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Why Buy a Condo You Seldom Use? Because You Can

In the ornate lobby of the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan, high heels clack across the marble floor, glasses clink at a bar in the corner, neatly dressed porters scurry back and forth, and the buzz of quiet conversation ripples through the room. But just around the corner, at the entrance reserved for residents of the Plaza’s condominium apartments, the gilded lobby stands all but silent. Here, very few people come and go, because most of the apartment owners live someplace else.

One real estate broker said that in the Time Warner Center, he had dealt with condominium buyers from London and Hong Kong, Minnesota, New Jersey and Texas — but never New York.

“I would say 10 percent of the building are really full-time residents like myself, out of about 150 apartments,” Joanna Cutler, a real estate broker who has lived in the building since 2007, said last week as she sauntered through long, empty hallways.

“For the record,” she said, after stepping off an elevator shared with a man in a suit and a woman with an enthusiastic bichon frisé, “I have never seen those people before.”

Pieds-à-terre exist throughout the New York City condo market, a separate little world of vacation homes and investment properties. But the higher the price, the higher the concentration is likely to be of owners who spend only a few months, a few weeks or even just a few days each year in their apartments. This very costly form of desolation means that some of the city’s most expensive residential buildings stand mostly dark, lonesome and empty on the inside.

“Our next-door neighbors were absolutely lovely, and we saw them maybe once a year,” said a former resident at 25 Columbus Circle, the south tower of the Time Warner Center, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Most people don’t actually live there.”

There are no reliable statistics on the number of pieds-à-terre in New York City, but real estate experts say that global economic jitters have drawn more and more astonishingly wealthy people into the market in recent years. They come from all over, whether Monaco, Moscow or Texas, looking for a safe place to put their money, as well as a trophy, and perhaps a second — or third or fourth or fifth — home while they’re at it.

“It is a safe haven,” said Jonathan Miller, president of the appraisal firm Miller Samuel. “It’s not coming from just one country; it’s a global phenomenon.”

Scott Avram, an assistant vice president at Toll Brothers City Living, a company that builds luxury condos, said 40 percent of the buyers at the Touraine, a project at 65th Street and Lexington Avenue, were from foreign countries.

And the ultraluxury condo building One57 on West 57th Street, where two apartments are in contract for at least $90 million, has had billionaire buyers from Britain, Canada, China and Nigeria, as well as from America.

Then there is the $88 million crash pad at 15 Central Park West, bought last year by a trust linked to Ekaterina Rybolovleva, then 22 years old. Ms. Rybolovleva is the daughter of a Russian billionaire in the fertilizer industry, Dmitry Rybolovlev, who is in the middle of a rather expensive divorce. In a lawsuit filed last year, Mr. Rybolovlev’s wife, Elena Rybolovleva, alleged that the apartment was bought not as a place for their daughter to live, but as a way to put that money out of the older Ms. Rybolovleva’s reach. According to court documents, the younger Ms. Rybolovleva is a resident of Monaco.

The building at 15 Central Park West has its share of pieds-à-terre, real estate professionals say. But the concentration there is not as high as in other brutally expensive buildings, especially those in Midtown that share space and services with hotels, like the Plaza or the Time Warner Center, which shares a building with the Mandarin Oriental.

“I was living on the 16th floor, and I was pretty much the only one there,” said Charlie Attias, a senior vice president at the Corcoran Group who rented an apartment at the Plaza for three years and has handled many transactions in the building. “We had the occasional visitor — I mean, the occasional owner — once in a while.”

“Actually, when we saw somebody, it was a big thing,” he added. “Oh wow, somebody’s in my hallway!”

Scott Stewart, a senior vice president at the Corcoran Group, sold five condos at Time Warner Center over about eight years. He has had buyers from London and Hong Kong, Minnesota, New Jersey and Texas — and not a single one from New York. In all the times he has shown the building to prospective buyers, he added, he never saw more than one person using the condo’s gym at a time.

“I’ve seen Kelly Ripa there,” he said of the television star, who has since moved out. “Two little kids were playing with Legos on the treadmill next to her, and there was nobody else.”

Elizabeth Lee Sample, a broker at Sotheby’s International Realty and a member of the board that oversees the Time Warner complex, estimates that the condos in the south tower are generally about 60 percent occupied, while those in the north tower are only about 30 percent occupied, except during the holidays.

Nonetheless, a spokeswoman for Related Management, which manages the building, said it is staffed for full occupancy at all times, just in case.

Some residents, like Mr. Attias and Ms. Cutler of the Plaza, say the sparse population means extra privacy, lots of attention from the staff and very little noise. Mr. Stewart said he always pointed it out at Time Warner as a selling point.

Others, however, describe living in a deserted piggy bank as something else: lonely.

“I always said when I lived there that it felt very transient, and I wouldn’t want to live in that type of building again,” the former Time Warner resident said.

“The building I had come from was like living in a large dysfunctional family,” the former resident continued. “Maybe you hated them, maybe there was that aunt you didn’t want to talk to at the holidays, but it was still nice knowing everybody.”

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