Years ago, a New York City family was looking to change how they lived. For years, they’d enjoyed living in a full-service high-rise building in Manhattan with doormen, a live-in superintendent and many of the other conveniences and amenities that come with apartment living.
After years of living closely among neighbors, making small talk in the elevator, and attending co-op shareholder meetings, they found themselves toying with the idea of moving to a brownstone. The wife, a psychologist, had just begrudgingly agreed to let her neighbor redecorate their shared elevator landing, and the husband, a successful attorney, had always fantasized about more space and a backyard.
When it came time to make a change, they’d decided that the next chapter of their lives would be in a classic New York City townhouse. But earlier this year, after less than a decade of shoveling snow, running up and down staircases to get from the kitchen to their bedroom, pulling weeds and a flooded basement, they started considering a move back into a full-service condominium.
In many American cities like New York, Chicago, Miami, Washington, D.C., or Los Angeles, financially mobile residents might have the choice of living in an apartment (sometimes referred to as a flat or condominium, depending on the city) or a freestanding house. High-rise buildings vary in size and quality, and some houses, like row houses in Philadelphia or San Francisco, may share walls with neighbors.
But in any city or town, there are advantages and disadvantages to living in a private house versus living among neighbors in a larger building.
Here are a few questions to ask if you find yourself with the choice between a single-family house and apartment:
— Are you handy or resourceful?
— How much space do you need?
— How much privacy do you need?
Are You Handy or Resourceful?
Before buying a fixer-upper or starting a renovation, any prospective homeowner should determine whether they are even capable of taking on a project. If someone doesn’t already have the know-how, do they have the ability to learn or hire the right people?
Mechanical and structural issues arise in any property over time, and these need to be handled. If you own a freestanding house, these problems are yours and yours alone. Most people don’t know how to replace a roof or repave a driveway themselves and will, therefore, hire contractors or engineers. This can get pricey, of course, but these decisions can be made swiftly, without the bureaucracy of a condo association.
In condo or co-op buildings, if an expensive problem arises that affects the entire building, like a roof repair, these costs are generally shared among the residents. Furthermore, there is often staff on hand to manage and repair structural or mechanical problems, and thus the residents often never even know these issues arise.
Be honest about your ability to address mechanical and structural issues yourself, and whether you have the confidence to hire the right expert to do the work. If not, you might be more comfortable in an apartment building that has a resident manager with expertise in handling these kinds of problems.
How Much Space Do You Need?
Another family looking to move had been living in a 3,000-square-foot apartment in the Tribeca neighborhood of New York City, with large rooms and tons of closet space. Even so, they had collected enough belongings to overflow in the space and make it feel cramped.
This family had obviously outgrown the space and was planning to move to a 6,000-square-foot house in the suburbs. Maybe they could have made this apartment work if they Marie Kondo’d a bit, but taking living costs into consideration, this family would never get that kind of space in a New York City apartment, so moving to a house made sense.
The building they were leaving is a full-service luxury low-rise with staff and amenities, and the lofts sell for millions of dollars. The monthly costs to live there reflect the building services and amenities and residents have a gym, garage, furnished roof deck, 24-hour valet that can sign for deliveries and on-site handymen to fix anything that needs repairing.
But as anyone could see, space was an extremely high priority for these people, and thus a house made more sense. And with working from home becoming more the norm, the extra space needed for a designated home office is more valuable than ever.
How Much Privacy Do You Need?
With neighbors above, below, and on either side of you, you might hear them now and then. And they might hear you too — moving furniture, practicing for the catwalk or yelling at Fido to stop barking. Raised voices carry.
For highly social people, making friends in the building might be a real bonus, but others can’t help but stare at the floor and turn up the volume on their earphones when sharing the elevator.
In a building with staff, while convenience and security come with having doormen, porters, valets and handymen on the premises, there is surely some privacy that is lost with this as well. Of course, a freestanding house affords residents valuable privacy.
The family who had moved to the townhouse originally noted how wonderful it was to not have to say “good morning” to the doorman every day. But that was before their basement flooded, they saw their first mouse run across the floor of the laundry room and the boiler needed to be replaced.
With a nod to current events and the ongoing pandemic, there has been some flight from big cities in favor of more secluded houses. There is no doubt that a free-standing house will afford more isolation and distance from other people than a high-rise could ever offer.
Suburban markets have seen their short-term rental prices soar, and many young families who had been considering leaving the city for a house in the suburbs used the first attempts at reopening in the pandemic as the moment to do so. In high-rises, walking through the lobby or touching the button in an elevator seemed like the equivalent of navigating a battlefield. And the luxury of having one’s own home gym versus dealing with gym closures in apartment buildings was an incalculable bonus.
For the family that moved from a high-rise to a townhouse and back to a condominium, privacy was not necessarily a concern, and the allure of a house wore off. They loved having a small backyard but remarked that the upkeep was nonstop. Instead of having building staff to shovel the sidewalk in the winter, the responsibility became theirs. Suddenly saying hello to neighbors in the elevator didn’t seem so unpleasant, especially after their basement flooded during a particularly violent storm. And with all those Amazon and Fresh Direct deliveries securely received, life in a full-service high rise building looked greener than the grass had initially looked in that private house.