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The New York Times

In New York, the Fireplace Flickers

By: C. J. Hughes
Published: 12/20/2015Source: The New York Times

The fireplace surround is white tile at 202 Baltic Street, No. 4, Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. Now in contract, it was listed for $525,000, not including logs. Credit Linda Jaquez for The New York Times


In New York, an apartment fireplace evokes an escape from the bustling streets, the comforting after-work notion of settling into a high-back chair with a snifter of brandy — even if the chimney was sealed long ago.

If you have your heart set on this brick fantasy, be advised: New York joined a handful of other American cities when it passed a ban on the construction of new wood-burning fireplaces earlier this year, mainly because of concerns that smoke from burning wood can be as toxic as that from cigarettes.

Several new developments and conversions got in a few wood-burners in the nick of time, including 432 Park Avenue in Midtown; 17 East 12th Street in Greenwich Village and 40 East 72nd Street on the Upper East Side.

Apartments with fireplaces in these places will set you back millions. But buyers can land an apartment with a fireplace in the city for about $500,000, hardly pocket change but still about half Manhattan’s median price.

And even though the inventory of wood-burning fireplaces will not be growing, they don’t yet seem priced like a rare amenity, perhaps because not everyone dreams of toasting his toes on the grate.

Some people, of course, put a fireplace high on the wish list.

“You come home, it’s a cold night, you want to impress a date or something, and you can fire that thing up,” said Lee Sender, an associate broker with Douglas Elliman, as he gestured toward flames licking logs in a studio in Gramercy Park. “How many people can do that?”

Those on a quest for a fireplace may be surprised by how many actually exist, based on real estate listings on and

In early December, 16 percent of all co-op and condos for sale in Manhattan that were not in new developments purported to have one, according to a StreetEasy search. About a third were on the Upper East Side.

Though that neighborhood is huge, sweeping across hundreds of blocks and including areas like Yorkville, Carnegie Hill and Lenox Hill, it may be a smart place to look if a hearth is essential.

But don’t go out and pick up a cord of wood just yet. Only about 6 percent of the listings in that StreetEasy search have fireplaces that work, according to the fine print in the ads, which jibes with observations by brokers, managing agents and chimney contractors.

City chimneys have been sealed for various reasons with roofing tar, insulation and even, a chimney sweep reported, old shoes. Co-ops and condos may have shut them down to avoid the potential for an uncontrolled fire.

Decorative in Manhattan

“It’s a romantic idea, but they’re a lot more work than people think,” said Piero Ribelli, the president of a co-op that includes three adjacent buildings in Greenwich Village, Nos. 22, 24 and 26 Cornelia Street.

All 60 of the apartments in those brick buildings, which date to the late 19th century, have fireplaces, according to Ellen Marrone of Midboro Management, the property manager. For as long as anyone now resident can remember, shareholders have been prohibited from using them.

The aged chimneys are just too leaky, Ms. Marrone said.

A few years ago, the board looked into fortifying the chimneys with liners. But the cost worked out to about $6,000 to $8,000 per unit, according to Mr. Ribelli, who said “it never went any further.” He added that a nonworking fireplace is “still a nice decorative piece.”

Apartment 12 at 22 Cornelia, a small but handsomely remodeled studio, seems to bear that out. Limestone floors in the bath, and quartz counters and a nifty space-saving two-burner range in the kitchen, add contemporary touches to what might have been a garden-variety Village pad.

But the centerpiece is still its fireplace, whose exposed bricks make up much of a wall. Listed with Julie Park, a saleswoman with Level Group, the apartment is $449,000.

Working in Manhattan

Though listings may say they have a working fireplace, pay attention. Sometimes it crackles in a lobby, on a roof or in a garden, and so is shared with an entire building, which might not allow for the cozy night by the fire you have in mind.

The fireplaces are private, though, at Gramercy House, an Art Deco condop at 235 East 22nd Street at Second Avenue. Of the 332 units in the complex, 265 have working fireplaces, according to Mr. Sender of Elliman, who is listing No. 16M, a roomy studio whose angled fireplace has a wooden mantel.

Priced at $479,000, the apartment also has a beamed ceiling, a Murphy bed and a kitchen with a view of the Chrysler Building.

The presence of just a single radiator, of the three that were originally in the apartment, suggests the fireplace could play an important role in heating the place. And it seems up to that task. On one recent afternoon, within a minute of being lighted, it filled the room with warmth.

“I think fire is very calming, it’s very hypnotic,” said Mr. Sender, who likened its effect to that of ocean waves. “I could stare at it all night.”

For those who wonder where one might stash kindling, the apartment has an answer, a built-in shelf that looks as if it might have once held electronics.

And fuel is not hard to find, even in a city devoid of woodsmen. Shrink-wrapped wood is sold at many delis, as well as Duraflame logs in one-and-a-half- and four-hour varieties.

Users should make sure logs are not too wet. Under the terms of the ban on new wood-burning fireplaces, which was signed into law by Mayor Bill de Blasio on May 6, wooden logs cannot have a moisture content of more than 20 percent, to insure lower emissions. Seasoned wood is often drier.

