I Got To Clean My Own Car

It may seem odd to people who live outside New York, but New Yorkers don’t really get to wash their own cars. We live in apartment buildings and there’s no hoses or extension cords to do the job with. And real estate is too expensive for those high pressure spray self-service car washes you see in other places.

So as odd as it sounds I’ve really been looking forward to washing my own car. But parking is such that it’s hard to find a time get the spot directly in front of the house. So Friday I queued up during alternate side parking and got the spot in front of the house and spent the rest of the morning washing the car.

Turns out I was missing wax – so that didn’t get done, but the car looked much better after I was done…

'08 VW R32 getting cleaned outside a Harlem brownstone

Most people have no clue what kind of car I have. Most think it’s a VW GTI, which is close, but not right. It’s a 2008 VW R32 which I picked up from the dealer almost exactly 5 years ago (I special ordered and it was one of the first to arrive for that model year – got to the dealer in late July ’07 and I picked it up the first week of August). It’s only got 28,400 miles on it which is pretty low for a 5 year old car – less than 6,000 miles/year…

The one person who did recognize it as an R32 was the UPS guy. He didn’t even need to see the R32 badge – he could tell from the tailpipes. Like most people who are car guys – he stood around and asked a bunch of questions for a while…

So while I got all wet and sweaty washing and vacuuming the car, it was fun – a bit of downwind sailing after a lot of beating upwind… 😉

Modern Efficient Water Heaters Are Fragile

Our hot water went out earlier this week. The cause? The boiler room was dirty. Seriously…

Old style water heaters just sat there. Their exhaust was hot, so it rose up the chimney without any effort. New water heaters aren’t anything like that. Hot air going up the chimney isn’t efficient – the heat should be going into the water, not the atmosphere. So they use fans to push the exhaust up the chimney. If you see fan motor sitting on top of your water heater you have one of the new, more efficient, water heaters…

power vent water heater fan

Sometimes the fan is concealed a bit behind a plastic cover…

power vent water heater cover shield

Because the exhaust gases are more condensed and not as hot, instead of using a tin chimney, you’re supposed to use PVC or CPVC or stainless. In fact you’re not allowed to use tin for the chimney  – I think the gasses can corrode tin.

Anyway, the air the fans push up the chimney has to come from somewhere. There are two types of modern water heaters – Power Vent and Direct Power Vent. The term “Power Vent” means, they have a fan that pushes the exhaust up the chimney. Direct Power Vent means the air intake is piped from outside – air inside the boiler room is not used.

I wanted Direct Power Vent, but we were venting through the roof and the total length of piping for venting was a problem. You have to count the air intake into the total length of ducting allowed. In our case, since we have a 5 story townhouse, the intake pipe would have put us over the allowed ducting or dangerously close to being over.

Because the air on a Direct Vent water heater comes from the boiler room, not outside as the repair guy put it – “you’ve got a big vacuum cleaner” sitting in your boiler room. It sucks in air at the bottom, spirals it around the tank and pushes it out the top. So any loose dirt that’s sitting on your floor will get sucked into the water tank. If it’s not light enough to make it to the top of your chimney it will wind up falling back down into the fan when the fan turns off. Eventually it builds up and clogs the sensors that are there to make sure everything is working properly.

When the repair guy took off the chimney and started the fan a huge cloud of dust and dirt went into the air. Not good – and the cause of our problems. Luckily no parts had gotten fried, so as soon as he had cleaned things up everything was working again.

So in hindsight, if you can, I’d recommend a Direct Power Vent instead of a Power Vent. Your outside air is likely to be cleaner than the air in your boiler room. But whichever you have, be careful about the cleanliness of the air going being sucked in. With a Power Vent keep your boiler room clean. During construction that can be hard – so just turn the water heater off until the boiler room can be clean. Even with a Direct Power Vent you should worry if there’s dust in the air where the air intake is – for example, if they’re doing construction next door, etc.

One other thing the repair guy said was that PVC can be a problem for the vent stacks. Apparently the temperature can get high enough to crack the PVC. CPVC or stainless is better. We’ll keep the water temperature down to try to avoid that problem. If you do put in PVC, keep a close eye on it for problems.

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).

Texas Purple Japanese Wisteria Grows Incredibly Fast

wisteria growing up steel pergolafast growing wisteriaOne of the concepts we designed the back of the house around was a porch/pergola with wisteria growing on it. Wisteria have a reputation of taking years to get established and bloom, so we wanted to get the wisterias started early.

A couple weeks after we moved in we went to a couple nurseries trying to find wisteria plants to buy. The second place we went was Sam Bridge Nursery in Old Greenwich, CT. As we were approaching I knew it was going to be incredible. I had figured it would be on the outskirts of Greenwich, but no – it’s smack dab in the center of one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the country. The mansions around the nursery were humbling.

