5 Things I Wish I’d Checked Before Renting My First Apartment

We were so excited. Finally, we had found an apartment we could afford in exactly the location we wanted. Okay, it was actually a little more than we had hoped to pay for rent, but not so much that we couldn’t manage it; after all, we had belatedly realized that we had targeted an expensive area and knew after a few weeks of looking that we were lucky to find anything close to our price range. It also was something called rent-stabilized, whatever that was.

We wandered through the apartment, and it looked okay, I guess. The current tenants hadn’t moved out and it was hard to tell anything with their oversized furniture packed into every space. But it wasn’t a railroad apartment, and it had two real, separate bedrooms. We said we’d take it.

My roommate and I stayed in that apartment a lot longer than we had ever thought we would, mostly because we moved in right before New York rents blew up, and it became too expensive to move–especially once we figured out that rent-stabilized thing and understood the difference between what we were paying and market rate rents. So financially it was a good deal, but oh, was it miserable to live there. And if we had known a little bit more about what to look for in an apartment, maybe we would have thought twice before taking it, or at least gotten some problems solved earlier on.

Here are five things I wished I had checked during that first walk through:

  1. Look for cracks, spaces, openings We didn’t think to look at the base of the walls when we walked through our apartment, because why would we do that? Well, once the previous tenants’ furniture was gone, we saw that in some areas the floors were beginning to sag away from the walls. We noticed that there were little cracks and small openings around the radiators. There were tiny gaps around the edges of the windows. This created two problems: on cold, windy days, the wind came howling through those cracks and gaps, leaving our apartment ice cold. We tried complaining but all anyone was interested in was whether our landlord was providing heat, and yes, technically he was; it was just that the heat was losing a battle to the amount of the great outdoors getting in. As long as the heating system was working, no one was interested in hearing anything else from us. Oh, and speaking of the great outdoors, guess what else came in through those cracks? When our building was hit by a mouse invasion several times, we got it bad. We tried to stuff all the openings with rags, foil, brillo pads (because they’re supposed to keep out mice), but nothing worked. It was an ongoing disaster.Lesson: Don’t get distracted by furniture, layout, room sizes. Make sure you check that the apartment is sealed tight.

    Our apartment wasn't this bad, but it was close.

    Our apartment wasn’t this bad, but it was close.

  2. Make sure the windows are double-paned If you are saying, “What is double-paned?” then you are saying the same thing I would have said back when I was renting my first apartment. I didn’t notice that all that was standing between me and a cold New York winter was a thin, old, single pane of glass. When the tempers dropped and the wind began to blow, I could stand in front of our windows and feel the cold air pouring through. On very windy days (of which there are so many in a New York fall, winter, and spring) I would feel my hair blowing around when I sat at my desk. We might as well have had plastic wrap up instead of glass. We tried putting up that plastic insulation stuff and it just fell down. We got the heaviest shades and curtains we could find, and that helped a little, but not enough (especially with the aforementioned leaky walls). Instead we wore coats and scarves indoors and blew up our electric bills with space heater use.Lesson: Make sure that the windows are at least fairly new, preferably doubled paned (that’s two panes of glass to really trap and keep out the cold air) and completely sealed in the window frame.5 Things_double pane single pane
  3. Look for stains or bulging patches on the ceiling These are indications that there have been leaks from the apartment above you. If you see them, ask the broker, property  manager, super, whoever is showing you the apartment, for an explanation. If you can’t get a good answer, try to look for another apartment option. If they promise they’re going to fix the problem in the apartment above you, and you believe them, take photos just in case water does leak through and anything you own is ruined. They shouldn’t give you a hard time about paying for replacement items anyway, but it never hurts to be able to show them some “We told you so” photos.Lesson: Look up!5 Things_Water stain
  4. Don’t move in right after another tenant moves out I know this isn’t always possible–sometimes you’re just trying to find an apartment by a certain date, and you take the best decent place you can find, even if they’re moving out on the 30th and you need to  move in on the 1st. But if the apartment is empty when you go to see it then not only will you get a good look at any wall gaps,  cracks, or openings that might have hid behind furniture (as mentioned above), but there’s also a good chance that the landlord has done some work in the apartment after the other tenants moved out–maybe they painted, or regrouted the tiles, or  replaced the windows. It’s amazing what a difference these little things  can make, and guess what? Your landlord is NOT going to do them after you move in. What motivation is there? You signed a lease and now all your landlord cares about is whether you send those checks on time, not that you realized after three weeks that peeling paint is really depressing.If you’re working with a savvy broker, and you don’t need to move in the first of the month, maybe you can negotiate to get some work done in the apartment, but you can’t guarantee how that will go. You don’t want to find yourself (or your broker) on the phone on your move in day, standing in the apartment screaming, “You said you were going to paint!!” as the movers arrive with all your stuff.Lesson: Just in case you weren’t sure, your landlord does not care about anything except your check.
    5 Things_peeling grout
  5. Check the light When we looked through our apartment, it was early evening, so I didn’t pay that much attention to the windows other than that there seemed to be a decent number of them: one window in each bedroom, two in the living room, and one facing the teensy open kitchen. If you have windows, you have light, right? Wrong. The windows in one bedroom, the living room, and opposite the kitchen all faced directly west into the building next to us, and that building was twelve stories high. It towered over our five (later six) story walk up, completely blocking any light from those rooms. The only way I could see what the sky looked like to check the weather was to try to see its reflection in one of the higher floor windows of the building next to us. Things weren’t much better in the other bedroom, where the north facing window was  overshadowed by a nineteen story building. Our apartment was dark most of the time; I almost always had to keep a light on in my room. My roommate worked in an office during the day and could handle it better, but I worked at home most of the time, and the lack of light was incredibly depressing. And no landlord, Home Depot kit, or city agency can fix that.Lesson: If you want to make sure there is light in your apartment (and not everyone does), visit it during the day. Don’t just count the number of windows or look at their size or the direction they face–check out the heights of the buildings next to you. That highly touted southern exposure doesn’t mean a lot if there’s a twenty-five story condo to your south.5 Things_dark

