What Is a Prewar Apartment Building?

If you’re looking for an apartment, especially in New York City, you’re likely to stumble upon the term “prewar apartment.” You’ll often see it in the section of an apartment listing describing the property’s features. Some people actively seek out prewar apartments, and finding one — especially in a competitive rental market — can be a great opportunity. But some people are unfamiliar with what “prewar” means  —and its meaning has plenty of ambiguity.

Prewar apartment

One prominent New York City broker describes prewar apartments as buildings with high ceilings with thick walls, wood floors, wood-burning fireplaces, and decorative plaster moldings. Other New York City real estate agents might describe prewar units are solidly built and renters notice a decrease noise factor between apartments. Regardless of how they’re described, all prewar apartment buildings were built before World War II

Prewar apartment buildings additionally have thick, plaster walls and poured concrete floors. Newer apartments usually have gypsum (aka “sheetrock”) and thin concrete-and-steel floors. Apartment seekers often prefer prewar buildings because they provide more soundproofing compared to some newer apartments today.

Prewar units took longer to build than newer apartments usually do. That’s because they were built for longevity, whereas the speedier methods of “post-war” apartment building prioritize constructing apartments with affordable materials. Prewar apartments featured elaborate tiling, hand-finished plaster walls, and solid wood construction. That’s part of why classic prewar buildings usually maintain their value and appreciate faster than recent condo developments. And since prewar buildings were built so long ago, renovation issues may require more work and sometimes even additional permits.

Architectural aesthetics such as the prewar style tend to be specific to a historical period and location. That’s why prewar buildings are often located in Manhattan neighborhoods such as the West Village and the Upper West Side, where New York City was slowly developing before World War II. You may also find some prewar buildings in Brooklyn and the Bronx. 

Some people regard prewar buildings as charming despite the handful of downsides that come with living in one. Prewar apartments tend to have smaller kitchens and bathrooms, and since they were built before World War II, they weren’t built with central air conditioning. Window air conditioning units are often found in prewar apartments instead and can often create unpleasant whirring sounds when used. Additionally, single-pane windows inefficient at insulating against the outdoor elements are a common feature.

On the note of climate control in a prewar apartment building, these units’ old-style radiators pump out boiler-hot heat. These radiators’ loudly clanking pipes could at first startle people who grew up on forced-air central heating and cooling systems, but they do provide extremely steady steam heat. 

Another thing to keep in mind: Just as prewar apartments exist, so too do “post-war” apartments. In New York City’s housing market, “post-war” refers to any building constructed between 1947 and 1990. The term “newly constructed buildings” describes any building constructed after 1990. 

Most newly constructed buildings are found in the suburbs since, after World War II, New York experienced a few housing booms and suburban communities grew exponentially. However, some newly constructed buildings were also built in a few Manhattan neighborhoods during the post-war period, especially in the Upper East Side and Upper West Side. Postwar buildings, on the other hand, are often found in up-and-coming areas of Brooklyn or Queens since the development in these neighborhoods is newer.

Which of the three apartment building categories appeals most to you? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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