I recently went through the exclusively transformative horror of searching for an apartment in New York City. Dispensing with the rote bitchfest you might sense yourself standing at the precipice of, I'd prefer to begin by hurling a few bombastic visuals at you that will hopefully illustrate this uniquely damnable place from which I'm speaking. Inarguably, evil of such nuance and measure demands an accordant seat at the table.
Imagine that you're standing alone on a vast beach. A grim expanse of dark clouds boils rhythmically on the horizon with decidedly awesome power. Thunder moans from somewhere within the blackness, and you notice that the tide is moving in quickly. You'd like to back up from where the waves are breaking to avoid getting your shoes wet, but now there's a big goon in a cheap suit standing behind you with a baseball bat, and he's digging the handle into the small of your back while glancing hurriedly at his watch. Suddenly, a huge wave breaks on top of you and the undertow drags you down and thrashes you about in the extremity-numbing void. After a torturous eternity, you are spat back onto the beach; humiliated and covered with the barf of the sea. Green kelp dangles unspectacularly from your hair. The pockets of your soaked trousers are filled with sand. From your belt loop dangles a shiny new key. Least surprising of all, your wallet is gone.
For the purpose of this discussion, I'm going to assume that you're exactly like me.
Which is to say, I'm going to assume that you're somewhere between 30 and 125 years old, that you make OK money, that you willingly live in an urban environment because of some deeply important and personally meaningful reason which you hate when more successful friends who've moved to the suburbs ask you to elaborate upon, and that you are in possession of something which I like to refer to as "standards." Put more succinctly, you've got a pretty active life, maybe don't yet have the responsibilities of a family bearing down on you, but you feel like there's nothing greedy or inappropriate about wanting a decent apartment to live in. You know, in the kind of neighborhood where street noise doesn't consist of regular gunfire, and where "heat" is activated through means of a device on the wall, not by connecting rusty jumper cables to a car battery or something with pedals. You don't think there's anything lofty or inappropriate about what you want. After all, everybody enters the apartment hunting game with a sensible list of must-haves. Some of us are even bold enough to make a secondary list, often dubbed would-be-nices. The ostensible difference between the two lists is that the must-haves usually comprise bullet points such as "clean" or "near the L train", whereas the would-be-nices get a little daring by drifting into the more exotic "yard access" or "basement storage" territories.
I got married last year, so I had the benefit of making these lists with the help of another real live grownup, who brought to the table a multitude of her own useful thoughts and ideas. Bonus! After all, the amenity prioritization process is based almost entirely on previous experiences (which accounts for most people's first apartments looking like post-invasion Baghdad), so with two of us pooling our resources, we'd be miles ahead of the chumps who were flying solo! High on the vapor of our impending nuptials, we ranked and categorized the details of our still-imaginary new home with the kind of buccaneering optimism often observed in the wildly inexperienced. Minutiae like the number of closets we needed and whether we'd prefer to be on the first or second floor were bandied about like so much drunken tabletalk, and with the reality of our soon to expire leases looming on the horizon, the time had obviously come to take our act on the road.
But first, some backstory...
I've been renting apartments in the NYC Metro area, both solo and with roomates, since the early 1990s. My earliest city dwellings were sought out in the pre-Craigslist world by walking into realtor's offices, pestering friends whom I knew were vacating desirable buildings, knocking on doors with "For Rent" signs in the window, and by scanning the six point type in the post-porno pages of the ubiquitous city weeklies. As the market and the means by which to search it changed, so did my tactics. Ever the hopeless modernist.
