Where “The Gays” Are In Harlem

I used to hate the term “the gays” because the only people I heard saying it were bigots. Now it seems everyone uses it, and it’s shorter than “gay men and lesbians” so it fits in the title, but I still feel weird using it…

Anyway, that said… I’ve heard for a long time that you can tell when a neighborhood is going to gentrify by whether “the gays” move in… Specifically gay men – since we don’t have the same level of safety issues that women have, and we don’t (traditionally) have kids, so we aren’t worried about how good the schools are. Some of us learned how to fix things from our fathers, and some of us have a sense of style. (I’m always amused by the ones who don’t.)

If you subscribe the the “gentrification follows gay men” theory, then you’ll find the following interesting…

WNYC has done a map that plots where gay and lesbian couples live. Here’s the results for Central and South Harlem…

Gay & Lesbian Couples in Harlem

I’m not quite sure what to think of the fact that we dominate Morningside Park, but you can see that the Mount Morris Park neighborhood is pretty popular with gay men and lesbians. Somewhat surprisingly South Harlem doesn’t have all that many gay and lesbian couples – just right on the border with the Upper West Side. The area between Lenox and 5th Avenue around Astor Row seems pretty popular as well.

Now if we could just get a gay bar somewhere near Red Rooster – that would be perfect 🙂

Apparently West Harlem is much less gay…

Gay and Lesbian Couples in West Harlem

It seems that the new condo developments just off Bradhurst are popular with gay men and lesbians, but otherwise the neighborhood is pretty average. What’s interesting also is the low number of gay men and lesbians in Hamilton Heights west of Amsterdam Avenue. That neighborhood isn’t as well established as the historic district which is mostly east of Amsterdam.

So the take away from this is that gay men and lesbians seem to gravitate towards quality… Areas with new condos and historic districts have a greater concentration of gays, while areas with large housing projects have far fewer gay men and lesbians. Personally I think the “gentrification follows gay men” theory is generally proven right by the maps above…

Hamilton Heights Comp – 505 West 144th Street

505 West 144th Street, Hamilton Heights, HarlemThis townhouse is one that we kept coming back to. There were times when we thought we might not be able to afford to get a townhouse and when those times came up 505 West 144th Street was always one of the ones we’d bring up that we could afford. In many ways it was the financially safe option.

When we were looking at it it was priced at $679K. Last month it finally sold for $425K. When we were bidding on it we went as high as $430K and they came down to $450K but then we withdrew our bid completely after spending an evening walking around the street. Even though it was just across Amsterdam Avenue from one of the best blocks in Harlem it was a remarkably rough block. The time we walked the block at night while we were bidding, it was summer, the windows were open and the salsa and merengue music was blaring from the windows. We realized that while the house itself had potential, the block didn’t have that much potential. It was never going to be a “good” block – at least not in the next 15 or 20 years. That would always limit the price of this townhouse, so we stopped budding on it. A few months later we second guessed our decision not to proceed on it so we walked the block again. This time as Dan was walking down one side of the street and I was walking down the other side, two “low income” women were yelling at each other and just about got into a fist fight as Dan passed them. He didn’t feel safe and that was absolutely the end of our thinking about 505 W 144.

On the plus side, the apartment building on the other side of the street and down a bit is where George Gershwin lived for a number of years, and there are 3 or 4 large apartment buildings on the block that have been designated part of an economic development zone and are getting 10-20 years of no real estate taxes in exchange for being redeveloped. One rooming house on the block has been gutted and turned into a condo and one building has been turned over to it’s tenants and is now a co-op. So the block is improving, but it’s still far from what we were looking for.

Here are the details…

Sale Price: $425,000
Sale Date: 5 February 2010
Square Feet: 3,468
Price Per Sq Ft: $122
Dimensions: 16.5 x 52 (no extensions)
DOB Classification: 2 family
HPD Classification: 1 class A apartment + 9 class B rooms
SRO Restricted: YES with certificate of no harassment
DOF Market Value: $1.13M
Annual taxes (2010): $3,039

It’s interesting that we paid the identical price per square foot for our place that the buyer paid for 505 W 144th – $122/sq. ft. but we feel like we made the right choice buying our place over this one.

The question then is if someone purchased this building what’s the best usage? Given the block I’d say it should be a 3 family rental with unremarkable finishes. You’d want three family instead of 4 to keep the taxes low. The ground floor would be a floor through 1 bedroom garden apartment. The parlor floor would be a large studio apartment. On the parlor floor the staircase is a switchback in the center of the building. That limits the layout options, hence a studio apartment on that floor. However, there are some interesting original details that could be preserved. Then the top two floors would be a nice, large 2(+) bedroom unit. There are original details on the master/mistress level, but not much of any on the top floor.

Given the block, I don’t see an owner living in this townhouse. IMHO, it’s value is purely as a rather average rental property.

Rough numbers… I’d conservatively say $1500 for the garden rental, $1,000 for the parlor studio and $2,000 for the top two floors. So $4,500/mo in income or $54K/yr. Assuming $1K/mo goes to running the building ($taxes, utilities, etc.), you could support a mortgage of about $600K off the rental income. At 80% financing that means the max value after renovations is about $750K and they have about $325K for renovations.

Renovations are a bit challenging because the house absolutely reeks of piss and shit. A “caretaker” had lived there for a number of years and during that time he didn’t walk his dog very much and the dog just did it’s business in the house. That means all the wood floors have to be torn out, the floor in the basement chopped up, removed and repoured, and Urine Off used liberally throughout the house. There’s also a fair amount of mold on the top floor – so all the “new” sheetrock walls on that floor need to be torn out and replaced. The plaster walls on the other levels are mold-proof, so they’d be OK. The building also needs all new electrical, plumbing as well as completely new kitchens and baths. It’s pushing it to get all of that done for $325K and bring it all up to code to get the new C of O, which means it’s not going to be very high quality.

