Rethinking an ‘End-All, Be-All’


The Buyers
Julia and Ben Johnston’s new house has room for decorating inside and playing outside. Credit Emily Gilbert for The New York Times

Julia Noran Johnston and her husband, Ben Johnston, were die-hard Upper West Siders. Both had been living in rentals there when they met three years ago, and she later moved into his one-bedroom in the West 70s.

They loved their location, their view, their Thanksgiving Eve parties. But a one-bedroom was not a place for the long haul. The monthly rent rose steeply, to around $3,900 from $2,900 in four years.

The Johnstons wanted a home where they could eventually fit two children. Besides, Mrs. Johnston, who runs, an online publication for interior-design professionals, craved space for decorating. And Mr. Johnston dreamed of a house with a yard, like the kind he grew up in. “I would have considered moving to the suburbs,” he said.

Their price range hovered around $2 million, but “prices are all relative to the terms that come along with the prices,” such as high monthly maintenance charges, said Mr. Johnston, who works in finance.


Central Park West 

The couple watched as a co-op
dropped in price, but it still sold above the
last asking price.

Credit Emily Gilbert for The New York Times

The Johnstons, both in their mid-30s, began hunting shortly after their marriage a year and a half ago, soon finding a three-bedroom with a dining room and a bookshelf-lined corridor in a lovely Central Park West co-op in the 90s.

Over months, they watched the price drop to $2.2 million from $2.4 million. Maintenance was around $2,900. They offered $1.8 million and crossed their fingers. “It was a one-of-a-kind apartment kind of near our price range,” Mrs. Johnston said. Though it needed work, “we would have lived in it and not renovated it.” Still, “it was maxing out our comfort level.”

When it sold for $2.25 million to someone else, “I felt a sense of loss,” she said. “It was that special.”

Meanwhile, she combed listings daily. Ideally, the couple wanted to be near Central Park, “but we got more open-minded as time went on,” Mrs. Johnston said. “We had to make a lot of trades based on what the space had to offer.”

On West End Avenue in the 80s, they found a two-bedroom, an estate sale, for $1.85 million, with maintenance around $2,900. The layout included a beautiful circular foyer. They bid the asking price.


West End Avenue 

A bid for the asking price
wasn’t enough at an estate
sale that drew a lot
of attention.

Credit Emily Gilbert for
The New York Times

 Two kids could share a bedroom, they figured. Or a bedroom could be divided. So could the dining room, maybe. Or visitors could crash in the living room.

There was great interest among other buyers, and the apartment sold for $2.05 million. This time, Mrs. Johnston felt an edge of relief. Even a place like that was too small.

They realized they simply couldn’t find a place on the Upper West Side suitable enough to justify the price, Mrs. Johnston said. “If we had a checklist of eight things and needed five, we would have only two or three.”

But they had always enjoyed exploring other neighborhoods, and Harlem was the obvious choice. There they could afford an entire brownstone.

“You have to totally change your perspective on what you want,” Mr. Johnston said. “It’s another world in terms of space, and our imagination ran wild.” He found that Harlem houses “had more square footage than the homes we grew up in.




West 122nd Street 

The couple wondered if the

owner of a house that needed

work was serious about selling.

Credit Emily Gilbert for

The New York Times

The limiting factor was availability. One house on West 122nd Street, needing a gut renovation, had been on and off the market for years. The Johnstons, knowing the house was uninhabitable, offered $1.5 million. The owner, who was on the fence, decided not to sell, said the listing agent, Linda Guido of Halstead Property.

The Johnstons wondered if owners were testing the market or merely indecisive.

Ms. Guido knew the Johnstons were serious about buying, and last summer told them about a not-yet-on-the-market listing from a former colleague, John McGuinness, now of Harlem Properties. Such houses were “flying off the market,” Ms. Guido said. “You have to be 10 steps ahead of the game.”

The couple saw the house, on West 132nd Street, with low hopes. The owner was in the kitchen when they visited.

In Harlem, “we saw more owners,” Mrs. Johnston said. “We would never see an owner on the Upper West Side.”

To their surprise, they loved the house. The owner had painstakingly restored it after buying it from the city in 1986 for around $40,000. It had four stories (withfour bedrooms, three bathrooms and seven fireplaces), plus a cellar, a back garden and a studio rental on the ground floor. They immediately negotiated a price of $1.8 million. The same house 10 blocks farther south would have cost $2.2 million, Mr. McGuinness said.





West 132nd Street

A restored four-story house includes a rental studio,
a of space.

Credit Emily Gilbert for The New York Times

The Johnstons arrived last fall, with plans to add central air-conditioning, revamp the heating system and renovate the kitchen. Mrs. Johnston is excited to indulge her love of decorating. Mr. Johnston is learning to fix things around the house. He has already removed the many window air- conditioners and the phone wires stapled along the baseboards.

During the season’s first snowstorm, they had a leak and a heat shortage, but both turned out to be minor issues.

“I didn’t know I would love this neighborhood so much,” Mrs. Johnston said. “I thought, ‘You can’t beat the Upper West Side,’ which was the end-all, be-all, the best place on the planet.”

She has revised her opinion. The new neighborhood “feels like what New York used to be,” she said. “It is very diverse and multicultural. We are completely embraced by our neighbors.”

They have suburban space and a yard big enough for ball-throwing, and they look forward to hosting family gatherings.

“It doesn’t feel too big,” Mrs. Johnston said. “We can call up and down the stairs and hear each other most of the time.”