than the 152nd Street property – just a 7 minute walk to the A/B/C/D express trains @ 145 and 5 minutes to the 1 train @ 145.

If I had to guess I would say original details probably made the biggest difference in the price. Mind you, the property still needs a complete gut renovation, but you’re not starting from scratch – you’ve got floors and walls, crown mouldings, fireplaces, doors, etc… Here are some pictures that show what I’m talking about…

bedroom at 540 west 149

fireplace at 540 west 149

wainscotting at 540 west 149

That’s a very different renovation than the one that will be needed at 535 West 152. At 152 the new owner is probably starting from scratch (like we our with our place) – rebuilding all the floors, the walls, the roof, etc. With this place it’s more about restoration – repairing what’s there and adapting it for modern use. It will still need all new electrical and plumbing. There will be rotten floor joists that have to be replaced, etc.

The place on 152 is best suited for someone who wants a rental property – since it has more square footage than any homeowner would ever need and the block is predominately a rental block. This place would appeal more to a homeowner who wants a wonderful old place that needs TLC.

Very different places with very different prices.

A Sugar Hill Townhouse Shell For $78/Sq. Ft.

535 West 152 - Harlem Townhouse ShellI think someone just got a pretty good deal on a Harlem townhouse shell… 535 West 152nd Street just sold for $490K. While the number may seem like it’s inline with other shell prices, apparently the place has 6,290 sq. ft. despite the fact that it’s just 16 2/3 feet wide and just 4 stories. That’s almost double the square footage of many Harlem townhouses. The place has an extension that stretches back 90 feet. So given the +/- 5 foot set back in the front – that’s nearly 100% lot coverage (though I’m sure there’s some sort of side yard).

At 6,290 sq. ft. the buyer bought the place at $78/sq. ft. – which is an incredible price. I’m not sure exactly what the condition was inside. The issue is that 6,290 is 566 sq. ft. over the max allowed square footage of 5,728. If it’s in really bad shape it’s possible that DOB might not allow the new owner to build back to restore the building to the original 6,290 sq. ft. Still, even at 5,728 sq. ft. they paid $86/sq. ft. – which is still very low.

The reason why this place went for such a reasonable price was because the seller was realistic about the place’s value. The seller was the same developer we purchased our townhouse from – TPE Townhouses Harlem (TPE is part of Tahl Propp – a big Harlem landlord). This was possibly the last of about a dozen townhouse shells they were selling. They weren’t giving away the townhouses, but they knew to sell a dozen shells you gotta take the best offer – even if it seems low.

Just to put this building in perspective… It’s outside the landmark district, and not all that close to subways – it’s a 6 minute walk to the 1 train at 157, 7 minutes to the C train at 155, and 8 minutes to the A/B/C/D trains at 145. The block it’s on is also mostly apartment buildings – not the charming tree-lined brownstone blocks you find elsewhere in Harlem. So it’s sorta lacking on location.

So there are great deals out there still. Now that I’ve got my real estate license and have access to all the listing databases it’s interesting to see what’s on the market. There are some interesting opportunities out there – but as always price continues to be an issue, as is matching the building to the particular needs of the buyer…

What Things Are Selling For In West Harlem

The other day I looked at what things were selling for in and around Mount Morris Park, so I figured I’d do the same thing for West Harlem (Sugar Hill & Hamilton Heights). I did a radius around a friend’s place in the middle of the historic districts up there and what I found was that prices per square foot just aren’t as high in West Harlem as they are around Mount Morris Park.

Square Feet $/Sq. Ft.
Address Date Price Official Actual Official Actual Class
406 W 146 27-Aug-10 $526,050 4,510 4,250 $117 $124 C0
410 Convent 21-Dec-10 $1,450,000 3,328 3,328 $436 $436 B1
413 W 148 30-Dec-10 $1,120,000 4,760 4,400 $235 $255 B1
761 St Nic 16-Nov-10 $707,500 5,673 5,400 $125 $131 C5
466 W 144 01-Oct-10 $2,000,000 5,895 5,775 $339 $346 B1
197 E’combe 06-Oct-10 $923,793 2,802 3,334 $330 $277 C5
423 W 141 18-Nov-10 $1,100,000 3,440 3,150 $320 $349 C0
515 W 152 31-Jan-11 $610,000 3,764 3,871 $162 $158 B3
524 W 140 15-Dec-10 $920,000 2,825 2,430 $326 $379 C3
102 E’combe 01-Oct-10 $525,000 3,790 3,400 $139 $154 A9

Red lines are 1 and 2 family. Blue is 3 family. Black is 4+ family & SROs.

There are fewer sales to work off of, and none of the shells were in as bad shape as the ones near Mount Morris (the West Harlem shells all had windows), so it’s hard to do an exact comparison. Also, some of the sales on the list had odd histories with auctions and lis pendens just before the last sale – I’m not sure they’re good comps since other things may have been in play on those sales.

