Archive for the ‘Finding A Home’ Category

ImageWhen the H1B and I looked at where to permanently live in New York – after a brief spell in a tiny, hot  studio on 66th and 1st, and a month in the iconic (but covered in scaffolding) 15 Park Row building near City Hall – we turned to Google.

I literally googled, Where is the best place to live in New York?, and New York Mag’s brilliantly informative and interactive Livability Calculator came up.

It’s such a clever, useful piece of kit and ranks boroughs in terms of crime, noise levels, local schools etc. And you can also search by the type of lifestyle you live – ie: if you have kids or not.

Glad to see that Park Slope is still at the top.

It’s a bit of a cliché to live in Park Slope once you have kids (see Shit Park Slope Parents Say – cringe), but it’s a great place to live*.

Breezy, leafy, with decent cafes and good enough restaurants (James is our favourite), and close to hip areas like Fort Greene and Boerum Hill and the Brooklyn Flea. And you can get to the City easily enough for work or if you need that dose of Manhattan.

As much as I like the idea of a penthouse in Tribeca or loft apartment in Soho, for our budget bracket I’d choose Brooklyn over the Upper East Side any day.

*Although, according to the calculator if you are ‘married with kids‘, Greenpoint is best, followed by Murray Hill, and then Park Slope – probably because of the cost of housing (a Brownstone in Park Slope costs something like $3,500,000).

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OMG. An intact Brownstone has come up for sale in our neighbourhood.

I am always fascinated by these beautiful homes and love to see them in their original state, or how their lucky inhabitants have modernised them.

This one is going for a cool $3,500,000 on Corcoran NYC.

This room is the bedroom, or now nursery, in our apartment. The fireplace is hidden by the monstrous but very useful Ikea wardrobe. I wonder if it is that splendid?

Living Room

Living Room

This elegant room is the ground floor flat in our building:

Living Room

Living Room

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Love this piece from the New York Times Living section about a beautifully restored Brownstone in Bedford-Stuyvesant. The couple who own it restored it as close to its original state as possible, with furnishings and wallpaper etc from the Victorian era (funny how Americans still call it the Victorian era).

It’s always fascinating to me how these huge houses would have looked before they were split into flats for urbanites.

This picture is of the front room – and is what our bedroom would have looked like when it was still the grand parlour of the house (although the house our apartment is in is a bit wider). We still have those beautiful windows and woodwork detail, although all painted white now, and the fireplace is hidden by a gigantic Ikea closet. At least, I hope it is. I hope it hasn’t been ripped out.

Wish our entrance hall looked quite as inviting too (rather than the musty carpet and dim lighting is currently has, although the landlord swears they are sending in the carpet cleaners next week).

Do have a look at the other pictures by NYT interiors photographer Trevor Tondro because they are breathtaking.


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Browsing around my new favourite shop, I found this wonderful book, Bricks and Brownstone: The New York Townhouse 1783-1929 (Classical America Series in Art and Architecture) by Charles Lockwood:

(It’s $20 cheaper on Amazon, which I know isn’t a very supportive thing to say for local shops, but we did buy all our kitchen furniture from them – although we are still waiting for the fourth chair to be delivered).

The H1B and I lay in a post-dinner slump on our parquet floor last night (still eating turkey leftovers from our blow-out Thanksgiving supper at Fatty Cue), drinking rioja out of our Duralex glasses, and wondered again how our three rooms originally fitted into the scheme of the house.

I found some excerpts from the book online, which help to put our parlour level into context (our apartment is the ground floor, that is the one above the basement, and is exactly this layout):

Cross section of a brownstone from Charles Lockwood's book

In an era of large families and several live-in servants, the sixteen-room, five-story-tall brownstone-front combined grand parlors for entertaining and spacious living quarters for the family and, with its many floors, offered privacy for parents, children, and servants.

This is what our apartment could have looked like in its original get-up (though the parquet floor and fireplace are much more fancy and our doorways don’t have those fine wooden mouldings):

Interior of a late 1900s brownstone from Bricks & Brownstones (Charles Lockwood)

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I have some first pictures of our beautiful Brownstone parlour level apartment. Our broker worked her very unique brand of magic and got us the first viewing on the property. Over the next few months I’ll be posting more images as we decorate it. I think it’s a really unique space and I would love to hear some suggestions on what to do with it.

View from the front end to the back, through the middle room:

View from the middle room through to the shutters of the windows at the front of the property (which will be our bedroom):

Pretty fireplace (unfortunately not working) in the kitchen:

I’m now fascinated by the building and would love to find out more about these unique structures. The only fact I have discovered is that they are named after the, er, brown stone that comes from Jersey, which is used for the facade (underneath is plain old brick).

