House Hunting Review: A Tale of Declining Expectations

I remember when we started house hunting and I laugh and laugh at how naive we were. Everyone says to sit down and look at your finances and your must-haves and want-to-haves, then match them up with a neighborhood and begin a careful, methodical process of elimination to hone in on the right house. This is not how it worked out. We looked at our finances (excellent!) and our goal list (good schools, decent home) and 10 minutes into the house hunt realized that we had nothing to buy. That’s what happens in New York. Because in this market a hell of a lot of people have both great finances and minimal expectations related to comfort, security and quality of life. Everyone else is trying to rent your apartment and keep their heads above water.

When Booboo and I first started looking we were under the impression that we’d move to The City. As in, the island of Manhattan. Unfortunately that lasted for approximately one day and 4 (miserable and cramped) places. The first thing you should know about Manhattan is that unless you are uber-wealthy, you won’t actually own a place, even as a condominium (forget a house, we were never so idealistic). You’ll own shares in a cooperative corporation that asks you for your kidney and firstborn in exchange for buying in, and then will proceed to bully you about everything. B is the type of person who decided he wasn’t even going to visit Bhutan because the travel situation there is so bossy (they monitor you from morning till night) so by the time the second real estate agent at an open house lectured us on how she needed to see what investments we’d made in our retirement portfolio, and how we wouldn’t be able to make any changes to the apartment or rent it out EVER, we quickly decided to set our sights elsewhere. Initially B was huffing about moving back to our own borough, or maybe that hip one down south, but a quick Trulia search revealed that the coop infection has spread across the boroughs and the only place we’d be able to escape it would be Long Island. So, the suburbs. Staten Island wasn’t even a possibility for us-it’s pretty obvious if you’ve been keeping track of how Hurricane Sandy .

Having exhausted our East River borough possibilities we quickly set our sights to Manhattan’s unassuming 6th borough, across the river from the Hudson. Yes my friends, we got off our high horse and down into the dirty Jerz. I am not a native New Yorker (Boston 4eva), so I don’t have any snobberies regarding The Jerz. I mean, growing up in Boston I’ve always had a bit of a…refineries and turnpike image of The Jerz, but that’s mostly because that’s all I ever saw as we were zooming across it. Intellectually I know that there’s more than tolls and various chemical factories, but I hain’t seen any of it, savvy?  But when you tell people that you might be moving Jerz-side, there’s a peculiar reaction common to anyone who is “privileged” enough to fork over City Tax. A sharp inhalation of breath, a flare of the nostrils and creeping pity across a concerned visage. The mental reaction is so obvious the anvils nearly shoot across the distance and slam you in the face. “B and T, B and T omigod, they are going B and T.” Given that Booboo retains a bit o’ NYC snobbery along these lines, I had to slowly lead him to the Jersey shaped trough of reality. “Are we really going to let people dictate what to do with a home we’re spending a sh*tload of money on?” I’d ask him while he took to our couch with a glass of whiskey and a cold compress, “are they f*cking serious with these questions?”

Here’s what happens when you cross the Hudson though. Your expectations go up. Way up. When you’re looking Manhattan you’re always saying things like “550 square feet doesn’t sound bad, right? I mean, we can swing that!” but when you move across the Hudson all of a sudden it’s like “Hey, I’m in Jersey so I deserve a 1000 square feet and 2 bedrooms! And I want a dishwasher, W/D, a pony and someone needs to give ME a kidney and a firstborn.” UNFORTUNATELY, what also happens when you end up right across the river from Manhattan is that you’re suddenly competing with thousands of people who want a kidney and a firstborn and a washer/dryer too. And what definitely did not help us out is that interest rates have been low, low, low so pretty much everyone hoarding a downpayment is out there looking at exactly the same neighborhoods and properties you are. There were times when I’d send listings to my agent and get back all but 2 of them with the note that the rest were in contract or under attorney review. Most of the time they’d only be on the market for 7 days or less. But since we both work and couldn’t come in till the weekend, people would rush over during weekdays, bid and put the property under attorney review. One time we were on the way to a bloody home, and our agent got a call that it went under AR. It was incredibly frustrating because making the drive to Jerz was neither cheap in terms of time or tolls (bloody B&T indeed!)

In fact, what was just 15 months ago a depressed/static market suddenly became a hot market with almost no inventory. What makes me want to make Manhattan snobs in the snoot is that it’s actually much easier to buy in Manhattan these days than it is to buy in Brooklyn, Queens or the good parts of Hudson County.

So our Jerz tale was pretty remniscent of our Manhattan-Borough tale. The only difference was that we didn’t compromise on wanting more space and a reasonably updated home. “We’ll get that second bedroom, I’m not compromising on that one,” B would say to me after every trip of looking at between 1 to 3 listings to the tune of a $14 tunnel ride back to our borough. We rejected available apartments for various reasons-sometimes the monthly HOA would be sky-high, other times there would be zero light inside even with a full on sunny day outside.

If I sound like we searched for the whole year and rejected a thousand apartments, I want to clarify. Due to the lack of inventory, we literally looked at 10 apartments and only in September and our agent repeatedly apologized for having nothing to show in a reasonable price range. Fortunately, our luck turned on the 10th place. The property had been under contract/attorney review for something like 6 months but the buyer finally admitted that he was unable to obtain financing so the deal fell apart. On a Saturday night. Coincidentally, we were slated for viewings the next day on Sunday morning so our agent rushed us over to the place.

And it pretty much beat every house out that we’d seen to date. I don’t want to say too much about it because I’d rather show you in some pictures (soon, I promise!). But it’s a nice place. It’s way way more than we ever wanted to get but we just lucked into something we can stay in for a long time. Well, provided our future monsters get into magnet school, I guess.

We bid on it a day later and here we are. I’m packing up boxes and fielding calls from people who want our apartment and squabbling with B about whether or not we should put Madhubani and Warli paintings on our walls and how to spruce up the bathrooms (3 of them, y’all).

New York real estate. It’s about being in the right place at the right time, I think.

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