The Quest for Apartment Za-Za-Zoo

I interrupt your wanderlusting to share with you the dreadful non-adventure that is the NYC apartment hunt.

I can’t help myself. I’ve got to write about the fruitless quest for the perfect (trust me, “perfect” is a very loose term in New York City real estate lingo), affordable (herein lies my first major problem), apartment (or excuse for one) to spend the next two or more  years studying.

Finding an apartment in NYC is like the apartment-Olympics; ANYWHERE else in the world, you are competing at the high school or maybe intramural college level. In Manhattan, it aint NO joke. It’s as tough as it gets. Yes, it’s rough out there, people. We take a lot of shit in this town, because it is fantastic. Or at least, at times like this, we have to keep telling ourselves that.

In Manhattan (yes, Williamsburg, you count), it’s not about what you get, but what you don’t get. A deal? Let’s just get this overwith: you won’t get one of those. Roaches? Meh, maybe. But if you don’t have cockroaches, you most likely will have mice. No mice? Congrats! Bedbugs for you. Don’t even get me started on the bedbug conversation… If you’ve never checked out, now might not be the best time to do so, as bedbug infestations are predicted to be the worst — by far — beginning this June (so help us all).

View from the outside of a beautiful, spacious apartment I loved... with a history of bedbug infestations.

If you get a great layout, you sacrifice natural light. If you find an apartment with many windows, it is most likely on the first floor which does you no good. The cheapest apartments are on the top of fifth- and sixth-floor walk-ups — a deal breaker for the girl with a bad knee. When you finally find the dream home you were looking for, you’ve got a drummer with daily 9pm band practice in the room directly above your bedroom (but you don’t find this out until you’ve already moved in). No matter what you find, apartment-wise, you can never predict your neighbors, or their hobbies (opera singers: check, drummers: check, barking dogs: double-check)… and they are EVERYWHERE. Like, within a foot of your home in every single direction.

Apartments in New York are lose-lose situations. We just accept that. The trick is to find some WIN in that loss. It’s a delicate dance of sacrifices.

I’ve gotten lucky with apartments in the past. Wait, scratch that.

My first Manhattan apartment was on 80th and Amsterdam — a neighborhood that has now become incredibly yuppy (a recent New York Times article called it the new “suburbs of Manhattan” because of all the blossoming young families of finance advisors and lawyers who can afford the ‘hood). But in my defense, it was an opportunistic move; a friend from college (shout-out to SK!) had moved out a year earlier, and even though she had found a replacement, her roommate now needed to move out too. So, I got in touch. I had been to a party or two at her place, and knew it was exactly what I was looking for, although a bit more expensive that I was hoping to find. That said, the cost of not having to search for a roommate or apartment in New York (brokers fees, crazy people, questionable supers galore) made the extra monthly cost worth it. I could slip right in.

Well, when I say I was excited to move in to my first Manhattan apartment and out of my parents’ place, where I had been living and saving money for travel and life for two years, that would be an understatement. I was feeling empowered, grown-up, and beyond ready to finally be independent in NYC. I felt so strong that I decided I could move into the 5th-floor walk-up without any help (pssh, boyfriends  – who needs them?! Fresh out of heartbreak, I didn’t!). I wanted to prove to myself that I could manage without anyone’s help, even if it meant my quads would be burning by the fourth or fifth trip up the steep, pre-war stairs.

I did the move in flip-flops, because it was a gorgeous day and I was young, sturdy, and in my eyes, unbreakable. Now, it’s one thing to walk up five steep flights of stairs over and over again. It’s another thing to do it carrying as much as you are physically capable of holding during each trip up. When I say I did this alone, I should add that I didn’t have a bed or dresser yet, my parents stuck by the car downstairs, and I had a rowing friend bring over a table she wanted to get rid of. I eventually had a couple teammates help me carry my Ikea and West Elm furniture up in pieces, which we then sat on the floor and put together (adult Legos), which was SO much fun. I actually love building furniture (side job?!).

