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Experience of owning and living in a brownstone

Started by heisenberg
over 12 years ago
Posts: 42
Member since: Apr 2011
Discussion about
Just looked at a beautiful coop in a Brooklyn brownstone. It's the parlor and garden floors - and the basement. I've always lived in full-service buildings, and while I can probably adjust to not having a doorman, I'm wondering what other headaches I'd be in for. Boiler breaking? Basement flooding? What else? Would love to hear from people who live, or have lived, in brownstones. Do it or stay away?
Response by NYCMatt
over 12 years ago
Posts: 7523
Member since: May 2009

Loved my Brooklyn Heights brownstone floor-through. Lived there for 10 years.

I'd own a brownstone and live in the entire building, but I'd never buy a co-op in a brownstone. Aside from the inherent risk of splitting the building financials among so few shareholders, there's the noise issue. Brownstones were never intended to be multi-family residences, and the floors are paper-thin. You hear EVERYTHING above and below you. Not bad for a rental, as you (or potentially the noisy neighbor) are always only a year or less away from potentially moving. But to OWN and be stuck there -- never.

Just don't.

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Response by front_porch
over 12 years ago
Posts: 5208
Member since: Mar 2008

Chimney/fireplace problems, including, but not limited to, improper capping which causes you to be visited by critters and improper cleaning which leads to risk of fire; leaky walls; difficultly of finding contractors to repair work to standards of 100 years ago (for example, difficult of finding someone to make an ornate plaster repair); stair trouble; possible mouse incursions; slanted floors which cause your washer/dryer to be imbalanced and need constant adjusting; need to update all electrical systems for comfort, climate control, and reduced risk of fire; failure of pipes that have hit the end of their usable lives, and need to replace same. Window leaks and failure of windows. Leak incursions from upstairs units. Landscaping issues, including lawn care, tree maintenance, and soil settling. Matt's already-mentioned noise issue.

I love old houses, and some of my clients MUST have brownstones, but they can be a lot of work!

ali r.
DG Neary Realty

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Response by NYCmodern
over 12 years ago
Posts: 100
Member since: Dec 2011

I lived in the parlor/basement floor of a brownstone for 6 years and I would never do it again. I only stayed for so long because the rent was practically free and the apartment itself was really nice. Like NYCMatt said, they weren't meant to be split up into rentals and whoever lives on the ground floor loses. You hear every tenant coming in and out constantly, espeically if the door slams loudly and all visitors think you're the super and buzz you if they can't remember their friends apartment #'s. I am so happy to now own in a low rise brick building facing the back on the third floor. It's the best of both worlds, you get the quaint feeling of a brownstone but I can't hear my neighbors and there is an elevator.

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Response by lad
over 12 years ago
Posts: 707
Member since: Apr 2009

I live in one now and love it. I'll caveat that I'm on the top floor and have an apartment that is essentially a peninsula, with only one shared wall along a walk-in closet, bathroom, and kitchen. I'm also in a building that was gut-rehabbed in the 70s, so nothing aside from the framing and party walls are more than 40 years, and we have individual mechanicals. My building's finances are also OK, and it has been run fairly responsibility for a brownstone without professional management.

The big pluses for me are:
1) Unique apartment
2) Outdoor space
3) Washer/dryer allowed
4) Having a direct say in how the building is run
5) Not paying for services I don't use / "lean" maintenance charges
6) Reasonable board that treats people as people and doesn't enforce policy for the sake of policy.

The big minuses are:
1) Nowhere to have packages delivered (have to go to work)
2) Constantly being dragged into minutiae of building operations
3) The board is probably not as informed as it should be about maintenance and financial issues.
4) Politics

Things to be cognizant of:
1) There's no avoiding your neighbors, ever. (Fortunately, I like mine.)
2) Noise could be an issue.
3) You will almost certainly have to devote some time to building operations (figure on 1 hour per month, minimum).
4) Reserves per unit should be higher than they would be otherwise, or you're in for assessments everytime something happens.

Things to seriously consider:
1) How are the financials? Be wary of snowballing debt. Also low or no reserves. Run if the building does not hire an accountant or have audited financials.
2) How is the building run? Are there minutes? Are annual meetings held? If not, run. Does the board have Director's liability insurance? If not, it's a bad sign.
3) Are there are any unsold units, rent controlled units, or units in foreclosure? If so, you're signing up for a lifetime of problems, especially with the last two.
4) Building policies could be anywhere from laissez-faire to blatantly non-compliant or even illegal. Remember, non-professional volunteers....

