My wife and I moved from Virginia to Brooklyn about four years ago. We scrambled around without much going on in the way of income and found an apartment in the basement of a house in Bay Ridge. The owner liked us and it was all good. The enormity of the move was stressful, but in hindsight, the apartment search itself wasn’t really all that bad. Moving to New York in general is a fairly stressful endeavor, with the pace and size of the city being what it is. We felt that our search was typical. We found out that we were wrong. When we moved from Brooklyn to Queens last summer, we learned just how brutal the whole experience can be.
The first idiosyncrasy of apartment hunting in New York is dealing with ‘brokers.’ Real estate listings are riddled with descriptions of real estate brokers. No fee, low fee, lessor side, lessee side, Manhattan/Queens/Brooklyn-specific. Brokers in Queens operate differently than those in other boroughs. Some apartments require renting be done through a broker. Others require the tenants pay the broker’s fee even if contracted by the landlord. All of this adds a level of pressure and increases the pace of and expense of an already breakneck and expensive adventure.
Our lease ended on the first of August, so we began looking for apartments in early June. The first dozen inquiries were either ignored or received curt responses informing me that it was much too early to find an apartment for August. The best time to look was, apparently, about two weeks before the move-in. To me that seemed a little... frantic.
When we finally found an apartment that was interesting, we were offered several appointment times by the broker divided into five minute increments. We arrived at the designated time and waited outside until the agent opened the door to let another prospective tenant out. He led us upstairs and showed the apartment for about four minutes and thirty seconds before ushering us outside where another prospective tenant waited on the sidewalk. The next on his assembly line.
The next apartment we saw still had tenants living in it. Crayon drawings all over the walls, paint peeling, furniture still in place, closets overflowing, moving boxes lining the walls. After seeing the apartment for five or six minutes with children running around and three other hopeful lessees inspecting every nook and cranny, we asked the agent if we could see the apartment when it was vacant. He replied, “theoretically yes, but it will be off the market by then.” Though we were suspicious of that sort of hard-sell, we knew he also happened to be right. After much deliberation we took it.
In addition to being frantic and chaotic, moving to or in New York is one of the most intrusive experiences one can subject oneself to, perhaps short of invasive surgery. The incredible demand and astronomical real estate prices in the city, combined with extremely strict rent laws and tenant rights make for quite a high-stakes process. Landlords demand bank statements, account numbers, credit checks, income verification, reference letters, tax returns, multiple photo IDs, and usually a lengthy application. When my sister moved from Phoenix with her husband and dog, they were required to submit an additional application complete with a reference and photo. For the dog.
Once an application is approved begins the physical act of moving. In a massive city and with no car. Waivers, moving companies, friends with vans, dozens of boxes, curbing worn furniture that would be more expensive to move than to replace, coordinating between landlord and moving company. The entire process is a sort of frenzied whirl.
We finally settled into our empty apartment in the center of Queens in the first week of July last year. We sat along with my wife’s brother, who had helped us move, in chairs in the oppressive July heat several floors above the street (after three years in our basement, we forgot that hot air rises). We kicked our feet up amidst the boxes and scattered furniture as the dust settled. Our air conditioner was not yet installed and the windows were open with a box fan sitting on the sill pointing directly at our faces as we watched a scratched DVD lurch through Batman on a laptop screen.
After a move like that, there sets in a powerful inertia. An aversion to paperwork and a reluctance to find furniture and to decorate, simply because getting it through the front door would feel too much like moving. As the sun set over the street and the cheese cooled on the slice of pizza leftover for our dinner, we sat. We didn’t throw the box in the recycling or turn on the lamps as the sunlight shrank from the room. We just sat. Very very still.
Peter is a native of Orange County and the son of an English teacher and a librarian with freakishly eclectic musical tastes. He studied music in college and subsequently moved to New York City where he works, performs, explores, and writes about it.