There are two floors above us and another below – all turned into flats now – so it must have been a very impressive home when it was intact. What I wouldn’t give to be able to restore it to its former glory but the realtor told me a building like ours would go for around $10-14 million today. Twenty years ago it was a different story…

Another thing I find particularly appealing about the place is that our landlord lived in our flat with his three siblings, parents and grandparents back when they first arrived from China in the 1970s (they slept in the kitchen, middle room and front room respectively). He obviously still has a strong attachment to the place as it is beautifully maintained and he was keen to meet us before we signed.

I’m happy that they now own such a valuable property (all our rent money goes to the grandparents), as Mr Han works very hard so his own children can study at college (he never takes a holiday but his son is going to the London School of Economics next year for summer camp, which can’t be cheap, and last year did the same in Paris).

It feels like the apartment is a piece of living history – with different types of New York immigrants living there over the decades. I hope we do the apartment justice. I’m quite sentimental about the place already.


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If you read my posts on using brokers or finding an apartment in New York, and are you looking for a place yourself, you might find the following glossary of realtors’ terminology useful.

Floor-thru – this is an apartment that runs through the entire floor of a building, from one end to the other. Typically it’s a feature of older buildings that have been divided up, such as brownstones. Be aware that the middle room usually has no windows (as it’s in the middle of the building). We were lucky enough to find a floor-thru that was at the end of a block, so the middle room has a window – a big bonus.

Condo – condominiums always make me think about racy pensioners in Florida for some reason (accompanied with a visual of the dive Brad Pitt inhabits in True Romance). It’s a legal term specifically – that applies to the ownership requirement – but what you need to know is they are normally newer-build blocks, which share a pool or garden, and most people own the flat they live in.

Co-op – if you apply for an apartment in a cooperative your lease will have to be approved by the board members of the building. Your application maybe vetoed if you have pets, for example. If you like to play jazz trumpet late at night, you might want to keep it to yourself.

(By the way it’s illegal for brokers to reveal anything about other people in the building. I guess this is so no one can be discriminated against, including yourself, but it does also stop innocently nosy questions about your potential neighbours, such as if they have kids or not.)

Corcoran has a pretty comprehensive real estate glossary if you need more information.

As for me, I’ve been distracted by thoughts of that scene where you get to see Christian Slater’s bum and (nearly) his winkie and when Alabama says that she is in love with him. Here it is:

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Sudden Snow & Wet Feet

We arrived back in New York last Sunday and have hit the ground running – well, sliding actually in a frantic help-our-winter-clothes-are-all-in-transit kind of way.

During our first day of apartment hunting in Brooklyn, a snow storm suddenly arrived. For the uninitiated, it was magical, gob-smacking and ever so pretty and exciting. The sound of Nat King Cole tinkled through my head as we rushed for the nearest shelter (which, incongruously, was a Mexican restaurant – we watched the lumps of frozen stuff fall from the sky while supping cold beers with bits of lime and eating nachos and spicy tomato salsa).

Soon, however, the magic wore off. The snow incredulously piled up in no time. The sidewalk was covered with icy slush, people dressed in Arctic ski wear were already shovelling the snow from outside their houses. New York had switched to winter mode with efficiency and zero panic (in England the schools would have closed, the trains cancelled and canned soup would have sold out around the country).

Spot the tourists: myself and the H1B in Converse sneakers and thin leather jackets, slip-sliding around the streets with freezing wet feet, shivering into our synthetic scarves. Still, once we reached the welcoming fuggy warmth of the subway, I like to think we looked more like this:

The next day I received an email from a colleague and friend who had just return to Sydney after living in New York for eight years. It said:

“Snow boots. Order them now. Your life will be completely different and these babies will be your best friend until May next year. If you think you can get by with regular leather boots – you’re deluded and when the snow is two feet deep and you’re slipping on ice I’ll be saying – I told you so.”

So order them I did. They are on the way and my feet are happy.

By the way, Target also do very well priced snow boots but they sell out quickly.

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Broker Or Bust?

One of the biggest questions foreigners face when they are looking for a place to live in New York City is whether to use a broker or not.

For a Brit, a broker about as relevant as a fax machine – a hangover from the time before the internet. Aren’t they just a glorified estate agent? Why pay someone 15% of your annual rental budget to browse realtors websites and Craigslist?

After all, compared to many cities – vast London or hard-to-negotiate Paris, for example – Manhattan and its neighbouring boroughs are accessible and relatively compact. With a good pair of shoes, some patience and luck, and a map, it can’t be that hard to find somewhere.

The opposing argument is that New York is a city that runs on its connectors and networks like no other place in the world. Jobs, friends, apartments, cars, cats and dogs are all found via someone who knows someone who knows someone. And that is all a broker is – a connector.

