What $150,000 Buys Now
BY MICHAEL DOLAN
In real estate, when you talk to brokers about "the good old days," they tend to drop references to the last century -- December 1999, to be precise. "The market price of properties has gone up 15 percent since January, across the board," says Klara Madlin of the eponymous brokerage. "Studios that were once $150,000 on the Upper West Side are now going for the low 200s. If you want any kind of value, you have to head to the West Hundreds: We're opening a Harlem office this month just to meet the demand." Better hurry. "Manhattan Valley may be the only undervalued part of town," says John Caraccioli of Halstead, referring to the area in the low Hundreds west of Central Park. "If you're lucky, you may still be able get a one-bedroom there."
Otherwise, for $150,000, five out of five brokers agree, below 100th Street, Manhattan might as well be Studio City. "The ones you can get at that price won't even have an alcove," says Madlin. "They will literally be a room." Nan Schiff of Douglas Elliman agrees. "You're not going to get a new kitchen," she says. "In fact, you'd be pleasantly surprised to walk in and see a kitchen. There's always going to be one obstacle to overcome: garbage cans outside the window, or you're on the first floor and the light is compromised."
Move farther toward the outskirts of Manhattan, and the story improves only slightly. "You're trading space for location," says Julie Jacobs, also of Douglas Elliman. "You can usually forget about outdoor space, although I did sell some studios with balconies at 1160 Third Avenue, between 67th and 68th, that fall around that range." Once you see the prices in Brooklyn Heights, you may want to check to see if the Brooklyn Bridge is still there; they're more in line with those of Manhattan. "For $150,000, I'd steer people toward Clinton Hill or Fort Greene," says Cheryl Nielsen-Saaf of Corcoran. "Forget Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill, and Carroll Gardens; there's just a lack of inventory. Most of the properties in these areas are rentals to start with, unless they're old schools or churches. Those structures are the only places that have studios. I'd say $200,000 is a better starting point for a small Brooklyn one-bedroom." And as the distance widens between you and Manhattan, so does the space between your walls. "For 150, you can do a two-bedroom co-op in most of Queens," says Helen Keit of First Choice Real Estate. "It's too low for an attached house, but you'll get yourself a nice-size co-op in a variety of buildings in any area." Susan Goldy of Susan E. Goldy Real Estate has a similar assessment of the Bronx: "You can get a studio in a luxury condo building in Riverdale with plenty of amenities -- doorman, swimming pool, central air, a river view -- for $80,000. If you'd rather have space, you can get a one-bedroom or a junior four in most postwar buildings, but prices at top luxury co-op buildings get closer to $200,000." To put it gently, $150,000 is the rock-bottom price it costs to become a property owner within city limits. At best, you'll be sleeping in a recent-vintage townhouse on the South Shore of Staten Island. "It's not going to be a great property," says Jon Salmon of Salmon Real Estate, "and yet, you'll still see 100 people at the open house. It doesn't even matter if it's a bungalow. You'd better be ready to buy it, or you'll be homeless."
450-square-foot co-op studio at 24 Fifth Avenue, at 9th Street.
Paid: $135,000; maintenance, $400.
Joel Odum owns a beautiful Victorian house. Unfortunately, it's located in the Cleveland Park section of Washington, D.C. As an employee of the U.S. General Services Administration, Odum needs to spend more time in New York this year, so he set a limit of $150,000 and decided he'd find a studio. But he wasn't up for sweating it out in today's real-estate souk: "My goodness, you show up at these open houses, and there are dozens of people there clamoring and reaching and grabbing. It's like a yard sale!" Brokers were equally disillusioning: "They would tell me things like 'Oh, you'll love the Upper East Side.' But I don't want to live there. 'Oh, don't worry, you're gonna love it.' If I'd seen one more wall with exposed brick, I think I would have put my head through it."
Enter Nan Schiff of Douglas Elliman, who diagnosed Odum's problem immediately. "Joel had to travel back and forth between D.C. and New York constantly," says Schiff. "It made it impossible for him to land a place. At $150,000, you'd better have a check ready. If you're not ready to make the deal, you'll lose the property within an hour." Schiff found a studio for Odum in a well-located and -maintained Art Deco building at Fifth Avenue and 9th Street, an old hotel that had been remodeled. "I described the space to Joel over the phone," she says. When Odum liked what he heard, Schiff went in with an aggressive bid, secured him a pre-approved mortgage from a broker, had a lawyer immediately draw up the papers, and put together a package on Odum so stellar that the co-op board pushed all other interested parties aside.
The sixth-floor space has the feel of a hotel room -- basic, with a tiny separate kitchen containing scaled-down appliances -- but Odum doesn't really care. "I don't need a house; I just need a place to sleep and hang my clothes," he says. He's just three subway stops away from the office and a short walk away from two parks and dozens of restaurants.
Days later, when Odum finally passed through the place, he took one look and signed the final papers: "My friends said, 'Are you crazy? Paying that kind of money without seeing it first?' You bet! At that point, I'd done everything. I've asked strangers on the street if they knew of any places. People told me to give the super a hundred bucks to find out about empty spaces. Then Nan goes out of her way to find me a space that's only $135,000! She treated me like I was Brooke Astor!"
600-square-foot one-bedroom co-op at 132 Joralemon Street.
Paid: $147,000; maintenance, $712.
"Since my wife and I moved from Minneapolis a few years ago, I still don't think we've gotten over the sticker shock," says architect Victor Pechaty. Pechaty and his wife, Dinorah, first settled into a 250-square-foot studio in Brooklyn Heights with an $1,100-a-month rent. "We loved the Heights," he says. "We loved the architecture, and it had a real urban character. The apartment was fine, but when Dinorah became pregnant, we had to find a bigger place." After a few months of scouting the neighborhood, the Pechatys found a street-level one-bedroom with bars on the window. "We would've been glad to take it," Pechaty says. But the co-op board would accept a 10 percent down payment only if the Pechatys also put up a year's maintenance. "We liked the place, but not enough to front that money. So we walked."
A few months later, the couple -- and baby Sophia -- attended another open house. "We walked out of the apartment, straight over to the Realtor, and put in a bid for $145,000, $4,000 below the asking price," says Pechaty. The seller met them in the middle. With deed in hand, Pechaty has already changed fixtures and some appliances. "But we can't really remodel the kitchen," he says. "There's only a small stove, a refrigerator, a sink, and three small cabinets. There's nothing there to remodel."
Old Town, Staten Island
One-family two-story townhouse on a 16-by-100 lot.
Working as they do in the computer-support industry, Ann Marie Grenham and her fiancé, Peter Quadarella, are finding they're busier than ever. They were renting a one-bedroom out in New Dorp, but now it was time to own something. The couple was prepared to spend no more than $150,000 on something with low taxes. "Good schools aren't a concern for us yet," says Grenham.
She would find houses in online listings in her price range, but by the time she called, the property was already sold. "And the few homes we saw, the exteriors were dreadful," she says. Finally, the couple found a home nice enough to actually step inside; it was in Old Town, only a few blocks from a commercial area. "The house is white, and it has these two lovely large windows in front, one upstairs and one downstairs," Grenham says. "We liked the large living room and kitchen opening out to the patio. Upstairs, there's a large master bedroom in front with a smaller bedroom towards the back. And there's a tiny attic for storage."
Grenham and Quadarella paid $133,000, which was $12,000 under the asking price. Within three months, the two-story starter with a two-car driveway was theirs to keep. "It's nice to have the driveway, but we're a three-minute walk from Hylan Boulevard and all the shops and restaurants. An express bus gets us to work in about 35 minutes. It's a breeze; we don't even need our car anymore."