Renters and buyers in New York City know that prewar apartments are unique. They were constructed between 1900 and 1939 (before World War II) and have distinctive and elegant architectural characteristics that are hard to find in more recently built properties.
“The buildings designed by the most notable architects of the prewar period—Emery Roth and Rosario Candela—remain among the most desirable in the city today,” says Jed Lewin, a broker at Triplemint in New York City.
But as appealing as these classic New York City apartments appear to be, there are also some key drawbacks to living in this kind of place.
Let’s explore some of the reasons people either love or hate prewar apartments.
Pro: Elegant design
Photo by Di Cicco Vinci Architecture + Interiors
There’s no denying it: Prewar apartments are full of elegant architectural details. Crown molding, ceiling medallions, real hardwood floors, spacious living quarters, and high ceilings are common in these types of properties.
“The advantage of living in prewar apartments is that they are full of architectural beauty. They are sturdy, sound, and provide form and function to the homeowner,” says Tami Kurtz, a real estate professional at Triplemint in New York City.
Con: Lack of modern conveniences
According to Daniele Kurzweil, a real estate salesperson with the Friedman Team at Compass in New York City, there’s one major con to living in a prewar apartment.
“During the winter, your heat is either on or off; no climate control, no thermostat, simply steam heat,” she says. If it gets too hot, you’ll need to open a window.
Kobi Lahav, managing director of Mdrn. Residential, a brokerage in New York City, agrees.
“There’s no central AC or HVAC, so you can have a nice, expensive apartment, but you are still using a window-unit AC,” he says. Furthermore, older heating systems are noisy and the windows are usually thin and not energy-efficient.
Another potential issue is that prewar apartments were constructed before the Americans With Disabilities Act became law in 1990. The law established standards for making buildings accessible to people with disabilities.
“So many apartments have narrower doorways and smaller bathrooms,” Kurzweil says. “This can be an issue for people with physical limitations.”
Pro: Sturdy construction
Prewar properties were built to last and included hand-finished plaster walls, durable hardwood floors, and solid-wood doors. Many experts say that postwar architecture can’t hold a candle to prewar units when it comes to construction.
“Postwar architecture is typically constructed of red or white bricks and referred to as ‘cookie-cutter,’” says Rachel Ostow Lustbader, a broker at Warburg Realty in New York City. “Postwar apartments have smaller and simpler windows, 8-foot ceilings, unadorned Sheetrock walls, and poorer quality parquet wood floors or, more recently, ‘engineered’ flooring.”
Con: It may need to be updated
Not every prewar apartment looks like a photo op for an interior design magazine. Because of the age of the property, there’s a chance it will need to be fixed up.
“If the prewar building is not as upscale, or has not been well-maintained, you can run into issues you will find in any older building, like leaks, electrical problems, etc.,” explains Jamie Safier, a luxury real estate agent at Douglas Elliman in New York City.
Carole Cusani, a licensed real estate agent at BOND New York Properties, lives in a prewar apartment, and says it was costly to renovate her kitchen.
“It’s common for them to have outmoded electrical outlets, wiring, or plumbing, that a new owner may have to update,” she explains. Also, the typical prewar kitchen is not very big—chef’s kitchens were not a thing back then.
However, buyers may be able to find well-maintained prewar units if they’re located in a co-op.
“The board will usually ensure there is enough in the reserves to make necessary updates and repairs,” says Safier.
Pro: Plenty of space
There’s little reason for you to ever feel cramped in a prewar apartment.
“In prewar buildings, the ceilings are often higher and the layouts are more spacious,” says Chelsea Hale, a real estate professional at Triplemint in New York City.
Postwar apartments, on the other hand, tend to have lower ceiling heights, smaller rooms, and thinner ceilings and walls.
In addition to sprawling interiors, prewar apartments offer another space advantage.
“There are often only one or two apartments per elevator landing in prewar buildings,” says Lustbader. Contrast that with postwar buildings, which tend to have long hallways with 10 to 12 units on each floor.