After watching Harlem slip out of their budget, a couple finds a home in a part of Brooklyn that is very new to them.
Robert Balaguer, left, and Emmett Murphy in their new one-bedroom apartment in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, Brooklyn. The couple had hoped to stay in Harlem, but found more suitable options elsewhere.Credit…Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times
Emmett Murphy arrived in New York nearly 30 years ago, and spent much of that time living with roommates. Six years ago, he rented a two-bedroom in a modern Harlem building with his partner, Robert Balaguer.
“I had never lived that far north, and I loved the Harlem vibe,” Mr. Murphy said. “As we saw the economy return, the neighborhood really bloomed.” And over time, their rent did too, rising from $2,300 to $3,500 a month.
Mr. Murphy, 48, is a theater director and producer who owns a company called ShowHive that develops theatrical productions, including shows for cruise lines. As his business grew, he saved money to buy a home, but worried that he had already missed his opportunity. He and Mr. Balaguer, 37, an opera composer, were nevertheless reluctant to renew their expensive lease, so last year Mr. Murphy contacted a friend, Whitney Osentoski, a retired performer who is a licensed salesman at Halstead Property.
Mr. Murphy hoped to buy a home for $600,000 to $850,000, with a monthly outlay of no more than $3,000. But finding a two-bedroom apartment — with the extra bedroom to serve as an office — didn’t seem feasible. Places often looked wonderful online, but the information wasn’t always accurate or complete, and the apartments usually fell short in real life.
“Real estate is a fantasy, and your mind fills in a lot of blanks,” Mr. Murphy said. “But when you walk in, you have a visceral reaction, like the ceiling is too low or something smells funky. I was looking at the lower end of the market and trying to find the best version of that.”
Many of the buildings he visited, charming though they were, needed structural work. Some that were just a few dozen years old didn’t appear to be holding up well, making brand-new buildings more enticing.
The Style, a condominium that opened last year in East Harlem, had two buildings connected by a landscaped courtyard. Last fall, there was only one one-bedroom available, for $611,000, with monthly charges of around $1,100.
The apartment was on a low floor, with plenty of activity outside, including a parking lot and a playground across busy East 132nd Street. “You can hear children screaming with joy through a plate-glass window,” Mr. Murphy said.
Both men work from home, making the noise a problem. “I am there during the day when all that is happening,” he said. The apartment later sold for $622,000.
Elsewhere in Harlem, a two-bedroom in a small, renovated condo was listed at the temptingly low price of $550,000, with monthly charges in the mid-$400s.
“When I got up there, I kind of loved it,” Mr. Murphy said.
The unit had a long, skinny layout with an extra nook for working or dining. But there were several drawbacks, including its location on the top floor of a five-story walk-up. “I have lived in those buildings in the past, but I was younger at the time,” he said.
It also had a monthly assessment of more than $860. “When you climb up and have the sweat running down your neck, they hand you a paper with the financials, and that’s when they tell you about the assessment,” he said. “It was kind of a jaw-dropper.” The apartment later sold for $530,000.
A two-bedroom in a small, renovated central Harlem condominium had a long, skinny layout with an extra nook for working or dining. But it was on the top floor of a five-story walk-up and came with a monthly assessment.Credit…Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times
Mr. Balaguer was out of town for most of the hunt, so Mr. Murphy sent him photos as he went. “I could tell he wasn’t really sold on anything and was going to keep looking,” Mr. Balaguer said.
To avoid getting locked into another one-year lease, the couple temporarily moved into the apartment of Mr. Murphy’s cousin, whose travels often left her two-bedroom rental in Flatbush, Brooklyn, near Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, vacant.
“We moved in on top of her stuff,” Mr. Murphy said. “I had been to the neighborhood only once.” His familiarity with the borough was limited mostly to events at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
“It felt like New York felt 20 years ago,” he said. “Seeing how Harlem changed in six years, I could see the potential.”
The couple embraced the neighborhood, which they found charming, diverse and convenient. From the corner of Flatbush and Church Avenues, the 2, 5 and Q trains were within walking distance, as was Prospect Park.
In Harlem, “nothing really jumped off the page,” Mr. Osentoski said. But “I was working with another buyer at a new build, 2100 Bedford” — an eight-story condo in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, Brooklyn, just a few blocks away from where the men were staying — so he sent them to see it.
“I turned the corner, and it felt like a completely different neighborhood,” Mr. Murphy said. “You could hear the volume of the whole neighborhood drop.”
They returned the next day and told the building’s saleswoman, Makeba G. Lloyd, an associate broker at MNS Real Estate, that they had a monthly budget to mind.
Several one-bedrooms in that price range were available. They chose one with around 700 square feet, in a corner of the top floor, for privacy and a view. They liked the big closets, the wall of windows and the small private terrace.
Mr. Murphy bought the unit for the asking price, $630,000, plus $10,000 for a storage cage in the basement. Common charges are just under $400 a month, so the monthly outlay is around $2,400, well within their budget.
But living in a developing neighborhood has its challenges, as they discovered when they moved in last winter. Although neither man commutes to work, their excursions to the theater and opera mean they often return home late at night on sluggish, under-construction subways. They find themselves spending more on Uber.
“We were excited to be a part of this new neighborhood and see it develop over time,” Mr. Murphy said. “All of a sudden, there is a ton of new building.”
Two wood-frame Victorians next door were recently sold, with a condominium building planned to replace them. So their tranquillity will be interrupted, at least for a time.
“You can look out and see that orange construction stuff they wrap buildings with,” Mr. Murphy said. “In a funny way, it’s kind of exciting. I’m looking forward to seeing how this neighborhood is going to change.”
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