Like most people, I hate moving. When I moved into my Hell’s Kitchen apartment, I really and truly felt this was going to be where I spent my years in New York. The apartment was close to everything, and as small as it was, it was mine and that is all that really mattered. Then life happened. As it so happens, I moved out of that apartment today, loading all my things in a storage locker which by square foot is substantially more expensive than my apartment (about 25% more expensive on a per square foot basis, and the only amenity is that the space is temperature controlled).
Like I said, I really hate moving. I have done a lot of it over the years. Since I left home in 1986, I have had about 20 different addresses registered with the USPS. I have however for the past 15 years or so, settled into a routine where I live in a home either three or four years and then move on. I bought my first condo in Chicago in the summer of 2000, only to move to my loft 3 years and two months later. Then four years after that, I moved to New York City, and into my 225 sq ft fifth floor walk up on Horatio Street in the West Village.
My West Village apartment on Horatio Street was a dream come true in many ways. Not only was it in a highly coveted location, it had a ton of charm packed into it’s 225 square feet, and I quickly grew accustomed to climbing the four flights to the top floor. Originally built-in 1870 as housing for dock workers and their families, it was gut renovated in the 1930s and retained a lot of character. It had a massive brick fireplace (formerly functional, now decorative), nice parquet oak floors, great windows overlooking the garden below. It was so quiet, I could hear the squirrels running across the fire escape railings.
As charming as it was, it also had its shortcomings. The landlord did as little as possible to maintain it, twice a year they swept and mopped the hallways which according to a neighbor had not been painted in 20+ years. The occasional cockroaches could be endured (this is New York after all), but I was freaked out on several occasions by giant water bugs (big enough that you could hear them hit the floor when they jumped off of the counter), and the building was infested with mice (of which I killed more than a dozen in three years) who would gnaw away at the floor joists at night. It also kept wind and rain out about as well as a colander holds water. During a storm, you could feel the wind blowing through the apartment, coming from the skylight in the bathroom, down the chimney flue, and through the leaky casement window. Being on the top floor with southern exposure, it baked in the summer driving my electric bill up to $150 a month (for 225 sq ft, that’s crazy!). But it was lovely none the less, and I loved living in the storybook nabe more than anything.
When I rented the West Village apartment, I thought myself fortunate that I managed to snag a rent stabilized apartment (for an illegal cash fee to the landlord), and I was confident that having a rent stabilized apartment would ensure I had a place I could afford to live for many years to come. Well…. Maybe not. For my non New Yorker readers, rent stabilized apartment are subject to annual increases just like everyone else, the only difference being that the increase is determined by the Rent Guidelines Board (a city agency). In fact, they can be subject to scary rent increases. My rent started at $1,527.62, the next year it went up to $1,596.36, and then the third year it was $1,685.48. That is an increase of $157.86 just two years after I moved in (if I was still there, it would now be $1,896.74). So, even though it was “stabilized” and the increase was determined by the city, I quickly realized that the situation was going to be untenable in the long run and that it didn’t matter that I had a stabilized rent if I couldn’t afford it. The solution? Own it.
One of the things that held me back from moving to New York in the first place was my fear of becoming a renter again and having no control over my housing costs, not to mention having no ability to alter my own home to my liking. But when I was handed a severance package in 2007, I decided it I was willing to risk it, and I let go of being a homeowner to fulfill my dream of being a New Yorker. By 2009, after my rent had already gone up that $157.86, I decided to explore the idea that perhaps I could actually own my own place. I was still fortunate enough to have savings from when I cashed in and came here two years earlier, and my credit score was higher than ever. So I began the hunt.
Those that know me, know that I am a bit of a real estate junkie. I love looking at it online, and I know more about certain property types than many realtors (seriously, I do). So I began the hunt for an apartment. My absolute norther boundary was Central Park South as I knew little about the northern territories (above 59th street). Of course, that left me with little to choose from as my eastern boundary was basically Fifth Avenue (the exception being below 14th Street, I would happily go as far east as Avenue A). My other stipulation was that I needed to be within a 6 minute walk to the subway. I could not afford my West Village neighborhood, so I concentrated on Hell’s Kitchen. Hell’s Kitchen (the area between 37th and 57th Streets, west of Eight Avenue to the Hudson) is a neighborhood which more charm than one would think, and more restaurants than the entire state of Connecticut. It is mostly low-rise walk-up tenements from the 1880s to about 1910. And those walk-up tenements are mostly still rental. So, there aren’t a lot of co-ops in Hell’s Kitchen, and certainly not many pre-war doorman buildings. However, after looking at a few places, and having two offers get rejected (and another fall through), I found a place on the northern edge of the neighborhood which I loved. My offer was accepted in April of 2010. Two months later, I closed on the apartment. I was beside myself with joy, happiness, and gratitude for having achieved home ownership in Manhattan. Not an easy feat.
As I have mentioned in a previous post, the intent of this apartment was to settle in for the long haul. I figured that if I happened to remain single till the end, I had a place I could afford to ensure I remained in Manhattan. The other intent of this apartment was that my housing costs were more contained. My mortgage was fixed for 30 years, so no worries about that. The maintenance was the only thing that was going to go up over time. And a well run building was sure to be mindful of the maintenance charges so I felt that since we (the owners) were all shareholders within the building, it was in our best interest to ensure we handled our money well and that increases would be minimal. It turns out they have. My maintenance has risen a total of $41 in the four years I have owned it. This along with my mortgage has kept my housing under $1,750, which is far less than the $1,896 I would be paying had I stayed in the West Village. We won’t even go to into the tax advantages and equity gained. There are also the tangible gains such as having a whopping 30% more space (from 225 sq ft to 294 sq ft). I went from a fifth floor walk-up to a fifth floor elevator. There there is the benefit of living in a full service building with a doorman, and resident super, impeccably clean hallways, and people who shovel the snow out front only minutes after it falls from the sky. As lovely as this apartment was, things can change.
This is always a good reminder that life is anything but permanent. Just when you think things will remain the sale, they change. Funny thing, is, I moved all of my things into a storage locker, and when our new apartment is ready in a few months, I will be moving them again. Of course it is with the plan that this will be my last move, and of course that may be a complete lie, but now that I am a happily married man in the middle of purchasing our dream home, this next move may indeed be my final move.