Regardless, while one sale did hit $2M, what you’ll notice is that the price per square foot for that sale was only mid-$300s/sq. ft. – about $100/sq. ft. lower than in Central/South Harlem. Only one sale got above $400/sq. ft.

When I did the same analysis 5 months ago I saw the same trend – West Harlem prices just aren’t as high on the high end – which leads me to the same conclusion – West Harlem is a great place if you want to pay a bit less for well-kept house. That’s also consistent with the low prices in South Washington Heights – just north of Sugar Hill.

The other conclusion is that because there’s less of a gap between shells and the high end there’s less opportunity to make money renovating a shell in West Harlem than further south.

Sugar Hill & Hamilton Heights Townhouse Sales, Early 2010

Continuing with an examination of townhouse sales this year, this time I’m looking at Sugar Hill and Hamilton Heights…

[Remember that price per square foot is generally pretty inaccurate because the measurement of townhouses is not consistent – some include the ground (basement) level in the square footage, others don’t.]

Higher end properties

Sugar Hill

  • 2/17/2010 – 614 West 148th Street, $1,316,199, 3,000 sq. ft., $438/sq. ft. – SRO restricted
  • 4/21/2010 – 545 West 149th Street, $1.095M, 3,264 sq. ft., $335/sq. ft. – SRO restricted
  • 5/19/2010 – 413 West 154th Street, $1.2M, 4,368 sq. ft., $274/sq. ft. – Landmarked, not SRO restricted, Aging ’80s renovations, English basement, 25′ foot wide

Hamilton Heights

  • 1/20/2010 – 410 West 145th Street, $900K, 3,608 sq. ft., $249/sq. ft. – Landmarked, not SRO restricted, on busy commercial street
  • 3/3/2010 – 522 West 142nd Street, $895,638, 2,872 sq. ft., $311/sq.ft. – Not SRO restricted
  • 6/4/2010 – 554 West 142nd Street, $1.12M, 4,543 sq. ft., $246/sq. ft. – SRO restricted

What’s shocking here is that nothing sold on Hamilton Terrace, Convent Avenue, or the prime, landmarked blocks in Hamilton Heights (with house numbers in the 400s). The other rather shocking thing is the generally low prices. With the high end of Mount Morris Park now pushing $2M, the highest sale in Sugar Hill was barely over $1.3M, and calling $895K “higher end” just feels odd to me…

We actually went through 413 West 154th Street during our search. It sold for more than we expected. A nearly identical sister townhouse just around the corner on St. Nick had sold in August of 2009 for $1.05M and it was recently renovated. 413 needed $200K to $300K in renovations. Still, it was a very solid house in good repair. If you didn’t mind the aging renovations there was nothing that needed to be done.

Low end properties

Sugar Hill

  • 2/16/2010 – 844 St. Nick, $775K, 5,195 sq. ft, $149/sq. ft. – Huge ark of a house on a small lot, had certificate of no harassment and approved plans (under 1968 building code) for renovation to 2 family, some original details, lots of charm with a lot of big huge rooms
  • 4/14/2010 – 427 West 146th Street, $450K, $165/sq. ft. – Habitable, SRO-restricted
  • 5/18/2010 – 521 West 150th Street, $250K, $89/sq. ft. – SRO restricted

Hamilton Heights

  • 1/29/2010 – 48 Hamilton Place (near 140th St), $450K, 3,146, $143/sq. ft. – Active, occupied SRO
  • 2/5/2010 – 505 West 144th Street, $425K, 3,468 sq. ft., $122/sq. ft – Had certificate of no harassment, estate sale, some interesting original details, but smelled (badly) of urine, and on a block that is a bit rough at times

A few of these houses we knew pretty well. We had gone through 844 St. Nick a couple times. It was a wonderful ark of a house with huge rooms, great bones, some original details, a certificate of no harassment, and approved plans for conversion to 2 family (under 1968 building code). It was owned by a friend and initially we thought we couldn’t afford it, then he confided what he really wanted and we bid $765K, but he already had a verbally accepted offer for $775K and so we didn’t get it.

505 West 144th Street was always the one we’d bring up when we got discouraged and thought we weren’t going to be able to buy a townhouse. We went through it twice. Despite the strong sense of dog urine (a ‘caretaker’ had a dog in there for years and didn’t walk it very often), it had some real charm. But ultimately we walked away because we didn’t feel comfortable or safe on the block at night.

With the exception of 521 West 150th, low end prices were slightly higher than I would have expected – especially given the stagnation in the neighborhood in the higher end properties. There’s less of a gap between shells and high end properties than there is in Mount Morris Park which means less opportunity to make a profit from renovation.

It would seem Hamilton Heights and Sugar Hill are are the place to buy if you want a higher end property that needs minimal renovation – the properties are going for a half million less than they are 20 blocks south. What might be hurting sales is the lack of services. Mount Morris Park and South Harlem have great restaurants, grocery stores, etc. Those are sorely lacking in Hamilton Heights / Sugar Hill.