Hunting for an apartment in Manhattan, everyone says, is no picnic. I was fortunate that I was eased into it rather than thrown into it and do it without a hard deadline.
For two-and-a-half years after retiring from teaching, I had a studio apartment in Manhattan, which had been made available to me for sublet by a good friend. But in mid-December last year, I had to give it up because, having finished his law school in Michigan, he was returning to New York. I was faced with a choice to make. I could either give up my life in New York that I came to love and return to my quiet suburban house in Swarthmore, PA. Or, alternatively, I could look for a place of my own in New York, an unfurnished studio apartment, and continue my urban lifestyle. It didn't take me long to decide. I opted for the latter because, after two and a half years in the city, I was quite certain that sooner or later I will decide to move there for good and, in order to get the house ready to be put on the market for sale and concurrently look for a slightly larger apartment, I will need a place in the city while I clean up the house by relieving it little by little of my pack rat accumulations that inevitably and overwhelmingly filled it up in the course of twenty-odd years.
The apartment hunt, that I was not eagerly looking forward to, certainly proved to be arduous and discouraging but instructive nevertheless and ultimately rewarding.
I started my search for a rental apartment right after the Thanksgiving Weekend. Without any knowledge how to go about this task, I first relied on a friend's referral and looked at an apartment on Upper West Side, near the 72nd Street subway station on Broadway, being rented by the owner. I was attracted by the description that it is a studio with a loft bed. But the romantic aura of the loft bed quickly faded away when I saw what it was; I'd be sleeping with the ceiling pressing down on my face at an arm's length and when I get up in the morning I won't be really getting up but only humping out of the bed with my body bent at the hip like a chimpanzee. The rent was moreover far more than I could pay, and I was more drawn to the East Side. I have quickly eliminated the Village and Soho demographically too youthful, Washington Heights too collegiate and too far north, Lower Manhattan too far south, the Upper West Side too professional, and Hell's Kitchen too unknown.
In the two-and-a-half years of sublet living I got acculturated to the plebian and demographically mixed neighborhood in the far side of the Upper East Side or Upper Far East Side as I call it, between 3rd Avenue and 1st Avenue from 60th to 75th Street. The AIA Architectural Guide designates this area as the Far Side of Paradise. It suits me because it provides an efficient access to both the Museum Mile and the Lincoln Center as well as the theater districts in Times Square and the East Village.
Following other friends' advice, then, I checked out various no-fee rental apartment websites. CitiRent was the most useful among them for getting myself acquainted with the general listing of studio apartments. Eventually, I went to its office and registered by paying the fee of $189; it enabled me to get details of the posted apartments. I was also given the telephone numbers of the contact persons -- the owner, the super, or the real estate agent as the case may be. Most of my daytime in New York in December was given to making contacts and looking at the apartments I could see. I saw one or two I thought I could tolerate but I hated most of them. The people at the CitiRent office were kind but their listing somehow did not have enough entries that interested me; I checked it every two or three days and my disappointment only grew.
After three weeks I expanded my search. I looked at Craig's List and CitiHabitat, among others; but the results showed little improvement. Most of these studios were posted for $1250 a month for something in the order of 300 square feet of space. Many of them were bachelor pads with what I call a wall kitchen, a tiny stove, a hip-high fridge and a puny sink set in a shallow wall niche, often close to the entry, barely adequate for making a breakfast. One apartment I saw had a large kitchen space with full-size appliances but it took more than a half of the main floor area and the bed had its headboard against the gas range, an arrangement that would surely make the occupant feel like a cheap maid. Almost all of them had hardly any sunlight, the single window facing a tiny courtyard, backyard, or a breathing space between buildings and they were typically described as "private and quiet." One was a half basement, yes, very quiet, and another a room right over a restaurant kitchen, "lively," the tag line should have said. Some were unconscionably shoddy, and all these for no less than $1250. One was nice and clean with a parquet floor; but the closet-size shower-and-toilet stall was installed as an add-on and jutted out into the room and opened directly to it.
It was enough to depress me seeing these horrors of apartments. But I had to deal with obnoxious brokers and irresponsible agents, too, who wouldn't answer the phone, forget to meet me at the appointed time, keep me waiting at the office, or try a hard sell, suggesting that the apartment will be gone if I waited three hours to decide. There were studio apartments with a higher rent, say, $1400 to $1600. But these apartments were only slight better, because the extra cost financed the elevator, the doorman, the laundry facilities, and even the exercise gym, none of which was my pressing need.