Henceforth, any new fireplaces must burn natural gas or renewable fuels, according to the law, which warns that smoke, soot and other emissions from fires are “a menace to the health, welfare and comfort of the people of the city and a cause of extensive damage to property.”

Working in Brooklyn

With structures that predate electric heat, and even cast-iron radiators, Brooklyn is a borough of fireplaces.

However, many of them are in townhouses, which hardly come cheap. And those in units in multifamily buildings will set you back $1 million or more, if recent online searches are to be believed.

But fireplaces may still be had in Brooklyn for around $500,000. Apartment 4 at 202 Baltic Street, a comfortable one-bedroom in the historic enclave of Cobble Hill, was listed for $525,000 before it went into contract last week, according to Stanley Krauze, a salesman at the Corcoran Group.

With three exposures, brightly painted walls and a flowing layout, the apartment sits in a self-managed building of five units, four of which, including No. 4, have working fireplaces.

Mr. Krauze said a fireplace can be a head-scratcher for some.

“Some people see it and say, ‘I had one when I was young,’ ” Mr. Krauze said. “But other people say, ‘I’ve never had one in my life, and I have no idea what to do with it.’ ”

As a result, he added, it is difficult to assign a dollar value to the presence of a fireplace in an apartment. Buyers who covet fireplaces, in a sense, can often walk away with one for free.

Jonathan J. Miller, the appraiser, has also wrestled with how to evaluate the worth of a hearth.

“The Condominium v. Cooperative Puzzle: An Empirical Analysis of Housing in New York City,” a study he co-wrote for the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy of New York University around 10 years ago, said that fireplaces are associated with an 11.4 percent price increase for co-ops, and a 9.7 percent hike for condos, or generally about 10 percent.

However, Mr. Miller said, fireplaces are often found in apartments that have other kinds of appealing prewar details, such as high ceilings and molding, so it can be hard to determine their true influence.

Plus, some people would rather not have a chimney, worrying that they can attract birds, rain and dust, while sucking out heat, which for some buyers is a turnoff, he said. “There is a point,” Mr. Miller said, “where it becomes a non-factor.”

A Gas Fireplace in Queens

In boroughs with plenty of free-standing houses, like Staten Island and Queens, a fireplace may not be such a big deal. Multifamily dwellings in these places, on the other hand, tend not to have one — especially in the under-$500,000 category.

But in East Elmhurst, Queens, near La Guardia Airport, in an 11-unit complex called Bowery Bay Condominiums that opened in 2008, fireplaces are the rule.

Each of the apartments in the stucco and brick building, at 19-73 77th Street, has a fireplace, though the fuel is gas, not wood. For some, that might be the equivalent of a knockoff handbag.

But for Randolph Saa, the sales director of 10 Century 21 American Homes offices in the New York area, who has the listing for No. 1B, gas is safer and simpler. No 1B, a one-bedroom with nine-foot ceilings and a dining nook listed at $495,000, went into contract last month.

And from a development perspective, the fireplaces were cheap, only about $600 apiece, not including installation, said Mr. Saa, who marketed the condo when it opened.

Mr. Saa then turned it on with what looked like a light switch. “You hit a button and it’s done,” he said. “You don’t have to worry about falling asleep.”

The heat was immediately apparent. The gas bill runs about $80 to $120 a month for each unit, Mr. Saa said, with the fireplace accounting for about 25 percent of that total if used regularly.

Wood-burning in the Bronx

Judging by real estate listings, fireplaces also seem rare in condos and co-ops in the Bronx, even in what you might think of as prime fireplace territory, like pricey Riverdale, in the borough’s northwestern corner.

But by the time many of the apartment houses there went up after World War II, the fireplace had become a relic, brokers say. Most of the half-dozen brick co-ops don’t come with fireplaces.

But at Fieldston Gardens, a crescent-shaped 1926 Tudor-style co-op at 525 West 238th Street, about 25 of the 70 units feature them. At Apartment 3A, the fireplace is painted white and flanked by bookcases.

The third-floor three-bedroom unit, which also has a foyer, two bathrooms, crown molding and stainless-steel appliances, is listed at $539,000 with Robert Rems, an associate broker with Wohlfarth & Associates, who said the fireplace was an instant conversation starter with clients at showings.

 “They say, ‘It’s a working fireplace? Really? That’s so unusual,’ ” Mr. Rems said. But because the five-story non-doorman building is a walk-up, the fireplace goes only so far, he added.

For die-hards, though, a place to burn wood is a deal-maker, said Jason Dorn, the president of Big Apple Chimney, who frequently works with brokers when a deal hinges on whether a fireplace is salvageable.

“Maybe it has to do with where we live,” Mr. Dorn said. “I think it brings a little bit of the country to the city.”

Copyright © 2015 The New York Times Company. Reprinted with Permission. Linda Jaquez/The New York Times. 

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