Nearly a dozen years ago, Jo Blackwell-Preston and Kamau Preston rented a two-bedroom in the Sugar Hill area of Harlem, switching to a three-bedroom in their building as their family grew.
A few years later — with a son, daughter, dog and large turtle — they moved to yet another three-bedroom in the building, spending $15,000 on renovations there.
Shortly thereafter, the building was sold. The new owner raised the monthly rent around $500, to $2,900.
The couple already resented paying so much more than their many rent-regulated neighbors. Dayne, now 11, and Ava, 9, shared a bedroom; Mr. Preston, a D.J., used the third bedroom as a music studio.
So a little more than two years ago, they went on the hunt for a bigger place to buy, preferably with outdoor space and a parking spot, for something less than $1 million.
HARLEM A top-floor apartment was well located within the building but came without parking. Credit Elias Williams for The New York Times
“I own a company but I don’t own anything else,” said Ms. Blackwell-Preston, 49, who attended beauty school as a teenager in Ohio and now owns Dop Dop Salon in SoHo and commutes to work by car. She and Mr. Preston, 38, met in his native Jamaica. He is Dop Dop’s operations manager. “My salon is my living room,” Ms. Blackwell-Preston said. “It is 4,000 square feet of love.”
Mr. Preston visited endless open houses, often taking videos. “You have to have a list of things that you can live with and things you can’t live without,” he said.
They enlisted the help of Ariela Heilman, a licensed associate broker at Halstead Property and a longtime salon client.
In large buildings, they sought a corner or top-floor location, with few neighbors. An apartment number did not always reveal a unit’s location within the building, or whether it was surrounded by neighbors. “We didn’t want anybody walking on our heads anymore,” Ms. Blackwell-Preston said. Nor did they want to disturb their neighbors with their own noise.
“If the door was in the middle of the hallway, forget it,” she said.
In their immediate neighborhood, a sunny four-bedroom co-op was listed at $975,250, with monthly maintenance of $900. It felt pricey for a building with no parking and a tiny elevator. To move in, “we would have to walk all of our furniture up six flights of stairs,” Ms. Blackwell-Preston said.
In Spuyten Duyvil, the Bronx, a duplex co-op in a 1964 building was $445,000, with maintenance of around $1,800. It had a waiting list for parking, and they were sick of hunting for street parking.
“The renovations that were going to have to happen weren’t worth it,” Ms. Blackwell-Preston said. “In the hairdressing world, we say, ‘You cannot tone your way out of a bad color.’”
Some listings took them to houses farther north in the Bronx, in north Riverdale, beyond the terminus of the No. 1 train at 242nd Street. “They were looking at price points,” Ms. Heilman said.
The couple wondered what it would be like to have a house. “My husband was like, ‘More space, more headaches,’” Ms. Blackwell-Preston said.
But a house had advantages. “Mostly, I work with people who are wedded to the subway lines,” Ms. Heilman said. But for car owners? “Their world is broader and wider, and has different options. They can go farther out.”
The financial structure worked, too, since they could buy a house with a down payment of just 10 percent.
One four-bedroom house had three stories and an attic, a yard and a two-car garage. “It was well-loved and in excellent repair,” Ms. Heilman said. The listing price was $815,000, with annual taxes in the low $6,000s.
“I could see the kids running up and down the stairs,” Ms. Blackwell-Preston said. “I could see our dog in the backyard.” The other houses looked better in pictures than in person. “They felt rickety and not right,” she said.
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For $800,000, it was theirs. They spent around $80,000 on renovations, including opening up the kitchen and turning half the garage into a soundproof music studio. They arrived in the fall.
“We have a state-of-the-art house in a beautiful, old, enchanting home,” Ms. Blackwell-Preston said. “Our refrigerator has a computer built into it.”
The house includes luxurious space, uncommon in Manhattan — an office for her, separate bedrooms for the kids, a spare bedroom, room for a dining table, a washer-dryer and several walk-in closets. “My husband and I have our own beautiful bedroom that is so large we have an elliptical in it,” Ms. Blackwell-Preston said.
“My home is a dream come true I never knew I had,” she said. “It added only five minutes to my commute.”
Thursday, March 30, 2017