What is A Duplex?

Originally posted on January 06, 2023 3:00 pm
Updated on December 28, 2022 2:50 pm

In New York City, most apartments have one thing in common – they’re small! Even the most luxurious, spacious apartments in New York can often look tiny compared to their suburban counterparts. A two-story apartment unit in the NYC real estate market is rare and highly valuable. These units are called duplexes. Outside of New York, the meaning of “duplex” is a two-unit building with two separate entrances – yet in New York City, a duplex is any unit with two units either connected vertically by a staircase or elevator or side-by-side by doors. These units are often owned and occupied by one resident or a large household and are a hot commodity in the crowded city.

How many duplexes are in NYC?

While duplex apartments have many benefits, they are also relatively rare. Duplex apartments make up less than 9% of sales and 4% of rentals in New York City. Duplexes are often not cost-effective for builders, making most new builds single-level units. Though these two-story units are scattered across New York City, duplexes are most common in pre-war buildings, often found in the Upper East Side or Upper West Side. Sometimes tenants can buy and combine two units, but this relies on communication with building management and owners. 

Pros of duplexes

Duplex apartments aren’t hot commodities for no reason – these apartments come with additional square footage that you can only find in these apartments. Duplex apartments are great for families, with the separation of space and a home-like feel. There’s also more privacy in these units, as bedrooms can often be on different floors, so noise is less likely to travel through the space. For houses with children, parents can enjoy an evening downstairs while the kids sleep upstairs – or for parents who work from home, duplexes can also offer a great separation of space. 

Residents can enjoy the two-story space in a duplex while also benefiting from building amenities. Unlike living in a two-story house in the suburbs, a duplex in the city can come with a concierge, gym, doorman, and more. Penthouse units can often be duplexes, making them even more unique and desirable for high-end buyers. Some duplexes can even come with outdoor space: a private garden terrace on the lower floor or a private rooftop terrace for penthouse duplex residents. 

Duplexes can also be used for a variety of purposes. Even for single residents, the space available in these units can be used for artists’ showrooms, salons, and events. Entertaining can be exceptionally fruitful in these spaces as guests can occupy different parts of the space and mingle upstairs and downstairs. Some duplexes have only one bedroom, making the entire lower level space for hosting and gathering. 

Cons of duplexes

Many wonderful things come with living in a duplex, yet they can also have some downsides. Accessibility can be a major issue in duplex apartments, as most of these units have two floors connected by stairs. This immediately excludes subsets of renters, be that older tenants unable to navigate stairs frequently, young children, or anyone with limited mobility. 

In terms of square footage, a staircase also takes up precious space in the apartment. The layout of duplexes can be odd (many duplexes are created by smashing together two previously existing units) so before purchasing or renting a duplex, it’s imperative to investigate the layout in relation to your personal needs. Some duplex apartments have bathrooms on different floors than the bedrooms or have bedrooms on different stories. Though every apartment is different, furnishing and living in a duplex can be a big adjustment, especially for residents who are used to living on a single floor. 

Duplexes can also be difficult to heat and cool. Many pre-war buildings use steam heat radiators to heat the space in the wintertime, and because of the physics of heat rising, many duplex apartments can become stuffy and hot from overheating in the cold months. Many residents install window air conditioners or have to open windows in the winter to combat uneven heating in the space. 

Duplexes on the market

Duplexes come in many shapes and sizes. Here are a few duplexes currently on the market in New York City: 

  • Residents can live in the lap of luxury at 25 Mercer Street in SoHo. This penthouse duplex unit is 4,350 square feet and has four bedrooms and bathrooms in the spacious unit. This building was constructed in 1867 and remodeled to meld cast iron detailing with a sleek modern design. In addition to a sprawling interior, this duplex also has a private rooftop terrace with 360-degree views of Manhattan and bright light throughout the space. This building is a great example of a Gilded Age building being brought into the modern era and marketed toward high-end buyers. Previous occupants of the space include Mary-Kate Olsen and Swedish designer Johan Lindeberg. 
  • The Upper East Side is a prime location for duplex apartments due to its myriad of pre-war builds, and this unit at 4 East 81st Street is no exception. This duplex is near the Metropolitan Museum of Art and boasts of features such as a fireplace and Juliet balcony. Though duplexes can be difficult to heat, this unit has wall-mounted A/C on both levels to combat heating and cooling issues. There is also elevator access, making the apartment more accessible for a variety of tenants. At $8,500 per month, this duplex is still pricey for most residents while being far less expensive than the penthouse duplex. The one-bedroom layout also makes this an ideal space for hosting or utilized as an artist’s studio. 
  • Not all duplexes have to be wildly expensive – this duplex at 537 Central Avenue in Bushwick, Brooklyn has two bedrooms for just $2,800 per month. Unlike the penthouse duplex with a private rooftop terrace, this unit has a private backyard and garden for tenants. The second story of this duplex is the basement, which lacks light but has more square footage at a lower price point. The building also has laundry in the basement and central air and heat. While this building doesn’t have “pre-war charm,” it has updated appliances and fixtures that often come with a newer building. 

Is a duplex right for you?

Duplex apartments may seem like the crème de la crème of New York City real estate due to their rarity and square footage, but not every family or resident is suited to a duplex. They can come with accessibility issues, heating problems, and odd layouts, often in older, pre-war buildings. Yet if the layout and stairs aren’t discouraging, duplexes can be wonderful, spacious homes. Duplexes can offer private outdoor space and much-needed privacy in the bustling city. Especially for families that enjoy entertaining, the space divide of a duplex can be fruitful for downstairs and upstairs activity separation. While duplexes may seem made for luxury, they can come at various price points and are accessible to a wide range of renters. Though duplexes aren’t for everyone, these rare and unique homes are rightfully cherished by those who occupy them. 

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