Real estate in New York is nothing short of an obsession, a constant source of delight, envy, anxiety, and pride. When you start looking for a place to rent or own for yourself, if you’re not from here, you may wonder what people are talking about when they throw around local terms in real-estate speak. Here’s a brief taxonomy of New York’s most common types of apartments.
The basic categories of studio, one-bedroom, and two-bedroom are the ones most commonly encountered in New York real estate. A studio is generally a one-room space with a full bathroom, although sometimes the kitchen is separate from the general living space as well. An alcove studio has a nook or other space where you can squeeze in a bed and perhaps screen it off with a curtain or the like. A one bedroom is exactly that, with at least two distinct rooms and a door that separates the bedroom from the living area (add another one for the two bedroom). But in order to qualify as a “real” bedroom, a room in an apartment built before 1929 must be at least eight feet wide and eight feet tall. Bedrooms are also required to have windows that open to the street or the garden or courtyard. If it doesn’t have a window, it isn’t a bedroom under the law.
The junior four is one of the more arcane terms to be encountered in the New York market. This is a one-bedroom with four separate rooms—bedroom, kitchen, living room, and another small room that could be converted to a sleeping area, home office, or the like, but that doesn’t have the window required to qualify as a two-bedroom. A junior one is a studio apartment with such a room. These small extra rooms often don’t have doors.
If a classic six sounds high-tone, that’s because it is. These much-coveted apartments are found in the nicer prewar buildings of the Upper East Side and Upper West Side, the ones with awnings out front and (usually) doormen. The six rooms in question are a formal dining room, a living room, a kitchen, two “real” bedrooms as defined above, and a “maid’s room”—a small room off the kitchen originally intended for “staff” that sometimes has its own bathroom and is a great place for a home office or to stash one of your kids. Usually there are two other bathrooms and a foyer as well. The classic seven is the same deal with another bedroom.
A loft apartment originally referred to a large, open living space carved out in an older industrial building, sometimes against zoning regulations. The artists who lived in SoHo in the 1960s and ’70s pioneered this type of dwelling, sometimes dividing the massive spaces that once were factory floors with simple moving partitions, and sometimes building walls. Early lofts had only rudimentary, improvised kitchens, exposed pipes and beams, and industrial elevators. You can still see this type in some industrial neighborhoods, including SoHo, Williamsburg, Long Island City, and other parts of Brooklyn and Queens. Nowadays, the big open spaces of the loft have become such a desirable residential commodity that many new condos and rentals are constructed with loft floor plans, enhanced with all the modern amenities the originals lacked.
A railroad apartment, found mostly in older tenement-style buildings, is named for its straight floor plan. For the most part, the front door opens directly into the apartment, there is no hallway, and one room leads into another (there are usually only three or four rooms in such a place). That means that to get to the kitchen, for instance, you might have to go through the living room and bedroom. This can get super-awkward in a roommate situation.
The floor-through is a somewhat confusing creature. The term can be used to describe an apartment that takes up the entire floor of a building, or simply one that runs from the front of the building to the back, with windows opening out onto the street and the back yard or courtyard. They can come in any size, shape, and desirability (railroads are almost always floor-throughs), but all at least potentially offer good cross-ventilation and natural light.
A garden apartment is what you call the bottom floor of a brownstone. It usually has its own entrance through a gate under the stoop (the entrance at the top of the stoop leads to the “parlor floor”). Layouts vary widely depending on the width of the brownstone, from two or three rooms laid out railroad style to four or five that offer more privacy. But the best part is the garden that gives such an apartment its name. Sometimes it’s shared with other people who live in the building, sometimes it’s all yours, and if it’s well-tended, it can make even a small place seem like a luxurious secret hideaway.
A penthouse, generally speaking, is any apartment on the top floor of a building, and it is a status symbol like no other in New York. Even the elevator button for a penthouse is special, reading “PH” instead of whatever number the floor is. The word penthouse itself, which gained currency in New York back in the Roaring 20s, has the same root as the word appendage, and some penthouses are exactly that—appendages built on top of apartment building roofs, little houses in the sky.
A duplex apartment in New York is generally a prized thing, because the two levels, connected by a stairway, give a sense of space and privacy even when there’s minimal square footage. Sometimes those second floors can be tiny, and the stairs narrow, but a duplex always feels a little bit more luxe than a one-floor apartment. Oh, and if it’s a duplex penthouse? On the top floor of even a four-story building? That’s pretty sweet.
A walk-up is exactly what it sounds like. No elevator. You will have to walk up, and sometimes up and up, to get to your front door. This can be exhausting, but if you are physically able, it’s good for you. Try to remember that when you have four bags of groceries. As a general rule, we’d avoid any walk-up apartment higher than the sixth floor.
In some parts of the city, especially Queens, you will see listings that use the term single-family home. This is that type of building so common elsewhere, but rare in New York: a house originally designed for the use of one family, usually detached from any other building. Sometimes apartments are available in such exotic structures. A single-family brownstone is the stuff of Cosby Show dreams.