Where to Buy (or Rent) Now

Back in the nineties – remember those days? – the market was easy to understand: All it did was go up. Now things are more complicated. September 11 and the recession produced some bargains in Battery Park City, of course, as well as in rentals. And if you’ve got, say, $10 million to throw around, you’ll find an abundance of choices. But in most parts of the city, for every bargain there are two or three bargain hunters armed with Alan Greenspan – assisted mortgage rates. Especially on the Upper West Side, where everybody seems to be looking to buy, and nobody to sell. If it’s a one-bedroom you want, you’ll find good value in Yorkville, east of Lex. Need a townhouse for a growing family? Murray Hill is the place. A loft? North Chelsea is still affordable. On the following pages, you’ll find a road map to this confusing real-estate terrain, broken down by category, from studio apartment to townhouse, to target the best neighborhoods for what you need. And don’t be dismayed by the lack of bargains – it means people have confidence in the city again. Which is a good thing.

Thanks to low interest rates, studio dwellers are finding that it still makes sense to own. To find a room of your own, focus your search on Yorkville, Murray Hill, or Brooklyn.

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.”

One-bedroom co-ops predominate on the Upper East Side, especially east of Lexington – so why are you still looking on West End Avenue?

It was the first-time investors, not the Warren Buffetts, who took the stock market out of the last recession, and it may be the common man – the erstwhile renter – who does the same for post-bubble real estate. “In early 2000, there were multi-million-dollar properties selling every day at a new record price,” says Insignia Douglas Elliman’s Tristan Harper. Though he’s just broken a post – September 11 sales record with an $18.25 million Park Avenue condo, Harper credits a humbler clientele for the resiliency of Manhattan prices. “After September 11, the first-time buyers were the ones who were basically holding the market,” he says.

Higher demand in January buoyed prices, and cautious one-bedroom owners – those who haven’t fled the city already – aren’t going anywhere. “Sellers are not desperate,” says Corcoran’s Christine Iu. “They know that if they hold out, they will get their price.” Ken Altman lowered the asking on his Yorkville one-bedroom (on the market since late August) from $325,000 to just under $300,000, but he’ll go no further. It’s still on the market, and bids are still coming in just below ask. “I checked what other full-service apartments are going for in my area,” he says. “I’m confident that we are where we should be in the marketplace.”

Over the ask: Whatever the neighborhood, the rarest inventory is always the priciest. Below 125th Street, prewar one-bedrooms are prized and rarely for sale. From the Bing & Bing stalwarts in the West Village all the way up to West End Avenue in the 100s, inventory is scarce and bidding wars are par for the course – particularly on the Upper West Side. Reversing the East-West divide of a decade ago, space here can sell for 15 percent more than the going rate east of Lex. “Some of my agents are losing buyers to the East Side,” says Jeffrey Rothstein, the head of Douglas Elliman’s West Side office. “Normally, they would buy in the West, but they’ve gotten outpriced.”

The price is right: For more options, follow the inventory, all the way to the Upper East Side east of Lexington – with abundant postwar residential space where one-bedrooms predominate (proportionately more than in any other neighborhood, according to Elliman’s Harper). That’s what Edmund Cape did. The week of September 11, the 32-year-old McKinsey consultant was set to close on a $320,000 Grand Street two-bedroom with a full view of the Twin Towers, but the seller refused to renegotiate. “I was initially upset, of course,” says Cape. “But when I started looking around, there was clearly softening all over.” He still had to fight off two other bids – both below asking – on a large one-bedroom fifth-floor walkup in Yorkville that he snagged for $279,000.

Farther afield: Newly gentrified neighborhoods – the East Village, Hudson Heights, Fort Greene, and Clinton Hill – are still the least inflated. The average Clinton Hill one-bedroom went for $148,000 last fall, according to Corcoran. And a couple of brokers, asked where they’d personally invest, name Hudson Heights, a section of Washington Heights bounded by 174th Street and Fort Tryon Park where thrifty couples like Michael Poehlman and Stephanie Nobert have been able to find spacious prewar one-bedrooms for less than $200,000. “We knew we wanted to be in this neighborhood,” says Nobert, who had been renting in a Williamsburg rowhouse. “We wanted a more permanent structure.”