I've never done well with roommates and as testament to this, I've had few of them. Perhaps those I did have were chosen poorly, or maybe my going through college via night school (and therefore never living in a dorm and learning whatever co-habitation skills such an experience provides) is what made it such a desperately miserable experience. Like a lot of people my age, I lived happily with a significant other for a large chunk of my 20s, but when that ended, I found myself in the unfortunate position of feeling too old for roommates, but too poor to afford my own place. The ensuing tug-of-war between pride and finance found the latter winning out, so I swallowed hard and quickly taught myself everything about viscerally hating another human being by moving in with one of them. If you haven't figured this out for yourself, allow me to make a bold assertion: Nothing will illuminate your snide, passive-aggressive tendencies more effectively than shacking up with a platonic acquaintance. The downward spiral that ensues can easily lead to a sort of reverse enlightenment, wherein your atman and your brahman get loaded, shoot out the lights, and sink to retarded levels of cynical nastiness. [Read: the dirty travel mug that gets left on the counter for a month stops being just a dirty travel mug, and takes on the kind of significance that's ordinarily reserved for things like cultural revolutions or the destruction of a major city.]
(Quick aside: One of my early roommates left just such a travel mug on our kitchen counter for an entire summer, and by that point, her pig-slobbish antics had already turned me into such a petty asshole, I categorically refused to wash it on principle, even though it was A) just one mug, and B) mine. After 12 weeks of it staring at me like some kind of telltale heart, I finally succumbed to defeat during an evening of dish washing and discovered that she'd left an inch of milky coffee in there to fester through the three hottest months of the year. Upon unscrewing the cap, I observed a seething mass of maggots at the bottom, and without missing a beat, I marched it straight into her bedroom and threw it on her bed. (She wasn't home.) The next day, I discovered the mug had been washed and put away, and nothing was ever said about the incident, although I one day expect to die from whatever vengeful thing she assuredly must have done to me in my sleep.)
I've now accepted that not everyone finds the idea of roomates as repugnant as I do (or did). I know
I've got more than my share of annoying idiosynchrocies and bad habits. (I am what's called a "neat freak", which I now understand is just as dreaded and mythologized in the renter's universe as the "slob" is.) Trusted friends have convinced me that there is actually something positive to be said for the companionship and maybe even the amicable sharing of chores that's pleasant on some level. But never having felt that way myself, I tend to associate roommates with travesties like the travel mug story or the fact that one roommate moved me, as an actual been-to-Europe-and-everything adult, to leave frustrated notes around the house bearing messages like "Do not put food in sink", "I am a chair, not a coat rack", and perhaps most spectacularly: "Aim" (tacked to wall above toilet.) Once I realized that I was behaving like an oaf, it was the killer cocktail of self-loathing and self-realization that motivated me to work towards getting a place that would be all mine. To hell with the hostile world of hastily-scribed Post-It notes, unwashed dishes, bad music, and vanishing ice cream. The mystique associated with a Place Of My Own was vast, and having one became a major goal that eventually bore fruit.
My first solo dwelling was a studio apartment inherited from a friend in town who was upgrading to a proper one-bedroom. Even though my arrangements to occupy were made entirely through her and I didn't once step foot into a realtor's office, I still had to fork over one month's rent to a broker for the credit check and for "processing" the transfer of the lease to my name. (Translation: I shucked out nearly a grand because a woman whose phone presence suggested a lifetime of smoking cigarettes through a tracheotomy hole had to send a fax.) At the time, part of me knew I was getting jerked around, but the other part of me (the desperate and inexperienced one) knew that I had to either throw down or risk thirty days of couch surfing at friend's places. Far be it from me to have imagined that less than ten years later, most Realtors wouldn't even cock an eyebrow for less than a month and a half in "processing" fees. In the ritzier parts of town, you can nowadays expect to drop two months rent before you've even seen a lease. Unless you're an investment banker, that's an insurmountable wad of cash, especially when you factor in a security deposit, first month's rent, moving expenses, and all the other things you don't even think of until the eleventh hour. So what, exactly, did I get for my money?
My studio apartment overlooked a beautiful city park through its one proper window, and a badly beaten brick wall through its chain linked fire escape. The kitchen was reminiscent of the Playskool toy model I desperately wanted as a kid, but was denied by my father who felt that such things would land me in a place he called "The Homo Farm." The sink was fashioned after the kind you spit into while leaning out of a dentist's chair, and the fridge was a pint-sized model that lived under the counter and which for my entire residency housed a box of peas that were perfectly sealed in permafrost like the primitive humans that are occasionally discovered inside glaciers. The main living space was small, but with some creativity and the obligatory voyage down the Jersey Turnpike to Ikea, I managed to make it work. (Albeit at the expense of living in perpetual fear of being crushed by an avalanche of books, records, CDs, sweaters, and the countless more useless items which towered around me on all four sides.)