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Response by heisenberg
over 12 years ago
Posts: 42
Member since: Apr 2011

Thanks for the input so far. Lad, I love your highly organized list. I bet you're great to have on a coop board. This "things to consider" checklist will come in handy - though this coop is only made up of two owners, who each own half the building. That probably changes the equation, right?
It's hard to imagine there are minutes. I think it's more of a "knock knock, we don't have hot water, who wants to call someone?" situation.

We're investigating the noise. It would only be from upstairs above the living/ dining rooms. Bedrooms are garden floor.

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Response by lad
over 12 years ago
Posts: 707
Member since: Apr 2009

Heisenberg, with a two-unit co-op, I'd be most concerned about financing. Have you crossed that bridge yet? And how does board approval work - does the other unit owner need to "approve" you? This is a very unusual situation.

And, yes, my OCD nature does come in handy. I basically do the work of a managing agent for free. :-) The number of things that went unnoticed or unresolved for 25+ years boggled my mind.

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Response by bramstar
over 12 years ago
Posts: 1909
Member since: May 2008

I'd run away fast. If the other shareholder defaults/stops paying maintenance YOU will be 100% on the hook for all expenses. Also, the other posters are correct about brownstone noise--brownstones were built for single family use. Once converted to multiple dwelling they can indeed be noisy.

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Response by lad
over 12 years ago
Posts: 707
Member since: Apr 2009

Bramstar has a valid point, but keep in mind that ordinary expenses in a two-unit brownstone can be fairly minimal. Maybe it's because I've owned a single family property before, but the idea of paying 2x real estate taxes, insurance, and common utilities for a period of time is not all that frightening to me. Unpleasant, sure. But not something that would keep me up at night. A two-unit building is not going to have an underlying mortgage, I'm guessing.

I'd be more concerned with my and future owner's ability to get competitive financing, with the condition of the building, and with understanding who my upstairs neighbors are.

Default could actually be a bigger risk in 5-10 unit buildings, where the co-op can (and often does) carry a decent amount of debt. Inability to refinance that debt could mean enormous assessments, in addition to covering the monthly shortfalls.

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Response by huntersburg
over 12 years ago
Posts: 11329
Member since: Nov 2010

>This "things to consider" checklist will come in handy - though this coop is only made up of two owners, who each own half the building.

How many men and women married until death get divorced? How many business partnerships fail? I've been lucky on both, but in both of those circumstances, I went in with a good "partner" who made an equal commitment and on a personal level. In this ownership scenario, there's no personal commitment. So all's good until it isn't and just based on national divorce rates, I wouldn't be optimistic. Things change. Everything's good for a decade until one needs to leave for whatever stressful reason. Basically, there's no diversification of your ownership.

Best ownership of a brownstone is single family ownership and renting out floors/apartments to qualified tenants chosen by the owner. (non-rent regulated).

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Response by columbiacounty
over 12 years ago
Posts: 12708
Member since: Jan 2009

wow.

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Response by huntersburg
over 12 years ago
Posts: 11329
Member since: Nov 2010

Hey columbiacounty, what kind of housing questions and problems are being faced these days in your county?

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Response by columbiacounty
over 12 years ago
Posts: 12708
Member since: Jan 2009

so...does that explain why you have posted under hundreds of different identities?

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Response by columbiacounty
over 12 years ago
Posts: 12708
Member since: Jan 2009

where do you live?

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Response by columbiacounty
over 12 years ago
Posts: 12708
Member since: Jan 2009

where is cuntersburg?

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Response by nyc10023
over 12 years ago
Posts: 7614
Member since: Nov 2008

I can't add anything to the cons (don't see any pros) of being in a small co-op. It can be so fact-specific. You really need to figure out what your future neighbor's situation is. They get to look at your finances, you should get a peek at theirs. I looked at a 2-unit TH co-op on the UWS, where there really wouldn't have been a problem with the neighbor paying maintenance.

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Response by huntersburg
over 12 years ago
Posts: 11329
Member since: Nov 2010

>They get to look at your finances, you should get a peek at theirs.

Absolutely. Beyond the building finances, you need to know your partners' finances.

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Response by columbiacounty
over 12 years ago
Posts: 12708
Member since: Jan 2009

would anyone here want to be partners with you?

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Response by huntersburg
over 12 years ago
Posts: 11329
Member since: Nov 2010

Sure, I can think of a couple hundred.

How about you? What do you do when you need some "partnership" up in lonely Columbia County?

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Response by columbiacounty
over 12 years ago
Posts: 12708
Member since: Jan 2009

where do you live?

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Response by columbiacounty
over 12 years ago
Posts: 12708
Member since: Jan 2009

are you actually alive?