In the weeks before we arrived I visited Craigslist every day – and saw some cracking apartments at much lower costs compared to those that were listed on different realtor websites. I’ll do it my way, I thought. However, the company pay for our broker fees (as well as health insurance, pensions and freight). A colleague of H1B recommended a broker he’d used – and before we knew it the ball was rolling.

And I have to say – although it made me feel both unoriginal and strangely dirty – she absolutely came up with the goods and found us a beautiful one bed plus den floor-thru parlour level north Park Slope brownstone apartment (with windows in every room – unusual for a floor-thru – and a good kitchen).

Not that she was easy to work with. I’m sure there are many reasonable, calm and centred brokers in NYC but our chain-smoking, caffeine junkie was not one of them and had the unique ability to make us feel eye-twitchingly stressed within about 20 seconds of talking to her.

She demanded to see the most mind-boggling array of personal information: bank statements and credit history, OK yes we get that; but she also demanded we have $20k in the bank (sorry, the Golden Goose flew the coop) and wanted to know who paid for our wedding so we could hit them up for the extra cash. She continually wanted us to “go higher (you gotta go higher!!)” when we told her our budget – infuriating and slightly humiliating.

The main obstacle is the lack of a social security number (the main method of credit checking in the USA) so we had to provide the following:

  • Bank statements
  • Credit card statements
  • Reference from previous landlords
  • We had to show we could pay 3 months rent + bond
  • Passport and visa details

My tip when using a broker is to get one recommended and be very firm about your budget and expectations. Also the more groundwork you do in terms of knowing where you want to live – even down your to favourite buildings – the better.

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Seriously, if I knew the answer to this question, I’d be writing now from my $3000 per month, no fee, Nolita duplex with ‘roof rights’. Rather than tapping this out on H1B’s work laptop in our dingy corporate studio (my beloved ancient Mac was officially declared deceased by Henry the genius at the Mac shop on 5th and 58; time of death 14:10), nursing a cold Victoria Prima Pils, with StreetEasy and the rental section of the New York Times glaring at me from the other tabs.

>> YOU SHOULD SEE: Do I use a broker or Craigslist?

But I’ll try and share my new wisdom – and those snippets of realtor sageness passed on by every New Yorker we’ve met. New Yorkers are absolutely evangelical about where is the best/worst place to live in Manhattan and Brooklyn (the other boroughs don’t figure, apparently) – and all of them say different things. Hope it helps; as the H1B goes off to his Hudson River-views desk every day, the bulk of the apartment hunting may well be left to the Trailing Spouse.

Here are my top tips:

1. Know the area you want to live in.
Even on a casual visit to New York, you’ll realise that the city’s districts have distinct personalities. Chelsea is urban, art-loving and gay; UES is gentile, by the park and slightly dull; East Village is full of hip young things and $5 cuba libres; West Village is where Sex & the City was filmed and you can’t afford it; Brooklyn is where the cool, alternative and slightly smug breed. Etc. Spend a bit of time visiting each area and see if you like the feel.

2. Decide whether you want to pay a broker
Depending on your view, a broker is either someone who has access to all the best properties in a tough and over-subscribed market, or a money-leeching cad who demands 15% of your annual rental expenditure for making a few phone calls and repeatedly saying ‘not possible’ to any specifications you may have about the four walls you want to inhabit, while answering another phone call from another hapless (and possibly British) ex-pat unfortunate. In simple terms, rentals are either ‘brokered’ or ‘full fee’ where the full fee is going directly to the landlord.

3. Get your paperwork ready
When you find the apartment of your dreams (the modest dream which takes budgets and timelines into consideration), you’ll need to act quickly. If you have recently arrived,  you’ll need a letter on company paper stating your employment details and salary – including bonus details, the cheeky blighters. You’ll need to open a bank account and have some funds in it. Typically, you’ll need the first month’s rent and the last, and the broker’s fee if you have gone with one – and you’ll need that all up front and ready to go.

4. Watch the hidden fees
Many New York apartments come with doormen – who, again, are a necessity or an expense depending on how you look on them. A doorman will take your deliveries, sign for mail and groceries, monitor visitors (no random door-knockers), arrange to have your loo unblocked, and generally look impressive in their C18th Italian military apparel when your friends come to stay. But you pay for them; as you will pay for basement gyms, roof-top terraces, water features in the lobby. Some landlords demand you have a maid (no skin off my nose), monthly maintenance fees which can range from a couple of hundred dollars to over a thousand dollars a month.

5. Set a budget
… and don’t lose your mind. Remember that brokers, agents and everyone else who has their thumb in the tasty realty pie will try to get every extra cent and dollar out of your wallet. And it’s much easier to look when you have firm budget boundaries and a clear idea on the geographical area you want to live in.

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