The Enviables

In the mad real-estate world we occupy, everyone seems to know one New Yorker who has a better grip on the system than seems possible—or at least has had the roulette wheel come up on the right number several times in a row. The property owners on these pages have worked their equity to its absolute limit, buying and selling and buying again, riding boom and bust like surfers. All three now live in flat-out jealousy-inducing situations, and all three can cite good choices, fearless market aggression, and great good fortune. And as E.B. White once wrote, nobody should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.

Started with $45,000

1996: BUY
The Novogratzes want to buy a condemned townhouse on West 19th Street. Banks won’t write them a loan, because it’s so far gone; they offer $45,000 to the owner to kick off a rent-to-own arrangement, and start bringing the place up to code. That allows them to get a mortgage for $450,000.

1998: BUY
Renovation done, the couple rents out the top three floors (to Suzanne Vega!) for $16,000 a month. They pack their family into the basement apartment and use their $60,000 savings as a down payment on a condemned building at 22 Thompson Street and an empty lot next door for $560,000.

2003: SELL/BUY
The couple have tapped into the equity on the Chelsea house (appraised at $2.8 million), borrowing $1 million to rebuild 22 Thompson and move in. Now they sell it for $3.9 million, and will use the proceeds to buy four run-down buildings on Centre Market Place for $5.3 million.

2004–2006: SELL
The first to be renovated are 4 and 5 Centre Market; they sell No. 4 for $5.9 million and move into No. 5. Soon after, they sell the house at 24 Thompson for $7 million, allowing them to begin…

Early 2007: BUY
…planning an 8,000-square-foot house on West Street, on the site of a former garage, bought for $4.3 million.

TODAY: The West Street house is in the works, they still own 5 Centre Market Place, and they just sold the Chelsea place that started it all for $5.9 million.

Started with $56,000 down payment.

1998: BUY
Parker, having moved to Manhattan from Boston, calculates that unless the market drops 20 percent, it’s cheaper for her to own. She puts down 40 percent on a Tudor City one-bedroom priced at $140,000.

1999–2000: SELL/ BUY
A year and a half later, she sells it for $180,000, a modest profit, so she and her then-partner can trade up to a two-bedroom for $315,000. It’s still in Tudor City—“a C location,” she admits—but it’s far more salable than the first, with three exposures and views of the Chrysler Building.

2003: BUY
Parker, sure that the market is still on its way up, rents out the place in Tudor City and buys a prewar condo loft on East 20th Street for $1.18 million. (Her reasoning: Prewar holds its value; condos are easy to unload.)

2005–2007: SELL/BUY
Parker tries to buy an apartment at 225 Fifth Avenue and is outbid—but she and her family buy another place in the building as an investment (her share: $52,000). Then the unit she wanted comes back on the market. She sells her other properties for $2.15 million to raise funds, and this time, she’s the high bidder.

TODAY: She’s still at 225 Fifth, and an apartment down the hall just sold for a per-square-foot price that suggests she could get $3.6 million.

Started with $40,000 down payment.

1985: BUY
A few years after Robin Baron moves back home to New York from Los Angeles, her West Side rental building goes co-op. “There was no chance I wouldn’t buy it,” she says, getting a hand from her parents toward the purchase price of $165,000.

1988: BUY
Baron and her then-husband rent out her starter apartment and buy a seven-room wreck on West 84th Street for $535,000. A gut renovation commences, as the market heads into the early-nineties dip.

1996: SELL/BUY
She sells the no-longer-shabby place (listing it with Corcoran’s Deanna Kory) for $835,000. The next year, she’ll sell the starter apartment for $565,000. But she’s onto her next makeover: a 5,000-square-foot triplex maisonette at West End Avenue and 90th Street, for $1.1 million—a bit too far north for the typical West Side buyer at the time.

2003: SELL/BUY
The triplex (now in prime territory) sells for $5.2 million. Baron is now renovating a nearby brownstone she’s purchased for $2.55 million.

2006: SELL/BUY
That brownstone sells for $6.3 million, and Baron puts $3.15 million of the spoils into buying a limestone townhouse on West 102nd Street that had been a seven-unit tenement.

TODAY: That renovation’s almost done, and she’ll move in this December. It’ll have a closet bigger than some studios, a wine cellar, and an exercise room. It’ll also be worth about $8 million.

The Enviables