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Elizabeth Zephyrine McDonough Headshot

The Catch - Why Apartment Hunting in NYC Is Such a Nightmare

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My boyfriend and I recently started looking for apartments in Brooklyn.

This news surprised some of our friends, probably because the one bedroom in the north side of Williamsburg where we've resided for the past two years is so close to perfect. "Why would you move?" they ask incredulously when they hear of our plans. Great location, spacious, secure, with central air and a private washer and dryer, and to top it all off relatively cheap rent. The building's brand new and we have a nice landlord and even a crazy-old-lady neighbor who occasionally volunteers her time at our corner deli, selling every item at an improvised price and wearing a giant Russian fur hat while smoking cigarettes inside. These are the kind of things you just can't put a price on. But in New York, as I am slowly but reluctantly beginning to learn, unless you want to spend your entire income on rent and live off Ramen noodles and dog food, there is no such thing as a "perfect apartment." Or, as my 16-year-NYC-veteran boyfriend knowingly explained, "Every New York apartment has a catch."

With the one we've lived in for the past two years, the catch is that there is no kitchen and there are no windows.

Sometimes when I describe our living quarters to people they respond with phrases like "over-size closet" and "not a real apartment," but I myself know that despite a few sizable setbacks, we are sitting on a veritable gold mine. To be fair, the apartment does possess a version of windows, in the form of three skylights dotting the ceiling near the back wall, which actually usher in a fair amount of light, and keep our house plants thriving in a jungle-like state. And while we don't have a kitchen, we do have a "kitchen area," a counter with a few cupboards and a small sink, a mini-fridge, and a single pan plug-in induction cooker. Past guest questions have included "Is that your kitchen??" as well as my personal favorite "Is that the fridge for the whole house?"

Despite the undeniable horticultural benefits of the overhead light, as the seasons continue to change imperceptibly above us, the apartments' quirky "sky holes" have begun to lose their luster. This combined with the fact that I had started catching myself ogling other peoples' ovens as if regarding a Ferrari that had been parked in the middle of their kitchen, running my hands over the edges, remarking at the sheer size of the thing, and asking incredulously, "So, you actually like, bake stuff in here?" made me realize that it might finally be time to move.

I looked at 4 apartments yesterday. The first one was gorgeous, a New Yorker's dream. Huge spacious rooms bled seamlessly into one another, light poured in the windows that looked out over a quiet street where open parking spots smiled up like loving grandmothers. In the back, an adorable manicured yard beckoned for me to "Come! Play in me!" and charming vintage light strings hung among trees just waiting to illuminate groups of party guests having the best night of their lives. There was laundry in the building and even a little office room in addition to the enormous common space and the bedroom.

The catch? The building is directly next to (as in 3 feet away from) the currently-under-construction Gowanus Canal Pump House, across from 3 boarded up buildings, and on a street which a passing neighbor candidly informed me would offer the frequent possibility of stepping in human feces and also, by the way, reeks of "sewage and bodies" all summer long.

"Why didn't the landlord mention the 'sewage and bodies' thing in the Craigslist post?" I wondered to myself while walking dejectedly back to my car, narrowly avoiding a broken bottle and then quickly picking up speed and diving into my drivers seat after getting the sense that an approaching man was about to knife me.

The next two apartments I viewed were in Williamsburg, and were in no condition to be shared with the general public. The first one was literally a ravaged shell in the throes of construction. Sharing it with prospective renters was the real estate equivalent of sending out baby announcement cards with pictures of the newborn still covered in amniotic fluid.

None of the lighting fixtures were functioning so it was pretty dark and the space was filled with tarps and random piles of boards, with lots of gaping holes in the walls where various appliances had been ripped out. The doorways had been smashed open with plans to put in larger ones but for the moment they just looked like the sort of destroyed archways you might see in news clips of a bombed out village. If nothing else, this particular tour was a profound exercise in the imagination. As the broker pointed to a small space in the corner of the bedroom sectioned off by a frame of 2 by 4s, I tried to picture my clothes hanging in this soon-to-be-built "spacious closet," all the while consciously ignoring the only real thing I could actually see at that moment, a shirtless old man smoking in the courtyard.

All said and done, I thought I did pretty well on the "imagine your apartment challenge," and found myself genuinely appreciating the little things, like the cool original molding in one of the rooms which (either intentionally or unintentionally) hadn't yet been blown up with dynamite. Unfortunately the only reward I got for my efforts was an aggressive pitch from the broker telling me that if I could shell over the cash today, the apartment could be mine immediately: no credit check, no questions asked. I had been severely suspending my disbelief for the entire viewing, so I appreciated him offering to suspend his own when it came to my credit score. Luckily I managed to escape without signing anything or being seriously maimed in a blast.

Apartment 3 took the award for both the best and worst apartment I looked at all day.

After meeting the broker on a nearby corner (he wouldn't want to give the actual address to this gem over the phone), we walked to the free-standing old brownstone and meandered up a series of twisting staircases till we reached a locked door leading to the top floor, or as I like to call it, the "Castle in the Sky."

The first thing that I noticed was that the place was still fully furnished. The second thing I noticed was that I was now standing alone in what was perhaps the sketchiest apartment I'd ever set foot in, with a man I'd just met on a street corner. The overall post-scuffle appearance of most of the furniture and belongings, combined with the fresh-cigarettes in ashtrays made the whole experience feel much more like the investigation of a crime scene than an apartment viewing.