Nevertheless, I must have completed at least 20 trips up and down those stairs. I’m no mathematician, but I probably walked up over 100 flights of stairs while carrying around 30-50lbs of stuff on many trips up. That’s a lot. But when it was all said and done, I couldn’t have been happier. I was in my first apartment, I loved it, and that suppressed (do to lack of funds and stability) domestic side of me was ready to pounce on the possibilities of my new home. Exhausted but thrilled, I finished the move off right: with my rowing teammate (the table-donator) and a couple margaritas at the bar downstairs. It was the perfect start to summer.

Three weeks into my brand new one-year lease, while rowing 3-4 times a week and running almost every day I didn’t row (I was planning to race again for the first time since college, and as always, wanted to rip it up on the water), disaster struck. I dislocated my knee, could barely walk, and found myself in so much pain I kept blacking out as I walked on my suddenly bad knee. A few x-rays, a couple MRIs, and three disagreeing doctors later, I realized I was in a tough spot. I could barely walk, let alone go up five flights of stairs, but I refused to give up my new independence so quickly. Instead, I decided I could hop on one foot up the five flights of stairs, and the staircase was narrow enough that I could slowly get down it using my upper body to lift myself between the wall and the banister, and lower myself several steps at a time, while keeping all weight off my right knee. It was a hovering technique, and it almost worked.

A couple weeks of this, and I knew I was screwed. I had to move right back into my parents’ place, leave my new apartment (which I still had to pay for), and wait until I was healed enough to get back in there. My roommate would pack me some clothes and bring it down the stairs for me, and I’d hobble with a roller suitcase back to my parents’, in my sunken, new, injured reality. Thanks, life.

I moved back a month later, definitely prematurely. I continued my hopping up the stairs and hovering down, to the best of my abilities, plotting each day so that this up and down procedure only needed to be done once. It wasn’t long before my good knee started getting mad at me, and one day, while getting my breakfast ready for early morning physical therapy, I nailed my forehead on the sharp corner of a new shelf I had installed, giving myself a small concussion. I half-passed out in my towel, and had to lay on the floor of my kitchen until the nausea and stars stopped twinkling overhead. I’ve had brighter moments.

My year in the fifth-floor dream apartment in the perfect neighborhood didn’t quite pan out the way I had hoped, but I got through it. Sadly, I was forced to move because my knee just wasn’t healing (the last thing anyone with a knee injury should be doing is walking up and down five flights of stairs daily, often more than once). For apartment number two, I required an elevator, which usually shoots the rent right up.

Thanks to the economy crashing, and sudden panic amongst the New York landlords, I snagged an incredible apartment twenty blocks further north, with an elevator! I was prepared for a long hunt, but this was the first apartment I saw, and I knew it was the one. I took it, without a second thought, and it was — although I hesitate to use the word — perfect. I reluctantly hired movers to get my furniture from the fifth-floor walk-up to my new, cheaper-and-easier-to-access 4th-floor digs, and, yes, with the help of a wonderful boyfriend (who would fail to last until the next move),  the transition was smooth. I was in this place to stay, I could only hope. The biggest issue was that, like clockwork, every night when I finally got into bed, the thumping of a pedal, the strumming of an electric guitar, and the low off-key notes of a 20-something guy having band practice would cause my bed to vibrate. But eventually, I was able to make peace with the guys who played the drums above my bed. It was a New York miracle.

I had so many good times while living in that apartment. When one romance ended, another one began. It was a fantastic, albeit tumultuous, year. But, when the second relationship fell apart, I was offered a job in Ecuador, and it was clear that I was going to have to give this gem of an apartment up. That decision still haunts me a little, but it was the right one at the time.

Now, I’ve got to find myself a new place. I knew it would be difficult, but the options I have seen so far are just depressing. Not only has confidence in the economy suddenly spiked, causing the highest rents the city has seen in a few years, but there is also less than 1% vacancy in New York City apartments. That means people are desperate, landlords can raise rents, and any apartment you see has several other applications already in the works. If you don’t act immediately, your crappy option for an apartment is gone. So, what about the good ones? The “perfect” apartments? Well, apparently they are no longer out there. Yippy.

