reBuild’s 9 + 1 tips to brownstone buyers

Renovated kitchen at the garden level of a recent Brooklyn brownstone project of ours. Photo by Pepe Molina photo

Looking to purchase a brownstone in New York City, and trying to gauge the renovation effort? Here are the 10 things you need to know before you make an offer:
  1. Find out if you need to change the building’s legal use

Changing the legal use of the property requires more design and permitting effort; also likely more construction work – since you will be required to bring the space and systems up to the current code and safety standards.

Bonus tip: There’s a lot of confusion around about what can be a proof of legal use for a building in NYC.  Don’t listen to anyone who’ll tell you the NYC Dept of Finance classification proves the legal use with the NYC DOB, because it does not! 

  1. Will you be doing changes to the exterior of a landmark?

Any changes to the exterior of a structure within a designated historic district, will require a permit from NYC Landmarks (LPC), which will likely follow a thorough review.  As a result, you should expect the project to take longer, and cost more.

Bonus tip: While LPC’s primary focus will be the front façade, they will need to review and approve any changes to the exterior – including the back façade. Beware of restrictions at the upper-most level of the back façade.

  1. How much do you really need the extra floor? 

The property you like might have available air-rights, but extending a structure in NYC comes at a cost.  Besides hiring an architect to do a zoning analysis of the property, think about how important it is for you to extend the structure, and understand that doing so might significantly impact project cost and schedule.

Bonus tip: Because of the one-off soft costs associated with extending a house in NYC, you will typically get more value if you are doing a sizable extension (vs a small one)

  1. You’ll likely new electrical and plumbing throughout the house 

Unless a proper, comprehensive renovation was done in the past, you have to assume doing any work in the house will require you to effectively have all electrical and plumbing systems re-done.

  1. Consider cooling & heating combo

The high- performance HVAC systems (typically “heat-pumps”) are primarily being used for cooling, but – with a little bit of extra effort – could also become the primary source of heating for your new home. Examine the condition of the old steam boiler and piping, and do a cost-benefit analysis of having that replaced by an energy efficient HVAC system.

Bonus tip:  take it a step further, consider completely eliminating gas and going fully electric!

  1. How bad are the floors sagging? 

While a brick structure will most likely be strong enough to carry any new loads, sloping floors and stairs require a lot of effort to address. Look at the condition of the floors to assess whether you’ll need to level them – which can have a domino effect on the extent of the overall work.

  1. Beware of older work that you might have to legalize

Often properties are sold with various conditions that do not meet the current building code. If you plan on doing work at the property, you might be required to address them – so be prepared for it!

  1. Want a Passive house? be prepared for a “gut” reno

A passive house needs the exterior enclosure tightly sealed and well insulated, and high-performance exterior doors and windows ; also to integrate appropriate high-efficiency HVAC systems throughout. Doing that will likely require almost everything in your house to be new – with the exception of the primary structure.

  1. Restore or replace that old door? 

When thinking about replacing vs restoring: keep in mind – in most of the cases -replacing is more cost-effective.  On the other hand, restoring is typically more environmentally sustainable, and very meaningful – especially when dealing with a historic structure.

  1. Before you make an offer – you need more than comps

Before you make an offer, retain a seasoned design professional to assist you understanding whether (a) the property you like is the right fit for you; and (b) what is the right value of the property to you.  You won’t regret it.



See more:  Pre-purchasing consultation