So there you go! Hopefully you don’t need this because you’re a lot smarter than I was when I went to rent in New York for the first time. Or that you’re a lot richer and don’t have to deal with these kind of issues as you choose an apartment from several luxury towers. And if that’s the case, let me know and I’ll help you work through issues like whether you can live with just a shared roof deck or if you must have a private terrace.


Enter Here: The Gates of Central Park


How do you enter Central Park? You just walk in. No one charges you anything. No one checks you over. No one asks you any question. Nothing opens or shuts behind you. officially the park closes at 1:00 am, but if you want to go in at 3:30 am (and do you really want to…?), you can walk right into the darkness.

Yet if you look at any detailed map of the park, even those going back to the 1800s, you’ll see the names of a number of gates noted around its edges, but no actual gates. So what was up with that?

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Deal or No Deal? Making a Good Condo Investment in New York

Let's talk filthy lucre.

Let’s talk filthy lucre.

(I really hate the title of this post. It’s clunky and lacks wit, but I guess it gets the job done. Anyway, sorry about that.  And overall, this is going to be low on entertainment value…but sky high in information! So keep reading. I’ll try to make this as painless as possible.)

When my grandfather died, he left my dad some money. My parents used some of it to pay off their mortgage, then used the rest to buy a house at the New Jersey shore (or “down the shore,” as we like to say). He said buying shore property was a good investment, because they can’t build more shore.

The same can be said of New York City–they can’t really build more of it. Sure, they can continue to build up and try to find other ways to squeeze tiny residences onto our little island, but it’s a good bet that there will always be more people trying to live here than decent homes available (and if there is a time when people don’t want to live in New York, well, that probably means something really bad has happened and we may all have bigger problems than our rent). That means that New York real estate can also be a good investment. But when you’re shopping for a possible investment property, how do you know if you’re getting a good deal? Let’s think through this.

Bad news! Remember that old lady you used to cat sit for years ago when you first moved to New York? I’m sorry to tell you that she has shaken loose from this mortal coil. Good news! You’re her sole heir and it turns out that she had several million tucked away under her mattress.

Being kind to Princess Pretty Paws has paid off handsomely.

Being kind to Princess Pretty Paws has paid off handsomely.

Okay, you’ve used some of it to buy your own dream apartment, but now you have some leftover and you’d like to do more with it than have it just sit and rot in your savings account. You decide to buy a condo so you can earn some income from renting it out.

Here’s a good looking deal. It’s a one bedroom in a prime West Village location for $900,000 with monthly charges of just $900 (note: this is based on a real listing but numbers have been rounded for easy math purposes). Is it a good investment.

Aww, the West Village is so pretty...

Aww, the West Village is so pretty…

Step 1: How much do you think you can charge for rent? A quick look at rental listings in the same area show that you should be able to get at least $3,000 a month in rent. You may be able to get more–after all, the West Village is a super popular location–but let’s go with the low end of things.

