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Guide to Buying a Duplex in NYC

Posted by Hauseit Research on September 18, 2018
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Buying a duplex in NYC can be difficult because it can be hard to find comparable properties and to ascertain value. However, buying a duplex can also be rewarding as duplexes are generally unique, one-of-a-kind residences vs more generic single floor apartments.

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Loft vs Duplex

A loft apartment is usually a studio apartment with very high ceilings. Loft apartments typically have an open layout to maximize the open air feel of the space. Loft apartments may have an elevated sleeping area, often with ladder access.

However, it’s important to understand that these raised sleeping alcoves are not considered to be legal bedrooms in NYC, and just because it has a raised sleeping area does not mean it is a duplex. That’s because a legal bedroom needs to be a minimum of 80 square feet and have a minimum ceiling height of 8 feet, among other requirements as of this writing.

A duplex is an apartment with two legitimate floors, with both floors having a legal minimum ceiling height of at least 8 feet. A duplex will often have a real staircase connecting the floors vs a ladder to a raised sleeping area in a loft.

Often times a significant portion of a duplex apartment’s second floor is open to below, meaning a portion of the apartment is open from the bottom unit’s floor to the upper unit’s ceiling. This can create confusion on whether an apartment is truly a duplex, especially if the ceilings are barely over the legal limit on both floors.

In these situations, it’s best to ask your buyer’s agent or real estate attorney to investigate on your behalf. They should find out the unit’s history, whether it was combined from separate apartments and how it was presented in the original offering plan.

Pro Tip: Read our guide to types of apartments in NYC to learn more about the various property types you’ll encounter when apartment hunting in the world’s greatest city.

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Buying a Duplex That’s Been Combined

You can definitively put to rest your doubts on whether an apartment is a duplex vs loft if the apartment was a combination of two apartments on different floors.

Often times people will buy their neighbor’s apartment to create vertical combinations vs just horizontal combinations. When this happens, a duplex is naturally formed and the new owner will typically create a custom stairwell or spiral staircase between the units.

You’ll never have to worry about being ripped off for duplicative square footage (i.e. double counting the raised sleeping area of a loft as square footage on a second floor) if you buy a legitimate combined duplex apartment. That’s because both apartments had to be completely legal themselves in the first place!

Pro Tip: Estimate your closing costs with our interactive NYC Buyer Closing Cost Calculator before you begin your search. You’ll want to know if you have enough cash saved to pay for your down payment and your closing costs!

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Is Buying a Duplex Good Value?

In our experience, it all comes down to ceiling height when it comes to measuring the worth and relative value of a duplex apartment.

You’ll have to carefully examine what the stated square footage includes, if a square footage is even provided. Listing agents in NYC are known to be sneaky, and you never seem to be able to get a straight answer from them on just what the square footage covers.

Let’s consider a hypothetical duplex condo for sale in Tribeca that has a listed square footage of 1,300. The layout of the first and second floors are both rectangular and almost overlap entirely.

Furthermore, the apartment number is listed as 2B/3B which leads us to believe that it was a combined unit even though we can’t confirm this in the listing description.

However, if it was a recombined unit, then an incredible amount of renovation work must have been done as 1/3 of the second floor is open to below. Fortunately for us, the listing’s floorplan provides ceiling heights. The ceiling height for the first floor where it is open all the way to the top of the second floor is listed at 22’6”. The ceiling height of the second floor is listed at 10’.

This means the covered portion of the first floor has a ceiling height of 12’6” and the second floor has a ceiling height of 10’, both of which are comfortable and well above minimum legal bedroom requirements.

In our example, if the 1,300 listed square footage includes only the entire first floor space and the portion of the second floor space that is not open to the below, then it’s a reasonable deal vs comparably priced single floor apartments. That’s because you have reasonably normal ceiling heights on the second floor so you’re not cramped, but you luck out on the first floor as a portion of your first floor has a soaring 22’6” ceiling!

If however, the 1,300 listed square footage includes the entire boundary of the second floor, including the area that is unbuilt and open to below, then you won’t be getting as good of a deal. Listing a property as such is a bit sketchy and perhaps even unethical, but you need to be careful that this doesn’t happen to you.

Because of the above logic, many buyers prefer buying studio lofts because they are paying for only one floor of square footage that has higher than normal ceilings. In this manner, if a loft owner chooses to add an elevated sleeping area, it’s free usable square footage even if it’s not legally a bedroom.

Valuing a property and showing you how to do a comparative market analysis is outside the scope of this article. However, once you have a sense of whether the duplex square footage is advantageous or not vs traditional single floor apartments, you can use traditional methods to determine an optimal offer price.

Pro Tip: Check out our article on how much is my apartment worth in NYC to learn more about estimating market value of an apartment using a variety of methods.

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The Awe Factor for Buying a Duplex

One of the main reasons people buy a duplex apartment in NYC is because of the awe factor when part of the second floor is open to below. This can be a stunning experience to visitors and guests who are unused to seeing this amount of air space in an apartment in New York City. As a result, duplex apartments with stunning high ceilings can be great places to entertain guests and host cocktail parties.

Furthermore, many buyers prefer duplex apartments simply because it feels more like a home, or has a roomier feel akin to living in a big house in the suburbs.

In short, whether buying a duplex apartment in NYC is a good idea or not depends entirely on personal preference, and a little bit of due diligence to make sure you’re paying for a legal second floor with reasonably high ceilings on both floors.

Pro Tip: Interested in buying a loft apartment instead? Read our article called is buying a studio in NYC a good idea to learn more!

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Disclosure: Hauseit and its affiliates do not provide tax, legal, financial or accounting advice. This material has been prepared for informational purposes only, and is not intended to provide, and should not be relied on for, tax, legal, financial or accounting advice. You should consult your own tax, legal, financial and accounting advisors before engaging in any transaction. The services marketed on Hauseit.com are provided by licensed real estate brokers and other third party professional service providers. Hauseit LLC is not a licensed real estate broker nor a member of any multiple listing service (MLS).

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