Needless to say service was incredible. There was always someone close at hand to give advice – they even insisted on loading the stuff we bought into the car, but I’m getting ahead of myself…

They had a few different types of wisteria to choose from. Cell service was pretty bad, but we were able to validate what was on the tags by looking things up online. We had a few criteria – it needed to grow to 25+ feet since the top of our pergola is about 20 feet off the ground. “Fast growing” was a big plus, as was “blooms quickly” (since wisteria can take years to actually bloom after being planted). “Texas Purple” Japanese Wisteria was available and seemed to fit all those criteria.

The web sites said that Texas Purple could grow “up to 10 feet a year”. WRONG. It grew 10 feet the first month after we planted it and one of the plants has actually reached the top of the pergola – which means it’s grown about 15-16 feet in two months! (They were about 4-5 feet tall when we bought them). The other plant is just a couple feet behind it. The faster growing plant actually has three shoots coming up, the slower growing plant has just one (so far). They’ve probably got another month and a half of growing this year – so they may very well grow 25 feet this year alone – which is absolutely stunning.

We got two different types of mulch from Sam Bridge plus top soil that looked incredibly rich. I’m sure they have helped by giving the wisteria lots of nutrients. We should probably go back for more mulch – it seems to do wonders for the plants.

Other than those two wisteria, the back yard is still a complete mess…

messy back yard of Harlem townhouse

But hey, we’ve got two wisteria 🙂

The contractor is starting to wrap up construction, we have our big end-of-project inspection Thursday. We’re hoping to have a TCO (Temporary Certificate of Occupancy) shortly after that. They still have to finish the stoop. Dan’s fabricating the missing pieces out of fiberglass (another blog post), and after not liking the “brownstone finish” our contractor picked out, we think we’ve found one. We even had them do color matching to the original brownstone.

Low Water Pressure => Booster Pump

When we moved in 6 weeks ago we noticed a few things that indicated problems with our water pressure. The flushometer (tankless) toilets didn’t always flush properly and the massage setting on our shower head didn’t really do much in the way of a massage. Then the plumber realized he had installed the wrong size water meter and hadn’t put in an RPZ valve. When he downsized the meter from 1 1/2″ to 1″ and put in a double check valve (similar to an RPZ) we really started having problems – more often than the not the toilets just wouldn’t flush properly.

After yelling at the plumber for weeks we finally got him to come out and diagnose the problem. Here’s what we had for pressures – they’re probably pretty typical for what other Harlem townhouses are seeing…

In the cellar…
We have about 45 psi coming in from the street
On the sprinkler system that drops to about 40 psi after the check valve
On domestic water we drop to about 30 psi after the water meter & double check valve
The 30 psi is maintained to the bottom of the run for the toilets (in the cellar)

At roof level (up about 55 feet)…
The sprinkler system has about 24 psi
The outside hose connector has about 8 psi

What that means on a practical level is that it takes us a full minute to fill a 59 oz (<1/2 gallon) Tropicana bottle in the slop sink on the top floor. That’s BAD. Down in the cellar with 30 psi the same bottle filled in less than 5 seconds (about as quickly as we could get the valve open and then close it again).

That means the sprinkler system lost about 15 psi over about a 55 feet rise while the domestic supply for sinks, etc. lost 22 psi over the same rise – that’s because the sprinkler system uses larger diameter pipes which can preserve pressure more effectively.

The line for the toilets is bigger and separate from the one for the sinks, so pressure in it should be somewhat better (though not as good as the sprinklers). The flushometer valves can operate down to 10 psi, but the toilet bowl requires 25 psi and 18 gpm to flush properly. You can see how we just don’t have enough pressure, and probably not enough flow. We probably have the 25 psi in the rental, but on up in our unit the pressure just isn’t sufficient.

Even when we didn’t have a double check valve and we had a larger diameter water meter the toilets didn’t always flush properly. So the bottom line is if you want flushometer toilets, or you want massage shower heads to work properly in the upper floors of a Harlem townhouse you’re probably going to need a booster pump.

Booster pumps get very expensive if your sprinkler system needs more pressure. Sprinklers have incredible flow and a booster pump that can can keep up with a sprinkler system has to be pretty huge, and huge = expensive (over $12,000 just for the equipment and up to $15,000 with installation). However, boosting just the domestic water supply is far less expensive – about 1/10th the price. In fact it’s important not to over-size the booster pumps since they need a certain flow going into them.

Here’s what our new household booster pump looks like…

Booster pump to boost household water pressure

There’s a pump and a pressure tank. The pressure tank evens out the pressure, so when you flush a toilet and use a bunch of water all at once it can hit a reserve and won’t have to suck everything out of the incoming water supply.

Now that that’s in the toilets flush properly and Dan says the massage setting on the shower actually feels more like a massage…

Incidentally, the pressure in the ground floor rental seems just fine. We’ve put in a rain shower there – so no massage shower issues, and the toilet flushes enthusiastically. So only our unit needed help.