If there’s one word that makes a New Yorker’s heart skip a beat, it’s “penthouse.” After all, what could be more of a real estate dream come true than pushing the gleaming “PH” button in the elevator and ascending to your very own deluxe, rooftop apartment? Most of the time, penthouses are all that and more — with jaw-dropping views, manicured terraces, and best of all —  privacy! It’s no wonder celebs like J-Lo splurge on penthouses. But what is a penthouse, actually?

If you’re stumbling across listings that look anything but ultra-luxe, we have some insights. These days, the term also applies to an apartment with a different layout than the rest of the building — even if it’s not on the top floor. We chatted with realtors and architects alike to get to the bottom —err, top — of it.

Manhattan Rentals Under $3,000 on StreetEAsy Article continues below

Is a Penthouse an Actual House?

More than a century ago, penthouses were anything but fancy. They were humble little structures set back on rooftops near building mechanics like chimneys and water towers. No one with deep pockets would consider living in one. Back in the day, who would want to schlep multiple stories? But with the advent of the zippy elevator, penthouses came into their own, luring the upper crust to even higher reaches with bragging rights views. 

And it’s no wonder, given the exclusivity they provide. Says West Chin, principal of West Chin Architects. “From an architectural point of view, penthouses also offer some hidden advantages when renovating. Building walls, columns, vents, and pipes are often smaller in diameter than on lower floors. Therefore there’s more usable square footage in the apartment. Penthouse residents also tend to have more access and rights to install HVAC equipment on the roof or to install a fireplace, dryer, and stove vents than other units in the building, which decreases costs and increases feasibility,” says Chin. In other words, your home will feel more like your home.

Brooklyn Homes Under $600K Article continues below

Are Penthouses on the Top Floor?

In recent years, the number of buildings offering multiple penthouses on multiple floors has skyrocketed, calling into question these units’ cachet. So, you may be wondering, what is a penthouse? According to New York City Building code, a penthouse is an enclosed structure designed for human occupancy, placed on or above the roof of a building. You’d think most buildings have one roof — so most buildings can only have one penthouse.

But developers of new properties have stretched the definition of penthouse using staggered roofs and setbacks. For example, a building with three levels of penthouses ranging from floors 11 to 14 can call a unit on 11 a penthouse because it is set back so much from the floor below it that it technically sits on the roof of the 10th floor. Adds Kimberly T. Hastie, the number one sales broker for Halstead Upper West Side, “Sales agents have a variety of tricks to justify a higher-than-average sticker price, including a loose application of the ‘penthouse’ label. Watch out: While apartments marketed this way are usually truly special or different than the other apartments in the building, their features may not justify paying a penthouse premium.” In short, as with anything, it pays to shop around.

Manhattan Homes Under $800K Article continues below

How Big Are These Apartments?

We’re not going to lie. Some of the most jaw-dropping penthouses in New York City are ginormous (case in point, this 9,710-square-foot unit). But bigger isn’t necessarily better. After all, who is looking at square footage when you have floor-to-ceiling views of Central Park through your glass walls? “The classic penthouse not only has the best views in the building, but it also offers more privacy as there are fewer residences per floor and no neighbors above you,” Chin says. “Very often, the penthouse also has the best outdoor space in the building or the potential for a skylight.”

Brooklyn Rentals Under $3,000 Article continues below

What Are the Common Amenities and Features? 

“Buyer beware — in New York City, often a building will call any apartment on the top floor a penthouse, even if the unit is exactly the same as the floors below it,” says Hastie. So you may be asking yourself, what is a penthouse? What sets it apart from the units on the lower rung is often over-the-top amenities. “Traditionally, a true penthouse is not just a top floor apartment of a building. It will have a floor plan unique to the top floor, and often no two penthouse units are alike. Most penthouses feature perks like amazing outdoor space, views, and privacy.” For example, take one of the most headline-grabbing skyscrapers in recent years: Tribeca’s much-feted Herzog & de Meuron luxury condo, 56 Leonard, which has 10 penthouses across multiple floors. Its amenities list rivals any you’d find at a five-star resort, including an indoor and outdoor theater, an alfresco sundeck, and a sky estuary with a 75-foot lap pool. Talk about living the dream!

Are Penthouses Good Investments? 

Now that we answered the question, what is a penthouse, classic penthouses typically cost more than other units in a building. But they are typically good investments, says Hastie. “Even just having a top floor apartment is a huge plus in New York City,” she adds. Many of her clients are selling their current apartments to upgrade to penthouses, possibly to escape the annoying sounds that come with upstairs neighbors. “Savvy buyers understand that your home should be an oasis of relaxation, not a source of stress, so finding that extra room in your budget for the perfect penthouse is almost always worth it.” Plus, knowing you’ve made it to the top — literally — is priceless.

Article continues below

Related Articles