Rookie Buyer

Location, location, location: Deciding where to buy was the first stumper for our first-time buyer columnist

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The most important part of city living is where you live. No, I’m not a zip code elitist talking about “location, location, location.” But if there’s anything I learned in my search for a rental (which I documented in my previous column), it's that your neighborhood choice dictates a lot of things—from how long your commute to work will be to how willing your friends are to travel to your place to hang out. Your apartment will tell you how many flights of stairs you’re going to have to climb for your budget, and whether you’ll be able to fit a dining table and a sectional in your living room.
 
And throughout this apartment-hunting process, I learned two people’s opinion of where they want to live could vary greatly. (The question of where to live hadn't come up in the first batch of questions we'd asked ourselves before we began this buying journey when we were deciding whether to continue renting or buy an apartment outright.)
 
Thor and I had mostly been on the same page when we picked our two prior apartments to rent. But, the stakes are so much higher when you’re paying that much for your own place, not to mention an apartment you’re going to have to live in for quite some time. We naively set very vague, simple guidelines: We didn’t want our commute to be more than one-and-a-half hours. (My office is in northern New Jersey so it is more difficult than it sounds.) We didn’t want anything above the third floor unless it was an elevator building. It had to be dog friendly. We had established how much we wanted to spend a month in mortgage, taxes and fees when we determined if we could buy a place.
 
With our broad guidelines, we thought we would be the easiest customers. We couldn’t have been more wrong.
 
As it turns out, the hardest part of the process for me was finding a place that we both liked. We weren't exactly clear on what we wanted, and we had no idea what the other person desired. Instead, we forced ourselves to like places we thought the other person liked in the spirit of compromise, only to discover neither of us were sold on the place at all! There was one particular apartment I remember—which shall remained unnamed—I thought Thor loved, but I hated everything about it from the location to the fixtures to the layout. I tried really hard to like it for days, even going so far as to draw a floorplan and sketch furniture, but realized I would never be happy there. It turns out Thor was lukewarm as well on the place and thought I would like it because it had a big window in the front. We also approached the apartment from two different subway stops and had two vastly different experiences walking there. 
 
Eventually we got on the same page about what we both were looking for, but to be honest, it took looking at 54 apartments—to date. (I should have known we were picky: We also considered 21 wedding venues in Manhattan and Brooklyn.) However, we did run into a realtor who said he took one client to 163 apartments before they eventually bought one, so we’re far from the worst.
 
To save yourself some of the headache, here’s what I wish we had done before we embarked on the journey:

Make a list

This is the one thing I regret not doing sooner. Before you even begin to look at apartments, write down the three things you must have. If you’re making the decision with a partner, do this exercise alone so you don’t influence each other. Then, review your list. Realize this is New York, so you’re not going to get everything you want. However, at least with these guidelines, you can start looking at listings and know right away what might pique your interest.
 
Thor’s list boiled down to:
1. Overall size: His biggest complaint about our Hell’s Kitchen place was how small it was. We’re not quite sure of the square footage, but it’s under 500 square feet.
2. Price: He wanted to be under the budget we set.
3. Layout: Related to the size requirement, he wanted separation between the living and bedroom areas with, say, a hallway. He also wanted a larger living room space to fit a dining table for at least two people, and ideally, he wanted to have a separate living room and kitchen. If the place only had one bathroom, it had to be sizeable. And, the bedroom had to be large enough for two nightstands.
 
My list included:
1. Location: I wanted to be within a 10-minute walk of a few restaurants and the subway. I also wanted an area I felt comfortable walking home alone at night, since I sometimes come home late.
2. Apartment style: I wanted a very open floor plan, with a large kitchen and living area. I also wanted high ceilings and large windows. I preferred apartments without basements, unless it had real windows.
3. Price: I wanted to stay within budget.
 
I think you can see where we already differed in our dream apartment.
 
For the longest time, I saw us living in a converted warehouse loft with soaring ceilings in an up-and-coming area. He saw us in a more traditional style apartment in a residential neighborhood. Those requirements didn’t even consider whether we were willing to do a fixer-upper (I was more willing), or if we wanted outdoor space (Thor wanted some sort of outdoor space even if it was shared). Had we had our three main wants, we would have eliminated apartments we both didn’t want.

Measure your current place and compare it to what you want

Unless you have plans to start from scratch, you’re probably going to bring some—if not all—of your furniture to your new place. We knew the one non-negotiable was our large sectional couch, which is about 10 feet by 6 feet at its longest points. If Thor wanted a dining table, it would require a living room with the space to accommodate both. We knew we both wanted bedside tables, so given a pair of of stands measuring about two feet each and a five-foot wide queen-sized bed, plus a little clearance for a bedframe, the bedroom had to be at least 10 feet wide.
 
Our Hell’s Kitchen kitchen has a smaller-than-usual stove, dishwasher and refrigerator, and only has two tiny areas we can chop besides our kitchen island. We dreamed of full-sized appliances.
 
Staged apartments can get be tricky, especially if they’re using twin beds or smaller love seats. And, everyone knows that photos lie.Having our minimum measurements allowed us to look at the floorplans of potential apartments and eliminate ones that wouldn’t fit.

Spend a day in the neighborhood

We started a habit of getting brunch in a potential neighborhood, looking at a few apartments, and then getting coffee or a snack in the area after our apartment visits to discuss what we'd seen. It gave us time to walk around and “see” our lives in the area, rather than just focus on the apartment itself. It also was a fun way to see more of New York, and became the least stressful and most fun part of the process.
 
We learned people love looking at apartments, so there's no reason to go it alone. Occasionally, we’d bring friends along to check out the neighborhood and peruse the places. Having a second opinion always helps!
 
Now that you've narrowed down what kind of apartment you want and a couple areas you may want to live in, it's time to get technical. Next up, learning the difference between co-op, condo, condop, and a house—and what it means for you.
 
Michelle Castillo is on her way to becoming a (real) New Yorker, after moving to the city from Los Angeles in 2009. She's currently a reporter at CNBC.com, and has written for other publications including The Los Angeles Times, TIME and Adweek.

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