Yearly income from rental: 3,000 x 12 = $36,000

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Eleven Reasons Why You Should Consider a Walk Up


Are you New York enough for a walk up? Yeah, I mean you. Are you ready to take the plunge and deal with ascending a few flights of steps every day in exchange for an apartment that’s a lot better than what you’d pay for in an elevator building?

New York is an old city. Not old like Rome kind of old, but old for the United States old. So that means the buildings are old, and we like that–the way cobblestone, twisty streets downtown mix in with shining towers of steel and glass is part of what makes New York the way it is, different kinds of places mixed together, different kinds of people.

You're almost home!

You’re almost home!

But many people move here with only a passing familiarity with stairs, like that one flight of twelve, thirteen steps in the house where you grew up. You know, the one that you ran up as soon as you got home from school so you could get to your bedroom and slam the door shut and cry or crank up your music really loud or play video games instead of do your homework. And those twelve or thirteen steps were fine. But four flights of that? Most people find the thought–well, they don’t find it because it’s completely unimaginable.

It's not like you can avoid stairs in New York anyway.

It’s not like you can avoid stairs in New York anyway.

However, what would you think of those three or four flights if you knew it could save you several hundred dollars a month? Or thousands of dollars off your purchase price? Suddenly it doesn’t sound so bad, does it?

Of course there are perfectly good reasons why someone might not even consider a walk-up. If your best friend or favorite relative can’t walk up stairs, don’t move into a walk-up and exclude that person from your life. If you own a large dog, don’t move into a walk-up unless you’re a large, strong person because otherwise you’ll be in trouble if your favorite pup grows into a senior citizen with arthritis. If you own a grand piano, don’t do it or you’ll have the worst move in ever.

But for everyone else, here are Eleven Reasons Why You Should Consider a Walk-Up!

1) Okay, I said it already–walk-ups are cheaper. With a walk-up, you can live in that neighborhood you thought was out of reach, or get more square footage for your money. Walk-ups are bargains. For example, I just did  a search for Upper East Side one bedrooms from $2000-$3000. There are plenty of walk ups in the $2000 range (and they’re not all on the top floor), but the first elevator building listing doesn’t hit until $2200. So you’re paying an extra $2400 for that elevator…

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Ghostbusters in New York


This Sunday, June 8th, marks the 30th anniversary of the release of the comedy classic “Ghostbusters.” I admit that I haven’t rewatched “Ghostbusters” in years, maybe since I was young enough to think, “He slimed me” was the funniest line in movie history (it’s not, but it’s up there), yet I feel confident in saying that it holds up as well now as it ever did. If you have kids, watch it with them and you’ll see what I mean, And they’ll be impressed that an incredibly old, clueless person like you  actually knows about something good.

Hello, Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.

Hello, Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.

The reason I’m talking about “Ghostbusters,” though is because it features so many great New York locations. As noted in this Vanity Fair article about the making of the movie , New York in the early ’80s wasn’t the most desirable place to be. The entertainment industry had pretty much fled the crime-ridden, decaying streets, with the notable exception of “Saturday Night Live,” which is why SNL alum Dan Aykroyd and “Ghostbusters” star/creator wasn’t afraid to film here when the idea came up. You know how today people in New York tend to be annoyed at seeing a film crew on the street? The extras and passersby in “Ghostbusters” were probably genuinely excited to see things like Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, and Ernie Hudson walking down the street in their Ghostbuster gear (though not as excited as the plainly gawking crowds hanging over the railing at Rockefeller Center, watching Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Jules Munshin filming the climactic moment of “New York New York” in “On the Town.” I love old movies.).



There are three locations in “Ghostbusters” that stand out for me.

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Q&A: What’s a Co-op? What’s a Condo?

nyc view from empire state bldgSome of these buildings are co-ops. Some are condos? What’s the diff?

Hello everyone! It’s great to see you here. And now, how about some questions from our audience. Anyone? Anyone? No? Okay, that’s understandable. You did just get here after all. So let me start?

Q: I want to buy an apartment in New York City, but I keep seeing things listed as co-ops. What’s a co-op? How is it different than a condo?

This is easily one of the most common questions that come up when people first begin their New York apartment search. So let’s get to it.

Co-ops: Co-op is short for co-operative, which, in most parts of the country, is a word you’re more likely to see on a kindergarten report card than in the real estate listings. However, in New York City it refers to a co-operative building, or a building that is owned by all the residents (see? people cooperating. It all makes sense now). When you buy a co-op apartment, you do not get a title to real property, as you would if you buy a house or a condo; instead, you buy shares in the corporation that owns the building. As a shareholder, you pay a monthly maintenance fee which contributes towards paying off the building’s mortgage, (if it still has one), the real estate taxes, and the upkeep of the building.

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