Back in the nineties -- remember those days? -- the market was easy to understand: All it did was go up. Now things are more complicated. September 11 and the recession produced some bargains in Battery Park City, of course, as well as in rentals. And if you've got, say, $10 million to throw around, you'll find an abundance of choices. But in most parts of the city, for every bargain there are two or three bargain hunters armed with Alan Greenspan -- assisted mortgage rates. Especially on the Upper West Side, where everybody seems to be looking to buy, and nobody to sell. If it's a one-bedroom you want, you'll find good value in Yorkville, east of Lex. Need a townhouse for a growing family? Murray Hill is the place. A loft? North Chelsea is still affordable. On the following pages, you'll find a road map to this confusing real-estate terrain, broken down by category, from studio apartment to townhouse, to target the best neighborhoods for what you need. And don't be dismayed by the lack of bargains -- it means people have confidence in the city again. Which is a good thing.
Thanks to low interest rates, studio dwellers are finding that it still makes sense to own. To find a room of your own, focus your search on Yorkville, Murray Hill, or Brooklyn.
BY DEBORAH SHAPIRO
During the last recession, the studio market took it on the chin, hard. "It's overstating it to say you couldn't give them away, but only a little," says Frederick W. Peters of Ashforth Warburg. This time around, it's the exact opposite. "Weakness in rentals is pervasive," says Neil Binder, a principal at Bellmarc. "And usually when rentals go down, sales go down, but you're not seeing that." Prices have stabilized, but low interest rates have cut the cost of a monthly mortgage payment. Which means buying a studio is often still cheaper than renting.
Michael Bellino couldn't agree more. The MTV promos producer spent three years in an increasingly expensive Carroll Gardens share before purchasing his gut-renovated, prewar 400-square-foot co-op at 93rd and Columbus. "If you're buying," says the 27-year-old, "a whole world of apartments open up."
The price is right: Yorkville is the consensus among buyers and brokers. "It wasn't my first choice," says David Chase, a 30-year-old attorney, "but there's better value there than the Upper West Side or the downtown neighborhoods." He bought the fourth place that Fox's Marcia Donen Roma showed him, a 475-square-foot studio in the mid-Seventies off Third, with a well-appointed kitchen, plenty of storage, and a spacious bathroom. The selection here is broader, and $175,000 can get you a nice studio in a full-service building, says Wendy Divak of Charles H. Greenthal.
Farther afield: Murray Hill, to the south, also holds promise. James Proscia, 52, a software engineer at Verizon, went to contract on a 400-square-foot studio at 35th and Second for an astounding $115,000. "My preference has always been the Village," he says, "but when you're set in a price range, you have to be versatile." Gramercy is another option, or if you're thinking west, Hell's Kitchen, advises Binder. Within these neighborhoods, for "average dimensions, nothing spectacular," he estimates studios in walk-ups cost around $175,000; sixties-era white-brick boxes run in the $250,000 range, and apartments in new high-rises can fetch upwards of $350,000. For consistently lower prices, look north of the George Washington Bridge to Hudson Heights or out to brownstone Brooklyn, where you'll make up in savings what you lose in convenience.
Evan Binkley of Corcoran helped Kristina Lifors, 25, land a 477-square-foot Brooklyn Heights co-op for $125,000. After two years of renting in Bay Ridge, Lifors wanted a shorter commute to her interior-design job in Manhattan. Her studio had been on the market for two weeks, with seven competing offers. "It was the second place I'd seen," she says. "I was afraid I was going to lose it." But thanks to some assistance from Dad, and an eager seller, Lifors secured the St. George Tower property, which features a full-time doorman, a renovated kitchen and bath, and a rooftop deck. "It's amazing," she says. "You can see the whole city."
Over the ask: Unless you head into the Nineties, like Bellino, forget the Upper West Side. "Studios on the West Side are sparse. It's predominantly larger properties," says Binder. So you might find bigger studios, like the 600-square-foot apartments in Lincoln Towers (West End Avenue, 65th to 71st Street), but they'll be priced around $230,000. "Generally, for a renovated studio, it's not less than $170,000," says Halstead's Jill Sloane. "If you find something less than that, it's either in original condition or it's really, really tiny."
The outlook: Binkley points to one client who paid $40,000 for her Brooklyn Heights studio three and a half years ago and sold it for three times that late last year. "Nobody's going to triple their value in the three years. But I don't see anybody losing out big-time, either. Compared with all the other investment opportunities you have at the moment, it's still a pretty safe one."
One-bedroom co-ops predominate on the Upper East Side, especially east of Lexington -- so why are you still looking on West End Avenue?
BY BORIS KACHKA
It was the first-time investors, not the Warren Buffetts, who took the stock market out of the last recession, and it may be the common man -- the erstwhile renter -- who does the same for post-bubble real estate. "In early 2000, there were multi-million-dollar properties selling every day at a new record price," says Insignia Douglas Elliman's Tristan Harper. Though he's just broken a post -- September 11 sales record with an $18.25 million Park Avenue condo, Harper credits a humbler clientele for the resiliency of Manhattan prices. "After September 11, the first-time buyers were the ones who were basically holding the market," he says.
