Moving cross-country is a version of hell. I should know. I’ve done it twice in the past six years. But even for someone like me, who is a skilled long-distance mover, my recent move back to New York City defied all expectations.
Last spring, our family had decided to return to NYC after 5 and a half years in sunny Los Angeles. My mom was dealing with a serious health issue and it was getting too tricky to try to be any real help to her from LA.
We broke the news to our 8-year-old son over sushi at his favorite restaurant in Little Tokyo. He was pretty upset. He loved his school and had lots of friends in LA, not to mention an annual pass to Universal Studios, which was only a short drive away. A negotiator in the making, he agreed to move if we could get an apartment in Manhattan because “that’s where the action is.” Even though my husband, Scott, is a suburban guy, he gave into our son’s request.
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Despite being a native New Yorker (I grew up in Brooklyn, back when it wasn’t quite so desirable), I had never lived in Manhattan and the idea of doing so seemed totally new. A friend in San Francisco referred me to an old friend of hers who did rentals in New York and next thing I knew, our NYC broker and I had become email buddies.
Because Scott and I were coming from a house, there was one thing we weren’t willing to compromise on: The apartment had to include a washer and dryer. Our days of using coin-operated laundry machines ended when we bought our first house in May 2000—a process I wrote about for The New York Times.
There were other requirements too: We wanted two full bedrooms (no junior fours) and two full bathrooms and to be within reasonable distance of the Harlem 125th Street Metro North station, because Scott’s new job involved a reverse commute.
There was also the need to find the right school for our son. In LA, he had been at a very innovative charter school and we were hoping to find something similar—and free—in NYC. I started to crowd-source schools and quickly settled on finding an apartment within the district for PS 527, which seemed like the closest fit to my son’s school in LA.
Seeing 40 apartments
I quickly cobbled together a list of about 20 buildings, but not all of them allowed 35-pound dogs, yet another requirement. Our broker suggested that we find a rental building with a management company rather than sublease from an individual owner. “Less hassle,” he said, which made sense to me. I flew to New York the first week in May and over three days, the broker and I probably looked at about 40 different apartments.
We thought we had found most of what we were looking for at an apartment undergoing extensive renovations in a building on East 94th Street. Though we weren’t able to see the actual apartment before our move-in date on July 1, because the current tenants were still living in it and it had not been renovated yet, we were able to see a newly renovated model in the same line.
Our broker convinced us that doing a gut rehab on the apartment in a month—once the tenants left on May 31—was easy-peasy, because a professional team was involved. So we signed a lease and forked over $6,000 for the first month’s rent.
Packed up and heading cross-country
Over the next month, as we began to pack things up in LA, both the broker and I periodically checked in with the leasing agent to make sure the apartment was coming along. Each time we were reassured that it was. The broker even did two surprise visits, including one on July 2nd, after the lease was already valid. The three of us, along with our dog, were somewhere in Arkansas—both Scott and I had always wanted to drive cross country—when George reported back that he had just done a walk-through and that the apartment was “stunning,” but that a few things still needed to be addressed, including custom-made shades, which we had been promised.
George suggested sending an email to let the leasing agent know that we would be arriving on July 5th or 6th and that a few things still needed to be fixed. We sent that email on July 2nd and were promised that despite the July 4th holiday, everything would be ready to go by the time we arrived.
On the morning of July 6th, we were in Baltimore when we learned that the shades were not going to be in place and there was no estimate on when they would be ready. Rather than rely on the leasing agent, who, quite frankly, seemed a bit ditzy, I decided to take my concerns directly to the top and fired off a quick email to the CEO of the company. Within an hour, he had called me back to say he was working on it and would get back to me with an update by the end of the day. But as it turns out, the shades were the least of the problem.
Quite a shock
Late on July 6th, after spending the past 10 days exploring the country via our Honda CRV, Scott and I arrived at the apartment. It was after hours, so the leasing agent had already gone home for the day, but the doorman couldn’t have been nicer. He handed over the keys and we went upstairs to what we thought was our new home.
