National News

Three Friends, Two Homes, One Brooklyn House

NEW YORK — James Patalano was a recent graduate of Pace Law School in 2013 when he bought a tiny one-bedroom co-op in Harlem, where he lived with his wife, Rachael Patalano.

Posted Updated

Joyce Cohen
, New York Times

NEW YORK — James Patalano was a recent graduate of Pace Law School in 2013 when he bought a tiny one-bedroom co-op in Harlem, where he lived with his wife, Rachael Patalano.

The couple later sold their 300-something square feet and moved to a rental complex in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where James Patalano’s twin brother and younger brother also lived. This time, they had two bedrooms and a balcony.

“It was comforting to have our siblings close by,” said Rachael Patalano, 28, of her brothers-in-law.

But soon, one brother moved to Manhattan to be closer to work, and the other became busy with his medical residency. “We never saw them,” said James Patalano, 30. “It was a lot of fun while it lasted.”

The Patalanos were ready to invest in a home of their own, so last winter they went on the hunt for a two-bedroom condominium in or near Bushwick, Brooklyn. They liked the area, which they felt had potential, and they did not want to lengthen Rachael Patalano’s commute to the Upper West Side, where she is a special education teacher. But prices seemed high for small spaces. And the Patalanos longed for fresh air and a garden.

One day, James Patalano texted his wife to suggest they buy a two-family house with their good friend Brian Hanly. They had all gone to the same high school in northern Westchester. Hanly, 28, was renting on the Lower East Side and wanted to buy in Brooklyn, where he works in advertising partnerships for Vice Media.

“I felt bullish on Bushwick,” he said. “I threw my hat into the ring.”

Their price range was wide, from under $900,000 to nearly $1.5 million. “We saw pretty much the entire market within our range — everything from ‘this is a project and a half’ to ‘this is move-in ready,'” James Patalano said.

The two-family houses they saw typically had a larger owner’s unit — which would go to the Patalanos — and a smaller renter’s unit. Often, only the ground-floor apartment, called the garden level, had access to the backyard. Access for both units, which they wanted, was surprisingly hard to find. But they saw no need for an agent.

“They were directing us to everything that was on the open-house circuit, and we could just hit all of these by ourselves,” James Patalano said.

One early option, on Woodbine Street, was newly redone and flipped, and listed at $1.399 million, the top of their range. “We hadn’t had a good sampling of other stuff yet,” James Patalano said. Only in hindsight did they realize how nice it was.

On Suydam Street, an estate sale for $1.05 million would have required too much work, like installing an outdoor staircase connecting the top unit to the backyard. Hanly did not mind taking it on, but the Patalanos were reluctant. “I didn’t want to buy a headache and feed it with time and attention,” James Patalano said.

In his job as a commercial real estate lawyer, he said, “I see what goes into managing these projects, and it wasn’t something I wanted to get involved with for a residence.”

A two-family house on Cornelia Street, for $1.199 million, was enticing. It was unusually wide, with a good price and plenty of well-laid-out space. They put in an offer, which was accepted. Then came the inspection.

“The inspector started pointing at everything that was wrong, like the sidewalk wasn’t pitched correctly, so water would be draining into the house,” James Patalano said. In the basement, an open vent from the waste line would create sewage smells. A support beam seemed to have been removed.

“It was upsetting to hear the feedback about the inspection, but it was very informative and very educational,” Rachael Patalano said. The group backed out.

By comparison, other places felt small, Hanly said. Finally, they found another two-family near Bushwick Avenue — not as wide, but with the layout they wanted — listed at $1.299 million. By now, they felt they had seen everything in their price range.

“There were weekends we would see 12 properties,” James Patalano said. “It is exhausting. You have to make a schedule and run all over town. In some ways it’s fun, but once you see everything, things start to mesh together.”

They hired the same inspector, and this time there were only minor issues. The three bought the house in the spring for $1.245 million, as tenants in common. If one party eventually rents out its unit, the other has the right to approve the renters. “So many people say buying with friends is a bad idea,” James Patalano said. “We have an agreement that we signed and put in a drawer and haven’t looked at.”

The Patalanos occupy the three-bedroom unit on the top two floors. They made a few changes, creating a closet to replace a bookcase built below the stairs, and adding ceiling fans.

One problem that did not appear during the inspection emerged in a shared vent buried in the ceiling. When the dryer was on, condensation would collect on the hood of the stove and the ceiling of one bathroom. They hired a contractor who opened the ceiling and created three separate vents.

Hanly’s unit, on the ground-floor and basement levels, came with two small bedrooms, but he had the wall between them removed to create one big bedroom.

The two men — both of whom have seriously green thumbs — made a wooden deck for the fenced backyard. “I can’t even count the number of trips we took to Home Depot and Lowe’s,” Rachael Patalano said. “James had to buy a bigger toolbox because of the new tools we had to acquire for all the home-improvement projects.”

Out back, they added furniture, a grill, a rug and a hammock. “I love watering the garden every morning and every night,” Hanly said.

The three often eat dinner together. So far, the situation has worked seamlessly.

“We are still kind of in the honeymoon phase, the three of us,” Rachael Patalano said. “If we need our space, we let each other know — or you see each other out in the yard and go inside and do your own thing.”

Copyright 2022 New York Times News Service. All rights reserved.