I’ve been snooping around New York City real estate this month. Frankly, if I don’t move to a different apartment every 4 to 9 years, something is wrong. That’s because apartments, unlike houses, are supposed to fit your life, and not the other way around. When you live in New York City, your neighborhood defines your life – considerations such as walk-in closets and hot tubs are not on the agenda.
Sometimes people can’t move because they have such a sweetheart deal in rent stabilization that they’d be stupid to give it up. Sometimes, they can’t move because they bought a co-op (kinda like a condo – the nitty gritty details are here) and now it’s either underwater and they have to wait until the price goes up, or the neighborhood has gotten so amazingly expensive that they want to stay put rather than being priced out. Those folks are in the minority. The average New Yorker is much more mobile: just under half of New Yorkers moved at least once during a 5-year period, and most of those move from within the city.
I’m solidly in that demographic, and I’ve been both owner and renter. Although I’ve lived mostly in Manhattan, the outer boroughs hold no terrors for me (well, except for Staten Island). If you’re a new New Yorker just off the plane, a wannabe eyeing the city with desire, or an old New Yorker thinking about moving somewhere else, here are some things to consider.
You need to love your neighborhood. When you’re ready to move, you either already love your neighborhood, or you’re going to learn to love a new one. If you hate your neighborhood, you’re sunk. How do you know if you’ll love it? Only two ways – you already live there, or you jump right in and try it. If you jump right in, probably best to rent for a while to see how you like it. That being said, there are some basic ingredients that will help you make this an easier decision.
No kids? No plans for any? Skip this section. The rest of you parents have already started obsessing about school districts the minute you saw the 2 bars on that little plastic stick. Even if your favorite nabes is not your favorite zoned school district, you can always opt for other creative choices such as private, charter, public charter, G&T, home school. If you’re the parent of a 3 year old, you’re already on top of this. If not, get busy but don’t go crazy. That’s what the ‘burbs are for: going crazy.
I’m not talking about buildings that compost, although that may be important to you. Some of you dream of living downtown, what with all the tourists and excitement. I’m happier walking down a tree-lined street to the local postage-stamp park to watch the Russian grannies feeding pigeons (disclaimer, which they really shouldn’t be doing! But they are.) The rest of you are free to find glass and steel in the sky, which has its own allure.
Do you enjoy car culture? Do you wish to slide behind the wheel, sniff some new-car fumes, then pedal-to-the-metal for 4 minutes of solo cartime to buy a pint of oatmilk from Walmart? You, my friend, are a happy person. The whole US and most of Canada is set up
to cater to your preferred way of life. I’m the opposite. I have a short list of places I need to be able to walk to in 5 minutes or less: good espresso (Starbucks counts), a superette that sells decent bananas, some kind of low-impact exercise class (tai chi in a church, whatever), a hardware store, at least 4 decent restaurants, and a basic diner that I can complain about in terms of poor food quality, high price, and bad service. Oh, and a nail salon and barbershop to maintain a lively choice of personal grooming options and local gossip.
How far is it to the nearest subway? Ideally, you’re never more than an 8 minute walk to an entrance. Ideally. Sometimes, this is not possible. In that case, figure out the bus routes. It’s totally do-able to take an express bus to midtown, or even a city bus to a subway station. Some people even like being out at the final stop on the 7 because it means you always get a seat, the neighborhood is “real”, and no one will ever visit you. There’s usually a few subway and bus options in every NY neighborhood, so ask the locals before you assume you know what you’re doing.
This one is a bit harder to pin down, but you’ll know it when you see it. After you’ve looked at your potential new digs, you need to walk around the neighborhood. How does it feel? What’s around you? Does your stomach have a strange, sinking feeling as you walk out the door? Or, instead, do you find yourself smiling as you turn the corner to your new building? I’ve seen some drop-dead gorgeous apartments at the right price, but when you walk down to the “shopping area”, it looks exactly like a sad little strip mall in New Jersey from 1982: lots of parking lots, low buildings, and no one is at the bus stop but people who can’t afford a car. Run far, far away. On the other hand, a miniature closet-sized apartment with no room for a bed? In the right neighborhood, that can be a great find.
New York is pricey. Real estate is fraught. Here are some things to think about as you run the numbers.
Rent or buy?
Keep your eye on the market and get a good accountant. The tax laws change all the time. So do the ups and downs of investing a huge chunk of money in NY real estate. Sometimes, it’s a bonanza and you’re delighted. Sometimes it’s not, and you go broke. Renting is easier to walk away from, but your money is going into someone else’s bank account. The rule of thumb is to do the math and see what the cost is per square foot to rent versus buy. Make
sure you’re comparing apartments in the same neighborhood. If you buy, don’t forget the common costs, which we call “maintenance” and which you’ll pay each month on top of your mortgage. Sometimes electricity is included in the maintenance, so ask. Don’t forget to plan for when you’re ready to sell, and ask about the “flip tax”. The flip tax is where the co-op skims off a percentage of the sale. Good for the co-op, bad for the seller. Rentals have hidden fees, too, so ask about those.
The price goes up vertically from the sidewalk, and down horizontally from Central Park in all directions (also from Wall Street). Walk 3 blocks in New York, and you can be in a whole different world, with different prices to match. Other factors that affect housing availability are the white-haired old lefties who start waving signs whenever anyone proposes a set of new high-rises, and greedy real estate developers who routinely bribe city planners to let them ride roughshod over widows and orphans. Still and all, New York tends to land on its feet. Knowing the price factors, political climate, and planned new construction will give you an edge.
No, you can’t get a bargain on the Upper West Side any longer. But what about the Bronx? What about north of Hamilton Heights? What about those parts of Brooklyn you never even heard of? What about (shudder) Staten Island? You could try a room share until you hit the bigtime, or a furnished sublet until you figure it all out. Think out of the box, but don’t overextend yourself and plunk down too much for too little. Some places (co-ops, mostly) require that you follow the 25-percent rule: 25% of your gross income should be spent on housing, and no more. You’ll need to be the judge of the elevation/location/square-footage cost balance act.
Otherwise, you may find yourself back in that sad, sorry strip mall drinking a watery latte and wondering where it all went wrong.