There are some interesting original details. The triple mirror just inside the front door was incredible. It could be a great place, but I doubt it ever will be…

Delapidated wreck of a bathroom in a Harlem townhouseOld mirror in a dilapidated townhouse in Harlem
Disgusting old kitchen in Harlem townhouse wreckRun down hallway in old Harlem townhouse wreck

The one funny story from seeing this house was when the seller’s broker (Jean Adams of Prudential Douglas Elliman) was going down the dark, filthy staircase between the parlor and basement levels. She was a woman who carried herself with a fair amount of dignity but she was wearing flats walking down a staircase that was covered in rat droppings and god knows what else. She very calmly said “Wait a moment, I’ve got something in my shoe”. She didn’t have socks or stockings on, so that meant she had gotten what was probably rat feces in her shoe against her bare skin. Given what she had to endure to show that house, I had huge respect for her. Of course, she could have dressed differently… I for one always wore boots with steel soles and toes when I went through houses like that…

Bidding On A Wreck Of A Towhouse

So now that the buyers of our coop have been approved by the board Dan and I are getting serious about getting another place – a townhouse in Harlem to be precise. It’s at times like this that the name of this blog starts making sense… Our buying a townhouse is just like beating upwind in sailboat… It’s difficult, but once you get where you’re going it’s wonderful and relaxing…

This is one of the only times we’ll be able to get into the townhouse market. We sold our place (knock wood) for 15% less than it was worth at the height of the market. Meanwhile Harlem townhouses are down 60-80% from their high. But it’s a weird market, to say the least. Financing is extremely tight and most of the places we’re looking at require substantial renovation – often $500K or more in renovation.

Our options are:

  • A newly renovated townhouse that has really small rooms – like 7 West 119th where can’t even fit our couch into the living room without splitting it in two pieces and bedrooms that are barely big enough for a bed. So that option is out since the room sizes are too small to work for us.
  • A full-size townhouse on a good block that is habitable/mortgageable, but will need major renovation in 5-10 years if not sooner. 48 Hamilton Terrace is an example of a townhouse like that. The bottom line is we can’t afford to do the renovations right away, and after you add the renovations to the original cost it becomes an expensive house.
  • Shells and wrecks that need a total gut renovation. These generally have to be bought all cash and then you have to hope you can get financing from one of the few lenders who does construction loans. And on top of that we can’t afford the shells on the good blocks unless they’re really narrow (12 footers).

So our options are limited, but the one that seems best at this point is to go with a shell/wreck. We’ve got our eyes on one in particular and put in a bid on it yesterday. Our offer is lower than the seller had hoped, but it’s realistic. There are two townhouses that are good comps – both closed on July 20th – 419 West 146th Street, and 400 West 145th Street. One was sold at auction, the other by a broker, but both settled for $146/sq. ft. Add to that a declining market and the a less desirable location and the seller should seriously consider our offer. Given that the seller is an estate that wants to close its books, we’re hopeful.

Here are some pictures of the one we’re bidding on…

Delapidated Kitchen


Needless to say, it’s going to be a huge amount of work to renovate it, but when it’s done I’ve figured out that it will cost us about the same (net) as our current apartment. So it really will be a great deal. And it’s not all horrible. The reason why we like it is because it’s got some great original details. The biggest of which are the plaster walls in a configuration that works for us. Then there are the fireplaces you see in a lot of townhouses, but what you don’t see a lot are the big huge old mirrors. There’s a huge three paneled mirror/coat rack just inside the front door, plus two other smaller ones in other locations. And the woodwork on them is pretty incredible too…

Great woodwork in an old Harlem townhouse wreck

So there’s a lot of potential… We just have to get the seller to understand that the value of their place has dropped in a big way. They were in contract 18 months ago for double our initial bid, but that was before the stock market crash. Then they had a higher offer, but those buyers couldn’t secure financing. And in the meantime the market has continued to go down.

So we’ll see… Hopefully there will be good news soon…

The Bailey House Sells For A Mere $1.4M!

The amazing Bailey House (as in Barnum & Bailey Circus) has sold for a mere $1.4 million after being listed earlier this year for $6.5 million. That’s only 21.5% of the asking price.The house is incredible. The level of detail is just stunning and, built in 1926, the house really speaks to the wealth of Harlem in the years before the Great Depression. It’s located at the corner of 150th and St. Nicholas (where St Nicholas Place splits from St. Nicholas Avenue) – a short block from Edgecombe Avenue where many of Harlem’s “sugar daddies” used to live giving Sugar Hill it’s name. Today it’s a couple short blocks from the subway entrance for the A,B,C and D lines between 147th and 148th on St. Nicholas Ave. One of the best subway stops in Manhattan as it’s only 2 stops from 59th Street on the A and D trains.Granted, the house needs some work and restoring it back to it’s full glory won’t be cheap, but $1.4 million for a house like this is an absolute steal. It’s a mere $170 per sq. ft. You can see from the pictures that there are a number of Tiffany windows in the building – they alone must be worth a fortune.

The only two negatives to the house are its relatively high taxes (down to $25K/year from $28K/year when a typical townhouse in that neighborhood with half as much square footage pays about $4K/year), and the ugly gas station across the street.

The sale price of the Bailey House really speaks to the troubles townhouses have been having in Harlem lately. They’re down 60% or more off their peak in 2007 while other neighborhoods are down closer to 15% – and it doesn’t look like they’ve hit bottom yet. This is definitely the time for buyers to be tough with sellers, and sellers to hold onto their properties, if they can weather the storm and wait for prices to go back up.