On our first attempt to find an apartment in New York City, we ended up abandoned on the side of a busy street somewhere in Chelsea. The real estate agent, with whom we’d been in touch for weeks prior to our meeting – exchanging pleasantries, scheduling showings, and divulging our wishlist for a new home – walked off into the noon sun without showing us so much as one of the seven apartments we’d driven four hours to see.
Let me backtrack. In 2009, after a decade living in Boston proper and vicinity, my husband and I made the hard decision to move to New York to pursue our creative goals – his acting, mine writing. We loved our friends, and we loved Boston with its odd mix of cobblestone pride and uber-liberal politics. But we were ready to live on the precipice, in that space where your goals crash against reality and you pick up the shards to see what’s left. All of this could be had, we told ourselves, in New York City, the archetype of cities, the gotham of dreams. Cue me throwing my hat into the sky, smiling.
My husband and I were so hopeful and naïve about finding an apartment that we gave ourselves only a day to secure one with an agent we found on Craigslist. This agent (let’s call him StankFace McGee) knew we had only that one precious Saturday, yet he never uttered a word or chastised us about unrealistic expectations. We left Boston at 7 a.m., nervous, propelled onward by caffeine, rest stop food, and visions of the Chrysler Building.
The first sign of trouble was when Stankface McGee called us to change the address where we were to meet him for the first showing – somewhere south of Midtown, nowhere near the neighborhood we had previously agreed upon.
The second sign of trouble: he was 30 minutes late to said meeting.
This is the spot in my story where you give a little tsk, pinch me on my cheek, and offer me a cookie.
When he finally showed up – huffing, sweaty – the third (and final) sign of trouble came when the first apartment was unavailable to view. According to the doorman, it was because its tenant had a hangover and was still asleep at noon. Annoying, yes, but unusual, no. This was something the agent could have found out by a simple phone call beforehand – a task a prepared agent would have handled.
Then I made a fatal mistake. I said something along the lines of, “Good thing we have some time to find an apartment, since we don’t have to move right away.” This was true; we owned our condo in Massachusetts, so there was no deadline by which we had to find a place in New York beyond our own pressing desire. Still, we were prepared to sign on a lease that day because we didn’t have the luxury of traveling several hundred miles every time a good apartment cropped up.
But in real estate speak, it translated to, “Watch us take this match and burn your money.”
Real estate agents in New York City typically make a 15% fee on the full year’s rent. You read that correctly. Let’s say a one-bedroom apartment is $2,500 a month (you also read that correctly). $2,500 x 12 = $30,000. $30,000 x 15% = $4,500. And because the real estate market is so quick – apartments typically rent in a day, sometimes less – telling an agent you don’t need an apartment right away is the same as telling them you hate their grandmother. In simple capitalist terms, the moment I uttered those blasphemous words, the dollar signs dissipated above our heads.
Stankface McGee walked us to the corner. He smiled and handed us a piece of paper with an address written on it. “This is the next apartment you can go see. It’s just a few blocks from here.” He pointed in the vicinity of the Hudson River, maybe New Jersey. Then he turned and walked away from us without so much as a New York salute.
I stared at my husband and whispered, “Did that just happen?” Abandoned. Rejected. A planner with no plan. And no apartment.
I don’t want you to feel sorry for us for too long. We did eventually find a place – just not that day. That day, we decided to do the only thing that makes sense when you’re feeling rejected in a large city: we went to brunch.
Later, we found a new real estate agent, a lovely young woman who was patient with us and showed us only the kinds of apartments we asked to see. And after four trips back and forth from Boston to New York, we finally signed on a quaint walk-up brownstone in a lovely neighborhood. We breathed a sigh of relief, put moving plans into place, and allowed ourselves to get excited about life in New York once more.
Great, right? And it was. Apart from a horrendous move-in, we loved it. We joined groups, made friends, started on our paths toward fulfillment. Then, one year later, after the owner of the brownstone we lived in died, the building was sold, and all of us tenants had to go. Why? Because the millionaire who bought the building wanted to gut it to make it his own private home, add an elevator, and create an au pair suite for his nanny. It’s OK to hate him. You’re behind me in line.
And once more, we were thrust into the New York rental market, but this time a little wiser.
Next week: getting the apartment you want without an agent, a fee, or selling your kidney.