image terrace vs balcony

Outdoor space in NYC is always precious, but views like this — at the rooftop terrace of a Gramercy co-op, from a listing by Alexander Daigh at Compass — certainly help!

In densely urban cities like New York, where living is vertical and and space is at a premium, private outdoor space is a true luxury. Terrace vs balcony, roof deck vs patio: We love them all! But what are the differences, exactly? And which is best? Here’s our guide to outdoor space for NYC apartment hunters.

Terrace vs Balcony

The words might seem interchangeable when you’re looking at apartment listings — it’s easy to be blinded by the prospect of alfresco living! — but they mean different things, so it helps to read carefully.

A balcony, according to Merriam-Webster, is “a platform that projects from the wall of a building and is enclosed by a parapet or railing.” (And a Juliet balcony, named for the Shakespeare character, is a very shallow platform, usually not even big enough to stand on but enabling a large window or door that opens to it.) While this definition may seem obvious, the fact that a balcony is always attached to the building is important, because a terrace does not necessarily have to be.

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Most Manhattan balconies, like this one from a Seaport-area listing by Compass’s Trish Goodwin, are just big enough for a couple chairs and maybe a plant. But the ability to enjoy your morning coffee in the open air while still in your pajamas? Priceless.

The word terrace has a broader meaning that’s much more open to interpretation. Merriam-Webster defines it as “a flat roof or open platform,” which means that lots of things could qualify as a terrace, including a rooftop deck, an open space directly above another apartment (as in buildings with stepped-back architecture that gets narrower as it gets taller), or even a ground-level courtyard.

If a listing has a balcony, that balcony will be accessible via that apartment only — it is truly private space. A terrace might be private space, too, depending on the unit, but it could also be shared space, like a roof deck that the whole building has has access to. Check the floor plan to make sure you understand exactly what kind of space a unit is offering.

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The floor plan of a Red Hook apartment with a balcony, accessible only via the unit’s living room. Listing by Patty LaRocco at Douglas Elliman.


Manhattan 1BRs with Outdoor Space Article continues below

Rooftop Decks

A roof deck or rooftop terrace is a fairly common amenity in NYC apartment buildings, and they are usually communal. This means that everyone who lives there has a right to use it, which can be fun or…not so fun, depending on your level of sociability. (And if your building happens to have a view of the annual Macy’s 4th of July fireworks from its roof deck, all bets are off — embrace the fun or head out of town for the weekend!)

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Just because a roof deck is shared space doesn’t mean it isn’t fabulous! This one’s atop a Sutton Place co-op, from a listing by Alec Eisenberg at Core.

Roof decks are often undecorated, no-frills affairs that offer access and nothing more, but in luxury buildings they can be landscaped to the hilt and tricked out with all kinds of features, and sometimes even swimming pools. A listing with a private rooftop deck exclusive to that particular unit is rare indeed, and you can expect to pay top dollar for it.

Patios, Gardens and Yards

In NYC, a patch of land to call your own is ultra-rare (and thus, ultra-expensive!). Listings that contain the words patio, garden, or backyard usually indicate a ground-level unit of some sort, be it a true garden apartment or a street-level unit that exits directly onto the sidewalk.

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A spacious private backyard in a ground-floor listing in Bushwick, from Alexandra Newman at Corcoran.

Some buildings may even have a communal backyard space that’s divided up so that each unit gets its own little dedicated plot of land — which is nice for grilling or gardening, but not truly private. Again, read the listing carefully and study the floor plan to see exactly where that “patio” is located in relation to the unit.

Brooklyn 1BRs with Outdoor Space Article continues below

What Kind of Outdoor Space Is Best?

We asked Brad Bateman at Compass to share some outside insights from an agent’s perspective. “City dwellers are looking for a slice of peace when seeking outdoor space,” he says. “To obtain this taste of nature within the urban jungle, they are often willing to pay a little more.”

High demand and relatively low inventory mean that taste of nature will cost you: “Homes with outdoor space tend to sell more quickly than homes without,” Bateman says, “and private space in particular almost always increases the value of an apartment. Size, location, and view affect pricing as well: If an apartment has a large private garden in a neighborhood of charming brownstones, it’s going to be more valuable than a Juliet balcony facing Seventh Avenue in Midtown.”

Basically, like so much in NYC, it comes down to money. While all outdoor space is valuable, a private patio or balcony will likely cost you more than access to a communal roof deck or courtyard. How much is it worth to you?

Are There Any Downsides?

Before you shell out your life savings for a little fresh air, be aware that yes, outdoor NYC space does have some negatives. “There are drawbacks that many buyers don’t consider,” Bateman says. “For example, you are paying a premium for a space you can only use approximately half of the year.” Good point!

Outdoor space usually requires some kind of upkeep on the owners’ part, like winterizing or maintaining plantings and furniture, which takes time and money. And also, owners are often responsible for any damage caused by leaks from their allocated outdoor space. “I have come across numerous horror stories about leaks and battles with insurance companies to pay for the damages,” Bateman says.

Finally, don’t forget that there are 1,700 public parks, playgrounds, and recreation facilities in New York City! Exploring the ones near you could give you the outdoor fix you need without costing you an arm and a leg.

Inspired to find your next place in New York? Whether you’re looking to rent or to buy, search NYC apartments on StreetEasy.