Sunday, April 24, 2011

A dearer, sweeter spot than all the rest

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology cites moving to a new community as "one of the most stress-producing events a family faces." Combine that with Manhattan's apartment vacancy rate for the month of March -- less than 1% -- and the fact that Corrin and I are two single people combining households for the first time (an event ranked as more stressful than planning a wedding and having a baby combined), and you might have a theoretical understanding of what the last few months have been like for us -- and what the next few weeks will continue to bring.

The Search for a Neighborhood
We started thinking about, researching, and examining apartment listings for various neighborhoods in early November, about a month after we made the decision to live together. Knowing that we wouldn't make the move until late spring (at the end of her academic year and the end of my busiest fundraising season) we still started our research early. We took stock of our lifestyles -- both regarding our life together and our individual interests -- and narrowed down a selection of neighborhoods that would work for us.

Speaking generally, Corrin was less happy with anything terribly far from campus, and I was very unhappy with anything much north of the Columbia gates at 116th. Considering the difficulty and general unreliability of cross-town transportation, anything so far east as to make a walk to campus or an express train unpleasant was completely out. Additionally most of our activities take place on Columbia's campus; in the not-Times-Square theatre districts; in Central, Riverside, or Morningside parks; in the blocks surrounding my office at Herald Square; or in the West Village. We were left with decidedly west side neighborhoods on our list:

The Search for an Apartment
Having narrowed down the areas we were willing to call "home", we started looking at apartment amenities in earnest. We made exhaustive lists of features -- a kitchen large and pleasant enough to cook in together and host dinner parties from; a living space that included some sort of nook that could be used for Corrin's study -- either a loft, an alcove, or a closet (a full second bedroom is almost too much to hope for); a large enough footprint that our cats wouldn't go stir crazy and climb the curtains, with a layout conducive to entertaining our friends (i.e. a bathroom available without having guests traipse through our bedroom, and space for a decent-sized dining table). Good quality light, at least some of it direct sunlight, and some form of green space were absolutely necessary, as were laundry facilities in the building.

After several months of making lists and debating our negotiable points, we reached out in early April to hit up various real estate firms to find brokers with access to what interested us. We found listings that we liked on the CitiHabitats, Corcoran, Bond, Fenwick Keats, NY Bits, and StreetEasy websites, as well as Columbia's Off Campus Housing List, and contacted brokers at each firm (or on each composite site) to compile lists for us. With a less than 1% vacancy rate, our loyalty wasn't available at any price; any agent willing to show us a listing received our attention.

We made appointments to view two dozen apartments between the third and seventeenth of April, and visited nine of them before we struck gold. Some of those first nine met some of our needs; they were on beautiful blocks in the neighborhoods we most loved, were apartments with amazing details and light (there was a lofted space with a fireplace that I fell in love with, but for the fact that it was a closet), or had terrific landlords (Isaac was a young guy willing to make some changes for us -- until we gently pointed out that installing a washer and dryer unit for us would require hiring a plumber to run a water line). Some of them were horrendous -- like the 300 sf 5th floor walk up with crumbling brick walls; even with a view over Central Park it was awful. And then, while waiting between apartments, my gorgeous, genius girlfriend insisted that we take a look at Craigs List.

I'm skeptical. Craigs List? The website where anyone can post anything, where finding a single item of quality is akin to finding buried treasure in a mangrove swamp? But given how stressed out we were by then, and how anxious we both were to just have the whole process over with, I humored her. We sifted back through a week's worth of rental listings, seraching for our neighborhoods as key words. On the very last page was a single, unassuming ad for a one-bedroom apartment in Morningside Heights. The title and description were well-written and free of unnecessary adjectives, the photographs were clear and from realistic angles, the amenities listed were an even mix of what we were looking for, and the price was in the middle of our anticipated range. Too good to be true or not, I typed out our standard inquiry and sent it off, expecting to hear nothing.

Our Perfect Gem of a New Home
Within an hour, I received an email from a young woman named Julie. While her boss, Jason, was on vacation out of the country, she'd be happy to show us the apartment he'd listed on Craigs List the week before. We would be the first to view it, and they weren't planning to relist until he returned, so we could take our time with the scheduling. Corrin and I arranged to meet Julie for a walk-through of the apartment the following Tuesday evening. April 8th turned out to be cold, wet, gray, and rather morose.  Just like us, Julie was early, and greeted us with a warm smile. She's clearly not in the Real Estate business! -- and yet just as clearly really likes her boss, and thinks of him as a genuinely good guy. (Happy employees, and all that.) She took us through the entire building.

