These newcomers are yet to cease reveling at their 20th floor find
by Margaret Mitchell
Jim Ernst grew up in Atlanta, Georgia. Perrin Morse was raised in Alaska and Seattle, but attended high school in London, England. Now this widely traveled, cosmopolitan couple find themselves on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The story is nearly a decade long, but with a recent happy ending – and new beginning.
Jim ran cross-country in college and, as a citybound jogger, often trekked east from his Houston Street apartment across the Williamsburg Bridge, and back again. As he was running, he’d pass the Grand Street co-ops, where he and Perrin now own a 20th floor aerie. “The thing about it that’s weird,” he says now, “is that I’d think, I’d love to have one of those apartments on top of those buildings – but I’ll never be able to afford it.”
The first time Jim and Perrin looked at the Grand Street co-ops, his worries were well-founded. While the couple could afford the purchase price, drumming up the hefty 20% downpayment proved “a big barrier,” says Jim. Instead, they bought a small apartment south of Union Square for a comparable price – but with a much more feasible 10% down.
Both Jim and Perrin work downtown, so staying below 14th Street was imperative. They nested into their new apartment happily until baby Mason, now 21 months old, was conceived: Three people in one small studio seemed a sure formula for discomfort. “Grand Street was the first spot that came to mind,” says Jim. Confident that the profits from the sale of their “uptown” co-op would cover a 20% down payment, Jim and Perrin began to look again on the Lower East Side.
When they first saw what’s now their apartment, Jim was stunned. Despite the high floor and sweeping southern exposure, the straight-lined rooms were dim at midday. But as a construction professional and project manager for Goldman, Sachs, Jim saw beyond the 60’s-era geometrics. “It was a no-brainer,” he says now. “I knew I could rip the walls down and the place would be awesome.” Ripping down the walls was only the beginning. With the help of a general contractor, Jim and Perrin tore up the floor and laid a new one, renovated the existing bathroom and built a new half-bath, and created an office/nursery space for Mason. “It’s a complete gut renovation” says Jim, who’s “still doing some tweaking” a year after moving in. His latest project? Stripping the apartment’s metal door. “There were over 15 layers of paint on my front door,” he says, laughing. “I’ve been working on that door every weekend for the last two months.”
As a construction professional, Jim wasn’t daunted by the inevitable delays (and cost overruns) of the job. He says that anyone contemplating renovating their co-op should be sure to develop a “solid budget” before starting the job. “People always underestimate both the time and the money involved,” he says. “Whatever you think you’re going to spend, double it, for time and money.” And be ready for some emotional moments. “The smallest detail can push you over the edge. It’s emotional, because it’s your home.”
He also suggests that new owners take advantage of their super’s knowledge of local contractors. “There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Use your property manager’s super as a resource: Go to them first, to ask about who’s doing work in the building and who’s a reputable contractor.” Building a relationship with the super means fewer contractor super turf wars – and contractors with knowledge of the buildings’ myriad idiosyncrasies can save consumers time, money, and significant grief.
“We picked the Lower East Side” for its easy access to work and Mason’s daycare, and for the lower-key neighborhood feel. “We’ve got some really good friendships going now,” Jim adds, made mainly in the playground and in the co-op’s lobby level playroom – a haven for young families during winter and on rainy days. “There are a lot of families with kids the same age” who followed a similar real estate trajectory from the East Village to the Lower East Side. Even the takeout situation’s improving, as many downtown restaurants, aware of the demographic evolution in the Grand Street co-ops (and of their bottom line, too) now deliver to the Lower East Side. “I like it here a lot,” says Jim. “It’s gotten a little more hip, and it’s getting cooler every day.”
Living in the co-op has been one of the neighborhood’s most pleasant surprises. Unlike most New York apartment dwellers, Jim and Perrin know all of their neighbors on the 20th floor, and most everyone on the two floors below. “When we moved in, every one of our neighbors stopped by to say hello. People were really nice, neighborly – at Union Square, everyone kept to themselves.”
Oh, and about that new beginning: After many years together, and the birth of their son Mason in 2003, Jim and Perrin just got hitched, in late May, in double ceremonies at City Hall and in San Miguel, Mexico. The couple plans to celebrate their union for a good, long while – straight through the Fourth of July, when their expansive terrace doubles as an eye-level viewing platform for the spectacular East River fireworks.