The Upper East Side has the highest number of run-down real estate properties in the city, but that’s creating an opportunity for renovation-happy buyers
By Helaina Hovitz
If you’re movin’ on up to the East Side, you’d better bring a contractor with you.
According to real estate listing site Point2Homes, the Upper East Side has the most run-down and outdated spaces for sale in all of New York City. The search words describing these condos and townhouses include “wreck,” “poor condition,” “needs extensive repair,” and “huge damage,” and many are in need of complete gut renovations.
So why are these pricey extreme-home-makeovers-in-waiting selling like crazy?
The majority of people seeking these dilapidated apartments are “well-off,” and, according to Ryan Serhant, star of Million Dollar Listing New York and Executive Vice President and Managing Director at Nest Seekers International, they want their home to be done their way.
“People who have a lot of money prefer to live in a dream home of their own design,” said Serhant. “We’re selling these properties to two kinds of people: people who want to create their own product, and people who are investor-savvy.”
According to Mike Lubin, Vice President and Director of Brown Harris Stevens, LLC, many of these buyers are either in real estate or interior design, like his most recent clients.
“The estate hasn’t been touched since 1918. I took one look and said, ‘perfect,’” explained interior designer Rebecca Zimm, who scooped up a decrepit $2.3 million condo on East 79th Street.
“It’s also a lot like operating on a very old person,” Zimm continued. “You go in anticipating one thing and then you find something else.”
Surprisingly, when given the choice, many of Lubin’s clients will actually choose an unrenovated apartment over a fully up-to-date space, even when it runs for the same list price.
“People will turn down a fully furnished apartment because they want it to be their own,” Lubin explained. “Also, the details of old floors, old moldings – those are priceless.”
According to Caroline Bass, Senior Vice President and Associate Broker at Citi Habitats, this “recent” trend is actually not so new. Over the past four years, Bass and her team have sold twenty fixer-uppers above 59th Street on the East Side.
“I’ve done more homes in ‘estate’ conditions than anywhere else in the city. I don’t want to be morbid, but there’s more older people on the Upper East Side.” She said. “They don’t typically do renovations, and then you have a vacant apartment badly in need of them that hasn’t been touched in 30 years.”
Usually, Bass gives her clients a markdown on the market price based on what projected renovation costs will be.
“If someone has to put $50,000 – $200,000 into renovations, we price it accordingly. If it’s going to cost $150,000, you should decrease the selling price by that much,” she said.
However, Serhant has found that there isn’t always a need for that. Many of his listings have been selling at full market rate, including a townhouse at 152 E. 71st Street that just went for a cool $6 million.
“There aren’t many townhouses for sale, especially on Upper East Side, so people are jumping on any opportunity that might be available, even without a price cut,” he said.
The $6 million townhouse on 71st Street was sold to a family attracted to the home’s Hollywood history: Breakfast at Tiffany’s was filmed from the third floor of the house, and Woody Allen’s Manhattan was filmed from the fourth. Famous neighbors have included the Fondas and Marlena Dietrich.
The house’s current owner, Kent Russell, 61, says it’s been in his family since the 1940s — and looks like it hasn’t been touched since.
“It’s a wreck. A beautiful wreck, but a wreck,” he said, adding that some of the original features, like wallpaper, piping, and gaslights, date back to 1865.
Bass said she’s found that most of the people buying these homes aren’t families but young professionals looking to do the work.
“I haven’t sold these to people with large families, because they’ll be displaced while work is underway,” she explained. “These are clients who are able to stay with a friend, commute into the city, or live in a rental.”
Andrew Ellis, 29, is one of them. Currently living in Murray Hill, he bought the first fixer-upper Bass showed him just last week, which happened to be on 95th and 2nd Avenue. He didn’t initially set out to find an apartment badly in need of renovations, but found that he wanted to change something about every other apartment he saw.
“I thought, ‘this wall shouldn’t have been put there to begin with,’ or, ‘there are other ways space could be utilized,’” he said.
Ellis is a consultant who works out of town Monday-Thursday, so he’ll be mostly out of the way while contractors work on the apartment.
The co-op board of the building was thrilled to have him move in, he said, because they’ve been waiting for someone to come in and fix it up, lacking the funds to do so themselves.
However, for Second Avenue buyers like Ellis, there are other things to consider, like where the contractors are going to park while the Second Avenue Subway Construction is still underway. Though businesses continue to close left and right, Ellis is optimistic, hoping that restaurants and bars will come back into the neighborhood once the subway is complete.
“The way I see it,” he said. “The whole area has nowhere to go but up.”
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