The nest-egg effect: “There is a wealth factor that we did not experience in the last recession,” says Corcoran’s Cathy Blau, who sees a lot of savings in buyers’ financial papers. Lauren Michaels, an associate publisher at Harper’s Bazaar, didn’t exactly find a steal in her $400,000 Murray Hill pad with $1,800 monthly maintenance. Michaels knew what she wanted and had the financial security to get it (at $25,000 below asking). “I’ve been looking for a year, on and off,” she says. “The more I looked, the more I felt that everything was overpriced.” Eventually – as prices dipped – Michaels found everything she wanted (doorman, wraparound terrace, large den) and had enough left over for a decorator. “It’s just so perfect for me,” says Michaels. “Immediately, I’d started wondering what I could do with it.”

The two-bedroom co-op is still the white whale for newlyweds and young families. To land one for yourself, look to postwar towers in the far East Nineties.

Bagging the bona fide two-bedroom – a midsize family home that falls between a converted one-bedroom and a classic six – is as difficult as ever. Even during last fall’s standstill, twos continued to sell easily. In large part, that’s because buyers looking to upgrade to a second bedroom are usually doing so not by choice but because they have to: A baby’s on the way or just arrived, or they’ve otherwise outgrown their current digs.

In October, Joyce Davis, a Manhattan dermatologist, and her husband, a cardiac surgeon, signed a contract on a 2,000-square-foot, fully renovated condo on Third Avenue in the Sixties for $1.8 million. “It seemed very strange. They had just found anthrax, and here I was buying an expensive apartment,” says Davis. But the high-floor condo was exactly what these doctors ordered: It was in move-in condition, with huge closets and floor-to-ceiling views of the park and the 59th Street Bridge. “I was living in a lovely one-bedroom in Gramercy Park, so we wanted something that was worth the effort of moving,” says Davis, who especially needed more living space for her 12-year-old stepson on the weekends.

The price is right: The best place to look for a two-bedroom is around First and East End Avenues in the Nineties. “I sold six 900-square-foot apartments in two weeks last January,” says Insignia Douglas Elliman’s Tristan Harper, whose deals all went to contract for $350,000 at 300 East 95th Street. “We priced them for the market,” he says. While people often think of the East Nineties as a rental neighborhood, newer developments like the Waterford and the Chartwell House are luring home-buyers in the neighborhood.

Luca Marcato, chef-owner of Luca, a Northern Italian restaurant near Gracie Mansion, purchased an 1,100-square-foot condo for the asking price, $665,000, at the Chartwell House, on Second Avenue near 91st Street. “I couldn’t find anything at a reasonable price,” says Marcato. But the condo has lots of light – a real plus for Marcato, his wife, and his 6-year-old son, who had lived in a dim rental for the past eight years. Its new construction, ten-year tax abatement, and proximity to the restaurant persuaded Marcato to sign fast, closing two years ago, before the building was complete. They moved in last November.

Farther afield: You can still find a reasonable two-bedroom in Hell’s Kitchen – or Clinton, as brokers now like to call it. Apartments in 24-hour-security buildings range from $625,000 to $800,000 but can almost certainly run about 25 percent less in older, non-doorman properties. “If you’re talking about one of the converted co-op buildings or some of those residential hotels for actors, the price is probably a third less than that,” says William B. May’s Robert Clepper. Many displaced Battery Park City residents have relocated here recently. “It’s a great location because it’s still easy for them to get to work,” says Clepper.

Over the ask: Upper West Side brokers have only one thing to say: Don’t even ask about discounts. “There is no best bet. There are no deals here,” says MLBKaye International’s Warren Pearl. “A slightly weaker neighborhood would be below 14th Street, maybe a 5 percent decrease. But people who are looking for bargains aren’t looking for 5 percent; they’re looking for 20 and 25 percent, and those are not available,” says Pearl. Prices for prewar 1,400-square-foot co-ops that range from $800,000 to $1.3 million on avenues excluding Central Park West and Riverside Drive (where the numbers climb into the $4 million range) haven’t budged since last year.

