At 10:45 p.m. two Wednesdays ago, my roommate and I got confirmation that our landlord was forcibly removing our third roommate because of her dog, reclassifying our 3-BR into strictly 2-BR only, and inviting us two to stay and swallow the costs of that change. By 11 p.m., we had decided that we wouldn’t; we were going to strike it out on our own. By 11:15 p.m. we were scouring the frenetic mess of housing websites and sending brokers polite but hurried messages (“Hi, we are two working female professionals… loved your listing… background checks are no problem… free for a viewing Thursday night?”). By 1 a.m., we were feeling it: the pressure cooker process of finding our new home in New York.
This process has been STRESSFUL, and the following are some of the observations we made along the way.
1. It’s only crazy because there are a bazillion other people looking for the same exact things you are. For me and my roommate, the ideal apartment consisted of hardwood flooring, natural lighting and proximity to trains. Of course, we weren’t the only ones looking for these beautiful things. Every time we went to apartment viewings and passed by other little groups walking with their brokers, or left an apartment as another group entered, we were reminded that we were swirling in a world of hundreds of thousands of people in similar stages of life with very similar priorities racing to secure their next home just like us. When the competition is this high, each viewing comes down to a series of time-bomb questions: How interested are they? Are they putting down an application? Will we find anything better for this price? Is this the one we go for? Right now, before they do?
2. Be polite: This could also be an audition. I was in talks with one broker who invited me into his office for 15 minutes to ask me about who I was, what I did, whether my roommate and I met the combined $100,000+ yearly income requirement (40x rent), and why we were moving—before he would show me anything. He and his broker-partner also complimented me very seriously for being on time to our appointment, suggesting that others had fallen gravely short on this mark. They also emphasized their policy of only showing units to groups all at once so that they could gauge how likely the group would hold together over the course of the lease. They wanted to know the nature of the tenants before recommending them to the landlord, they said. It became clear that some brokers and landlords enjoy very close relationships, and that convincing a broker through both demeanor and paperwork that you are a trustworthy person may be the crucial last reason your application rises to the top.
But the broker-applicant relationship also felt intimate in the oddest ways. It’s almost like you can’t help but get to know these people when they’re helping you find your next treasured home. It goes beyond that initial streeteasy.com Hello message. It becomes a long and extensive email thread as the broker keeps an eye out for your priorities, forwards you new listings ASAP and asks, “Are u available tonight? 6:30?” (to schedule viewings) and “Still interested?” (the next morning when they need a response). Then there are the conversations that bloom when you’re walking with them from apartment to subway station or you’re waiting with them for your roommate who’s still a few minutes away. That’s when you discover that they came from the Philippines when they were 11; they love real estate because they love meeting new people all the time; their last three girlfriends were also Korean (“Wow, look at you go,” I responded).
3. The marketplace is never the same, which means the online search is now your second full-time job. Your ideal place could be listed online in the next half an hour, or tomorrow, or yesterday, but you’d have to do your research to know. I grabbed coffee with a girl who was interested in joining me and my roommate if we expanded our search to 3-BR places, and we commiserated over how time-consuming, how all-consuming, the online searching process is. She’d been doing this search for months, primarily because she was on her own and unable to find roommates she could actually live with, and she said it put her in a 24/7 state of paranoia that she was missing that one place or group of people who were actually a fit. It’s nerve-wracking and mentally unhealthy, but the fact remains: It’s possible that between the last time you looked online and right now, the place that you wanted and needed slipped through your fingers without you ever knowing.
4. You will get tired for more reasons than that online search. It is tiring to commute to multiple viewings in unfamiliar parts of the city after work, trekking from the subway station to the apartment on the lookout for the right address, and then, if that trek is long, plagueing yourself with the question: “What will this be like when it’s snowing?!” It is tiring trying to look honest and presentable to a landlord or broker when everyone can see your face is dripping sweat and you smell gross because so did everyone on the subway because it’s freaking hot right now. And it is psychologically tiring to ask those tug-of-war questions of “This one? This one?” at every viewing, and wonder yet again if now is the time to bite the bullet and accept that 50 percent of your usable paycheck may have to go to rent (AGH). Perhaps most of all, it is emotionally tiring to ride the highs of hope that come before a viewing that looked so promising online, and then swing the lows of discouragement after you realize that the “second bedroom” is actually a closet attached to the first bedroom, but you’re not interested at all in living like Harry Potter. (That’s why there is a kind of learning curve in realizing what questions you’ll want to ask in advance of a viewing to save yourself time.)
Sometimes, all of these forms of tiredness come to a head, and that’s when having the perfect accomplice helps to turn an emotional death mission into more of a “Mission: Impossible.” Turns out that my roommate and I are both Type A crazies whose main strategy for responding to overwhelming personal projects is to totally systematize them (e.g., double-confirm appointments with brokers and retain our respective primary points of contacts with brokers so as to keep consistency and stay memorable)… like insane people. But it’s great when two people are insane in the same way. And it is over-the-top awesome to have a roommate that realizes where you’re at before you do, and says, “You look discouraged and I think we need to get pizza,” and then points out the awesome pizza place situated down the street from the last viewing. It helps to have said roommate suggest, when you’re about to drudge your exhaustion down into the subway, instead walking the half-hour back home in the rain and heading up to the rooftop to sit out under the night sky and remember that we’re in this city and we will, we will, we will, find a place that doesn’t actually take 50 percent of our paycheck (and still lets us buy pizza).