The place had problems, but I found it serviceable enough to realize the comically predictable stereotypes of urban bachelordom: I had a lava lamp. I had a mini bar. I had a dorky, leopard print throw on my futon. (You should be cringing now. I am.) But most importantly, the apartment was mine, and the myriad sacrifices I'd made seemed validated by the peerless joy of coming home to my own place every night. There are very few things in life that are as immediately satisfying, and I've grown to realize that I now harbor an intuitive distrust of anyone who's never walked among "us", as it were. I think living alone taught me how to be a better co-habitator than any roommate ever did, because the frustration derived (as with the reward attained) is inwardly directed, and thereby self-analytical in its nature. Put simply, if you've got your own pad, there's no mental olympics or blame-game involved with finding dirty dishes in the sink when you get home from work. You know who left them there.
Keeping the wistful rhapsodies of livin' la vida solo in mind, it's worth thinking about those realtor's fees again. What exactly is it about these brokers that entitles them to such limitless access to your bank account? Naturally, property owners who opt to showcase their wares through brokers do so as a means of weeding out the obvious psychopaths who are likely to cause trouble, bounce on rent, burn the place down, or otherwise monkey with their long term investment. All well and good. But I already know I'm a good tenant. I'm a great tenant, in fact, and I've got the spotless credit, great references, non-smoking, non-pet owning, gainfully employed, quiet-and-responsible lifestyle to match it. All of which begs the question: Why come I gotta stand in line to get on the short bus, brotherman? Every good landlord wants a good tenant. And every good tenant knows the value of maintaining a cordial relationship with their landlord. In theory, nature has come up with scarcely a better system of coupling, but then someone had to go and foul it all up by massaging a huge population of overachieving C students (I.E. brokers) into the batter. Faster than you can say "no fee", a beautiful relationship that's based on mutual trust, understanding, and other such Norah Jones hooey gets shot to hell. No deposit. No return.
Lest you think I'm an alarmist (or maybe just a jerk), the circumstance looks even more ridiculous when you flip it over and examine it from a renter's perspective. Presumably, one visits a broker to gain access to a realm of real estate that would be otherwise off limits in a DIY search. Ostensibly, this is also why one agrees to fork over a hefty chunk of cash -- for the privilege of membership in their secret society. A society in which you'd like to think that every apartment is a brownstone with hardwood floors, near the subway, and includes all utilities. Entertaining the absurd never sounded quite so good.
When my wife Alex and I began the search that landed us in our current abode, we made every effort to handle it in the DIY spirit. We were both coming out of solo dwellings that were ideal for our dating lives, but were too small to accommodate us as a package deal. So out went the emails. To our current landlords (are you renting anything larger elsewhere?) To co-workers (anyone know of any good places opening up?) I even resorted to posting a MySpace bulletin, something I'm still living down the humiliation of. (No one replied to it, but a goth band from Indiana sent me an MP3.) And naturally, we both developed repetitive stress disorder in our mouse-clicking fingers by refreshing Craigslist every ten seconds in the hopes that something mythical might materialize.
Two weeks later, with our humility feeling seriously challenged and the inexplicable taste of bile becoming a strangely prominent topic of discussion between us, we decided to expand the search and made an appointment at a Realtor's office.
I think I hated him somewhere between immediately and two seconds after we walked through his door. He reached for my hand and flashed the kind of vacuous smile that's commonly worn by dopes, neophytes, and the kind of corporate stooges who insist on dropping buzzwords like webinar or disintermediate into social conversations. Although the urge to leap across the desk and throttle him was palpable, there were dreams to fulfill, so Alex and I behaved like good little parochial school children. We fired up the Very-Nice-Young-Couple-Just-Starting-Out routine, we filled out the forms, and we began talking the talk. He asked us about our wedding. He asked us about our jobs. How long we'd worked there. How well we liked it. He also asked us how we'd been conducting our apartment search, and then had the nuts to act surprised when we mentioned Craigslist. As if the single most revolutionary development in urban property rental of the last 250,000 years was some childish monkey business.