Downtown: Traditionally, two-bedrooms are smaller, scarcer, and more expensive in lower Manhattan. If you’re lucky enough to find a 1,000-square-foot two-bedroom in, say, Chelsea or the Village, be prepared to pay top dollar. “If there’s a reduction in price at all, it’s not a reduction but people desperate to sell,” says Charles H. Greenthal’s Lew Lydiard.

Classic Sixes
The basic family apartment isn’t so basic these days: Especially on the West Side, they’re tougher to get than a private-school spot. And a whole lot more expensive.

Your first obstacle to buying a classic six or seven may be finding one; your second is sure to be sticker shock. Classic sixes (traditional prewar arrangements of two bedrooms, a kitchen, a living room, a formal dining room, and the now archaic “maid’s room”) and sevens (the same, plus a third bedroom) are among the most coveted, least available properties in New York. “There’s basically nothing out there,” Corcoran’s Deanna Kory says with a sigh. “Nothing good, anyway.”

One beleaguered Upper West Sider who’s been searching since early fall notes, “I’m just not seeing much, and everything I do see seems to have something seriously wrong with it.” Wendy J. Sarasohn, also of Corcoran, has heard it all before: “We’ve got 31 prewar sevens on the Upper East Side for under $3 million. Out of these, maybe two are decent.” Plus, there’s plenty of competition for what is available. Stribling’s Marcy Grau reports, “Our brokers have been swamped. At one open house, they couldn’t fit all the people into the apartment.”

Free-market blues: “Many buyers are under the impression that prices are a good 10 percent lower across the board. On a sought-after apartment, they’re not,” says Richard Ferrari, a broker at Douglas Elliman. Most Realtors say, however, that the recession has taken the edge off the rampant overpricing and competitive overbidding that defined the boom. “You don’t feel the compulsion to stand in the apartment while you put in your offer for over the asking price,” says Ashforth Warburg’s Harriet Kaufman. But other brokers insist that the market for these apartments hasn’t changed a bit. “Prices are way up,” says Sarasohn. “It’s back to what it was like two years ago, at the top. And it’s even more frenzied, because we have more people competing for apartments.”

The price is right: If you’re determined to live on the Upper West or Upper East Side, stay away from the avenues. “Maybe in a non-doorman building on not a great side street, you could get something for $995,000,” Grau acknowledges. Ferrari estimates that a 1,500-square-foot apartment on a side street might be had for $1.1 million – “if there was one available.” British couple Sarah Barratt Ball and Christopher Ball, working with Corcoran’s Sarasohn, found the holy grail of classic sixes – a condo – in the low Eighties between Amsterdam and Broadway, for an unheard-of $890,000. The price was partly a reflection of the post-attack market softening (the owners dropped their price $100,000 in September), but even the original asking price of $1 million was pretty low. “It’s wonderful, really high up, so there’s plenty of light, and there’s lots of space,” raves the delighted Sarah. The place did need some TLC – “It was in a state of benign neglect,” Sarah says – and that, many brokers say, can be a deal-breaker these days. Christopher is taking time off to do much of the renovation work himself.

Farther afield: The picture improves dramatically if you look in Brooklyn: Corcoran’s Patricia A. Neinast estimates that a good classic six in Park Slope can be had for $650,000 to $700,000; a seven will put you in the $800,000 range, and even those in the best white-glove parkside buildings top out at $1.3 million. In Prospect Heights, prices are even better: Neinast recently sold a 1,900-square-foot classic seven with views of Grand Army Plaza for $659,000. Like most of Neinast’s clients, the buyers were from Manhattan. “In a lot of ways, Park Slope is very similar to the Upper West Side,” she notes. “It’s very family-friendly.” The catch? Inventory is at least as low in Park Slope as it is on the Upper West Side. “It can take months for a new classic six or seven to come on the market,” she reports.

Over the ask: Inventory’s low and prices are highest on Central Park West. “The sky’s the limit there,” says Grau. “Many buyers don’t even want to look there once they see the prices. It’s a whole different market.” And that’s if you can find one at all.