5. Finally, if you want it, you need to be ready yesterday. My boss, also a Brooklyn real estate genius, advised us to have every part of our applications ready to submit long before we saw the ideal place. She explained how the most fantastic places could be on the market for all of 24 precious hours, and how if we liked something, chances were that everyone else did or would in three seconds. The advice proved to be my roommate’s and my saving grace. At 3:45 p.m. on Thursday, one of us found an interesting listing (they’re all “interesting” when they’re online and you’ve seen 500 already and some people post pictures that are blatant lies). We both texted the broker, shoved the apartment into our schedules for 5:30 before our 6 p.m. viewing, walked up to the apartment and loved it. It was perfect. We told the broker so. We wanted to apply, now, STAT (“Just one other partial application has come in,” he said…), and the current tenants were also gently prodding us out the door… because it was 6… So we walked across the street to the broker’s office (so convenient!) and I texted our other 6 p.m. broker with a polite cancellation message so that we didn’t totally cut off all opportunities in case this one here died. Then my roommate and I sat down and started shelling out the fee and one of four copies we had overeagerly made of our last three pay stubs, last three bank statements, letter of employment, photocopy of ID, past W2 forms, credit reports and letter of reference from our current landlady—most of which our broker didn’t even want.
We were ready. We were more than ready. We were ready to give our left hands, knowing other wealthier and older and more established applicants would and could probably do more. And all the while, we chatted with this super nice guy about his kids and New York and leaving LA and how to retain the grittiness and the mom-and-pop shops of Brooklyn in the face of all the tall glass developments… and then we walked out at 6:45 p.m. feeling crazy with anticipation and nervousness because did that just happen and is this place for real? It was our dream place, and it just happened to be in our budget. Was he going to show more people tomorrow? Would the landlord even pick us young things? How should we space out our follow-up emails or phone calls? We still had viewings scheduled for Friday and Saturday, just in case, and we wanted nothing more than to not have to go to them. The words “year-long lease” have never meant more to both of us than now, after years of spurts (willingly, though) of jobs and homes. But at 11:54 a.m. the next day, we got the email from our broker reading “U’v been approved! Call u guys later…” We found out later that we had been the second applicants on that first day of viewing, and that was all that he had needed to stop the viewings and present the landlord with tenant options. It had been on the market for a day.
7. Housing in New York is a little preposterous. The experience of looking for it is the great common denominator of most people who live in New York—those people being people who have budgets. What really makes it difficult is the combination of having both a budget and a geographic preference. If you don’t have the first and only have the second, then you live wherever you want. Conversely, if you have only a strict first and don’t care about the second, you’d have no qualms moving out to where the most unarguably affordable places are. My roommate and I lucked out in finding the place that let us keep both our budget and west geographic preference (i.e., a commute to Manhattan that doesn’t tire us out before work even starts) and all that other ideal criteria stuff. The fact that our new landlord insists on underpricing that unit makes it possible for new working people like us to live in that particular area, and that’s no small thing. Just look at the real estate and you see what I mean:
Housing prices rise for many reasons, one of them being people exactly like me who move here for a job and are willing to pay several hundreds of dollars more for rent than another given person or family. One mother washing her clothes next to me at my laundromat reminded me of this with quite some resentment (which is a topic for another day’s post), and I think it’s good for me to be reminded of how I might be implicated in communities that are pricing older tenants out. But I’m also trying to understand what happens to a city when even my age group and socioeconomic bracket is squeezed out of a city. What happens then and to whom? My boss and I interviewed a highly respected musician, a veteran in his field, who said that New York was becoming “culturally unfriendly” in the way its artists could no longer afford to live there. I found this highly poignant, especially knowing that most people working in the arts who are far older than me might make what I do or less. Others have also noticed this in the creative industries; they even see it in the restaurant scene. My boss also explained how the people who live in Cobble Hill in Brooklyn are the same kinds of people living on the Upper East Side, and that probably boils the blood of people who’ve lived in Brooklyn all their lives and wish they could continue to do so but cannot. Despite their own jobs, various brokers bemoaned this disintegration of Brooklyn culture, too. Certain echelons of wealth start looking pretty much the same anywhere.
Boy, how things change. When I told my grandparents, who immigrated to the Bronx from South Korea in the 70s, that I wanted to live in Brooklyn, I think they were scared for me. Flash forward to now, when my roommate and I brainstormed out loud that “if all else fails in this neighborhood, we can go live in Manhattan” because there were more affordable listings in the Lower East Side than Fort Greene showing that day. It was hysterical.
Anyway, my roommate and I are still in a minor state of self-protective disbelief. That first “U’v been approved” message chipped at the disbelief a tiny bit. Withdrawing obscene amounts of initial security deposit money from our bank accounts chipped at it a little more (or, as my roommate summed up the feeling: “I just blacked out a little bit”). But finally signing the hard copy of our year-long lease this morning chipped away a lot of the disbelief. The next part of believing this is all real will be having the keys in our hands on Monday. The next part after that will be transferring our weekday morning espresso ritual over to the new place, and then filling it with green plants spilling over bookshelves, and fairy lights and candles so that we can refuse to turn on real lights. Even then I think we’ll still feel a little shocked and spoiled to live in a place we can afford with our own money and love. At least, I hope so. Having a roof over one’s head in this city seems like something very, very special indeed.