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After the Shell Game

Fixer-uppers in Harlem, once unsalable, then coveted, settle somewhere in between.


The four-story brownstone on West 132nd Street sat unsold for more than 200 days, hoping for a buyer. After two price cuts, it’s now in contract for somewhere in the high $700,000s. A couple of years ago, a speculator would’ve snapped it up at its initial asking price of $1.1 million—never mind the gaping hole in the floor, the collapsed roof, the bricked-up windows.

Back around 2004, the catchphrase was “You can’t buy a shell in Harlem for under a million,” and while that may have been hyperbole, the market was undeniably hot. “You threw a sign on one and somebody would buy it,” says Harlem expert Willie Kathryn Suggs. But in the past few months’ slowdown, these noble ruins have lost some of their luster. Though renovated houses have appreciated, a wreck costs “pretty much the same as it [did] two years ago,” says Todd Stevens of Prudential Douglas Elliman. One, on West 134th Street, just went into contract, its final asking price $799,000. Another, a nice wide house on West 144th, just went into contract at $895,000, after five months on the market. Still another, on 128th Street off Fifth Avenue, carries an asking of $925,000; it comes at a slight premium because it’s not (unlike many of these battered houses) an SRO, and the listing suggests that the price is negotiable.

Why? New construction in the area seems to be drawing buyers away. “Now you have the option to buy a penthouse with a terrace and a view for the same price,” says Stevens. Besides, rehabbing requires patience and cash. “You have to look a year ahead, and I don’t think people are as comfortable these days with the war, the stock market,” says Halstead broker Don Correia, who handled the 132nd Street sale. Renovation costs have risen in the past two years, too—some brokers say 20 percent. “[It’s] becoming prohibitive,” says Corcoran’s Vie Wilson. “That’s why you don’t see as much activity on shells as you used to.”

Not that there are many left. Developers have bought most of the properties with condo potential, so individuals may have trouble finding brownstones not saddled with problems—liens, real structural issues, no certificate of occupancy. “These are slim pickings,” Wilson says. “You’re getting all the things that everyone else has passed up.”


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