The outlook: Most brokers don’t expect the market for family-size apartments to improve anytime soon. “I’m hoping for changes,” says Ferrari. “I’m hoping more inventory will come on the market this spring and summer. But I’m not counting on it.”

Raw space is out; warm, bright homes are in; and the flower district is blossoming. But if you think you’ll catch a recession special downtown, you’ve already been outbid.

“My living room is 60 feet by 40 feet. Once I get in there, I can’t wait to put on my Rollerblades,” says a delighted Paul Gregrey of the 3,000-square-foot North Chelsea loft he bought this fall for $1.1 million. A 42-year-old sales exec for Westwood One, he’s a far cry from the pioneering artists who turned loft living into a fantasy lifestyle two decades ago, but now he’s living that dream – and it took a disaster to get him there. “A lot of young people made an awful lot of money in the late nineties and spent freely on housing,” says Judith Thorn of Ashforth Warburg. “They found the glamour of lofts appealing.” But as the recession settled in last year, “anything over $2 million suffered,” Tricia Hayes Cole of Corcoran says. “Everyone was scaling back. They didn’t need the luxury of a huge loft – it was about practicality instead of extravagance.” And then came September 11.

Temporary setback: When the downtown market seized up in the wake of the attack, a handful of loft shoppers – like Gregrey – dived in and came up with pearls. But those deals are disappearing fast. Prices are rising for lofts everywhere, even within breathing distance of ground zero. The rewards went to those who moved fast, like clothing designer Dina Zavalia. A week after the September attacks, Zavalia and her husband stumbled upon their dream home after two years of touring crummy, dark spaces. William B. May’s Margery Hadar showed them the 3,000-square-foot loft in TriBeCa while it was still smoky from the disaster. “I felt asthmatic,” Zavalia says. “Every time I would see it, I would get a migraine that night. But it was so pretty!” She snagged the apartment for $1.5 million ($508 per square foot).

The price is right: North Chelsea (the flower district, newly renamed Chelsea Heights) has for decades been the place for wholesale foliage; now it’s becoming a place to put down roots. “Some people think I’m crazy moving into this neighborhood because they don’t see what it’s going to be in three years,” Gregrey says. Gourmet groceries and pharmacies and laundromats are popping up between old factories – it’s like SoHo in 1979, or the Flatiron district in 1989. “This area represents the value that NoHo did ten years ago, when SoHo was trendy,” William B. May’s Edward Ferris says. Average prices in the area are as low as you can go in the Manhattan loft market: $400 to $550 per square foot, compared with TriBeCa’s $600 to $750. But there are trade-offs – notably, a shortage of good public schools. “TriBeCa’s had more young people coming in, more families, more children’s clothing stores, more nursery schools,” says Susan Penzner of Susan Penzner Real Estate. Kids in the flower district attend the less desirable P.S. 33, which scores below the state average on standardized tests. The area also has more traffic than TriBeCa and SoHo, and lacks landmark-district status.

Farther afield: Next up in the development pipeline is North Brooklyn. Amid the artists and musicians renting in the industrial sprawl, condos are sprouting. Williamsburg Mews was the first of two developments on the market (with three more to come), and is selling out loftlike apartments at $400 per square foot. “Brokers thought people would only move here to rent,” says Helene Luchnick of Insignia Douglas Elliman, which represents the development. “We’re proving them wrong.” Ditto for dumbo’s fledgling sales market, where the success of David Walentas’s Clock Tower lofts have inspired plans for copycat condos.

It’s a mall world after all: SoHo may have originated the loft trend, but in the minds of many buyers, its glory days are over. “On weekends, it’s mobbed – it’s like an outdoor mall,” complains Noel Kirnon, who scoured downtown for three years before he found a penthouse on Duane Park in November. The West Village matches TriBeCa’s quieter, neighborhood feel, but it has fewer old-style conversions. New developments – usually luxury buildings – are more expensive: The Village’s new Richard Meier – designed glass towers sold nearly all of their loftlike raw space for $1,000 to $1,800 per square foot. And that was before the building went up.

