During his first decade in New York City, David A. McKnight lived in rentals downtown. But three years ago, when he was renting in the financial district, he decided to start saving to buy something.“It didn’t make sense to pay more than $3,000 a month to rent in FiDi,” said Mr. McKnight, whose business, McKnight Image Lab, offers image consulting, interior styling and life coaching. So he migrated north to Harlem, where he could not only lower his rent, but also “get to know the neighborhood and start eyeing places to buy.”
Mr. McKnight, 46, who is originally from Trenton, N.J., rented a one-bedroom in a condominium building, paying $2,000 a month and planning to stay until he found the right place. A year later, his landlady unexpectedly put the unit on the market, asking $595,000.
He could have bought it, but he didn’t want to spend that much on a one-bedroom that was just 600 square feet. So he moved again, this time to a two-bedroom with 800 square feet in the Riverton Square complex in Harlem, where his rent was around $2,150 a month. He used the second bedroom as an office and a guest room for his many relatives.
Last summer, Mr. McKnight began hunting for a place to buy with the help of a friend, Shalabh Sanger, an associate broker at Spire Group.
He aimed, ideally, for a two-bedroom in a co-op building. “If I was going to buy something, I wanted it to be adult size,” he said.He preferred a doorman building. Having worked as a management consultant and traveled often, he always appreciated having a doorman to receive packages and dry cleaning.
And in Chicago, where he had previously lived, he had once faced a brick wall. “I vowed I would never face another brick building,” he said. “I like to be able to look out and see humanity.”
But with a budget of up to $500,000, he was priced out of Harlem.
“It was almost impossible to find what he wanted in the type of building he wanted, a newer building with modern finishes,” Mr. Sanger said.
Mr. McKnight considered Washington Heights and Inwood, but most of the housing stock was prewar and had no doorman. He was concerned, too, about trekking through the hilly terrain in ice and slush.
When Mr. Sanger suggested the South Bronx, Mr. McKnight was intrigued. “It’s been talked about as the new hot area,” he said.
His first Bronx visit was to a one-bedroom for $229,000 in a walk-up building on Walton Avenue. Maintenance was around $400 a month.
The kitchen was peculiar: It consisted of appliances and cabinets lined up against one wall in the living room. He knew the apartment wasn’t for him. But the neighborhood was.Mr. McKnight loved Executive Towers on the Grand Concourse. A one-bedroom there was on a high floor, with sunny views to the south and east, listed for $199,000. Maintenance was around $800 a month. But it was an estate sale, and the place needed a gut renovation. And the two-bedrooms in the building were too expensive, once he factored in the cost of renovation.
Mr. Sanger asked the listing agent, Ariela Heilman, an associate broker at Halstead Property’s Harlem office, if she knew of other available places. As it happened, Ms. Heilman was headed to another apartment on the Grand Concourse, not yet on the market. This one was a two-bedroom with two bathrooms, for $399,000. Maintenance was about $1,300 a month.
“I got excited because it was within my budget,” Mr. McKnight said. So they all took a 10-minute walk south. Outside, the plantings were beautifully tended. “The entrance is landscaped on both sides,” Ms. Heilman said. “It is like walking on a red carpet. You really feel you are arriving someplace.”
The building had a doorman and an elevator. The apartment was more than 1,000 square feet, and it had a dining room as well as exposures in both the front and back.
“The building is like an H, and this apartment spans the center,” Ms. Heilman said.
Though it was filled with bulky furniture and the fixtures were not at all Mr. McKnight’s style — which he describes as “minimal but not bare” — he saw the potential.
“David is very meticulous, and he is good at visualizing how he would set up an apartment,” Mr. Sanger said.
Mr. McKnight didn’t hesitate. “Within 60 seconds, I was like, ‘This is the place I want to buy,’” he said. “I knew I could make it beautiful and I could make it mine.”
He offered the asking price. “I didn’t want to risk losing the unit in a bidding war, and I didn’t want the seller to continue showing it because of a low bid,” he said.
He bought it last fall, stained the floors and moved in during the winter, living out of boxes while he was renovating — gutting the kitchen, changing bathroom fixtures, replacing the odd orange doors and ancient ceiling fans, painting and wallpapering. The total cost was around $35,000.
Now, he said, “The space is very lean, very modern. I am keeping everything light and bright. This is the type of environment I wanted to create for myself.”
And when visitors arrive, he added, “the first thing they say is ‘Wow.’”