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The Co-op Chronicles: The Search

So I had decided to buy. What was I looking for?

  • A “true” 3-bedroom apartment…
  • In Manhattan…
  • In good condition…
  • Reasonably convenient to mass transit…
  • In a neighborhood that won’t scare my 12-year-old son from Florida, or my 70-year-old mom from Michigan…
  • For less than $1 million

In most cities, those conditions could be met with money to spare. In Manhattan, I was looking for a needle in a haystack.

Luckily, the search is considerably easier than the last time I went house-hunting, which was in the 1990s. Back then, you had to put yourself in a realtor’s hands. What you saw was totally dependent on what they chose to show you. You had no idea if you were seeing the best properties, or merely what they wanted to “push.” And it was nearly impossible to get a feel for a property without actually going to see it, so the search took up a lot of time.

property_search.jpgToday, most of the major realtors advertise with The New York Times. Just go to the Times real estate page, and enter your search criteria (neighborhood, maximum price, number of bedrooms). The listings, too, are a lot more informative than they used to be. Besides the broker’s narrative description, you can usually bring up a floorplan, photos of the property, demographic information about the area, maintenance costs, and a lot more. You quickly find out whether what you’re looking for is realistic.

Obviously the listings are marketing, and can’t always be trusted. I mentioned that one of my requirements was a “true” 3-bedroom apartment. You might be wondering, what would a “false” one be? Well, in many cases what’s marketed as a 3-bedroom isn’t really. Perhaps the third “bedroom” is only a nook, which would require construction of a wall to become a real bedroom. Or perhaps it’s just a “maid’s room,” which means it’s only about half the size of a conventional bedroom.

Floorplan at 141 Attorney Street, #2CD

The listings also can’t give you a feel for the neighborhood. I saw a great listing for an apartment on Attorney Street on the Lower East Side that appeared to meet my criteria. That was before I actually went and looked at it. The Lower East Side may be gentrifying, but Attorney Street has a long way to go. Also, the building had a bar on the ground floor, and the unit for sale was on the second floor. On weekends, you can forget about getting any sleep.

After a while, you get accustomed to the standard euphemisms that realtors use to describe undesirable features. For instance, “Bring your decorator” means that the existing décor sucks. “Junior 3-bedroom” or “Convertible 3-bedroom” means that the third bedroom is less than what it should be.

Closets are a problem in many Manhattan apartments. Apartments with just one small closet in the master bedroom are quite common. You wonder: would any architect actually believe that two people’s clothes could fit here?

Anyhow, I quickly figured out that My Apartment did not exist in Manhattan below Central Park. Listings that initially appeared to meet my criteria always had something wrong with them. Otherwise, they would be more than $1 million.

Several listings in Harlem were compelling enough that I actually went uptown to look at them. Harlem is a beehive of upscale development. In 10 years, it could very easily be what Chelsea is today. But it isn’t yet. Even where the apartments themselves are compelling, I just can’t imagine bringing my 12-year-old son from Florida, or my 70-year-old mom from Michigan, to Harlem. It’s a lot better than it used to be, but you still need a lot of faith to live in Harlem.

One neighborhood consistently returned listings that met my criteria: Hudson Heights, and specifically, Cabrini Boulevard.

To be continued…

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