Think outside the white box: Meier’s towers notwithstanding, buyers have been much less willing to renovate than they were in 2000, when finding a contractor was like getting a seat on the 6 train at rush hour. “The tide has turned from the last two years, when developers would get equal prices for unfinished space,” Luchnick says. “People don’t want to deal with that anymore.”

Luxury Apartments
Park and Fifth may be attracting a new generation of buyers, but downtown neighborhoods like TriBeCa and Chelsea still offer a wider range of posh choices.

Miramax co-chairman Bob Weinstein first put his 3,000-square-foot condo on the thirty-ninth floor of the Bristol Plaza for sale at the end of 1999, asking $4.24 million. Last month, after more than two years on the market, the three-bedroom with floor-to-ceiling windows and a library finally went to contract for $4.2 million. That same week, another unit in the building, which had been on the market for months, sold for $3.85 million. After languishing for over a year, the luxury market is beginning to show signs of life.

Much less sensitive to lower interest rates (most pay cash, don’t you know), the city’s wealthy were the last to jump back into the market. Since January, though, the market has rebounded and brokers are now complaining about the lack of inventory. While not up to the “pay anything” levels of the market’s peak, prices are solid and may even be rising. The universe of ultra-luxe apartments is tiny, so once a few places sell – like the four prewar co-ops on the Upper East Side ranging from $5 million to $7 million that sold in the first two weeks of February – not a lot comes in to pick up the slack. There’s even been a return of bidding wars. Alexa Lambert of Stribling reports that she had a back-and-forth battle between two couples for a $7.3 million co-op on the Upper East Side last month that cost the winner more than half a million.

The price is right: There is still more room for negotiation downtown than uptown. Brenda and Gene DeRose moved into their $3.25 million, four-bedroom penthouse atop the Fischer Mills conversion in West TriBeCa last July. Wanting a bigger place for their second child, they’ve customized the 3,000-square-foot interior to be more kid-friendly – including converting a breakfast bar to a kitchen playroom and putting a sandbox on the 1,000-square-foot terrace. Their agent, Stribling’s Sean Murphy Turner, says it would go today for about $3.8 million.

Over the ask: Like Burberry, the Upper East Side has regained its standard-bearer status. After flirting with downtown or even the West Side, a whole new generation has learned to appreciate the long-held value Park and Fifth Avenues offer. “Especially if they have school-age children or younger,” says Robert Bland, a director at Brown Harris Stevens. Last November, practically nobody was interested in looking at an $8.5 million, 3,200-square-foot condo at prestigious 515 Park Avenue, despite the ten-foot ceilings, four bedrooms, and four baths. By the end of February, things had definitely changed, and potential buyers were trooping through the top-of-the-line kitchen with custom cherry cabinets.

Medium Rare: What’s hot now among the hunt-country set? Anything mint. Blue-chip real estate is a good place to park a small fortune when the outlook for bond and equity investing remains hazy. Consequently, prices for the very best condos never really bottomed out, even as volume fell last year. “These condos are almost like a commodity, like a pink diamond. If you have a rare, exceptional pink diamond, it doesn’t matter what the market does. There will always be someone who wants it,” says Stribling’s Robin Rothman.

Coming Attractions: “The condo market at this end is always about the latest building, like driving a car off the showroom floor,” Kirk Henckels of Stribling says. And this year, the buzz is about AOL Time Warner’s towers at Columbus Circle, scheduled to be ready for occupancy in fall 2003. Almost 200 units have been available since late August, with more than 60 sold. The biggest property to download so far: an 8,400-square-foot penthouse with a private security station and “airplane views,” which sold for more than $30 million. Downtown, developers are still planning on very expensive penthouses for new loft conversions, including the Sugar Warehouse at 79 Laight Street and Tower 270 near City Hall, which is offering two penthouses for $8.5 million and $10.5 million. But with financing harder to come by for developers, there will be fewer of these high-end downtown properties coming online in 2002 and 2003 than in years past.

The trouble with townhouses is that there aren’t enough to go around. Right now, Murray Hill and Harlem offer the most opportunities for would-be lords of the manor.