Originally built in 1890 (thank you Zillow), the building was completely renovated less than a decade ago. Full of newly constructed condominiums, the building overlooks Morningside Park and also has two gated, landscaped courtyards available for tenant use on the adjacent side. The entrance is bright and inviting but modest, with a small staircase and a clean wheelchair ramp. The mail room is adjacent to the building Super's apartment, and just behind it is a large elevator lobby and a wide staircase that runs through the center of the building.  In the basement is a shared community room (with a full kitchen available for parties), a recycling room, and a set of storage lockers.

The apartment itself is a bright, spacious one-bedroom flat on the second floor. You enter into the great room, a rectangular space running west to east that the current tenants had arranged into a formal dining space and a living room with a playpen for their 4 month old daughter -- and which we'll arrange with zones for studying, dining, and relaxing/entertaining. To the right of the door are two closets, one for coats and shoes and outdoor storage, and one which Corrin has already deemed "the craft nook" for my yarn. Beyond the closets on the south wall are a pair of large windows letting in a great deal of sunlight.

To the left of the entrance and the west half of the great room is a lovely kitchen adorned with numerous cabinets, a pantry, a dishwasher, full-size appliances including a gigantic side-by-side refrigerator, and a north-facing window over the sink. Beyond the kitchen but off of the great room is a tiny hallway leading to a roomy bathroom (also boasting a north facing window) and a pair of closets. One of those closets houses a stacking washer-and-dryer, and the other is a linen closet.

The eastern-most portion of the apartment is the bedroom, again boasting a pair of closets and a pair of east-facing windows. I was so enamored with the kitchen, laundry, and closet options that I didn't pay very close attention to the bedroom, but the current tenants had positioned a full-size bed, a bassinet for their infant, an enormous Ikea Storage chamber, and a chair in the room with plenty of space for us to walk around and explore; I imagine our bed, club chair, and pair of dressers will be perfectly at home here.

Making the Found Space Ours
Julie was as enamored with the space as Corrin and I were, and was incredibly helpful. Within 35 minutes of returning home and comparing what we'd seen against our notes, we called her to indicate our interest in applying. With our potential landlord out of town, she was tasked with communicating with us to collect all of our application materials -- rental history, employment history, work references, personal references, credit scores and statements, tax forms, bank statements, and copies of official identification -- in electronic form. After ten hours of scrambling to collect, scan, and create PDF documentation of everything requested, we turned it over -- and were approved for the space 48 hours later.

Jason returned to town last week, and Corrin and I signed the lease together on April 22nd. While we're still waiting on a precise move-in date (our lease is effective June 1, but we may have the option of moving in toward the end of May, depending on the plans of the current tenants), the hardest part of the apartment search is over.  We still have to find boxes, sort through our possessions, determine which items we're keeping and which should be stored or passed on to new owners, pack everything, move it to the new space, arrange furniture, unpack everything, paint and decorate the space so that it in some way reflects the fact that two different people with a shared couplehood inhabit the home -- but the most difficult, most time-intensive, most stressful part of the shift (at least in NYC) is over.

The Short Version
We have a home in La Petite Senegal, a relatively new neighborhood on the edge of Harlem alongside Morningside Heights. We found the apartment without the aid of a broker (and thus without incurring a $3,500 fee) after nearly six months of research and searching, because we knew precisely what we were looking for, and were diligent about following up on leads. The space has everything that we wished for: a large floor plan; lots of windows with great light and cross-ventilation; a multi-use great room for dining, living, studying, and entertaining; a large kitchen for cooking together; numerous closets and an on-site storage facility for our personal use; a community room and two locked gardens to which we have keys; a super on site; and easy access to the subway for my shorter-than-current commute and to Corrin's office on campus and to a park with community activities (a three season farmer's market, open-air jazz concerts all summer, and community service festivals every few months). We have a landlord who is a genuinely nice guy and doesn't deal with a lot of bureaucratic tape, who is willing to let us *live* in the space -- painting, decorating, installing hardware, etc. as we wish while documenting the changes for everyone's security.  The rent is in the middle of our affordable range, which means we don't need to worry about moving again before Corrin finishes her dissertation, and the neighbors seem delightful -- many of them are Columbia affiliates, too, which means we'll have numerous points of contact for making friends and being sociable.

We are so very happy, in part because the search is over, but moreso because we have found precisely what we most desire: a home where we can be content to build the next phase of our lives.

First published at

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