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Going underground has new cool

With New York property prices so high, some home buyers have gone for properties at least partly below street level and unearthed perks

LED sconces in the living room create soft lighting throughout the space. Glass doors lead out to a private terrace and garden area. The Yanevs painted a nearby wall white to reflect the light.

New York

LIFE in New York has driven Elizabeth Yanev into the ground - and she is delighted.

The 33-year-old and her husband, Andrew, 34, were daunted by the price of two-bedroom apartments, and unimpressed with the selection. So their agent offered an alternative: a roughly 1,800 sq ft duplex "studio" in a pre-war co-op in Midtown East. It was the only apartment of its size they could afford below 135th Street, but there was a hitch: The space was entirely below street level.

Mrs Yanev said: "I remember thinking, 'Wow, this is incredible' and 'Oh, my gosh, what a complete wreck'."

The unit was dark and had been vacant for several years because of a legal dispute with the previous owner that involved allegations of mould. But they saw potential: Walls of glass could be installed to bring in sunlight in the back, where the land slopes down; ceilings could be raised; two private outdoor spaces, a terrace and a basement patio, offered a glimpse of suburban life.

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They bought the apartment for US$1.2 million in 2015 and spent more than a year renovating the space, which now includes a downstairs master bedroom, a nursery for their 11-month-old son, a guest room and a temperature-controlled wine closet.

They declined to give the cost of the updates, but said it would not have been possible in a pricier above-ground apartment. "We're now absolutely in love with it," she said.

The lowly basement

They are not alone. Both buyers and developers, typically preoccupied with skyward apartments, are reconsidering the lowly basement.

As prices continue to decline in the luxury market, developers are keen on maximising every square foot, including below-grade space, while buyers seek out bargains in a supply-heavy market. Developers are digging deeper for taller ceilings, installing full length windows and using clever sleight of hand to make the space appealing.

It doesn't always make up for the subterranean feel, but plenty of buyers are glad just to have the extra space.

In mid-size projects where it doesn't make sense to shoehorn amenities into the basement or rent the floor to retailers, developers can use that area as "rec rooms" for ground-floor buyers. In some cases, full apartments are being placed below street level, where fancy finishes and tall windows help blur the distinction. (City zoning deems a property habitable when it is at least 50 per cent above grade, and meets various safety requirements.) Because below-grade homes are typically cheaper than above-grade space, buyers can stretch their dollar, with some limitations, while developers make the most of their investment.

Some savvy buyers are willing to dive headlong into these deals. Jenna Basford, a 31-year-old real estate agent, paid US$2.3 million for a ground-floor apartment with a lower level on the Upper West Side, based on floor plans alone.

She said of the unit at 350 W. 71st Street: "I was just going on my gut. We had no idea what it was even going to look like."

But she knew the 2,100-sq ft, two-bedroom duplex would be double the size of her current home in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where she lives with her husband, toddler son and dog.

The lower level, which is about 40 per cent of the total floor space, will have the same finishes as the rest of the apartment, and windows that make the most of the available sunlight. One floor above, an apartment that will be about 430 sq ft smaller is listed for about US$1 million more, she said.

The below-grade level "gave us an opportunity to create larger apartments at a lower price", said David Berger, a partner at DNA Development, which owns the project. Prices at the 38-unit condo conversion, which is set to open next year, range from about US$1.8 million to US$5.85 million, but on a square-foot basis, Ms Basford's apartment is a better bargain. Units on the first floor sell for up to US$1,200 a square foot, he said; higher apartments can go for up to US$2,000 a square foot.

As developers on these projects are typically working with less total square footage, every inch counts. At The Shephard, a West Village rental-to-condo conversion where the basement was excavated, the developer created a 1,289 sq ft, ground-floor studio where roughly half the space is below street level. The lower level, while spacious, cannot be considered a legal bedroom.

Quick sale

Alexa Lambert, head of sales on the project with Stribling Marketing Associates, said: "It was one of the first things we sold. It is not hard to see why: The unit was listed for US$1.785 million, while the average sale price in the building was about US$9.1 million, according to StreetEasy, a real estate data website."

That makes it one of the least expensive units, per square foot, in a building with access to a basketball court, golf simulator and steam rooms, and the cachet of living in a building with interior design by Gachot Studios.

The sales team, however, did not take photos of the unit - it sold before completion - and marketed it without much fanfare. Ms Lambert said: "It's not like I'm embarrassed by it. We didn't make a big deal about it, because it's not representative of the building."

In Greenpoint, Brooklyn, the developer of a new 21-unit condo called Mylo House said interest in his maisonette with a basement was so high that he took the remaining ground-floor units with similar layouts off the market. The roughly 1,500 sq ft one-bedroom apartment, listed for just under US$1.25 million, was the first sale in the project.

For those who have embraced the basement, there are less obvious perks. The Yanevs discovered they could raise the ceiling, which had been dropped by a past owner, from 3 m to 4.2m. Their location in the building allowed them to vent their kitchen range hood outside and install a split heating-and-cooling system with the compressor in their yard. They created deep storage on the lower level, including a wine closet, and a nook for a washer and dryer. And after installing new windows and glass doors, they were surprised at the amount of sunlight the apartment gets.

The project has also been a source of inspiration. Mr Yanev, a former risk-management consultant, switched to a job in the lighting industry after developing a passion for LED lights, which he installed throughout the home. Mrs Yanev, who has a background in fashion, began working as a project manager for the architecture firm that designed their home.

Mr Yanev still has ideas. "Maybe I'll paint a mural," he said, framing a spot on the brick wall directly outside their bedroom windows. His wife shot him a look. Not every idea born in the basement will see the light of day. NYTIMES

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