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Thin Isn’t In

The slender townhouse falls out of fashion.

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The calls flooded in soon after the house on West 95th Street first hit the market in May. No surprise: It’s lovely, with a brick façade, four bedrooms, a garden, and original oak doors, plus contemporary fillips like central air and an elaborate sound system. But all the buyer interest still hasn’t turned into a sale. “The challenge is getting people through the door,” admits listing broker Nan Shipley of Rand Realty. Many townhouse buyers insist on properties at least twenty feet wide, and hers is only a fifteen-footer. Jed Garfield, whose firm exclusively sells brownstones and townhouses, says he has “never had anyone say to me, ‘I want a smaller house.’ People almost always end up there by default.”

That may explain why, according to an analysis by appraiser Jonathan Miller, narrower houses are rapidly losing market share. Five years ago, houses sixteen feet wide or less accounted for 25.9 percent of townhouse sales; in 2010 (as of December 15), they constituted just 16.2 percent. Townhouses that are just a little wider—seventeen to nineteen feet—dipped from 37.4 percent of sales in 2005 to 33.8 percent in 2010. The average square footage of houses sold in Manhattan has been rising every year since 2007.

Not that a little house is a bad place to live. “The challenges are, really, 100 percent a mental thing,” says Garfield. House-hunters expect to feel squeezed in narrow buildings, but “quite frankly, narrower townhouses tend to be better laid out,” he says. Halstead’s Andrew Friedman explains that buyers expect to be “cheated out of the width of the living room,” because they perceive that the stairwell eats up space, but in fact many of these houses also have tall, skinny central staircases that preserve entertaining spaces in front and back. Visitors to Shipley’s listing are “always surprised at how spacious it feels,” she says. “If I mention that in my marketing materials, people feel like I’m agenting them.”

Skeptics who negate on size alone may be overlooking a good buy. “These are the houses that are affordable,” says Corcoran’s Anne Snee. In 2010, the average price per square foot for sixteen-footers and less was $1,013; seventeen-to-nineteen-footers, $1,105; 20-to-24-footers, $1,375; and 25-plus-footers, $1,997. “You could have two homes side by side, identical in square footage, and the wider one will sell for more,” says Miller. For the right price, notes StreetEasy’s Sofia Song, buyers may be able to set aside their concerns. After all, “there’s always a cachet to saying, ‘I own a house in New York City.’ ” Adds Friedman: “You don’t have a bigger house. Then again, everyone else envies you for having a house.”


Above from left:

12.5 ft.
155 East 78th Street
A 2,772-square-foot, four-bedroom, three-and-a-half-bath house with a study.
Asking price: $5.495 million.
Annual taxes: $24,370.
Agent: Anne Snee, the Corcoran Group.

12.5 ft.
121 East 92nd Street
A four-story with a landscaped garden in Carnegie Hill.
Asking price: $3.5 million
Annual taxes: $16,135.
Agent: Matthew Pravda, Leslie J. Garfield and Co.

15 ft.
126 West 95th Street
A four-bedroom, three-bath, four-story house.
Asking price: $4.6 million.
Annual taxes: $21,244.
Agent: Nan Shipley, Rand Realty.


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