So far, I have seen apartments with barely any windows, beautiful teaser apartments that have a history of bedbug infestations, and construction sites with no walls, sinks, or floors installed yet that already have applications in progress. Every apartment that comes close to being something I can work with has a deal breaker, such as bedbugs, one bedroom with no windows (that does NOT qualify as a bedroom, ya jerks!) or hardcore construction going on directly outside every window. In other words, there is a reason all these apartments are vacant. And in NYC, finding an apartment that works is like striking gold; you don’t give that up for nothing. Right now, all I’m getting is the scraps.

Actual apartment I saw yesterday, available immediately for $2400. This is one bedroom. The other one didn't have a window.

Sigh. It’s brutal, people. This apartment hunt is making me question why I love NYC so much. It makes me want to live anywhere but here. Every year, I get closer and closer to wanting to live elsewhere. I fantasize about having a home or apartment in any city but this one, and I know I could find something that works for a fraction of the cost that I have to pay here. I have to stop myself from thinking about this reality because it is painful, especially in moments like this. Whatever you do, do NOT tell me how wonderful your place is and how little you pay for it. And if you have a porch or terrace, you must remain silent. Bottom line: I KNOW, ok. I know! And I don’t want to hear about it. [See other posts for why I love NYC. I should probably re-read those right about now…]

Because I am going to be a student, I am not very flexible on the cost. This takes me to new depths of despair. Because I have a soul, I am not flexible on the amount of windows and natural light. Because I am a New Yorker, I know what is out there — I know what each neighborhood means, in terms of apartment,  atmosphere and accessibility. I’ve seen it all, at this point, and yet the only thing I haven’t seen is a place I could or would want to live for the next year or two.

The gloomy view from another apartment I saw yesterday. $2300/month.

It’s pretty depressing. I’m feeling a little deflated with the whole search process, but finding an apartment is like finding someone to love: some people are willing to settle, some people think “I can work with this if I just change one or two things around,” but I’m not looking for a fixer-upper. I am looking for it, the apartment that I can fall in love with, the one that clicks (I’ve felt it before), the one that becomes my home — the one, above everything, I can trust with my new life. I need an apartment that gives me the za-za-zoo when I walk in. It’s got to make me happy, and be zen. I might be picky, but I’ve seen enough apartments (and yes, had enough relationships) to just be at a place where I know what I want. I’ve felt the za-za-zoo before, and I need to feel it again. As discouraging as this search is right now, I know my future apartment is out there. Until I find it, I just can’t see myself settling for anything less.

And so the hunt continues.



Filed under Life Stuff, New York City, Uncategorized, USA

5 responses to “The Quest for Apartment Za-Za-Zoo

  1. Can relate fully to this when I was looking for a summer sublet back in 2004. After about a week of looking (and loosing) I went in with a dog eat dog mentality and pushed a check the moment I looked around for about 5 minutes into the face of the girls who were subletting a place that was pretty darn close to perfect. The biggest room I had seen on my hunt (looking in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens), located at 116/Bdwy, with a floor to ceiling window and dorm room furniture. It overlooked 116th and the steam pipe across the street with no A/C (oy, summer!) but that was the worst part. Rent was higher then I wanted (when is it not?) but everything was included, so it evened out.

    The room was seriously insane. When my mom (who grew up in The City) saw it, she couldn’t believe how big it was. Yay for Columbia Grad student housing and the tenants illegally subletting to me!

    Good luck!!!!

  2. missy

    za-za-zoo! you can do it!

  3. Two words: “outer,” “boroughs.”


  4. Wait…wait…

    As someone who has never experienced living in NYC, is that a $2400 down-type thing to reserve the place? Or $2400 a month?

    If it’s the latter, my complex here in Florida has some decent sized 1 and 2 bedr0om apartments just 2 minutes from the beach for less than $600. And that’s WITH the extra pet fee. 🙂

    Seriously though, the best of luck to you in a new place.

    • travelswithtavel

      Ya see… you are exactly the person I told not to tell me what a good deal you’ve got! It hurts my soul, Chris!! And yes, $2400/month is for a 2 bdrm, which doesn’t even include the 15% (of annual rent total) broker’s fee. Many buildings don’t allow pets.

      Feel bad for me yet? Yeah… maybe I’ll move to Florida some day, if I can even afford the ticket at that point. Ha.

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