The Pros and Cons of Brownstone Living

Ginny Bartolone
Written by Ginny Bartolone
Updated July 13, 2021
Father jumping rope with daughters
Chris Clinton/DigitalVision via Getty Images

Going back nearly 200 years, this unmistakable home style is the envy of many city dwellers

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There's a reason why most fictional NYC television characters live in a charming brownstone on a tree-lined street. Brownstone townhouses often come to mind when we think of ideal NYC, Philly, or Boston living. 

But what makes this type of house special? And what's it like to actually live in one of these 200-year-old homes?

A Brief History of the Brownstone

Around the early 19th century, middle-class families were on the rise in a burgeoning NYC. Many set their sights on owning a home and raising a family in the heart of Manhattan or Brooklyn. 

Sandstone became the affordable (and stylish!) building material of choice. This brownish, red, or sand-tinted stone lined the front of single-family house rows, instead of the costly materials used by the elite. 

Originally, these four- or five-story buildings housed an entire family. Nowadays, the majority of these buildings break up into several separate apartments. Areas such as the Upper West Side, Brooklyn Heights, and Park Slope have some of the largest concentrations of brownstones today.

A true brownstone townhouse typically includes:

  • Brown, red, or tan stone facade

  • Brick building material interior

  • Stone stoop

  • Italianate details on the facade

  • One or more rented or purchased units

  • No space between buildings

The famous stoop on the front of the building has its own unexpected story behind it as well. The Gothamist reports that stoops were more a practical necessity than a place to split a bottle of wine with the neighbors as it is today. Originally, stoops protected brownstone owners from the piles of horse manure lining the city streets—luckily, we've come a long way since then, and so have our stoops.

If you're considering renting or even buying a brownstone, here’s what to expect when you snag a coveted unit.

Brownstone houses
Alexander Spatari/Moment via Getty Images

Pro: Your Landlord Lives Nearby

OK, depending on your preference, this could be a pro or a con. Many modern brownstones owners rent out their additional units, meaning that your landlord could be directly above or below you.

The upside: you'll get to know them well, can call on them when the sink shoots water across the kitchen, or hand off rent with ease. On the flip side, they'll know immediately if you recently took up tap dancing.

Con: Higher Costs

While many brownstone buildings often come with higher monthly rents, owning one can wrack up even more costs over time. As an older structure, you may end up handling expensive upkeep, especially if past owners cut corners over the past two centuries. 

Updating the outside of a brownstone is also quite costly and can run into the high tens of thousands of dollars.

Pro: Classic Decor

One of the biggest perks of living in a brownstone is the remnants of a time when indoor and outdoor architecture was more like intricate works of art. Italianate features—think tall windows, dramatic doorways, and palatial ceilings—were popular in the time of early brownstone townhouse design. You'll also spot exterior accents inspired by the Queen Anne, Romanesque Revival, and Neo-Grec styles.

Con: Older Building Quirks

You likely won't encounter a lot of modern amenities in older brownstones, though many buildings have gotten a facelift over the past 20 years. Dishwashers and washing machines are becoming more common, but you won't find things like central air or soundproof windows.

Living in an older building may mean you're more likely to have issues with worn-out pipes, a struggling heating system, and the not-so-occasional bug.

Pro: Potential Outdoor Space

If you live on the base or parlor floor, you may get to enjoy the ultimate dream: a small backyard garden or patio. This private space may increase the cost of the rental, but is so worth it, both for barbecues and bragging rights.

Con: Narrow Stairways

Speaking of old building quirks, you're unlikely to find an elevator in a brownstone. The center of the building typically includes a winding staircase reaching up to the fifth or sixth floor. Moving in and out of these higher apartments is a feat in itself, not to mention the weekly trek up the steps with an armful of groceries.

Pro: Classic City Living

At the end of the day, living in a traditional brownstone townhouse simply can't be beat for city lovers. Many of these vintage structures sit in some of the most desirable and friendly neighborhoods throughout the Northeast, making them a prime place to settle down—if you can find one to call your own.

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