Higher demand in January buoyed prices, and cautious one-bedroom owners -- those who haven't fled the city already -- aren't going anywhere. "Sellers are not desperate," says Corcoran's Christine Iu. "They know that if they hold out, they will get their price." Ken Altman lowered the asking on his Yorkville one-bedroom (on the market since late August) from $325,000 to just under $300,000, but he'll go no further. It's still on the market, and bids are still coming in just below ask. "I checked what other full-service apartments are going for in my area," he says. "I'm confident that we are where we should be in the marketplace."
Over the ask: Whatever the neighborhood, the rarest inventory is always the priciest. Below 125th Street, prewar one-bedrooms are prized and rarely for sale. From the Bing & Bing stalwarts in the West Village all the way up to West End Avenue in the 100s, inventory is scarce and bidding wars are par for the course -- particularly on the Upper West Side. Reversing the East-West divide of a decade ago, space here can sell for 15 percent more than the going rate east of Lex. "Some of my agents are losing buyers to the East Side," says Jeffrey Rothstein, the head of Douglas Elliman's West Side office. "Normally, they would buy in the West, but they've gotten outpriced."
The price is right: For more options, follow the inventory, all the way to the Upper East Side east of Lexington -- with abundant postwar residential space where one-bedrooms predominate (proportionately more than in any other neighborhood, according to Elliman's Harper). That's what Edmund Cape did. The week of September 11, the 32-year-old McKinsey consultant was set to close on a $320,000 Grand Street two-bedroom with a full view of the Twin Towers, but the seller refused to renegotiate. "I was initially upset, of course," says Cape. "But when I started looking around, there was clearly softening all over." He still had to fight off two other bids -- both below asking -- on a large one-bedroom fifth-floor walkup in Yorkville that he snagged for $279,000.
Farther afield: Newly gentrified neighborhoods -- the East Village, Hudson Heights, Fort Greene, and Clinton Hill -- are still the least inflated. The average Clinton Hill one-bedroom went for $148,000 last fall, according to Corcoran. And a couple of brokers, asked where they'd personally invest, name Hudson Heights, a section of Washington Heights bounded by 174th Street and Fort Tryon Park where thrifty couples like Michael Poehlman and Stephanie Nobert have been able to find spacious prewar one-bedrooms for less than $200,000. "We knew we wanted to be in this neighborhood," says Nobert, who had been renting in a Williamsburg rowhouse. "We wanted a more permanent structure."
The nest-egg effect: "There is a wealth factor that we did not experience in the last recession," says Corcoran's Cathy Blau, who sees a lot of savings in buyers' financial papers. Lauren Michaels, an associate publisher at Harper's Bazaar, didn't exactly find a steal in her $400,000 Murray Hill pad with $1,800 monthly maintenance. Michaels knew what she wanted and had the financial security to get it (at $25,000 below asking). "I've been looking for a year, on and off," she says. "The more I looked, the more I felt that everything was overpriced." Eventually -- as prices dipped -- Michaels found everything she wanted (doorman, wraparound terrace, large den) and had enough left over for a decorator. "It's just so perfect for me," says Michaels. "Immediately, I'd started wondering what I could do with it."
The two-bedroom co-op is still the white whale for newlyweds and young families. To land one for yourself, look to postwar towers in the far East Nineties.
BY JOY ARMSTRONG
Bagging the bona fide two-bedroom -- a midsize family home that falls between a converted one-bedroom and a classic six -- is as difficult as ever. Even during last fall's standstill, twos continued to sell easily. In large part, that's because buyers looking to upgrade to a second bedroom are usually doing so not by choice but because they have to: A baby's on the way or just arrived, or they've otherwise outgrown their current digs.
In October, Joyce Davis, a Manhattan dermatologist, and her husband, a cardiac surgeon, signed a contract on a 2,000-square-foot, fully renovated condo on Third Avenue in the Sixties for $1.8 million. "It seemed very strange. They had just found anthrax, and here I was buying an expensive apartment," says Davis. But the high-floor condo was exactly what these doctors ordered: It was in move-in condition, with huge closets and floor-to-ceiling views of the park and the 59th Street Bridge. "I was living in a lovely one-bedroom in Gramercy Park, so we wanted something that was worth the effort of moving," says Davis, who especially needed more living space for her 12-year-old stepson on the weekends.
The price is right: The best place to look for a two-bedroom is around First and East End Avenues in the Nineties. "I sold six 900-square-foot apartments in two weeks last January," says Insignia Douglas Elliman's Tristan Harper, whose deals all went to contract for $350,000 at 300 East 95th Street. "We priced them for the market," he says. While people often think of the East Nineties as a rental neighborhood, newer developments like the Waterford and the Chartwell House are luring home-buyers in the neighborhood.