At least the screaming matches are over. A couple of years ago, Manhattan houses were selling much as dot-com stocks were, as speculators competed for properties in order to flip them for profit. This year, townhouse shoppers are acting almost civilized. "No one's throwing down sealed envelopes to make a bid anymore," says Stribling's Linda Melnick.
The typical buyers are now mostly families looking to buy a single-family home. Ask Marilyn and Arthur Penn, who are trying to find an institution or embassy to purchase their seven-story, $13 million house on East 74th Street near Fifth Avenue. It's been on the market for a year, because it's too large for a family. "We had a contract, and it just fizzled after September 11," Marilyn says of the building, which also does duty as Arthur's office.
Inventory is down only slightly from last year, and prices are off about 10 to 15 percent, except on the Upper West Side, which brokers say has been immune to the recession. A number of houses that are on the market are there to stay. "In late '99 and early '00, there was a feeding frenzy," Melnick says. "Now, if something's priced correctly, it's gone. If it's priced for the early months of 2000, it sits."
The price is right: "Murray Hill is a secret pocket of opportunities," says Corcoran's Anne Snee. The quiet area is a short walk from midtown offices, and houses start at $2 million. "There's no huge difference between living on 60th Street or 30th Street," insists Kathleen Hoffman of William B. May. A few residents complain that it's not the best place for families, because there are few parks, and the tunnel traffic is noisy.
Harlem also draws bargain hunters. "If you want a beautiful single-family house and will do a little bit of looking, Harlem is the place," says Stribling's Bruce Ehrmann. Houses on Strivers' Row and Hamilton Terrace are sought-after, and the $1 million -- and -- less price tags are the lowest in Manhattan. (Prices on less well-known blocks are unbeatable, but many of those streets are far from gentrified, and security is still a real concern.) "We couldn't afford $4 million for a lovely townhouse," says architect Nicholas Bunning, who moved into his 5,000-square-footer in August. "But here, we're near the express subway stop in a wonderful, integrated neighborhood." The house, at Convent Avenue and 147th Street, has serious paneling and a dressing room with a marble sink. Bunning paid $425,000 for the house and is spending $280,000 on renovations, mostly on tech additions like networked plasma TVs. "I just like living in Manhattan, and I didn't want to feel like I was moving to the suburbs, like I would've if I moved to Brooklyn." Unlike Bunning, though, many buyers aren't looking to renovate.
Over the ask: "It used to be that if you couldn't buy on the East Side, you bought on the West Side," says Lewis Kaye of LBK. "Now some of the west areas -- like the Seventies off Central Park West -- are more expensive." There's not much available on Central Park West, Riverside Drive, and West End, and what's there starts at $3 million. "On the Upper West Side, the blocks are a mix of hotels and tall buildings, so your backyard isn't an unobstructed view," says financier Michael Au, 33. He ended up with a four-story, $4.8 million house on East 64th Street. "I wanted a wide house, and I wanted a garden, and you get that on the East Side." Houses near Sutton Place are also getting top dollar, Kaye says. Some small ones on Sutton Square and Riverview Terrace are priced at more than $10 million.
Farther afield: Inventory is down a lot more in brownstone Brooklyn, and buyers are scrambling. "The sellers of a single-family house in Carroll Gardens asked $1.25 million -- on the high end of their broker's recommendation," says William B. May's Christopher Thomas. "Within two days they had four offers, and they sold at more than the asking price." Overall, prices in Brooklyn Heights, Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill, and Park Slope have fallen modestly. "At the higher end, the market has certainly retreated," Thomas says. "But at the lower end, there's been a slight increase."