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A Cool Million

A million dollars used to mean something; now it's just a place to start the bidding. So what's left to buy in the low seven figures?

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'I have one client -- a lawyer -- who wants to spend a million, a million one, on an apartment," says Michele Kleier, president of Gumley Haft Kleier, the New York real-estate brokerage and management firm. Recently, Kleier found a great deal (the first decent property she'd seen in a long time), but the client was in Florida for the weekend, and by the time she flew back to New York to have a look, it was too late. The apartment, five rooms at 1035 Fifth Avenue, was already under contract for $975,000, with two backup bids. $975,000? This is a deal? "She's killing herself that she went to Florida," says Kleier, noting that the client canceled a vacation scheduled for the following month -- just in case.

Not so long ago, a million dollars bought a lot more than a medium-size apartment; in fact, ten years ago, New York State began charging a special one percent luxury tax on the sale of all residential real estate over $1 million -- known as the mansion tax. But if a million no longer gets you a mansion, what will it buy?

"I'm embarrassed to tell you, I don't know what a million dollars will buy these days," says Edward Lee Cave, head of his eponymous real-estate brokerage. "What my clients want costs a lot more than that." A million won't buy a good-size three-bedroom apartment on the Upper East or West Side (above 59th Street and below 96th Street), on Sutton Place, in SoHo, in the West Village, or in Chelsea.

"A million -- or $925,000 plus closing costs -- will buy you a one-bedroom in the Mayfair on a low floor, or a one-bedroom on a middle floor in the Trump International Hotel and Tower," says Sotheby's International Realty's Dolly Lenz. "Or you can still get a two-bedroom at the Trump World Tower (three blocks from the U.N.), because it's two years away from being delivered." You might be able to find a 2,000-square-foot "classic six" in the million-dollar range -- two full bedrooms, a maid's room, a kitchen, a living room, and a dining room. That is, if you're lucky and move quickly, and, says Lenz, you're willing to live in small rooms on a low floor in a postwar building that is closer to the East River than to Central Park. And the windows look out on a brick wall. Is this suffering? Hardly. But it's not what you'd expect for a million dollars.

"For a million dollars, I'd expect a doorman to be there to open a door for me," says Stuart Faber, married with one child, living on the Upper West Side, and perpetually apartment-hunting. "But when I walked by that new condominium on West 86th Street the other day, there was a hand-scribbled note taped to the door saying ring for the doorman." Three-bedroom apartments measuring just under 2,000 square feet in that particular building, the Westbury House, are going for just over a million. "You'd think for that amount of money," says one prospective buyer, "the floors wouldn't squeak and the marble bathrooms wouldn't look so generic."

That the New York real-estate market is boiling is nothing new, but only people who have looked recently know just how hellish it is out there. Abandon all hope if you're thinking about a three-bedroom in prime Park, Fifth, or Central Park West turf. Just the playroom could cost a million dollars -- if you could even find a "family-size" apartment on those strips.

Seen lurking in the market recently: A 1,000-square-foot one-bedroom at 14 East 75th Street with a "very efficient kitchen" (code words for tiny) priced at $1.2 million. Or, for just over a million, a 1,550-square-foot two-bedroom apartment overlooking Central Park, at 65 Central Park West. Two recent listings for three-bedrooms around a million dollars -- one at 465 West 23rd and another at 370 East 76th -- are actually for two apartments each, which the buyers would then need to combine -- probably adding at least $100,000 to the cost. "There really is almost nothing out there," says Kleier, adding that this is the case in every price range. People are having to spend a third more than they bargained for.


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