Apartment Hunting NYC-Style: How I Found a New Home, Sweet Home

I land at LaGuardia Airport on a Monday and cab it to my youngest sister's apartment where I am staying. Before my two sisters and I begin the apartment search, I make it clear that I am interested in something newish. I explain why: "If I see a roach or mouse in my NYC apartment, I will freak." Of course, I am assuming that only old buildings have this problem. 

Both sisters look at each other and laugh. They are quick to tell me it doesn't matter if the place is old or new. Roaches, mice (even rats—ugh!) are a part of life in NYC, they say in unison. "Welcome to NYC," my youngest sister chortles. 

"That's neither helpful nor funny," I reply.  

Then the hunt begins. I have my wish list in hand and begin this process as cautiously as one might approach an electric fence. Also, I learn before we step out that whether I'd even qualify for a place is literally dependent on “the bag,” the bag I clutch to my chest like a newborn and schlep everywhere. It contains a history of my financial life; bank statements, letters of reference from the current manager of my condo, bank statements, income/pay stubs, and at least two years of tax returns. This is all confirmation of my ability to afford the rent on whatever apartment I decide, all based on criteria each landlord sets. 


I have visited NYC enough to narrow down the neighborhoods where I want to live, which are closest to my sisters, my son and Barbara: West Side, Upper West Side, East Side and Upper East Side. My wish list is for a one-bedroom, 1 ½ bathroom, home office alcove, washer and dryer in the unit or at the very least accessible washers and dryers in the building so I don’t have to carry dirty clothes to an expensive dry cleaners or basement, a shared laundry room, and on a low floor because I have a fear of heights. 

This wish list is dashed quickly as I discover there is nothing like this within my budget in the areas of Manhattan where I am looking. I'll be lucky to find in a newer building a one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment that is little more than a cement cube and possibly one without a washer and dryer.  

My one sister and I begin the search by hoofing it from place to place to check out doormen buildings in different neighborhoods. In some cases, we go into the buildings and ask to speak with a leasing agent to find out if apartments are available and get an idea of price ranges.  

One building we enter near Lincoln Center seems newish and nice. The doorman calls a leasing agent who graciously shows us a unit that is about the size of my two current walk-in closets combined. In the next few buildings, we aren't any luckier. We chalk it up to a wild goose chase and decide to go back to my sister's apartment to check out apartment availability online.   

We make a few appointments for the next day. The first place we see on day two is by Columbia University. It’s on the top floor, not good for someone whose stomach does flip flops when she looks down. It’s a nice size and decent value for a one-bed, one-bathroom unit. After talking with the doorman--I learn never to ask the leasing agent certain questions since they are not allowed to answer when it comes to demographics and issues/problems with the building--he tells me that most of the residents are students, many of whom like to party. We move on!   

We look at a few other apartments on the West Side and suddenly all of them start looking alike...living room, bedroom, bathroom and kitchen. The public spaces are similar, too: velvety sofas and patterned club chairs in conversation pits, polished chrome and glass accoutrements, lovely designer carpeting atop marble or terrazzo floors in buildings with a modern or older marble clad pre- and post-war built domiciles. Some have outdoor spaces. 

Nothing feels right. One place has the modern appliances I like but carries a high price tag. Or, the apartment is great, but the neighborhood doesn’t feel safe or have the grocery and drug stores, coffee houses, subway and bus stops, restaurants, library and art galleries in proximity I want to have.   

We look on the East Side in a good neighborhood at one place that is a former upscale vintage hotel. The rooms are now chopped up into sizeable rentals. Each apartment is different, and it is luck of the draw as to which floor plans are available. However, the hallways are so dimly lit it reminds me of a run-down nursing home.     

Another apartment is billed as a one-room, but guess what? There is barely a living room. It has a kitchen that isn't a kitchen, more like a section of wall in the entryway with a sink, stove and fridge. I glance out a small window just off the kitchen that faces a brick wall. Not okay. I am getting discouraged.  

At that point, we feel it is time to call in a professional, a broker, a woman who is a friend of a friend of my youngest sister. She has listings that aren't posted and could pare down what is available based on what she thinks I might like. A few hours later, she sends some postings and sets up appointments.  

We meet the next day at a lovely small Beaux-Arts building on the East Side in the area termed midtown. The apartment has two bedrooms, two bathrooms and a non-working fireplace. It is occupied by two young men who haven't cleaned it probably in the three years they’ve lived there. Translation: It’s a dump! I nix it for that reason and the fact that it is a sublet. I don’t want to have to start the looking process again in a year or two. 

We also check out several newish buildings near the Hudson River on the West Side, not too far from the brand-new Hudson Yards megadevelopment getting lots of publicity. Some we find are not well maintained or the finishes are faux—vinyl “hardwood” floors, laminate countertops, low-end appliances until... we enter one building that is stunning with a beautifully appointed marble lobby. It has a lower level filled with amenities that's a huge honeycombed communal space for kids and adults to exercise and play with a bowling alley, swimming pool, rock climbing wall, and more. Barbara tells me that she envisions having her grandsons’ birthday parties there. 

