Trend: Owners, Developers Turn Townhouses Back Into Single Families


Over the weekend, the Times took a look at a miniscule but interesting trend: Converting formerly single family townhouses back into single family townhouses. The paper wrote:

These stately buildings started life as single-family houses sheltering comfortable middle- and upper-class families and their servants. By the Great Depression, most had been chopped into single-room apartments, the unlucky among them getting the greatest wear, as rooming houses for the down and out. In the ‘60s, plucky young New Yorkers with more enthusiasm than cash began buying these down-at-the-heels beauties and spiffing them up for their families, usually retaining tenants who provided rental income and in many cases were impossible to dislodge. In the past few years, the historic townhouse has started to come full circle. Thanks to the growing appetite for larger and more luxurious private urban dwellings among people happy to pay upward of $10 million, many townhouses have been returned to the elegant single-family homes they once were.

In the last few decades, a floor-through apartment (or three) helped most townhouse owners in Brooklyn pay the mortgage — sometimes all of the mortgage. But as prices in certain neighborhoods soar — Brooklyn Heights comes to mind — at a certain point you have to ask if the buyer of an $8,000,000 townhouse really needs or wants a rental unit. (And in fact, it’s increasingly common to see such units labelled “guest suite” on floor plans.) The Times story profiled two couples in Brooklyn turning townhouses into single families.

A family in Prospect Heights plans to use an extra floor as a work space and another area for visiting grandparents. Another family in Park Slope who bought their house some years ago are just now getting around to reconfiguring it for their exculsive use. Above is pictured the restored facade of 1234 Dean Street, whose owner has set up the house as a single family and is converting it from SRO status. It is on the market for $2,195,000.

Of course, there is another countervailing trend that is more common, as prices approach $1,000 a square foot, although the Times didn’t mention it: Developers buy a townhouse in an expensive neighborhood and convert it into condos.

Townhouse Turnaround [NY Times]

6 Comment

  • This is what we’ve always had in Lefferts Manor :-)

  • In which a city became a place only the wealthy could live….

  • I can only speak anecdotally from my experience in Clinton Hill/Ft Greene. In the ’80s and ’90s many people moved into homes that were not occupied and brought them back to habitable condition. Currently I see many neighbors renting out floors of their formerly single family homes for additional income. What I see is the biggest change to our neighborhood is the rising prices for homes and rentals – which pushes out lower income folks. The our neighborhood is only becoming more dense, with higher earners.

  • Cate I’m not sure I agree with you on the high-end…in neighborhoods that cost $1000/sf (or twice that), it’s not just homeowners who are converting to 1-family, but also developers doing it on spec. Those markets have already passed by the trend of flipping a townhouse into condos (whether or not it’s more common at a lower price point).

    The article obscured a fact about the demographics of the original owners of these townhouses. Not only did the families have multiple servants living in the houses, the families often had more kids than today (notwithstanding that “3 is the new 2”) and also were more likely to be multi-generational, with grandparents, aunts/uncles, etc. also living in the household. So a family of 4 or 5 that moves into a big townhouse today is actually enjoying a much bigger space to themselves than the typical owner 125 yrs ago, and streetlife back then (at least measured by plain people density) was probably more analogous to recent multifamily usage than today’s converted single-family usage.

    • This is spot on. By modern definitions, these large brownstones were never “single family”.
      One would think that these moneyed, urban East coast families would have a little interest in the carbon footprint of living in a 4000 sq ft house with a family of 4. I thought this was the age of modest, ecologically friendly houses that use very little resources.
      What exactly does one do with all those rooms, anyway?

  • This seems like a non-story, and not a timely observation either. Typical of the NYT. Yes, some buyers are removing rental apartments when they renovate. Meanwhile, others are adding them — or at least preserving them. At the same time, developers are continuing to convert brownstones into condos. So where’s the news?

    All that ballyhooing in the article about losing street life seems ridiculous when you consider the amount of new construction going on in most Brooklyn neighborhoods. That’s much more important than a few brownstones losing their garden floor apartments. In Prospect Heights, the vacant lots are quickly disappearing, bringing new residents and businesses to blocks used to be under-populated and, as a result, dangerous.