How does your garden grow?

Humboldt Spotted Lily (Photo by Jon Siess)

Nearly as rare as a Humboldt Spotted Lily is the city dweller who doesn’t yearn for outside space.

More often than not, it is garden space that buyers crave, a chance to dig into friable earth, raise a crop of juicy tomatoes and impress neighbors with a postage stamp lush with fragrant iris, iridescent roses or plumes of ornamental grass.

Ah, but the price such buyers pay!  Not only do such places command a premium – there is only so much vacant land in Manhattan – but the tradeoff for a garden may be unequal to the accompanying interior, which often features an awkward layout and questionable condition.

It is the interiors that are the particular concern of this post.  (For a different perspective on gardens, you’ll want to see the long piece that led the New York Times real estate section recently and a subsequent article on outdoor space, each maddeningly published after I had the idea for and drafted this screed.)

The gardens I will focus on here are those that struggle in the shade behind most brownstones.  (Co-ops and condos on just one or two lowest floors present similar problems.)

Unsurprisingly, the apartments are on the ground floor; that, after all, is where the ground is.  That means a descent usually via a bleak staircase into what ought to be a kind of hell but one that emerges, to some eyes, as heaven on . . . earth.  So may it be, but only for those individuals who generally are willing to look past freaky flow, gloomy rooms and high prices.

Consider the following three Upper West Side apartments, which share certain similarities:

  • In the low 100s east of Riverside Drive, an eccentric one-bedroom brownstone co-op that is more about its cozy studio with picture window at the rear of an enchanting garden than the 1,000-sf interior, which evokes country living not always in the best sense.  Inside is a space facing the street that can be used as a living room or bedroom and a big kitchen that has seen better days.  At the rear of the unit, that kitchen is marketed as a “great room,” off of which can be found a bedroom measuring 14’8” by merely 7’3”.  There are two baths, ample closet space, floors in poor condition and low ceilings – it’s a basement!  Despite the garden, which measures more than 900 square feet, $899,000 with maintenance of $1,612 per month seems to be asking a lot.
  • A 1,400-sf apartment that is long and narrow, like a railroad flat, with one of the three bedrooms accessed only through another of them.  The basement co-op in the low 80s just west of Columbus Avenue has a surfeit of charm.  But assets such as exposed brick walls and warm wood floors do little to distract from a refrigerator in the middle of that particular kitchen/great room, again at the rear of the unit, with access to the garden.  Facing the street is the largest of three bedrooms, which is part of a master suite comprising one of two full baths and a sitting area in front of a decorative fireplace.  The garden area is a strip along the edges of a terrace that is encased by beautiful walls and is pretty much overshadowed by surrounding buildings.  With monthly maintenance of $899, the asking price is $1.295 million, an amount that no buyer has felt was justified by the charm of the interior and the garden.  This place went off the market after just three weeks.
  • Just up the block from the apartment above, there is a 1,000-sf duplex that contains two baths, two bedrooms, one of which is labeled a recreation room featuring a ceiling that inevitably will lead to bumped heads.  The labeling results from the room’s location entirely below ground, but it is the only space that makes sense for use as a master bedroom, especially because of its size, capacity of its closets and its handsomely renovated marble-tiled bath with washer/dryer.  Upstairs, though just at ground level, is a second bedroom, which, like the others described here, is unpleasantly narrow to permit garden access from the living room.  The living room is distinguished by having a small kitchen on the apartment’s street side.  As for the mostly paved garden, it’s lovely and even includes a hot tub.  Whether the listing price of $819,000 with maintenance of $1,061 after a $30,000 reduction makes any sense depends on the buyer.

Gardens are nice, indeed.  For many homebuyers, that outdoor space means more than sensible indoor space.  Chacun à son gout!

Note:  For more of my critical comments about a variety specific properties, you may want to check out the Out and About section of the comprehensive e-newsletter that I write and publish on alternate Fridays, covering a range of news about the U.S. and New York housing markets, mortgage developments, household tips, celebrity sales and purchases, and research.

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Malcolm Carter
Licensed Associate Real Estate Broker
Senior Vice President
Charles Rutenberg Realty
127 E. 56th Street
New York, NY 10022

M: 347-886-0248
F: 347-438-3201
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