We had been told a few “home truths” about looking for an apartment in New York before we even got here…
1: Apartments fly off the shelves like the proverbial hotcakes
2: Manhattan is so expensive you’ll have to look in the ‘burbs
3: Don’t trust any of the photos you see on the rental websites
Your experience, when looking for a New York apartment, may very much come down to what time of year you are looking. In the winter, far fewer people are looking for apartments. The hot spot is May to September when all the new graduates swarm to the city to find themselves their dream pads having just attained their dream jobs. The winter lull allows you more time to peruse. Apartments won’t vanish within a matter of hours as they will in the summer. Many will remain available for a week or more… This does make life considerably easier, as you won’t find yourself second guessing whether to put down a deposit on that “almost but not quite” apartment. You probably DO have time to think on it…
I spent about 3 weeks diligently scouring the one rental website we were advised may offer “genuine” ads, trying to find something in our price range that would fulfill our requirement of space for the kitties and a pleasant location for me. Streeteasy allows you to refine your search by how long an ad has been up and to specify only ads that have a specified address (this helps to filter out the fakes). Initially it looked very hopeful. I found plenty of properties that claimed to be 800 square foot. The photos looked good. The area was nice. The problem was that, not only do realtors often put up fake photos for a property (sometimes a different unit but sometimes even a different building), they also lie about the size of the place. This was something I hadn’t anticipated. How can you lie about size – especially if you include floorplans? Come on guys, do the maths! I calculated the real square foot of an apartment based on these floorplans. If the property said 650 square foot, you could bet it would be 500 tops. You also knew that when you went to see the property, the room sizes would be smaller than the claims. So a 650 property would probably, in reality, be a 450.
A good realtor is essential, to help you filter the rubbish from the few hidden gems. You pay for the service of course, often a month or more rental costs. But I was amazed at how often I would show Louis an apartment and he would say – too small, not real, condo etc etc… When tested on these things, i.e. when we insisted on seeing a particular apartment, he was inevitably proved right. If you are wondering about the Condo question. It’s basically a private landlord – a bit like most apartments in the UK. As a result, they can sell the place from under you and it can be harder to rent as they are often stricter on credit history requirements.
So how do you ever choose an area to live in if you really don’t know a city? Everyone told us that Manhattan would be way too expensive and we’d not be able to get a decent sized apartment. As a result, we initially assumed we would live in Brooklyn – Park Slope, Fort Green, Williamsburg. The irony is that, at some point over the last few years, everyone has heard the same thing and moved to Brooklyn. Now Brooklyn real estate (in these areas close to Manhattan) are at a premium. We realised, quite early on, that we may as well look on the island. Shorter commute, better for visitors, certainly no more expensive. Of course, if you are happy to live further out, or in the less salubrious areas, you will always get more for your money than on Manhattan itself!
We took notice of where other people we knew lived or were looking. We walked around various districts. We talked to the realtor about what we wanted from an area. You soon get a pretty good feel of what areas to look in. I loved the East village with it’s Camden-like arty feel and funky shops. Greenwich village is amazing for higher end shops and really does feel a lot like parts of London. Hells Kitchen is cheaper and great for restaurants. The Upper East side is more chilled and, of course, famous for Carrie Bradshaw’s fictional residence. We ended up, after much deliberation, on choosing the Upper West side. Close to central park, with a great selection of shops and restaurants. Access to museums, the Met and many other cultural locations. It’s a good all round and safe area and has a short commute for us.
I probably viewed in excess of 40 properties. I doubt it’s a record. People in Manhattan spend most of their lives looking for the right place. I don’t think you should set out with a vision of the type of building you want to live in… it’s the apartment that will shout at you, not the building, and you may end up ruling out the perfect pad. However, we did end up choosing a pre-war (1929) mid rise apartment – which is what I always felt we would end up in. A bit more personality but not all the wizz and bang of a brand new apartment. I think the highest apartment I viewed was in the 40’s. Your ears pop in the lifts but, boy, do you get the views… Brownstones offer beautiful features on quiet street but may well be smaller, darker or have unusual layouts. Our apartment block is 17 storeys and we are on the top floor. It’s about the right height for me and has uninterrupted views across to central park and the natural history museum. Don’t get me wrong… this isn’t the Dakota or San Remo. I can’t see grass… but I can see the swathe of tree tops that marks out the park and that makes me very happy…
So, if you can, look for your dream home in the autumn or winter months. Be prepared for a lot of disappointment and trawling around. Don’t rule areas out until you have evaluated the real cost of square footage. Buy a tape measure and chastise any agent who tells you a 9 foot room is 12 foot. Think about what really matters to you – must you have that in-building gym because you will pay more for it, even if you never use it… Have fun – go and see as many places as you can and try to enjoy the process… it’s a great way to see the city if nothing else!!!