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Response by huntersburg
over 12 years ago
Posts: 11329
Member since: Nov 2010

In NYC.

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Response by columbiacounty
over 12 years ago
Posts: 12708
Member since: Jan 2009

where?

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Response by huntersburg
over 12 years ago
Posts: 11329
Member since: Nov 2010

In New York County.

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Response by columbiacounty
over 12 years ago
Posts: 12708
Member since: Jan 2009

do you know where i live?

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Response by huntersburg
over 12 years ago
Posts: 11329
Member since: Nov 2010

Better question, do you know where you live?

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Response by columbiacounty
over 12 years ago
Posts: 12708
Member since: Jan 2009

yes.

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Response by huntersburg
over 12 years ago
Posts: 11329
Member since: Nov 2010

Where?

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Response by columbiacounty
over 12 years ago
Posts: 12708
Member since: Jan 2009

but...why do you feel the need to post under hundreds of different names?

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Response by huntersburg
over 12 years ago
Posts: 11329
Member since: Nov 2010

Wait, don't change the subject. Where do you assume that you live?

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Response by columbiacounty
over 12 years ago
Posts: 12708
Member since: Jan 2009

tell us more about the hundreds of your friends?

are they all made up like what you do here?

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Response by columbiacounty
over 12 years ago
Posts: 12708
Member since: Jan 2009

why do you do that?

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Response by huntersburg
over 12 years ago
Posts: 11329
Member since: Nov 2010

Where do you assume that you live?

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Response by columbiacounty
over 12 years ago
Posts: 12708
Member since: Jan 2009

you tell me.

you're the fucking expert.

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Response by huntersburg
over 12 years ago
Posts: 11329
Member since: Nov 2010

Has anyone seen you living where you assume that you live?

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Response by huntersburg
over 12 years ago
Posts: 11329
Member since: Nov 2010

Are you under the care of a medical professional right now? Are you taking any medications?

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Response by huntersburg
over 12 years ago
Posts: 11329
Member since: Nov 2010

What is the area code of the Safe Number that you've been given to call?

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Response by columbiacounty
over 12 years ago
Posts: 12708
Member since: Jan 2009

do you want to be taken seriously? or be a complete asshole?

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Response by huntersburg
over 12 years ago
Posts: 11329
Member since: Nov 2010

You know, I asked you several questions, and then you refuse to answer and come back with two of your own. That's not right. If you want to participate on streeteasy, you should really consider the other people here. I'll give you a pass for now in case you are in crisis, but please, after whatever break you feel you need to take, your next response should be an answer to my questions including where you live. ok?

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Response by columbiacounty
over 12 years ago
Posts: 12708
Member since: Jan 2009

so..the choice you make is to remain an asshole.

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Response by huntersburg
over 12 years ago
Posts: 11329
Member since: Nov 2010

I'll give you another pass, but my patience is wearing thin. And don't think that I'm alone here.

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Response by columbiacounty
over 12 years ago
Posts: 12708
Member since: Jan 2009

is that a threat?

why don't you spell it out.

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Response by huntersburg
over 12 years ago
Posts: 11329
Member since: Nov 2010

Which of my posts was potentially threatening to you?

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Response by huntersburg
over 12 years ago
Posts: 11329
Member since: Nov 2010

Are you under the supervision of a medical or other specially-trained professional right now? If yes, what have you been instructed to do under a personal scenario such as this?

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Response by huntersburg
over 12 years ago
Posts: 11329
Member since: Nov 2010

If you need assistance, assistance is available for you locally. Needy cases are accepted.
http://www.namicolumbiacountyny.org/

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Response by columbiacounty
over 12 years ago
Posts: 12708
Member since: Jan 2009

what's your actual problem?

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Response by huntersburg
over 12 years ago
Posts: 11329
Member since: Nov 2010

>what's your actual problem?

My problem? Does that mean you don't feel threatened anymore? What changed?

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Response by CLBbkny
over 12 years ago
Posts: 39
Member since: May 2009

OK, back to the question at hand. For ten years, I lived in a 5-story brownstone coop with an apartment on every floor. I will never do it again. I could live with the minor hassles of no one to sign for packages and having to deal with our own garbage 2x a week. What finally drove me out of there was the insane politics of a 5-unit co-op. We had one obstructionist, nasty couple that were totally unreasonable, and they made life hell for everyone else. The risk of one bad shareholder substantially ruining your co-op existance is too great to ignore.

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Response by Pawn_Harvester
over 12 years ago
Posts: 321
Member since: Jan 2009

Just buy the whole TH - coops in townhouses make no sense.

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