What Buys $3,000,000 Now
BY CARL SWANSON
Published: April 10, 2000, New York Magazine
Three million was where the quite luxurious was supposed to begin -- shelter for people with the money and need to live among the couture addresses. For the past few years, it's been the cutoff for Stribling's annual Luxury Market Report, but for next year, "we've given serious thought to raising this number to five or six," says broker Kirk Henckels.
"This may sound ridiculous, but a $2- or $3 million buyer is not a high-end buyer," declares Corcoran's Sharon Baum. "It only gets you seven rooms on Park," explains Michele Kleier of Gumley Haft Kleier. "You certainly don't get a spectacular eight-room for $3 million anymore."
"In what condition? That's the kicker," Baum says. "You could, if you're willing to do work, look at 2,500-square-foot apartments in the East Seventies and Eighties in any sort of prewar building. You could probably get an eight-room for $3 million. But it would need everything." That's Park. What about Fifth? "Forget it," she says.
There's a perfectly rational explanation for why, when you go from seven and a half rooms to nine, it'll cost you an extra million and a half. "When you go from three bedrooms and a library to the four and a library -- it's not that you've just picked up another room," says Neil Binder, principal of Bellmarc. "The hallways get wider; you pick up extra maids' rooms whether you want them or not; the galleries get larger," explains Baum. "That extra room -- it's the most expensive room you can imagine."
And as the months whip by, it's getting even more expensive. Alexa Lambert of Stribling is working with a couple who were well poised to snare a nice eight-room in Carnegie Hill when they started looking last fall. Now they can't touch it. "They looked at a place at 1160 Park Avenue; I think the listing was 2.975. And it was on for a month or so. But by the time they got their act together, there were multiple bids. It was a nice apartment. But we're talking about three bedrooms and no library!"
Okay, even multimillionaires can live without a library, but $3 million should earn you a fairly gargantuan apartment. And it does, reassures Corcoran's Lisa Lippman. "You can get a four-bedroom, four-bath, well-renovated, 3,000-square-foot apartment at the Ansonia with views," she says. "But the same apartment on Central Park West could cost over 4 million."
That is, if you could find it.
"Three mil would buy you a nice ten-room on West End Avenue or Riverside Drive. But there aren't any available," she says before remembering 190 Riverside Drive, just now converting: "There's a nine-room there for $3 million."
What about townhouses?
"Last year, 2.5 might have been an appropriate price for a house in Carnegie Hill east of Park," says townhouse broker Leslie J. Garfield. "Now you're talking 3, 3.5." Cross Park, and things get worse. "Fifth to Madison starting in the Sixties and going way up through Carnegie Hill is a $5 million market for a single-family," he says, "which might need work."
Down on Sutton Place, "you could buy a townhouse, possibly," says Jessica Ushan of Charles H. Greenthal. "But it would be small. Or you could get a large apartment -- close to 3,000 square feet, with spectacular views."
Over on the Upper West Side, says Dexter Guerrieri of Vandenberg Real Estate, "the last eight townhouse sales I've had range from $875,000 to $3.5 million. One went in the 5's last year, but, in general, we don't go that high here."
In February, a 25-foot-wide, five-story townhouse in Brooklyn Heights with views of the harbor and Wall Street was in contract for $2.9 million, says William B. May's Chris Thomas. "Right now, that's the market top. The range in Brooklyn Heights runs between 1.5 and 3."
Downtown, most of the new loft spaces come in under $3 million, though sales at that price are becoming more and more common in the established co-op buildings on lower Fifth Avenue.
"Three and a half is what you have to spend to get a family-size loft downtown," said Helene Luchnick of Douglas Elliman. "In SoHo and TriBeCa, that would buy you a renovated 3,000-square-foot loft in a new conversion." Luchnick just had a contract signed for 5,800 square feet at 114 Liberty Street -- an area some brokers call "TriBeCa South" -- which is to say that it's on the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel side of the World Trade Center. It went for $3.025 million.