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.”

For the first time in a decade, it’s a renter’s market. Are you paying too much? Try Chelsea, Hell’s Kitchen, or Yorkville, where landlords are ready to strike a deal.

If the sales market has more or less remained like Weakest Link, wherein buyers weather a barrage of insults and are left wondering where their money went, the rental market has become Millionaire, in which landlords throw a free month’s rent, new stoves, and other lifelines at contestants who can’t seem to get past the $32,000 question. “I’ve been doing this for almost ten years in Manhattan,” says DJ Knight’s Brian Kelly, “and in sales, I can tell you that things are building daily. But on the rental side, I’m seeing apartments that used to rent for $2,800 going for $2,300 on a great block in Chelsea, and they still have vacancies in the building.”

Truth or Scare? Contrary to rumors, the whole rental market hasn’t gone to pot; it’s just growing soft around the middle. Prices are down 8 to 12 percent citywide, but keep your expectations low for deals on studios and large two-bedrooms. Harder hit have been the one-bedrooms and junior fours typically sought by young, well-financed dot-com, media, and banking professionals. The retreat of this particular cohort has coincided with an ongoing development boom that has introduced more than 3,000 units into the downtown market alone in the past five years. The effect – especially in overbuilt areas like Chelsea, Hell’s Kitchen, and Yorkville, or downtown areas that tenants have left in droves – has been a quadrupling of vacancy rates, and prices that hark back to 1999.

The price is right: With its tree-lined streets and excellent subway access, Chelsea has the city’s best deals. Six relatively new towers now occupy Sixth Avenue between 19th and 26th Streets, many offering up to 10 percent reductions (the Caroline, at Sixth and 23rd, is also throwing in a year’s membership at New York Health & Racquet Club). And you can find even more deals west of Ninth Avenue and north of 25th Street. Richard Higgs, a manager at currency brokerage Prebon Yamane in Jersey City, found a newly renovated, 1,400-square-foot, key-elevator, two-bedroom loft at 521 West 23rd Street that had been on the market since late June. The original price was $7,000, but by the time Corcoran’s Laura Wagner showed it to Higgs in November, the price had dropped to $5,500, largely because of the construction of yet more high-rises across the street. Though the place had a wall of ten-foot windows, a view of the river, a washer and dryer, and a great location near Gallery Row, Higgs managed to wrangle a $1,000 break on the rent, and then another $1,000 break for every month of construction.

Farther afield: Want character? Brownstone owners facing weaker demand in Brooklyn Heights and Park Slope are ready to talk. “Because they’re so directly impacted by the loss of revenue, families are much more motivated to move quickly on the downside,” says Victoria Negron of Corcoran’s Brooklyn Heights office. Some owners have even begun to barter. “They’ll throw in a fresh paint job, abandon their no-pets policy – anything that can cause the deal to close,” says Negron.

Buck Stops Here: In prime areas like SoHo, Greenwich Village, Gramercy Park, and Park and Fifth Avenues, one-bedrooms still rent for $2,600 a month, simply because current residents aren’t leaving. Even more in demand are areas where the rents are already relatively cheap, like the South Street Seaport, Harlem, and Alphabet City. Not only have the newly frugal flocked to these neighborhoods, keeping demand high, but prices are so low to begin with that there isn’t much wiggle room.

The outlook: Douglas Wagner, president of Benjamin James Real Estate, says that many management companies’ offers to pay part of the broker’s fee will end in March. Already, renters like Ethan Morris, a 27-year-old media supervisor for a direct-marketing company, are complaining about the ones that got away. “There was one other I liked more,” says Morris, who just moved from his mom’s place on the Upper West Side to a 1,000-square-foot one-bedroom that had been marked down from $2,300 to $2,000 on Remsen Street in Brooklyn Heights. He has a giant bay window, a fifteen-foot cathedral ceiling, an original fireplace, a new refrigerator, and six closets. But … “It’s just that the other place was a two-bedroom and it had an elevator,” he explains. “If that place was a 10, this place is a 9.5.”

Where to Buy (or Rent) Now