How To Renovate A Townhouse in Brooklyn Vol 1 Edition 1
Hunting and Waiting
While the rest of the world awaited the final word on the debt crisis gripping the nation, my husband and I waited with baited breath the outcome of a negotiation of an entirely different order. In truth, he’s not really my husband, and by the time you read these words the politicians will have come out smiling for the cameras bearing words of triumph and resolution. But the bottom line is that we’ve been together for 10 years and the stakes for us, and maybe for the nation, have never been higher.
We are buying a townhouse in Brooklyn. And it needs a ton of work.
Long time residents of Harlem, our search started in the Spring of 2008. I had just returned to NYC after two years of working on the road in a series of musicals. “Hubbie,” a professional musician, had been working steadily in town for a few years. Prospects of future work looked good for us both. This was before the economic downturn that occurred later that year. Before the economy had shed 1,000,000 jobs and well before banks had decided to tighten the reigns on their rough-shod underwriting practices. These were the waning days of the Bush era when every American with a full time job and a 10% down payment was promised a McMansion of his or her own.
So we decided to look for a house in Harlem.
Our first showing was in April 2008. I had made the arrangements directly with the selling agent.
“It needs a lot of work,” the agent advised over the phone.
“We’re looking for something that needs work,” I replied. “What kind of shape is the roof in?”
“The roof needs work,” the agent stated.
The day of the showing was one of those clear days when Harlem shows its true beauty. We walked through Hamilton Heights and down the hill along the park where children played and parents caught up on the week’s gossip. The agent, a man of few words, met us out front.
“Did you bring flashlights?” he asked.
Oh yes, we had flashlights, cameras, measuring tape.
With a curt acknowledgement, the agent motioned for us to follow him.
A true townhouse always has more than two entrances-one up the stoop and another down the bottom steps. The agent solicited Hubbie’s assistance to remove an 8X ” sheet of plywood from the downstairs entrance that had been propped up to keep vagrants and drifters out of the building. After a few seconds of struggling with the padlocks, he opened the erstwhile “door” and stepped inside. We followed with a mixture of trepidation and anticipation.
The Lovely Facades
When a selling agent tells you that the roof “needs work,” demand more detail. What we saw when we stepped inside of this structure is something that can hardly be described as a “house.” And as for the roof? There was no roof. We had followed the agent into the sloping bowels of a gaping 5-story structure with dirt for floors and a clear view of the open sky 5-stories above. A bird whipped up a cloud of dust as it jumped off a chink in a brick wall and flew away. There were neither beams nor sub-floors to stop its ascent.
It was the first of many houses we would look at. It was totally terrifying. It was absolutely magnificent.
The Heavenly Bones
Through the fall we looked at an endless array of homes, each with its own unique character and set of issues. There was the one with the collapsed roof and the third-floor bathtub still in mid-fall, and the house that had been converted into a church and then back into a house again. There was the one with its own 2-car garage and the one with the non-permitted plumbing on every floor. There was the house where the seller disappeared after we made an offer for the asking price and the one where an old man tried to sell to us directly. There was SRO after SRO after SRO.
“What about Brooklyn?” I asked Hubbie one day in the spring of 2011. A long time had passed since our first showing and we were still living in his one-bedroom condo in Hamilton Heights. Our savings had grown as had our impatience. Hubbie was known for being an anti-hipster, for not liking Brooklyn-but even he was ready to consider a new borough.
As we set out across the bridge the advantages of Brooklyn became obvious right away. Fewer SRO’s for starters, which means that it is actually possible to get a conventional mortgage on one of these homes. And better infrastructure. Even in neighborhoods as far flung as Red Hook and Clinton Hill, restaurants like Fort Defiance and Hope & Anchor made the trip worthwhile.
“It’s so quiet out here,” Hubbie commented the first time out.
“Exactly,” I replied, hoping he didn't see me smile.
To be honest, I had lived in Brooklyn back before it was cool. In the '90s before there was a Hubbie even. I knew my way around the borough and could be specific about the neighborhoods we looked in. Priced out of places like Park Slope, Carroll Gardens and the Heights, and with little interest in anything south of the park or north of Washington Avenue, we canvassed every single available house from Fort Greene to Flatbush.
The one we found is perfect.
With 3,000 square feet and bay windows, it is the kind of house we had always imagined ourselves in. The neighborhood, known by its inhabitants as PLG, is quiet and filled with single-family homes. It even has a historic district and an annual house tour. With proximity to Prospect Park, and three-full floors for our very own, we looked at the house twice before making an offer. It took less than 24 hours to reach an agreement with the Seller.
Two weeks later the contract was done. All parties agreed that Hubbie and I would be obtaining a special kind of mortgage called a 203k, allowing us to borrow the funds to purchase and to renovate all at once. After a trip to White Plains to meet our lawyer and write the biggest check I have ever seen, we are officially in contract.
All we have to do now is close.
- Volume 1 Edition 2
Within hours of going into contract on a 112-year old townhouse in Brooklyn, Hubbie and I found ourselves beset with a whole new list of nerve-wracking questions, issues and dilemmas - aka The Loan...
- Volume 1 Edition 3
Hubbie and I never imagined that we would be moving to Brooklyn. The story of how we met is quintessentially rooted in Harlem, centered around Convent Avenue with its triple-wide houses and tree-lined promenades that never fail to impress. We are...
- How To Renovate A Townhouse in Brooklyn Volume 1 Edition 4