When I decided to move from the ‘burbs to New York City in my mid-20s, I tried to be realistic about what my new living quarters would be like. I didn’t expect to live in a gorgeous loft like Samantha in “Sex and the City.” I imagined something more like Rachel and Monica’s place in “Friends,” and squeaking by with a sunny roommate or two.
Instead, my apartment hunt felt a lot more like “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.”
Living in New York City possesses a mystical appeal, but as someone who’s seen, smelled, and survived living in apartments from the Upper West Side down to Wall Street, I’m here to say that bright-eyed newbies are in for a huge shock once they get a taste of their real estate options in the Big Apple.
As proof, here are a few of the more, um, memorable apartments I toured during my own New York apartment hunt, and the lessons I learned along the way.
I actually lucked out with my first New York City apartment. It was at the extreme northern end of Manhattan, in Inwood, just below the Bronx. I found it on Craigslist pretty easily—a 700-square-foot one bedroom in an immaculately clean high-rise building.
I had a wonderful landlord next door, who quickly became a good friend. There was even a laundry room in the basement and an on-site super! I was, in a word, spoiled. Sure, someone offered me drugs the very first time I left my apartment to buy groceries, but NYC has its own special take on the welcome wagon.
Yet my love affair with Inwood came to an end, after my 45-minute subway commute had finally worn me down. I was planning to become a new mom, and that extra 90 minutes on the subway meant serious coin in child care.
But I would soon come to understand how truly good I had it in Inwood.
Lesson learned: If your apartment is bigger than a shoebox, clean, and you have a decent landlord, you’re doing great! In New York, a long commute is par for the course, so if that’s the extent of your problems, maybe quit while you’re ahead. I did not heed this sage advice.
The disappearing act
One of the very first places I tried to rent post-Inwood was a one-bedroom on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. My dream neighborhood—walkable to work, rows of gorgeous brownstones nestled in between Central Park and the Hudson River, easy access to several subway lines, and even a Trader Joe’s nearby.
The apartment was in one of those brownstones where the expansive street view gave no hint of the microscopic living quarters carved out behind the brick and stucco facade. Still, I loved it. It had a loft and a bedroom and an exposed brick wall, and I could probably fit my couch in there.
The problem? It got snapped up by another renter before I even walked out the door.
Lesson learned: You often have mere seconds to make up your mind in New York, especially when vacancies are low. There may be no time for comparison shopping, or going back for a second look.
So, don’t even start pounding the pavement unless you have the paperwork in your bag: bank statements, credit checks, paystubs, and at least two years of tax returns. Oh, and confirmation from your employer that you are, in fact, employed and can meet whatever criteria the landlord sets—often that you make 40 times the monthly rent! (If you think that sounds ridiculous and borderline unattainable, it’s because it is.) A backup letter of reference from past landlords and neighbors wouldn’t hurt either.
Murder scene No. 1
My next foray into the dark side came courtesy of a real estate listing in a neighborhood known as Hamilton Heights, a fancier name for northern Harlem. This was certainly more affordable than the Upper West Side, and it still had brownstones.
The apartment had been billed as a one-bedroom, but guess what? There was no living room! It had a kitchen that wasn’t actually a kitchen, more like a section of wall in the entryway with a sink, a stove, and a fridge.
I stuck my head out of a small open window just off that kitchen wall where a fire escape led down to an alley. The listing agent quickly tried to get me away from the window, but it was too late: At the bottom of that alley lay a mattress covered in blood … or at least it sure looked like blood.
“Maybe you would just keep that window closed for safety,” he offered.
Lesson learned: If there’s a bloody mattress in the alley below your apartment, the answer is always going to be “No, thank you.” No exceptions.
The rat trap
The next apartment I saw, on West 74th Street, I actually lived in for a year. Well, 11 months. It was a one-bedroom, but my queen-sized bed touched three walls, meaning that changing the sheets required Cirque du Soleil-worthy acrobatics.
It had one lone washing machine and one lone dryer in a basement that looked like something straight out of the “Saw” movie franchise. Still beats schlepping dirty clothes to the musty laundromat on a Saturday.
All was well, until I got a panicked call from my dog walker that he’d found my two Italian greyhounds, Joey and Molly, sick and puking up bright green pellets they’d pulled out from under the radiator while I was at work. Rat poison. The super had put rat poison in my apartment and never told me.
Lesson learned: Intensive care for two Italian greyhounds who ingest rat poison runs about $3,000 in Manhattan.
Murder scene No. 2
After the great rat poison incident of 2011, I was going to make sure I found a place safe for both me and my dogs. My search took me to the very northern border of the Upper West Side.
And there I found The One: the perfect apartment. It was a two-bedroom, perfect for my soon-to-be growing family, on West 95th Street, close to Riverside Park.
It was ground level with easy access to the maintenance entrance, which meant I could easily scoot my dogs in and out to pee late at night without having to dash through the lobby in my pajamas.
The listing said the landlord would approve one 25-pound dog. Given that my dogs didn’t weigh 25 pounds put together, and that they were well-behaved, I figured I was golden. I was not. I spent the next week peppering the landlord with recommendations from my vet and past neighbors and my Inwood landlord. Please, I begged, this is the apartment I’ve been looking for. No, he said. One dog, not two.
Then, just as I prepared to make my final push, with a bribe for a nonrefundable pet deposit, someone was stabbed just outside the building.
As I read the news reports online, I learned that stabbings were apparently a “thing” in that neighborhood and residents were blaming a nearby homeless shelter … or maybe the drug rehab facility next door. In two months, two people died right in front of that front door.
Lesson learned: Read the crime reports in the area before you bribe the landlord to let you and your tiny dogs move in.
Home sweet flooded home
I looked at several apartments after that, and settled on a two-bedroom duplex on West 76th Street, just one block away from the Museum of Natural History. There was a private patio for parties, and two bathrooms and storage space. Storage space! At about 800 square feet, it was grand.
We lived there for two years. My son was born while I was living in that apartment. Sure, my neighbor in the front of the building had a massive rat problem and was kept up at night by the sound of rat swarms feeding in trash cans, but that was no bother to me in the back.
It was all going along swimmingly until shortly after my son was born, about a year after I moved in. I woke up after a particularly rainy day and felt my feet splash in inches of water on the tile floor.
The landlord’s maintenance manager seemed very concerned at first, sending in cleanup crews, offering to pay for damage to my rugs and furniture. There was a drainage clog where the ground met the building, they explained. They sent repair crews to investigate.
Then it happened again. And again. Over and over. I threw out the rugs. I put what furniture I could up on lifts.
Things got very moldy very quickly. The maintenance manager stopped sending repair crews. Then $100 disappeared from an emergency fund jar I had inside my dresser drawer while the cleaning crew was over yet again. I couldn’t prove it, though, so that was swept under the rug. Or it would have been if my rug hadn’t been destroyed by water. I called it quits.
Lesson learned: Ground-floor apartments are not worth it. Even with the patio. There’s more water, more bugs, more rats. Go at least one floor up.
That was the last Manhattan apartment I lived in. I left the city for a new opportunity in New Orleans—where, ironically, my home has never flooded.
Although my adventures apartment hunting in New York are now over, I don’t regret those years one bit.
Still, I do wish that someone had taken me aside before my move, to say, “Oh, you’re looking for an apartment in New York City? Good luck!” Because you really do need all the luck and guidance you can get.
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