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How To Renovate A Townhouse in Brooklyn Vol 1 Edition 1

Updated on January 1, 2013

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

Classic Style
Classic Style
Downhome Uptown
Downhome Uptown
A rare house with one unshared side
A rare house with one unshared side
The Behemoth
The Behemoth

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

Fine Prospects
Fine Prospects
The Charming One
The Charming One
Sunday Service
Sunday Service
Total Knockout
Total Knockout
Sunken Living Room
Sunken Living Room
Long Way to the Parlor
Long Way to the Parlor
Sub Basement
Sub Basement
Landscaping Opportunities
Landscaping Opportunities
Room With A View
Room With A View

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.

The One

Closer
Closer

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    • A Hightower profile image
      Author

      Alexis in Brooklyn 6 years ago from New York, NY

      Hey Glenn,

      Many thanks!! Exciting and daunting. STILL collecting paperwork for the bank... Any tips on a project like this? We will take them!!!! ! Thanks so much for stopping by and for the comment!!!

    • Glenn Stok profile image

      Glenn Stok 6 years ago from Long Island, NY

      This was very interesting. I had done a rehab once so I relate to what you are planning. That's a really nice townhouse you found. Congratulations and good luck. I plan follow along with your other Hubs on your progress.

    • A Hightower profile image
      Author

      Alexis in Brooklyn 6 years ago from New York, NY

      Flora Been, Thank you for your lovely comment and congratulations on your condo!! This will also be my first time owning a property so I can only imagine the excitement and satisfaction!! I hope to go back on the road someday, but for now I will stay in NYC getting things done. Thanks again and see on Hubpages!!

    • A Hightower profile image
      Author

      Alexis in Brooklyn 6 years ago from New York, NY

      Hi jmartin, thank you for stopping by, for your comment and for your vote!!!!! I love the city and am also fascinated by the old country homes we've seen in MA for example...I definitely feel the appeal of both. Please tell your parents about the HUB(s) and keep me posted on your progress. There are so many great old houses out there if you look save look save save look. Gosh I hope we close!! :)

      Thanks again!

    • jmartin1344 profile image

      jmartin1344 6 years ago from Royal Oak, Michigan

      This is a fantastic hub and I really enjoyed reading it! My parents have always loved the idea of doing something like this in England where they live, and they have never had the money to do it. I therefore became interested in it and while they prefer rural houses I prefer city based places like this! I hope one day to make enough money to allow my parents to do this for themselves!

      Fantastic pictures and insight into your process. Voted it for the hubnugget!

    • A Hightower profile image
      Author

      Alexis in Brooklyn 6 years ago from New York, NY

      Hi Simone, thanks so much for stopping by and for the comment! I loved your Hub on Geek Chic and also can't wait to read more.

      Thanks again!

    • A Hightower profile image
      Author

      Alexis in Brooklyn 6 years ago from New York, NY

      Thanks ripplemaker and for the nom!! I have been reading all of the Hub nuggets nominees and am thrilled to be in such excellent company!!! Also, love the Bermuda Triangle piece. So inventive and fun to read!!! :)

    • ripplemaker profile image

      Michelle Simtoco 6 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

      Wow you both must be thrilled with your find!

      Congratulations on your Hubnuggets nomination. To read the Hubnuggets team Bermuda Adventure, follow this link please: http://redelf.hubpages.com/hubnuggets6/hub/Bermuda... Also be sure to read and vote. :D

    • FloraBreenRobison profile image

      FloraBreenRobison 6 years ago

      Hello, welcome to hubpages and congratulations on your nomination. What fun to tour in a Broadway musical! My parents are retired professional musicians so I inherited their talent. I use music as my sanctuary, however, and not my profession.

      I don't drive, so I when I went looking for my first home after moving out of my parents' house, I had a hard time finding an apartment or condo that fit my needs. I needed to be downtown, but most options were out of my price range, 55 and over only, or in dangerous neighbourhoods. I found a condo that is across from the hospital and worked well for me. One of the balconies needs to be redone and there are a couple minor issues , but all in all I'm thrilled I found the condo I have.

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 6 years ago from San Francisco

      Wow, this is fascinating! I'm looking forward to reading future editions :D

    • A Hightower profile image
      Author

      Alexis in Brooklyn 6 years ago from New York, NY

      moonlake, I am thrilled that you enjoyed Vol 1 Edition 1! Thank you for reading it and for letting me know. I share your fascination with row houses and for any old building with good bones (old St. Louis included). More editions to come. Greetings from NYC!

    • moonlake profile image

      moonlake 6 years ago from America

      Your townhouse is beautiful.

      I have never been in a Brooklyn townhouse. Once when I was only 17, I was in a row house in St. Louis near the Arch, the Arch wasn't there at that time. I fell in love with it and it had not been renovated at the time. Even as a teen I could see what could be done. Never got a chance to own one we live in a part of the country where there are no row houses.

      Enjoyed your hub.