Not surprisingly, the overall experience was very much like the part in a job interview when you find yourself speaking not in your customary voice, but in that of some imaginary relative who confidently discusses foreign films, obscure politics, Thomas Pynchon novels, or the contents of any magazine that features the price spelled out in words on the cover. ("Three Dollars And Ninety Five Cents"). He carefully took in the entirety of our act, occasionally making notes in a yellow legal pad, and when he seemed satisfied, he exhaled heavily, peered meaningfully at us, and announced his intentions...
"I like you guys," he said. "So here's what I'm going to do for you..."
The next morning, Alex and I were standing on a tree-lined street in Brooklyn to meet a landlord that we'd been set up with thanks to our trip to the hotseat. We were in a neighborhood called Fort Greene, which, if you've never been there, is a small collection of streets that make up the oft-stereotyped image of the urban ideal. Think Cosby Show. Think regal brownstones gazing upon wide streets and cobblestone sidewalks. Sunlight dancing lazily through hundred year old tree branches. An astonishing array of ethnic restaurants. Coffee shops. Wine bars. Used bookstores. Corner markets. A huge park with a fresh vegetable market. Athletic looking people with dreadlocks. We felt like hillbilly space aliens who had just crash-landed on some kind of NPR-sanctioned Daytona Beach. My pulse had jumped noticeably, and glancing at my watch, I realized that we were fifteen minutes early. "Let's take a walk around the block," I announced. "We don't want to look too anxious."
A quick stroll through the neighboring streets yielded more of the same, and we took it all in with moist-eyed longing. How could we have overlooked this neighborhood? Alex, a Brooklyn native, was even more flummoxed than I was. Flashing back to the few parties I'd attended in nearby Clinton Hill, I wondered why I'd never once crossed the avenue to pay a visit to this utopian Sesame Street that sat high atop Fulton Mall like some Mt. Olympus of Kings County. Did we even deserve to live in a place like this? The rent was pushing the high end of our limit, but was certainly within the target range. I don't think either of us were considering the fact that we hadn't yet seen the inside of the apartment.
"Don't get excited," we both said, trying to sound like cautiously optimistic smart people.
When we rounded the corner back to what we were predictably now calling "our" block, there were two guys standing in front of the apartment. They smiled and asked us if we were the landlords they had a 10 AM appointment with. Wasn't that funny... We also had a 10 AM appointment with the landlord! Although it hadn't crossed our minds that our broker might not have made an exclusive arrangement for us, we were slightly nonplussed by the fact that we'd be in direct competition for signature rights if an eventual lease was presented. Fortunately, our concerns abated after talking to them for a few minutes. They were a gay couple who lived in Secaucus and were really hoping to buy a place in Fort Greene. They were making the rounds through Realtors just to see more places in the neighborhood and learn a bit more about what they'd be getting into. After relegating them to non-threat status, we stood around chatting patiently, no doubt grinning to beat the band.
Moments later, a woman arrived. She wasn't the landlord either. She was, in fact, a Realtor from a different broker's office than the one we'd visited. She had a 10 AM appointment with a young couple to see the same apartment we were supposed to see. Then two more people showed up. Still no landlord. It was now 10:15. Six more people and another Realtor. As the gaggle swelled into a small crowd, I came to the realization that we were clustered around a front stoop which would soon act as the venue for a glorious pissing contest between the hopefuls. Our Realtor hadn't done anything for us besides toss us into a lineup. We'd been chumped by a guy who probably owned a bolo tie.
