The Mess We're In By Julia Angwin The Wall Street Journal 02-05-2010

The Mess We're In By Julia Angwin The Wall Street Journal 02-05-2010

The Mess We're In
Two Manhattan professionals, who call the super to change a lightbulb, embark on the renovation of a wrecked Harlem brownstone.
By Julia Angwin
The Wall Street Journal
February 5, 2010

When my husband Vijay and I told family and friends of our plans to gut renovate a ramshackle brownstone in Upper Manhattan, they were understandably shocked.

We are not exactly renovation types.

For most of our adult lives we have lived like graduate students, dragging our Ikea furniture from one rental to the next. We have cheered at bay windows and groaned at broken dishwashers. But in the end, the building handyman has always solved our problems. Embarrassingly, we even call him to change the light bulbs in our apartment!

Our new brownstone–we closed earlier this week–has much bigger problems: A former rooming house, it's been vacant for several years. Wires hang from the ceiling where light fixtures had been. Some of those ceilings are falling down. The windows are disintegrating. The place is filled with ancient appliances and dusty mattresses.

But when I saw the stairs, I fell in love. Unlike many renovated brownstones in New York City that aim to save square feet with steep and narrow staircases, this one has its original staircase. Painted a joyous red, it's wide with a multiplicity of shallow steps and a luxurious curved entry onto each landing.

Yes, the gracious stairs take up nearly half of the 16-foot wide space on each of the four floors. But, they were the first stairs we've seen that didn't give me a panicked vision of my rambunctious 2-year-old son tumbling down headfirst. I imagined he and his older sister could even run up and down at the same time without injury.

Of course, it wasn't just the stairs. The street is quiet, but centrally located in the part of Harlem that we consider most desirable (below 125th Street near Morningside Park). I felt a sense of peace gazing out the back windows toward a quadrant of well-tended backyard gardens.

Most importantly, the price was right. We had been looking to buy for several years. But even with prices falling after the market crash in September 2008, we were priced out of most places big enough for us in our Upper West Side neighborhood, where the median price for a three-bedroom co-op was $1.825 million last year; $3.44 million for a condo, according to data released Thursday by Prudential Douglas Elliman.Townhouses in the area go for millions.

Up in Harlem, in the area closest to our apartment, where we had focused our search, you get better prices and more space, but a fully restored brownstone can cost over $1.5 million.

Our brownstone wasn't even listed: A friend told us to check out a house that wasn't officially on the market. We wandered over on a Sunday afternoon, stood on the sidewalk looking at the home, and sure enough, an elderly man ambled over, pointed at the brownstone: "Do you want to buy it?" he said. "I can show it to you."

The man, Howard, lived a few doors down and has taken care of his neighbor's place since she moved away several years ago.

When we reached out to the owner, we discovered that Vijay knew her father, who had been a doorman at Vijay's former apartment building. They easily agreed on a price of $800,000–a great deal for that neighborhood, even for a "shell."

"I think [you] did OK," says local broker Klara Madlin of Klara Madlin real estate. She says a converted rooming house down the block recently sold for $1.7873 million. (But she, too, warns about renovating. "It's great when it's done," she says. "But it always takes longer than you think.")

The place needs a complete overhaul: new electrical, new plumbing, new roof, new windows, new floors and all new appliances and cabinetry. In short, everything. We interviewed contractors and found one willing to do the work for the low price of $350,000. We talked to the bank and got a 4.875% interest rate for a loan that included much of the cost of renovation. Once renovated, the home could sell for $2 million, says Ms. Madlin.

The prospect of owning a completed brownstone for nearly the same price we are paying in rent was just too tempting to turn down

But our friends and family were horrified. One of my closest friends took me aside and cautioned me: "You have no idea what you are getting into. A gut renovation is a huge project. You have two children; your job is demanding; Vijay's job is demanding. How are you going to do this?"

My dad gently suggested that we were insane.

Since then, we have had plenty of chances to turn back: When we realized that the brownstone's all-important certificate of non-harassment was about to expire. When the city almost denied our permit for construction. When the seller still hadn't finished packing up her stuff upon closing.

Still we persevered. For Vijay, I think the motivation is financial–buying at a low price with low interest rates is likely to be a better investment than our 401Ks have turned out to be.

My motivation is financial but also emotional. Every time that we have been close to quitting, I've thought about how I would regret walking by the house and knowing that some other children were running up and down those gracious red stairs.

So, here we go. Two professionals who know nothing about grout attempt a gut renovation.


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