So, What’s a Pre-War Apartment?

published Feb 20, 2017
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(Image credit: Melanie Rieders)

If you’ve ever searched for an apartment in New York City, you’ve probably heard the term “pre-war” before, but are you familiar with what it means? Pre-war apartments refer to buildings that were constructed before 1939 (AKA those that were built before World War II began).

Pre-war style came about during a population boom in the city in the 1880s, according to Street Easy. Buildings were made with sturdy construction materials and architects incorporated elaborate and stylish designs. The building boom—and its style—declined during the Great Depression, ending when World War II began. After the war, building styles changed (those are referred to appropriately as “post-war” apartments), so you can tell a lot about an apartment and what it will look and be like just by the “pre-war” descriptor.

So What Does Pre-War Really Mean?

As in, you know the definition, but what does the “pre-war” label say about a home—and why would you want one? For starters, pre-war apartments have specific architectural details that make them unique and give them character, so if you prefer elaborate details to a modern minimalist look and layout, a pre-war apartment might be for you.

The Details (and the Pros)

Pre-war apartments are known for touches like unique layouts, crown molding, high—and beamed—ceilings, sunken living rooms, plaster walls (often with ornamentation) that keep sound out, and wide hallways. They also typically have large foyers, wood floors (especially with a herringbone pattern), arched doorways, and solid wood doors with brass fixtures, according to Street Easy. Pre-war apartments also generally have larger bedrooms than newer buildings in New York City do, so it won’t feel like you’re sleeping in a closet.

…And Then There Are the Cons

While pre-war apartments have all of those beautiful features, they also have some less-than-desirable qualities. “Unique” layouts can often mean confusing layouts that are hard to work with, and most pre-war apartments have small kitchens and bathrooms and no central air. They also usually have older radiators that clank when they turn on, and inefficient windows (i.e. they don’t always hold up to the elements that well). You might love the look of a pre-war apartment, but you also have to be prepared for the downsides—if they’re not something you want to deal with in your home, you may want to find something with a more modern construction instead.

(Image credit: Alexis Buryk)

Finding the Pre-War Apartment of Your Dreams

Apartment hunting in New York City is already a bit of a challenge, and looking for something specific like a pre-war apartment definitely makes it harder. You have to look in specific neighborhoods, and there are other requirements in place that make it more difficult to own a pre-war apartment once you’ve found it.

Where To Look

Pre-war apartments are—unsurprisingly—typically found in specific neighborhoods. Darren Sukenik, a managing director at real estate company Prudential Douglas Elliman, told the New York Times that finding a pre-war apartment is like finding a zebra since they only exist in certain places.

According to Sukenik, you’re most likely to find pre-war apartments if you focus on neighborhoods like the Upper West Side and the West Village in Manhattan, but you can also head to Brooklyn and look in neighborhoods like Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill and Boerum Hill for less expensive older apartments with pre-war touches. You may also be able to find pre-war apartments in the Bronx.

What’s the Catch?

Generally speaking, pre-war apartments (at least the ones in Manhattan) are co-ops—meaning, they require co-op board approval, and you’ll likely have to put down a bigger down payment, according to Sukenik. There are exceptions, of course, but they might not be exactly what you’re looking for. So, if you have your heart set on owning a true pre-war apartment in New York City, be prepared to pay more (and to impress the board!).

Speaking of impressing the co-op board, you should know some of the factors that go into the approval process. Co-op boards typically judge based on your finances, whether or not you’ll be a good neighbor, and whether or not the apartment will be your primary residence, according to Brick Underground. You also have to put together a co-op package that details your finances, personal qualifications, employment background, plans for the apartment should you be approved, and more. (You can find out more about what goes into a co-op package and how to impress the board here.)

If you’re interested in buying a pre-war apartment, CityRealty has a list of the top 100 pre-war apartment buildings in New York City so you can start your search.

Re-edited from a post originally published 2.20.2017 – TW