At this point in the story, I must dutifully submit that mathematics have always stupefied me. For a brief moment in 10th grade geometry, I thought I was suddenly getting it, but that little fantasy was soundly dismissed the following semester during a baffling year of pre-calculus. I do manage to maintain marginal control of my checkbook, but I suspect that it's really the lines and columns doing all the legwork for me. Nope, abstract numerics and their many applications simply aren't one of my strong suits, and I navigate through my life with a keen awareness of this. That said, for all the fuzzy logic that economics concerns itself with, you'd think that I might declare myself similarly clueless in that realm. Not so. In fact I'm certain that I've fully and capably grasped the concept of payment for services rendered. But based on my recent experiences and those of pretty much anyone else I've been able to keep seated for ten minutes, it appears that many real estate brokers are utterly blind to this substantial pillar of our economic infrastructure. Even if you arrive at a point with a broker where you are going to sign a lease (and therefore pay whatever fee was agreed to), they still haven't really worked for you in the same sense as someone else you might hire would.
Let's suppose that you've had your initial pow-wow with a particular broker. Let's also say the interview part went well, your credit has checked out like aces, and you put on a great show for the camera from back to front. The broker says he hasn't got any apartments to show you in your range "at the moment" but is expecting some things to open up in the next few days. You shake hands and leave the office, confident in the knowledge that you're an ideal tenant and that the broker's got your cell number and will be in touch as soon as something "opens up". What you're not seeing is precisely what's screwing you the hardest, and that's the similarly qualified person who walked into the same office moments after you left it. Coincidentally, in the ninety seconds that elapsed between your parting words and potential renter #2 blowing in off the avenue, the broker got a call announcing that the second floor of Old Man McWheeley's place would be opening up at the end of the month. The apartment is perfect. It has all the amenities you wanted and then some. It's well within your price range. And there's an excellent chance that it's going to be inhabited by the schmuck who happened to be there at exactly the right time because the Realtor you just agreed to hire couldn't be bothered to pick up the phone and call you. The brokerage system as I experienced it speaks to only one reality: One pulse is as good as the next.
Contrary to this unbridled spew of vitriol, I'm not here just to badmouth my experience with Realtors, even though only one of the 10+ brokers we eventually did the dance with wasn't completely ineffectual. (Her name is Annie, and she shows buildings in Williamsburg and Greenpoint. She didn't actually find us an apartment, but she returned our calls, she didn't lie to us, and she snapped her gum like a champ, so Annie was a-ok by us.) Everything we saw through their channels was either filthy or just conventionally depressing, yet somehow, they all got huffy when we explained that we expected at least a few of our most basic needs to be met by a potential dwelling. Their criticisms were delivered in such a way as to make us feel extravagant and hatefully bourgeois -- like we needed to come back down to Earth if we really expected to find an apartment, and just who the hell were we to step up with this... this... this attitude.
If any of my yammering has struck a note of familiarity in you, I'm guessing that you're just as accustomed as I am to dealing with the brain dead masses on a daily basis. The more I've replayed those weeks over in my head, the more clearly I've realized that I might not even have minded the
trauma so much if the brokerage system didn't seem so eerily structured to purposely waste my time. Our must-haves really weren't unreasonable: a clean apartment with a decent-sized kitchen in seven possible neighborhoods scattered across multiple boroughs. "What's this, now? You say you don't have anything like that to show me today? It's OK, really. Maybe we can try again tomorrow. Here, have a Snapple. Maybe call Annie for some help understanding this." The true culprits aren't the Realtors anyway, it's the horrific housing market and the hopeless jumble of machinations that feed into it. The brokers are really just there to stir the pot, but in doing so, they exacerbate the nightmare for the rest of us. Yeah, we eventually found a place to live (on Craigslist, no broker) that's
working out on the short term, and its enabled me to shake off
the painfully acute rage that propped me up
for months after the fact. However, aside from swearing in blood to never work with another Realtor again, the only real clarity I've gained from the experience is that I don't appreciate being dragged out to Grand Army Plaza on my lunch hour to be shown a one room adobe with a toilet in the kitchen, and then have someone in a bolo tie get bent out of shape and tell me that I'm being ungrateful. I can think of at least a few thousand more productive ways to spend my time. Can't you?