This series of articles is intended to help buyers better understand the complex process of renovating historic rowhouses and brownstones.
Brownstones and rowhouses are some of the most extraordinary buildings in New York City. With façades creating magnificent street walls and green spaces in the back, they define the city’s most beautiful neighborhoods, providing an intimate scale in a largely vertical city.
While these architectural treasures have significant historical significance, they also require substantial care, time and expense. Renovating a historic rowhouse is a complex and, often drawn out, process. An informed buyer should be fully aware of the financial scope of their investment beyond the purchase price.
Rowhouses that attract buyers are typically those constructed between 1840 and 1910. Built during the heyday of Victorian construction, they are unparalleled in detail, proportion and aesthetics. The challenge of these rowhouses is that they are often in an advanced stage of degradation and require extensive work. Sellers and real estate brokers are often not fully aware of the scope and cost of renovating these structures. Their goal is to sell, and their attempts to estimate the cost of a renovation typically address only a fraction of the undertaking.
Repairs to century year old buildings can be intricate in process and breadth. Often the rowhouse’s masonry shell (or wood timber frame) has decayed, and at least one wall will need to be rebuilt. This is usually the case with south-facing walls. Additionally, interior masonry surfaces may require repair and repointing.
If the house is a true brownstone, there’s a chance its street façade may literally be falling apart, requiring it to be “re-brownstoned.” That entails the work of a highly skilled craftsman who will have to remove the building’s existing façade to solid substrate, then reapply new stucco in successive layers to build up the surface detailing.
Beyond the masonry shell and exterior structure, it is not uncommon for infrastructural components to need partial or full replacement. It is essential that structural work be done before installing new kitchens, bathrooms and other functions.
With buildings, like most things in life, a strong foundation is imperative. Without a good foundation, updates to heating/cooling, electrical and plumbing systems will undoubtedly need to be re-addressed, resulting in a waste of thousands of dollars and precious time.
After a successful renovation to the structure itself, the buyer can start with interior layouts, the installation of systems, followed by cabinetry, fixtures, fittings, and the decorative components of the renovation. Attempting the “finish work” prior to a thorough repair will be far more costly in the long run.
Although rowhouses require significant upkeep and care, don’t be daunted. These properties are a worthwhile investment. An informed and prepared buyer will ultimately delight in living in a functional and iconic example of New York history.
Looking for a rowhouse?
Check out StreetEasy for what’s on the market now:
163 West 88th Street, 5 BR, $3.995M
70 Charles Street, 4 BR, $5.85M
73 Joralemon Street, 4 BR, $3.15M
359 Pacific Street, 6 BR, $2.275M
Next topic: a more detailed discussion of the issues around the rowhouses structure and shell.