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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

New Yorkers Return to Town Houses




NEW YORK -- Jeffery and Faith Larsen of Greenwich, Connecticut, have been anticipating life in an empty nest, now that their children are 14 and 15 years old. So they have decided to move to a new nest. That nest, it turns out, will be an old one, a four-story town house on East 62nd Street built in 1870 and expanded to five stories in 1919.


When the Larsens move in - the target date is January - they will join a small but impassioned band of city dwellers who are bringing town houses full circle back to their origins as single-family homes after decades of being subdivided into apartments. Projects like the Larsens' require stamina, determination and more than likely a great deal of money. Larsen, the chief executive of ICor Brokerage Inc., a four-month-old company that offers business-to-business online brokerage services, said that he paid more than $2 million for the house and estimated that the renovation costs would probably hit $1.5 million.


Last month, 10 studio apartments in the building and a duplex that once housed an art gallery were demolished. In addition, the facade will be rebuilt to its original state, a step that has the required approval of the Landmarks Preservation Commission.


"It was really ugly, and now it will be really beautiful," Larsen said. "I want to bring it back to the look and feel of a block in a historical district." Restoring the house to exactly what it was in 1870 is an almost impossible task, though. "Because a fifth floor was added, we can't make it look exactly is it did, so we must be innovative," Larsen said. "We are putting on a mansard roof with two dormers."


That the Larsens have seized a rare opportunity is clear, but just how rare is impossible to measure. No definitive figures exist for the number of town houses in the city. A computer analysis of city property records by The New York Times, using descriptions that would suggest town houses, found 4,400 buildings in Manhattan and 15,200 in Brooklyn that fell within the parameters. Those figures were arrived at by counting the number of residential buildings of three to five stories on lots less than 7.5 meters wide. The buildings had no more than 12 units and were built before 1905, after which few town houses were constructed in Manhattan.


Other estimates vary widely. For example, figures taken from the city's Department of Finance by the Real Estate Board of New York put the total number in Manhattan at 1,386, a mere sliver of the borough's residential market, which includes 200,000 co-ops and 65,000 condominiums, according to the board's estimate. For Brooklyn, Steven Knobel, the executive vice president of Mitchell, Maxwell & Jackson, an appraisal firm, said, "Our guess is that there are somewhere around 45,000 town houses."


Last year, according to the Real Estate Board of New York, 145 town houses changed hands in Manhattan. The single-family town house is experiencing something of a renaissance, a trend that has been accelerating in recent years, brokers say, bringing back a style of gracious living in buildings that don't soar to the sky and dwarf their neighbors.


"For a time the single-family house in Manhattan became almost extinct," said Tim Desmond, a town house broker at Stribling & Associates. "In the 1920s, with the advent of big apartment buildings, apartment living came into vogue, and houses went out of favor. That left housing stock that was chopped up into four to 12 units."


Many of the apartments in buildings with three or more units were subject to rent control or rent stabilization, limiting the profits the landlord could reap. After 1986, they lost even more luster as investments, when federal tax laws were changed to significantly restrict their use as tax shelters. But other factors were emerging to make the single-family house a diamond on the market, although sometimes a diamond in the rough. Those factors include a soaring economy, a dwindling supply of large pre-war co-ops and a growing resistance to what some prospective buyers describe as the tyranny of co-op boards.


"Now we are again in a gilded age in New York, but unlike the turn of the century, there is no vacant land, so people are reconverting these buildings," said Frederick Peters, president of Ashforth Warburg Associates.


Brokers say their clients have numerous motives. "With a different perception of safety in the city, people who might not have thought of doing it 10 years ago are today, and people who 10 years ago might not have been in a position to utilize the entire house are now," said George van der Ploeg, a vice president at Alice F. Mason Ltd.


"We are seeing a trend toward larger, more opulent houses," he said. "A town house is probably 1,500 square meters, bigger than most apartments, and that makes a statement. In addition, some people chafe at the concept of the co-op board having so much power, from approving the buyer to approving the renovation."


And, many brokers say, compared with the square footage of a co-op or condominium, a town house offers a bargain.


"You get a lot more bang - or space - for the buck," said Barbara Fox, the president of Fox Residential Group. "Say you live in a 6-meter-wide house that is 18 meters deep. For five floors, that gives you 1,800 square meters. You would have to have an immense apartment to equal that. Plus you probably get a garden in the back, you may get a terrace and you can improve the roof and have a sun deck. It is not cheap, but it is a lot cheaper than getting the same interior and exterior space in a co-op."


The trend seems to have no geographical limits. In Manhattan, houses are being snapped up on the East and West Sides, uptown and downtown, from Harlem to Greenwich Village.


"There are no undesirable neighborhoods for this in Manhattan," Peters said, but he did agree that there are some blocks that command special attention. "Notoriously, the most desirable street is 70th Street between Park and Lex. It is famous for some incredibly beautiful buildings."


In Brooklyn, where town houses have long been dominant in some neighborhoods, the market is surging as well. Brooklyn Heights, the oldest landmarked district in the country, commands the highest prices, $2 million to $3.5 million, said Christopher Thomas, a senior vice president and the sales director for William B. May in Brooklyn.


"And we are doing a lot of business in neighborhoods we didn't go into three years ago, like Fort Greene and Clinton Hill," he said. In Fort Greene houses are going for $700,000 to $1 million.