$146/ft for a “minimal” “gut” renovation of Orchard Street loft featured in the New York Times

loving the people who love Manhattan lofts, and the lofts they love

Did you see the On Location feature in today’s Home & Garden Section of the New York Times? If you did, I hope it made you smile. Here’s a précis of what you can read about (and see, through the miracle of the inter-tubes; in this case, the slideshow) in Staying in Character by David Hay: in Act One, Canadian actors with kids about to leave nest instantly fall in love with (and buy) a Lower East Side loft; in Act Two, they “face the reality that the makeshift kitchen and bathroom weren’t functional and the general dilapidation of the space was dispiriting”; in Act Three, they complete a renovation that was more about restoring character than gutting. Renovation cost: $350,000 for a “2,400 sq ft” loft. Closing Titles: and they create new family traditions here … and live happily ever after. (We can only hope.)

Fascinating piece with wonderful photos. Loft snob that I am, I love the fact that these folks were drawn to the authenticity of the space (“wood floors still showed the dents made by sewing machine treadles nearly a century earlier”), if not their grasp of recent history (I don’t know this specific block, but would be surprised if long timers would also be “amazed that so much of the surrounding Lower East Side neighborhood remained unchanged as well”). Welcome to the downtown Manhattan loft world, Canadian actors. It is wonderful to see your appreciation of what makes lofts, lofts.

The piece is also fascinating for the window on renovation costs. That $350,000 comes to $146/ft for a “2,400 sq ft” Lower East Side loft with (only) a “makeshift kitchen and bathroom [that] weren’t functional and the general dilapidation of the space [that] was dispiriting”. There’s no mention of how much demolition was required, but there was precious little actual building. Most of the work described by Hay was restorative:

  • replacing the plumbing and wiring
  • brick walls and tin ceiling meticulously patched and cleaned
  • exposed the old iron beams running down the center of the ceiling
  • repaired floorboards to eliminate creaking
  • “to preserve the openness of the former industrial space … [there is] a ‘cocoon’ at one end of the living area: a bed surrounded by translucent linen curtains that hang from a circular track”

The more structural aspects were:

  • increasing the height of 4 windows
  • a new kitchen (prices given only for the island a stainless steel wall, $14,000/each)

There is one photo of one bath, with cast-iron tub “surrounded by glass mosaic tiles from the Tile Spark”, but no indication of costs there, or of how many bathrooms there are in the space.

Clearly, most of this $350,000 budget went to labor rather than materials. The new stuff includes the kitchen, likely that bath, and the new wiring and plumbing. The old stuff made new with lots of work include the century-old flooring, brick walls, tin ceilings, and the 4 now-taller windows. Fascinating, but hardly detailed enough to extrapolate to another project, alas.

you can’t believe everything you read about Manhattan lofts, in the Times or in broker babble

Of course I was curious about what the loft looked like before the transformation from “general dilapidation” to … er … restored character. Of course there were enough hints in the article to easily track down the loft. Don’t tell reporter Hays, but the Old Grey Lady’s facts (presumably all derived from the owners and their architect) don’t quite square with the public record.

First, the Canadians mis-remembered how long they’ve owned the loft. (Weird, that.) It wasn’t 2008 when they bought, but April 26, 2010 when they paid $2.2mm for the loft. At that time, the sellers (and their very experienced agent) did not think the loft was in a state of “general dilapidation”, or that the kitchen and bath were “dysfunctional”. In fact, the loft was marketed in 2010 as a mix of old and new, with no hint in the broker babble that this was a project (even to a habitual reader-between-lines):

Rustic, romantic, poetic… authentic 2400SF full-floor loft …in the heart of Downtown’s Lower East Side! … rambling home featuring an enormous Living/Dining room with exposed brick walls, original pressed-tin ceilings, cast-iron columns, century-old pine floors + light from 4 exposures. The industrial kitchen with reclaimed restaurant fixtures is open to the entertaining space and features a vintage farmers sink, restored 1950’s O’Keefe & Merrit stove, butcher-block counter-tops and stainless steel appliances. There are 3 Bedrooms, 2 renovated spacious bathrooms (one with cast-iron soaking tub), and a separate pantry with Washer-Dryer.

