Homepolish’s Guide to NYC Architectural Terms

Homepolish’s Guide to NYC Architectural Terms

Homepolish’s Guide to NYC Architectural Terms


Homepolish designer Ariel Okin walks you through the complex world of deciphering the lexicon of New York City’s real estate scene.

New York City is truly a place all its own. You might be skipping around in a pile of autumnal leaves outside The Met like Harry and Sally, or discovering your own “Little Shop Around The Corner” in the myriad cozy neighborhoods these crazy five boroughs have to offer. (Yes, those were two Nora Ephron references in one sentence, and no, I’m not sorry.)

But that certain singularity comes into play in non-Nora-related ways as well. Whether you’re new to the city or a Manhattan veteran, the NYC real estate market has a distinct (and very different) language. Which war do people mean when they say pre-war? Do I want a co-op or a condo? I asked Tania Isacoff, Licensed Associate Real Estate Broker at Brown Harris Stevens, to break down the need-to-knows for potential buyers and renters.

Q: What is a “junior four”?

A: Despite the ambiguous name, a “junior four” is a large one-bedroom apartment with a living room and separate dining area (or small dining room). The “four” comes from the number of rooms, (ie. living room, dining area, bedroom, and kitchen); New Yorkers frequently convert the dining area to an office or bedroom.

Q: Why are brownstones indigenous to UES/UWS and Brooklyn (for the most part?)

A: The answer to this question has everything to do with the way NYC was settled. The Upper East Side, Upper West Side, and Brooklyn were all developed around the same time period, the late 1800s and early 1900s. During this era, wealthy families like the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, Fricks, Astors, etc. all had private homes on the Upper East Side. In fact, the building where Bergdorf Goodman now stands was once the Vanderbilt family’s 130-room private home. Downtown neighborhoods were used for industrial manufacturing, which is why there are so many loft buildings in Flatiron, Soho, and Tribeca. This is an interesting article on the topic if you want to learn more about the history behind brownstones!

Design by Louisa Roeder; photos by Claire Esparros

Q: What is a pre-war building?

A: The term “pre-war” characterizes buildings built before World War II (1939-1945) and conjures up many specific structural and decorative features. Generous layouts, grand proportions, high ceilings, thick walls (very solid construction), beautiful old herringbone wood floors, wood burning fireplaces, and decorative plaster moldings and ornamentation are all architectural markers of pre-war buildings.

Stylistic elements of original prewar bathrooms and kitchens have very much become en vogue, and often times, when buyers renovate, they will select décor that maintains the integrity of the time period in which the building was built. For example, white ceramic subway tiles are frequently used in kitchens and bathrooms as well as marble basketweave floors in bathrooms, which feel fresh, while keeping with the original style from nearly 100 years ago.

Buyers often feel strongly about characteristics of pre-wars or post-wars. I’ve had buyers who are emphatic about ceiling height and the scale of the rooms, while others don’t care about those features and only want the closets in a postwar apartment, as they tend to be larger. It’s an individual preference.

Q: What is a classic six?

A: A classic six is a traditional pre-war layout: 2 bedrooms, 2+ bathrooms, a living room, a formal dining room, a kitchen, and a staff room (usually with a small bathroom). Again, the number correlates to the number of rooms. Therefore, a Classic 7 is comprised of 3 bedrooms, 2+ bathrooms, living room, formal dining room, kitchen, and staff room; a Classic 8 is made of up 3 bedrooms, 3+ bathrooms, living room, formal dining room, kitchen, and 2 staff rooms.

While these formal layouts are inherently traditional, they lend themselves to flexible modern living. For example, buyers often convert a staff room to a home office or small guest room, combine a staff room with the kitchen to create a large eat-in kitchen, or turn a formal dining room into an informal den/dining room or sometimes even an additional bedroom.

Design by Louisa Roeder; photo by Sean Litchfield

Q: What’s the difference between a loft apartment and a “loft area” in an apartment?

A: Lofts are so quintessentially downtown New York. Loft apartments can be found in buildings that were once used for industrial manufacturing and later converted to residential living spaces. They typically feature wide-open spaces, high ceilings, industrial-like features (such as exposed brick walls, columns, exposed pipes), and floor-through layouts with a wall of windows in the front, windows in the back, and wide open space in between. After the manufacturing era, lofts were in very little demand until the 1960s and 70s, when artists found the allure of these inexpensive, blank canvases. Today, lofts have become repurposed and are in high demand for easy, chic living.

A loft area in an apartment, different from a full-loft apartment, is an elevated area used for sleeping or storage.

Design by Jae Joo; photo by Julia Robbs

Q: What is a “pullman” or “galley” kitchen, and where do you typically find them?

A: Originally derived from long passenger sleeping trains manufactured by The Pullman Company in the 19th and 20th centuries, a pullman (or galley) kitchen is a long and narrow and is often found in smaller apartments where space is limited.

Design by Becky Shea; photo by Nick Glimenakis/Kelsey Ann Rose

Q: What’s the difference between a co-op and a condo building?

A: The NYC housing market is truly in a league of its own. It is comprised of cooperatives (co-ops), condominiums, and townhouses.

A co-op is a corporation. When you purchase an apartment in a co-op, you are really buying shares in the corporation (sort of like buying a stock)—not property. The shares entitle you to a proprietary lease, a document that defines your relationship to the building as a whole. When purchasing a co-op, you must be approved by the co-op Board, and the approval process is far more extensive than in a condo. For example. the application will ask you to supply all of your most recent financials (sometimes up to three months), tax returns (sometimes up to three years), pay stubs, reference letters (both personal and professional), etc. If the Board decides they want to meet the prospective purchaser, they will invite him/her for an interview. A co-op Board can turn down an applicant without giving reason. You might ask yourself why anyone would ever buy in a co-op, but the majority of buildings in NYC are co-ops, especially pre-war buildings.

Co-ops tend to have more stringent restrictions in terms of the amount that can be financed, subletting, house rules, etc. Additionally, in a co-op you pay maintenance, which includes the real estate taxes for the property.

Condos, on the other hand, are far more straightforward. Purchasing a condo is like buying a house. You are buying real property and you receive a deed for the property purchased.  Condos are more flexible on every level. You can finance up to 90% (or as much as a bank will lend), sublet the property and purchase in an LLC. Condos are also preferred by purchasers with accounts outside of the U.S. as well as those co-purchasing if financial support is required.

Because you are buying real property, you pay real estate taxes directly to the city and common charges to the building (instead of maintenance). While there is still an approval process for a condo, the Board cannot deny an applicant without cause. In fact, the condominium only has the Right of First Refusal, and, if they deny a purchase they must buy the apartment for the contract price. (This rarely happens!) Condos fetch a premium due to their flexibility and the demand for them.

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