I Brake for Floor Plans — I Like to See How Those Other People Live

Floor plan of condo on East 86 Street, Manhattan, with three bedrooms and 3.5 baths.

Floor plan of a condo on East 86 Street with juliet balcony, walk-in closets and a huge kitchen — by Manhattan standards.

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

It’s Sunday morning. I pull the New York Times Magazine from the fat stack of newspapers on the breakfast table, fully intending to read the informative, thought-provoking articles inside. But I get no farther than page two, because that’s where the real estate ads are – the ones with the floor plans.

They are floor plans for glorious multi-million-dollar condominiums in Manhattan, complete with foyers, parlors, media rooms, powder rooms, balconies and walk-in closets.

I used to live in Manhattan. What a great place to be – tiny groceries where you can buy real filo dough and real pumpernickel bread. Restaurants that serve clam chowder – Manhattan clam chowder. Quickie lunch spots where if you ask for your coffee light they know what you mean – milk, and lots of it.

Now I live in the San Francisco Bay Area – in a house. But those floor plans in the Sunday New

A storybook Tudor house for sale in Minneapolis.

A storybook Tudor house for sale in Minneapolis.

York Times stop me every time. What if I’d stayed in New York and wound up a high-powered editor on Good Housekeeping or Vogue or Gourmet? What kind of apartment would be mine?

Probably not one of these – with price tags of seven and eight figures. But that doesn’t stop me from dreaming. I pore over the floor plans, inhabiting them. My morning tea grows cold. Those enlightening articles on the social issues of the day languish on the pages ahead.

But it’s a Sunday morning, and I have time to indulge this, my guilty pleasure. I walk through the rooms, I imagine myself taking in spectacular views of skyscrapers and bridges, I try hanging my jeans and Zumba sweats in the walk-in closets.

I linger. This one’s got a foyer with a powder room off the entry. But the kitchen – as with so many of these high-priced condos – is dinky, not much bigger than the the walk-in closet. Don’t these rich people cook?

Much as I enjoy my Sunday morning reveries of New York City, a floor plan doesn’t have to describe a multi-million-dollar condo on the Upper East Side to catch my eye. It can be up the street from my house right here in California.

And so, like a lot of people – and you know who you are – I brake for estate sales. I park the car and go into the house – not to shop, but to check out the floor plan. Same goes for open houses. A for sale sign in front of a house and I hit the brakes. 

The upstairs hallway of an house with three bedrooms and a bath built in the 1950s. Photo by BF Newhall

Our  midcentury house is typical of the 1950s, with three bedrooms and one bath upstairs. Photo by BF Newhall

I like to look at other people’s floor plans. I like to see how they live. Are they big-kitchen people? Or are they satisfied with a microwave and a couple square feet of counter space to heat and serve the take-out?

Have they splurged most of the upstairs square footage on an over-the-top master bedroom with TV and breakfast kitchen and left the kids with one ten-by-ten-foot space each for bed, desk and play space?

I like to see where architects are putting the laundry. It used to be the basement, with a laundry chute, maybe. Now you see washers and dryers in the upstairs hall or even in the master bedroom.

I wonder about those trendy great rooms. Do people mind the kitchen odors and noises wafting into the living space? Would I?

Does the master bedroom have some privacy but not so much that you can’t hear the toddler crying down the hall in the middle of the night?

These days, of course, you don’t have to get inside a house to study its floor plan. You can go to the realtor’s website and take the slide-show walk-through. After that you can go to Google Maps and stroll up and down the street.

Peter and Emily are looking for a house to buy – in faraway Minneapolis. Jon and I flew in to do some house-hunting with them a few weeks ago. That was fun, but, truth be told, we could have gotten almost as good a tour of those same houses without ever leaving home – just by going on line.

Peter has been sending us links to other houses, and – major confession coming up here – I spent all of last weekend (and I mean the whole weekend) touring houses on line. Bathrooms, back yards, laundry rooms, garages.

No floor plans are provided on this real estate agency’s site – just pictures. But that didn’t stop me. I studied photo after photo and puzzled out the floor plans for myself. One house had a huge

Living room of condominium on East 86 Street, Manhattan, with views of skyscrapers.

A condominium with juliet balcony for sale on East 86 Street, Manhattan.

deck out back. Another was a stone’s throw from the Minnehaha Creek Parkway. Another had an adorable stone and stucco Tudor façade and a knotty pine entertainment room.

When Jon and I bought our house way back in 1978, we bought it in spite of the fact it had only one bathroom upstairs to serve three bedrooms.

We didn’t think we could make it through the teen years sharing a bathroom with a couple of kids. But we did. We never got around to adding a second bathroom upstairs. Too expensive. Too time-consuming. Didn’t happen.

I’ve spent hours and hours over the years trying to figure out how to squeeze another bathroom into that upstairs space of ours. And hours and hours looking at other people’s houses to see how they’ve managed it. So far I haven’t figured out a good way to get that second bathroom. But when I do, I’ll draw up a floor plan.

More stories about houses at “A Generation of Preschoolers Trapped in Their Back Yards”  and  “Getting a New Kitchen? Here Are Five Things I Like About Mine.”



  1. Katherine Philipp says:

    Love this article! I’ve studied floor plans my whole life. (should I have been an architect?) I kept my favorites in a folder that I pulled out 10 years ago when we decided to build a house on a lot we owned in Virginia. I made a wish list for the architect and built my dream house. Well, close to it. Some neighbors told me they’d like a do-over but I’m satisfied. We won’t do this again. But I still study the floor plans in the paper and imagine living in that space. I love floor plans.

    • Barbara Falconer Newhall says:

      Hmmm. Is there a whole hidden community of floor plan addicts out there? I didn’t realize how intrigued I was by them until son and daughter-in-law started their house hunt and I found myself spending hours studying the photos to figure out the layouts so I could imagine living in those houses.

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