After five weeks of this adventure, I was almost ready to give up. But, as discouraged I was, I renewed my determination to find something that I could accept with minimal compromise. I drew up for myself a new set of requirements to streamline my search and stop wasting time visiting overpriced urban hovels. By then I gained familiarity with the real estate lexicon and was able to articulate what I wanted.
My requirements were stringent. I wanted a modest but clean studio in a pre-war walk-up (but not a top floor unit, which can get hot in summer); I wanted the basics, no peripherals. I didn't want an elevator building, not speak of a highrise; if I can walk up, I claimed, I can walk down in emergency. I wanted a building on a busy and noisy commercial avenue as opposed to quieter cross streets. Urban cacophony was for me the point of living in Manhattan; I have more quiet than I ever need in Swarthmore. I wanted a front apartment in a building on the west side of the avenue with similar walkups on the other side, so that there will be morning sunlight to brighten up the room. I wanted a decent separate kitchen, above all a reasonable sink, and adequate closets to hold a woman's wardrobe. This was a tall order, and I was not going to compromise. It reduced the choice virtually to zero. The daily listings of no-fee rental websites never came up with anything to match my needs. So, at this point, I had another decision to make: give up the search or be patient and take time until something that fulfills my needs is found.
I moved out of the friend's sublet on 20 December. Hunting for an apartment in New York requires being in town continuously at least for a week's stretch at a time since competition, even in the relative slow business season, is keen in Manhattan; one has to be there to grab an apartment and sign a lease as soon as a desirable one is found. By good fortune I could be a guest in another friend's apartment, cat sitting while the family was away on vacation. Christmas came and went, and I hadn't come up with anything close to what I wanted. The situation seemed hopeless. I added more addresses to my list and packed in more appointments in a day.
The year ended and the family's return was imminent. On the day before their arrival, after the last appointment with an agent, I walked to York Avenue to check out the area even though it was farther east than the boundary I set for myself. Then, turning on a cross street, I passed by a billboard on the sidewalk with rental notices posted on it in the old-fashioned way. I walked past it, made a double take and read some of them. I saw a small real estate office below the street level, and it was still open. When I said that I am looking for a studio apartment, I was told that there is one that they could show me around the corner on York Avenue. The building, a five-story walk-up, was on the west side of the avenue, and the front apartment on the fourth floor faced east and had a tiny bathroom with a tub but an ample kitchen with a shoulder-high refrigerator and a standard sink; and it was immediately available. So, the studio serendipitously met all my requirements but one -- the busy, noisy commercial block; it so happened that apartment buildings lined the block across the avenue. Moreover, the rent was substantially lower than anything I had seen so far was. It didn't take me long to reach a decision; I took it immediately. As it was late in the afternoon on Friday, I returned early next week to make the necessary payments and sign the lease and received the keys.
As the apartment was not from the no-fee rental listing, there was a broker fee; though it is normally 15% of the year's rent the realtor was willing to reduce it to 12%. Then, a quick calculation indicated to me that even with the 15% broker fee, I would be getting a better deal than for any of the apartment of equal value on the no-fee rental listing. It made me wonder if the rent cited on such a listing was actually calculated to include what might have been charged as a broker fee, which is moreover distributed in monthly rent perpetually while the broker fee is paid only once at the beginning of the first lease.
The lower-than-average rent made me wonder briefly. Does it have to do with the three flights of stairs, which I didn't mind going up and down? Is the distance to the IRT subway station -- three long east-west blocks -- to Lexington perhaps a factor? It is a small apartment to be sure, only 288 square feet, and the ample separate kitchen is an anomaly that substantially reduces the size of the room area (161 square feet). Was this anomalous plan seen to be a defect that lowered the price tag? Was it an apartment that did not get rented easily and remained vacant too long? Or, was there any hidden problem with the place I should be suspicious about? Didn't the broker seem to be in a big hurry to make the settlement?
The good news is that after six months of living in this apartment, I have found no hidden problem in it unless it is still hidden yet to surface. I love the healthy climb up and down the three flights of stairs, 147 steps altogether, which I manage to negotiate without panting, and the breakfast in the sunny room is a sheer delight.
T. Kaori Kitao, 07.25.04