The unit I see is compelling—white walls, nice-sized rooms that aren’t perfect squares or rectangles, a well-appointed yet small kitchen, and a smallish but lovely bathroom with both a shower and soaking tub. In addition, there is a partial view of the Hudson River from the living room and bedroom windows. 

And then the rush, the pressure to sign begins. I am told 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. I take my chances, unsure if I want the neighbored, which is a bit off the beaten path. I believe fate will intervene if I’m meant to live there. 

The next day I see a one-bedroom that is about the size of a small hotel room in a lovely well-maintained older building on the Upper West Side. It has a gorgeous large white marble bathroom, but in the so-called bedroom my queen-sized bed would touch all three walls, meaning that changing the sheets would require unimaginable acrobatic feats. The basement, which is in the process of being renovated, reminds me of a dungeon with the original drying racks for laundry in one corner. 

My sisters and I also check out another building on the West Side with nice space and a good room arrangement, more expensive but it has no washer and dryer in the unit. In addition, the building is gigantic, making it difficult to get an elevator because so many people live in the building. But the deal breaker is the fact that I would need a GPS to find the laundry room since I’m terrible when it comes to finding my way.   

Back for a second look at the place I like near the Hudson River confirms my decision. I picture myself there with my desk by the window, half-drawn shades blocking the sun but not the great city and river views while my fingers will be clack-clack-clacking across the keyboard. This will be my new home where I will be inspired to write great copy and entertain family and new friends. I would also, I tell myself, join the gym and take advantage of some of the amenities. It’s a good place to meet new people. I sign a lease and run to the nearest bank to open an account.  

Back in St. Louis, I am saddled with the task of figuring out what will fit into a space that is one-third the size of where I live now. Fortunately, my sisters and one good friend have been invaluable in helping to figure out a furniture arrangement. This apartment will be the first place that I’ve ever picked out on my own. With some of my current furniture pieces and paintings and a couple of new ones, I hope to make my new digs a successful reflection of who I am now and how I hope to live in my new adopted city. Let the adventure begin!

Tips on how to find a NYC apartment: 

Determine your budget. Have it reflect the least amount to the top of your budget and be honest with yourself about what you can afford. I conferred with my financial professional before going to NYC to find a place. I plugged in what kind of rent I might be able to afford along with all the other expenses I might incur. 

Develop your wish list. New or an older building. The difference can mean smaller or larger rooms. Know which area you like best and figure out why. Then, prioritize so you can be prepared to give up certain items to find a place that most appeals, is safe and affordable. I thought I wanted 1 ½ baths and an extra home office space as well as a washer and dryer. I had to forego the extra bathroom and home office space for now. I did get the washer and dryer.  

Scout the areas you like first-hand. Narrow it down to the location and then zero in on what's available in your price range. Does the area around your apartment appeal to you? Is there green space for relaxing? A nearby coffee shop for morning pick-me-ups?  Is it close to public transportation.? Note where the grocery stores, bus stops and subway stations are located, the drug stores and restaurants. This makes a difference in a city where you’re often on foot; you don’t want to walk long stretches in the pouring rain or sleet; and taxicabs are very expensive. 

Consider safety. Does the place you choose to live have a few exits? Does it have a doorman? And is the doorman there 24/7 or only up to midnight? Are the front doors locked at night? Is there some type of a security system? Is the neighborhood a well trafficked area? Have there been any reports of crime in the building or the neighborhood? 

Set up appointments to look at properties.  It will save time. And try to look for buildings or properties with no fee. Find out how long the lease runs; some go beyond 12 months. Ask about a history of increases.  

Use a broker if you don’t find what you like.  They will take around 15 percent of a year’s rent but it's worth it for that person to find you something that might not have popped up on the internet or is not on the market yet. I also learned it’s okay to negotiate the rent and this is where a broker can be invaluable. 

Consider the footprint. It’s just a fact--Manhattan apartments are small spaces for high prices. Try to visualize how your furniture will fit into the space or budget for the possibility of having to buy new furniture and sell the old. Does it let in enough light? Is the layout conducive to your lifestyle? If there’s no dining area, can you imagine eating on stools at a counter if there is one? Can you picture yourself living happily in this apartment and neighborhood? 

Check out the building and neighborhood amenities. This may or may not be something that you care about. Perhaps the building comes with an in-house gym that can save you the expenses of big gym membership fees. Some charge and some do not. Is there a park or green space nearby? Balance the price of rent with amenities you need, and you might find value in unexpected ways. Sharing amenities is also a good way to meet fellow residents.  

Before you sign on the dotted line, check the lease carefully. Is there anything that concerns you or goes against what was initially discussed? You'll want to be fully informed before committing to avoid surprises down the line. The leasing agent in the building where I rented, sat down with me and we read over the lease together line by line. She explained everything and answered any questions I had along the way. You may want to ask a friend who’s an attorney also to look over the lease. 

Once you've found the right place, think about renter's insurance. Your landlord's insurance only covers your apartment building - not your stuff inside. 

Start dreaming positive dreams. You most likely will enjoy your new home-sweet-home but get your mindset on a positive track. Don’t second guess your decision and start thinking, should I really be doing this? Should I have taken a different apartment?  You did your homework, and nothing has to be forever.






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