Almost as soon as we walked in, we noticed several problems. Neither the fridge nor stove worked, even after we tried the switches on the master breaker. The lights were working, so we knew it wasn’t a Con Ed issue. The breaker itself produced a shock when I touched it, which I knew as a homeowner, was probably a fire hazard and certainly a safety hazard. The drain in the master bathroom bath wasn’t completed—there was just a net to catch hair, which seemed more appropriate for a cheap hostel instead of a so-called luxury apartment.
But even more annoying was a weird bubble in the laminate flooring that made a popping sound when you stepped on it. As much as we like the game Trouble, we had no intention of living with our own Pop-o-Matic.
Even though it was after 7 p.m. on a Friday night, we called the broker to let him know what was going on. He told us to hand the keys back to the doorman and write a short email outlining the problems. Because I was exhausted and disappointed, I waited until Saturday to send the email. The broker had told me to describe the apartment as uninhabitable in its current state. I listed nine things that needed to be fixed before we could move in and copied the CEO on the note.
That Saturday, Verizon was supposed to come to set up the Internet in the apartment between 1 and 3 p.m. Because we had handed back the keys to the doorman, in the hopes that the super could start addressing the problems first thing on Saturday morning, I needed to make sure we could get back in. I sent a short note to the leasing agent saying that we would need access for Verizon. We had actually left the modem in the apartment the night before. It was the first thing we had received at our new address.
Two hours later, just as we were about to go back to the apartment, we received an email from someone at the management company whom we had never dealt with before. This is what it said:
As per the owner/management regarding your email with respect to habitability of the apartment, we will be terminating your lease. We will not be releasing the keys again as you surrendered them last night. Thank you.
I immediately forwarded that email to the broker and asked him what to do. It didn’t take very long for me to start to flip out. Our stuff from LA was already on a truck heading to an apartment that we no longer had access to. At some point, I must have used the word homeless, which then caused our son to flip out. Because LA has a well-documented and very visible homeless population, many of whom live in tents downtown, he started wondering whether we would also be living in a tent in New York.
Over the next few hours, a string of emails went back and forth between me, the broker and several other people at the management company. I even sent a direct plea to the CEO, explaining our situation. All that Scott and I had wanted was an apartment in move-in condition. As the emails grew increasingly tense, I decided to fold. Who would want to live in a place with a management team that was being jerks on Day One?
I also started to wonder if despite being a lifelong New Yorker, the five and a half years in LA had softened up my ability to duke it out.
Landing in the burbs
Because we needed a place to stay NOW, we wound up borrowing a friend’s house in Ossining that had been on the market and hadn’t yet sold. He had moved into his girlfriend’s place, so his house was empty and furnished. That was both a blessing and a curse. Once Scott got a taste of life in the burbs in a house not that different from ours back in LA, he wasn’t so eager to trade that in for a two-bedroom apartment. Besides, it was hard to deny that his commute was a lot easier. And the rent was a lot cheaper.
We wound up renting a house in Croton-on-Hudson in Westchester County. But just before school started, we borrowed a friend’s apartment on the Upper West Side to visit for a few days. Our son actually declared that he planned to stay there permanently, and that Scott and I could live in Croton.
“The country is so boring,” he said. Several months later, he still talks about the “stupid dummies” that ruined our chance to live in Manhattan. Each time we’ve been back, he talks about how he wished we lived there.
It’s a tough lesson for an 8-year-old to absorb: Sometimes people are just jerks and when that happens, the best choice may be to just walk away.
What I learned is that I’ll never rent an apartment that is “the same as” the model being shown. If we decide to try and find a place in Manhattan next summer, once our lease is up here, we’ll only look at the actual apartment we would be living in.
And I have a year to toughen back up before diving back into the NYC real estate market.
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