In Manhattan, the average two-bedroom apartment is selling for $1.8 million. Let’s ponder that for a moment: $1.8 million. For a lousy two bedrooms! Perhaps you can afford that. But, really, is that how your parents raised you?
Prices in the inner-ring neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Queens, which offer reasonable commutes to Manhattan, are also looking pretty crazy. All the convenient locations, it seems, are priced out.
Except for the Bronx. The South Bronx, with its 20-minute express trains to Midtown, is still cheap. According to Trulia, TRLA -0.06% the area’s average price per square foot is roughly $80, compared with $400 or so in Brooklyn and Queens and, God save us, $1,300 in Manhattan. Crossing the Harlem River is like stopping at a dream currency exchange: Suddenly, your dollar goes a lot further.
This may explain why, after decades of outflow, more people are moving into the Bronx than moving out. Long regarded as the final frontier, a sort of vast concrete Canada appended to the city’s north end, the Bronx is now looking like the sensible alternative.
Mott Haven is the most likely place to start looking. Since the early ’90s, it’s been touted as the next hot neighborhood. It even has its own yuppie-friendly name, SoBro.
Anyone expecting a burning inferno or an edgy bohemia will be disappointed. The most interesting thing about the nation’s most storied community is its hum-drum banality. It looks like any other working-class enclave, replete with 99-cent stores and barbershops. The big draw is its proximity to Manhattan. It’s three express stops from Midtown.
Sid Miller, a retired real-estate agent, saw the area’s potential in 1987, when he bought a massive four-story brownstone on East 138th Street for $50,000. When I met him earlier this month, he was trying to unload it for $875,000.
It’s a well-preserved building sandwiched between Isa’s Recovery Shop (“Recovery coins, gifts, chairs, wishing wells, umbrellas and helium keg rental”) and a combination Mexican bakery/electronics store. Mr. Miller was clearly in love with the place.
“Every apartment is like this,” he said, gesturing about the top floor. “Center reception room, brick walls. Look at the floors! The woodwork! All original!”
He was just warming up. “Is this a big enough bedroom? Look at the closets! The original shutters are here! Tell me what you think of the craftsmanship of the radiator!”
He had nothing but praise for Mott Haven. The heroin dealers are gone, replaced by hard-working Mexican families. And just a block away, on 139th Street, the brownstoners are moving in. “Gays! Artists!” he said. “There’s an explosion of baby carriages on the street. They have crashes, there’s so many!”
Mr. Miller folded his arms and shot me a penetrating look. “I have only one question for you. When do you want to move in?”
If only buying in the Bronx was always that easy. The borough has adopted an ultra-casual approach to marketing. Calls to brokers go unreturned. Property listings are tersely worded, with free-form grammar and punctuation. Curious about a property’s square footage or number of bedrooms? That is a state secret. If the listing has photos, they are often blurry, or shot at night. But inevitably, there is a splendid close-up shot of the toilet.
One listing stood out: a “rare, 4 story white limestone designed by Dickerson.” You know, Dickerson. The architect behind the Longwood Historic District, a tiny, landmarked South Bronx enclave 30 minutes from Grand Central. Dickerson had a thing for turrets and stone trim. His homes look like cute little castles.
Citi Habitats broker Maria Ellis ran through the numbers. Assuming the home sells for $495,000, the rental income from two of the building’s four 1,100-square-foot units would easily cover the mortgage.
She was accompanied by Olie Burton, an analyst and bioethicist who lives around the corner and is selling the place for her 94-year-old grandmother. Ms. Burton rattled off the neighborhood’s advantages. There’s no Whole Foods, but the C-Town supermarket will order anything you can’t find on the shelf. Come summer, you’ll hear music on the streets. Plus, the I-95 runs right through the area. “You can get out of here very easy,” said Ms. Burton.
The home’s interior spoke for itself. With its big bay windows, lavish detailing and 13-foot ceilings, it was really quite grand. This deal struck me as a no-brainer.
But here’s the funny thing about South Bronx real estate. When you’re looking at an actual property, it all makes sense. Later, in abstract, the old fears kick in, and the very notion sounds even crazier than spending $1.8 million on a crappy Manhattan condo.
I had one more stop: a 1,200-square-foot, two-bedroom co-op on the Grand Concourse, a landmarked stretch of Art Deco apartment buildings. Halstead Property broker David Macaluso, who moonlights as an opera singer, is an expert on the area—he moved there himself after getting priced out of Manhattan. He knew all the right catch phrases: FreshDirect delivers; the nearby deli sells gluten-free bread; the Zipcar lot is blocks away.
It was a lovely apartment, with parquet floors, a sunken living room and enough sunlight to tan a volleyball team. Plus: Five closets! It would easily fetch $1.5 million in Manhattan. Mr. Macaluso wanted $245,000, but wasn’t expecting an easy sell. “The Bronx!” said Mr. Macaluso. “People get freaked out.”
I spent some time wandering the neighborhood, the heart of the borough’s civic district, and did not feel freaked out. It was bustling, not menacing. There were lots of pretty little parks. And the Grand Concourse resembles the spacious Parisian thoroughfare it was modeled after, with a few bodegas thrown in for good luck.
I am telling everyone who will listen: Buy in the Bronx! And what are the odds I’ll take my own advice? Zero. Like any true New Yorker, I’m looking forward to the day when I’m priced out. Then I can grouse about the crazy prices in Mott Haven.