The anonymous previous tenant had apparently lived there for 10 years and the only reason the broker could give me for his current absence was that he had "left the country." By all appearances his mysterious departure had occurred approximately 10 minutes prior to our arrival and had consisted of this elusive and frankly more-fascinating-by-the-second gentleman throwing as many of his random possessions as possible into a small suitcase and running out the door at full speed, presumably in the direction of the East River where he proceeded to board the next tanker ship out of town.

There were piles of junk everywhere, plates of old food sitting out, and a sense of tension hanging in the air likely stemming from the feeling that at any second a full-sized possum might come karate-kicking through one of the cabinets. The bed had a sheet on it that boasted several large tears, presumably casualties from the many nightmares the tenant must have had while dreaming about his own apartment.

This "one bedroom" (one bed, 1/2 a bed sheet) apartment was being offered for a breezy $2000 a month.

If you could look past the haunted house vibe, the Castle in the Sky did have some things going for it. Just a block from the East River, the living room offered stunning views of the water and the Williamsburg Bridge, and despite the mess it was pretty heavy in the charm department, with the types of little quirks and built-in fixtures that were commonplace for apartments built in its time (Gangs of New York era?). But even in the face of these pluses, there was no way to ignore this apartment's ultimate "catch": the fact that it was by all appearances, still inhabited. Either by a ghost, or (perhaps the more terrifying prospect) a real person, one who was likely to return at any moment to reclaim his record collection.

Though I found the catch-factor to be pretty high at apartment number 3, the ultimate catch-situation actually came at the end of the day, after I thought I was done apartment hunting (a process which, because of the constant element of danger, foreignness of the environments, and occasional minor wildlife (read: suspected bedbugs/possums), was beginning to feel more like an actual "hunt" at every turn).

Just as I returned home that evening I received an email from a guy -- we'll call him "Paul" -- who was showing an apartment right around the corner. Although I was exhausted and my boyfriend had also just arrived home from work, we decided to make the trek -- after all, the address was only two blocks away, and I figured it couldn't get any worse than what I'd already been through that day. And at least this time I would have an escort so I could cross "constant-fear-of-murder" off the list of things running through my head during the viewing.

As we approached the address "Paul" swiftly exited the deli housed on the right front corner of the building and came to greet us. After shaking hands he lead us briskly through the building's main lobby to the door of a first floor apartment which he unlocked efficiently with a large ring of keys. Stepping inside we were immediately met by the sad gaze of a young hipster looking up at us defeatedly from a couch. "Oh, whoops -- sorry!" I stammered, taking a step back out the doorway.

"No no, it's ok," Paul-the-landlord reassured me, "he knows we're coming."

The poor boy (I'd guess he was around 19 or 20 years old) did nothing to corroborate this fact beyond raising a weak hand and mustering a depleted "Hi."

The place itself was pretty dim and depressing, inherent predispositions that weren't being helped by the poor decorating skills of the current resident (one oven mitt, blank white walls, an old iMac sitting on top of the fridge). After a soul-sucking tour of the dark kitchen connected to the small railroad style living room, leading to the bed-sized bedroom, my boyfriend and I both felt ready to leave, but some sense of real estate etiquette kept us there. We put in several minutes of boring logistical queries (not including the one on everyone's mind: "Does the hipster come with the apartment?"), but Paul-the-Landlord just continued staring back at us expectantly, so I tried desperately to muster up one more question.

"Umm... Are utilities included in the rent?"

"Oh right!" Paul responded abruptly, "Okay, I forgot -- I gotta explain this whole thing..." he went on, suddenly bowing his head and beginning to rub his brow perfunctorily as he prepared to deliver this "news" which had somehow managed to slip his mind, "Ok so um, me and my brother -- we you know, run the deli on the corner so, we actually pay the utilities and internet for the apartment here and then uh, we just like, come in here three or four times a week and use the kitchen to... boil the eggs and roast the beef."

Oh. Right. Of course! To boil The Eggs and Roast The Beef. Yeah, obviously you gotta boil the eggs and roast the beef! Pretty standard apartment lingo, you know- "First and last months rent, credit check, no pets, utilities included... Boil the eggs and roast the beef..." Yep, everything seems pretty standard!

"But you know, we worked out a deal with him," Paul-the-Landlord continued, gesturing to "him," the sweet and deflated young boy now being held captive in his own apartment, who had somehow gotten himself on the short end of this egg deal, "Where we have like a schedule and we come in when he's not here. Oh and also we don't come on weekends." Paul-the-Landlord added this last part like it was a special bonus, as if informing us that the apartment came with a complimentary bouquet of flowers and box of chocolates delivered every week.

Wow, I'm really glad I asked about the utilities. So, just out of curiosity Paul, if I hadn't thought to ask, would the "Eggs and Roast Beef" thing just be something we would have found out about say, a couple months into living here, when we finally put two and two together that our apartment and the Eggs-and-Beef section of the deli out front shared the exact same smell? And also that someone had clearly been sitting in our chair, sleeping in our bed, and eating our porridge?

Returning that night to our beautiful, charming, windowless, kitchen-less apartment, I was met with a whole new appreciation for what we had. Sure it wasn't the best apartment in the world, but by-God it wasn't the worst (and with its two door non-copyable key requiring entrance, if nothing else it was secure).

My definition of "home" has been steadily evolving over the years and I imagine it will continue to. But after an epic day of Craigslist viewings, the concept of Home has crystallized itself for me into a clear and succinct list of basic requirements: For me a "home" is a place where I feel comfortable and content, where I can work but also relax, where the space around me reflects my taste and personality -- and most importantly -- a place where I know for DAMN sure that two random guys will not be letting themselves in three times a week to "Boil the eggs and roast the beef."