What Is “Parlor Level,” Anyway?

published Aug 5, 2023
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Row of historic brownstone buildings in New York City
Credit: Shutterstock/Brian Goodman

While you’ve probably heard the terms penthouse and garden level thrown around in real estate, parlor level is a term that’s a bit more niche. Yet it exists in almost every single-family townhome, row house, or brownstone that’s been split into multiple units. 

Quick Overview

What does parlor level mean?

A parlor-level home is located on the main floor of a building. Rather than entering from ground level, the parlor level is accessible from a set of front stairs.

The word itself, parlor, carries with it a vintage appeal. It brings to mind fancy parties, smoking jackets, and retiring to the parlor with an after-dinner cocktail. Parlor feels elegant, like an apartment that escaped from another time. 

But, since most people no longer dress up for dinner or entertain guests with a cocktail on the rocks on a nightly basis, what does parlor level mean now? And does it carry any weight in real estate marketing? Here’s what one New York City real estate agent has to say.

What is the parlor-level floor?

Back when most row homes and townhouse buildings were one single-family home, you would have entered the main level into the parlor, hence the name still used today. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the parlor was the room used for welcoming guests and entertaining before or after dinner. Often, it was one of the more ornately decorated rooms in terms of molding and detail since it was a public, rather than private, space. This is where you might find the highest ceilings, the desirable pocket doors, and the grand tiled or carved fireplaces.

Parlor level, or parlor floor, now refers to a unit on that main level. It’s not technically on the first floor, since that’s the unit on the ground level. Instead, parlor-level homes are entered after ascending the front stairway. Overall, parlors have a more desirable position than a true ground-level apartment. “These homes typically have an elevated position above street level, offering privacy while still allowing direct street access,” Vickey Barron, a New York-based real estate broker with Compass, explains.

Credit: Lauren Kolyn

Where are parlor-level homes common?

Parlor-level homes are most often found in larger cities where townhomes and row houses are most common. In New York, Barron says, “The West Village, Upper West Side, Brooklyn Heights, and Park Slope all have fabulous townhouses and brownstones with stunning parlor-level options.” You’ll also find them in other older cities in the Northeast, like Boston and Philadelphia.

Why would a parlor level be desirable?

Barron recently sold a quintessential parlor-level co-op home in the West Village to an antiques dealer, which feels fitting for this distinctly historic classification of homes. She explains that her client filled the home with all of her gorgeous antique treasures, which play perfectly to the historic charm and architectural details you often find in these types of units. 

“Parlor-level apartments appeal to architecture buffs who look for crown molding, wainscoting, hardwood floors and ornate fireplaces,” says Barron. These units are typically found in historic townhomes or brownstones that still have their original and impressive bones.”

Credit: Brian Goodman/Shutterstock.com

“In buildings dating back to the 19th and early 20th centuries, it is common for parlor-level apartments to have 12- to 14-foot ceiling heights that enable a bright, spacious, airy living environment,” Barron says. This isn’t always the case in row homes, where natural light can be hard to come by, so the extra height and light are a bonus on the real estate market. And, because of their direct access to the street and any front or back outdoor patios, it can feel like a private residence, even when there may be several other units within the building.

But there are also drawbacks. For someone who wants a quiet and private penthouse unit, a parlor-level home may not be worth the tradeoffs just to get original details and high ceilings. “Living on the ground floor might mean street noise or a lack of privacy,” says Barron. She adds that these older homes will also inevitably require more maintenance, but that could be worth it if you have your eye on those intricately carved moldings.