What is a penthouse? If you’re lucky enough to live in one, it means you have arrived. The very word “penthouse” denotes luxury and exclusivity. In the words of the famous theme song for “The Jeffersons,” it’s a “deeee-luxe apartment in the sky.”
But if you automatically assume that a penthouse is on the top floor of a building, or the most opulent residence there, you might be surprised by what a penthouse really is in modern-day terms. Allow us to explain.
A peek inside penthouses—then and now
Penthouse apartments were born in the 1920s, when a robust economy sparked a construction boom in New York City, in which luxury apartments with to-die-for views were established on the top floors of many buildings.
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One of the earliest penthouses was owned by Condé Montrose Nast, the magazine magnate who inhabited a 5,000-square-foot duplex at 1040 Park Ave. complete with a ballroom, drawing room, library, and salon—the perfect perch for the publisher of such aspirational titles as Vanity Fair and Vogue. Another notable early penthouse was designed for Post cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post, who created a 54-room triplex on Fifth Avenue in 1925.
Today, penthouses can be found all over the world—in Hong Kong, London, Los Angeles, and other cities. Not surprisingly, many of the rich and famous inhabit penthouses, from comedian Amy Schumer to star NFL quarterback Tom Brady and his wife, supermodel Gisele Bündchen. And let’s not forget President Donald Trump’s three-story penthouse in Trump Tower, which serves as his New York City crash pad when he’s not slumming it in the White House.
Next stop: The top … or not?
Originally, the term “penthouse” referred to a smaller “house” constructed on the roof of an existing apartment building, set back to offer an outdoor area—all surrounded, of course, by an incredible view. But today, “penthouse” has been broadened generously to mean the top floor (or top few floors) of any tall building.
“The word ‘penthouse’ is now used purely for marketing to draw the attention of more buyers or renters,” says Eric Prigot of TripleMint Real Estate in New York City.
Today, a penthouse can even be on the ground floor, if it’s all tricked out and boasts luxury amenities not found in the building’s other units. These might include upgraded appliances, increased security, fancier finishes, a larger balcony, oversize windows, a breathtaking view, a larger floor plan, and a private entrance.
How much does a penthouse cost?
Due to its great views and luxury features, penthouses are typically 5% to 15% pricier than other units in the same building. However, if you’re tempted to pay up, you should make sure it’s worth the extra money.
“While many projects have started expanding the definition to include units on the top two or more floors, unless you are benefiting from increased ceiling heights, floor plans unique to that floor, or lower unit densities, they should not command a premium just by virtue of being called a ‘penthouse,’” says Matthew Simmons, a real estate agent with Maxwell Hendry Simmons in Fort Myers, FL.
However, Simmons adds, some top-floor units that are just like the others may still demand a premium price—call it the “king of the hill” factor. In that case, it’s up to you whether the bragging rights are worth the extra cash.
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