"Right now, if you're in that budget, you're looking at very fancy new-conversion lofts -- wine cellars, twenty-foot ceilings, incredible finishes," says Lisa Strobing, of Bellmarc's downtown office. "A year ago, $3 million listings weren't that common," says Ken Malian, Douglas Elliman sales manager for TriBeCa and Flatiron. "And now we're seeing them everywhere -- even in the financial district."
Or for that amount, you can flee the shadows of Wall Street for the life of a country squire in the Bronx. In Riverdale, you can buy what's described as a 10,000- square-foot "extraordinary English Tudor," with outbuildings, for $2.9 million.
Upper East Side
5,500-square-foot brownstone in the East Eighties, off Fifth.
Paid: $3.375 million.
"It was a two-year search," says the buyer of this house, clearly still angry about it. "We lived on Fifth Avenue. We had a beautiful duplex, and we got a call from a broker: 'Do you want to sell?'
"We lived in the back. My husband always wanted a park view. He said, 'Let's take the money and run.' "
A financial consultant, he had a plan: to rent while they were looking. They didn't think they were being unreasonable. "We wanted only 2,500 square feet -- that's small for a family apartment," she says.
But that plan soon went awry. "Nothing came on in the two years we were looking. And if it did come on, you had to be the first one in, or you had no shot. Then it would go to a bidding war and sell for a million over the asking price."
There was the battle for 930 Fifth, where Woody Allen used to live. "Three-point-five for a 2,000-square-foot classic six. That's on the small side for a family." Then the co-op board asked for $12 million in liquid assets. And they didn't have that.
One day, she saw an ad for an apartment at 1120 Fifth Avenue for $3.8 million. The broker hadn't taken her by because the building has summer work rules and only a certain number of apartments can be renovated at a time. So they wouldn't be able to do work until 2001. "She said, 'I wish I could say you could live in it till then, but it's unlivable.' "
There was the battle of 1115 Fifth. "A nine-room was coming on, with views, at $3.8 million. Turns out they actually had an offer at full asking price, sight unseen. They eventually upped it to $7.2 million."
They opened a second front on Central Park West, but that was worse than Fifth Avenue, she said. "In the El Dorado, it was over $4 million for a park view."
"We looked at one at 285 Central Park West, kind of considered a B-rate building; Kevin Bacon lives there. But a beautiful building. For $2.5 million. We were on vacation. When we came back the next week, it was 3.5. And then the broker said the board wants three times, liquid."
She got herself brokers at Elliman, Brown Harris Stevens, Corcoran, and Stribling. "You need a broker in every firm," she says. "Brokers don't co-broke the good stuff. They keep it in-house for a week. You're not seeing what they're hoarding."
In the end, it was Lisa Lippman, her Corcoran broker, who found this stucco townhouse with lots of original detail -- even if it was sliced into six apartments. They'll convert it back to one-family use. "We were the first ones in, and it was an estate," she says. "The owner had died. We got lucky. Very, very lucky."
Nine-room, 3,200-square-foot prewar co-op.
Paid: approximately $3 million; maintenance, $2,500.
"When we sold our apartment, it was for what we thought was a very high price," says this thirtyish mom about her old place, a 3,700-square-foot co-op at 1175 Park Avenue. Happy with the money her broker, Michele Kleier, got them ($2.5 million), the family shuffled into a rental. "Michele found us a big apartment -- expensive, but we have a big family, three children." That was a year and a half ago. And as rental limbo stretched on and on, "things got more expensive," she says. "And there's no turnover; people just aren't moving."
Then there were the co-op boards to contend with. "There's so much money out there, and so much of it is Wall Street," she says. "The figures and the money people have is like candy." Even if you have the two to three times liquid assets, because of the boards, "you still don't know if you can get in or not."
They finally were tipped off to this place, which she describes as "clean, with beautiful wood floors. But we're gutting it," she says. It's on a high floor, looking out -- their old apartment faced the back. So after trying to wait out the market, they ended up paying more for less space and still had to renovate. It's not that bad, though: "I would definitely trade space for light again," she insists.
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