Penthouses are known for their luxury amenities and sweeping city views. Perched on the top floor of luxury apartment buildings, they represent the best of the best. But they might not be exactly what you expect.

Imagine …

Your real estate agent has found the perfect penthouse. It checks all of your boxes, so you schedule a showing. The building is stunning and ideally located. So you board the elevator and settle in for your long ride to the top.

But the elevator stops far short of the top floor. You turn to your agent, quizzically raising your eyebrows. Then the elevator door opens to reveal a unique floor plan, lots of natural light, high ceilings, and access to a balcony. What gives? If it’s not the top-floor apartment, then what is a penthouse? Is the agent trying to pull the wool over your eyes? Not necessarily.

The definition of penthouse has evolved over the years, but regardless of its location in the building or its layout, you’re guaranteed top-of-the-line amenities and swoon-worthy views. As with any real estate, however, there are still pros and cons to penthouse living and this type of property isn’t for everyone.

Penthouses are quintessentially New York, but some of the best penthouses can be found in Miami, Los Angeles, and Honolulu. So whether you’re looking for beach views, city views, or a little of both, there’s a penthouse that can deliver — for a price.

An apartment building that may have a penthouse.
Source: (Zane Lee / Unsplash)

The history of a penthouse

Penthouses rose to popularity during the opulence of the Roaring ’20s. Luxury and drama reigned supreme in every aspect of life, including over-the-top luxury apartments that were established as the top floor of many high-end apartment buildings. As with many success stories, however, the penthouse came from humble beginnings.

The archaic definition of a penthouse is “an outhouse or shelter built onto the side of a building, having a sloping roof.” And believe it or not, the penthouse was originally built as servant’s quarters where they could be tucked away on the roof — near chimneys and water towers — and out of sight. Before the invention of elevators, the “penthouse” required a long haul up the stairs, making the top floor an undesirable spot — despite the city views.

But after the invention of elevators and the elevator brakes that made skyscrapers possible, the wealthy got wise to the fact that their servants enjoyed a much better view than they did. Once they realized what they were missing, the elite turned out the servants and New York City legalized penthouses in 1925.

Once the desire for a penthouse took hold, developers began to do what any good business people would do and designed the top floor of a building to exude luxury and finery. Two of the first penthouse owners were Condé Montrose Nast of Condé Nast media company and Marjorie Merriweather Post, a businesswoman, socialite, philanthropist, and director of General Foods.

Post is credited with owning New York City’s first penthouse that she had designed based on the mansion that was demolished in 1925 to make room for 1107 Fifth Ave. Its opulence was astounding — even by today’s standards. Technically a triplex, it took up three floors and boasted 54 rooms. This building still commands high prices with apartments selling for over $16 million.

So what is a penthouse now?

According to Jared Antin, a Manhattan real estate agent who leads his firm’s sales team, the classic definition of a penthouse is the full top floor of an apartment building. However, because developers understand that penthouses command premium prices, some take more liberties with the term and use it as a marketing point.

The modern definition of penthouse has been expanded to refer to a variety of units. Units that are “set back” allowing for a terrace or balcony regardless of what floor they’re on, those with a different layout than other units in the building, units with higher ceilings, and units that offer other amenities to differentiate it from the standard unit all qualify for penthouse status.

Antin says that some apartments “may have terraces or some other characteristic that distinguishes them, and developers use it as a marketing point to be able to charge more per square foot. For instance, the penthouse floor may have a combination of higher ceiling height, private outdoor space, and nicer finishes.” In some cases, there are multiple penthouses on one floor or one penthouse may take up multiple floors.

The shift in what the term “penthouse” means is due to a number of factors.

  • It’s good for marketing: Who doesn’t want to say they live in a penthouse? The term alone exudes luxury and status, so broadening the use of the term allows more units to fall into this prestigious category, therefore encouraging buyers and a higher price tag.
  • It differentiates units: In an apartment building, some units have more amenities and features than others. Using the term “penthouse” to describe units with similar features such as lots of light, high ceilings, more amenities, and a unique floor-plan differentiates them from the more standard units.
  • It’s a result of market saturation: Supply and demand also play a role in the evolving use of the term “penthouse.” With more penthouses coming on the market and people beginning to realize that they can have luxury without the quintessential penthouse moniker, there has been a surplus of penthouse real estate that begins to drive the price down. As a result, top-floor penthouses are being redesigned and split into multiple units with beautiful views and top floor prestige. This leaves the term “penthouse” open to be used for other units.
Interior views of a beautiful penthouse apartment.
Source: (Mostafa Safadel / Unsplash)

Benefits of a penthouse

The best of the best

When you invest in a penthouse, you’re getting the best of the best. With a penthouse comes prestige and status — plus incredible views, luxury amenities, private outdoor space, large windows … the list goes on!

Sweeping views

Whether the penthouse is located on the top floor or a lower/middle floor, you’ll get sweeping views of the skyline and city below.

Tons of natural light

Many penthouses feature floor-to-ceiling windows designed to flood the space with natural light and allow you to enjoy the view from the comfort of your couch.

Privacy and exclusive access

A penthouse comes with added privacy and may even have exclusive elevator access. In 2020, the penthouse’s coveted private outdoor space became even more relevant in the midst of a pandemic.

A unique layout

Part of the updated definition of a penthouse is that, regardless of the floor it’s on, it features a unique layout that sets it apart from others in the building.

Challenges of a penthouse

Higher price tag

Along with the extra space, amenities, and outdoor space comes a higher price tag than standard units. If you’re set on a penthouse, you could pay 5% to 20% more than you would for other units in the same building, depending on the city.

Exposed to more elements

The higher up the penthouse is, the harsher the elements will be. On higher floors, you’ll be exposed to hotter and colder temperatures that can affect your utility bills. Wind can be an issue as well, making outdoor spaces unusable on high wind days.

For penthouses on the top floor, living directly beneath the roof also could expose the unit to storm damage or ice damming.

Rooftop amenities could be disruptive

If you purchase a top-floor penthouse, it’s possible that rooftop amenities available to everyone could be loud or disruptive, especially during weekends and community gatherings.

Views from the terrace of a penthouse apartment.
Source: (Wander Fleur / Unsplash)

Is a penthouse the right real estate investment?

Despite the purported market saturation for penthouse apartments, the pandemic has created a new demand because most penthouses come with their own private outdoor space — a huge selling point at the moment. And with the rising number of people getting vaccinated, cities are seeing the return of many who left after the pandemic took hold in 2020.

Antin, for one, is excited about the future of New York real estate as they’re seeing luxury real estate start to pick up and rebound. “People are coming back to the city without a doubt,” he says.

“Sales activity is way up. Mass transportation, walking around, Times Square. So people are coming back to New York. And we expect as we head into the fall [of 2021] and there’s more of an expected return to the office that things will pick up even further.”

With this optimism in mind, choosing a penthouse with private outdoor space, a unique layout, and luxury amenities that is close to the action might be the right choice as we move into a post-COVID era. And finding the best agent to walk you through the process will help you discover the perfect place to call home.

If you do decide to take the plunge into penthouse living and want to go all out, you might be lucky enough to find a penthouse deal like this, complete with a million-dollar yacht, two Rolls-Royce Phantoms, a Lamborghini, a vacation rental in the Hamptons, and of course, two tickets to outer space. Luxury, indeed.

Header Image Source: (Daniel DiNuzzo / Unsplash)