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." DEBORAH SHAPIRO