(Note especially the renovated baths and cast-iron soaking tub.)

There is a hint in the listing photos that some renovation was in order for the 2010 buyers, but it is not a renovation that the Canadian actors did; in fact, they made the same character-based choice to not do that renovation that the previous owners made.

Remember the “cocoon” (“to preserve the openness of the former industrial space …  a bed surrounded by translucent linen curtains that hang from a circular track”)? Compare 2010 listing photo #4 to slides #3 and #6: the curtains are different and the track that was rectangular is now circular. The former owners had “preserve[d] the openness of the former industrial space” by having a no-walls ‘master’ sleep area in exactly the place now guarded by the $4,600 horse.

Remember the Canadian kids? They’ve got 2 kids in college in New York. There’s no mention of bedrooms in the article and no photos of the back of the loft. Here is the floor plan in 2010. I will bet you a quarter the loft still has those two bedrooms in the back, over Orchard Street, as all the photos in the 2013 slideshow are consistent with this floor plan. And the kids have to sleep somewhere when they visit. And if the grown-ups are not going to sound-proof themselves in for sleep, they should want anyone else sleeping there to be behind (real) walls.

One man’s “dilapidated” is another woman’s “authentic charm”, so maybe this is just quibbling …. Check the condition of the flooring, brick walls, columns, and (especially) the tin ceiling in the 2010 listing photos. Does “dilapidated” come to mind. (I didn’t think so.) No doubt, there was work to be done in bringing these elements into top condition, especially if the floors creaked. But it is hard for me to reconcile the 2010 listing photos and babble with the claim of such “general dilapidation of the space [that it] was dispiriting” in the New York Times text.

With the babble, photos and floor plan from 2010 in hand, here is where I think most of that $350,000 went:

  • new kitchen
  • one new bath (probably) with one salvaged cast-iron tub
  • new electrical and plumbing
  • 4 windows brought closer to the floor
  • repairing the sub-floor (in places?), reinstalling the century-old flooring

I suspect these items were no big deal:

  • re-glaznig the brick walls (they seem to be brighter in 2013; better photos??)
  • some repair of tin ceiling (it looked pretty good in 2010)
  • stripping the beam (painted in 2010)
  • the cocoon
  • leaving all the walls exactly where they were in 2010

If I win that $0.25 bet, the only change in the floor plan from 2010 to 2013 will be pivoting the kitchen from facing the south wall to facing that bathroom wall. And the only demolition will be that old kitchen, probably one bath.

No wonder $146/ft can get you a spread in the New York Times.

what a modern renovation looks like in this loft space

Remember that “the designer they hired to make the loft more livable, had done a modern renovation of another space in the building, but that wasn’t what they had in mind”? I will bet you another quarter that this loft, serially unsold and available for rent, is that modern renovation. Same footprint, same tin ceilings, same columns and beams, (possibly) the same flooring, but no visible brick, dropped ceiling in places, and a floor plan that is the reverse of the authentic loft upstairs (bedrooms to the east, public space to the west, over Orchard Street).

You have to appreciate the potential in lofts when you see these neighboring lofts with completely different character and layouts.

The Market did not appreciate this one however. Remember that the Canadians paid $2.2mm for the 5th floor in April 2010? Coincidence or not (I vote: not), the 4th floor never competed head to head with the 5th floor, but had been offered for sale at $1.9mm into the Summer of 2009, then again at $2.2mm from April through November 2010 and again for 8 months in 2011 by the same agent who sold the 5th floor to the Canadian actors. Didn’t sell.

No, I don’t think that the 5th floor was in a dispiriting state of “general dilapidation” when the Canadians bought it in 2010. But that’s the origin story they tell themselves about buying in 2008. Fine for them. Fine for the New York Times, as it generated a lovely piece with lovely photos by David Hay. It just ain’t necessarily so. Theater people!

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