Diary of a First-Time Buyer

With Brooklyn behind me, I head toward Hudson Heights

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Within a couple of months after the Brooklyn apartment fiasco, I decided to stop pouting and start looking for a new place.

In truth, it wasn’t so much an act of revitalization as desperation: I wanted to get the deal done before I had to file income taxes. As a freelancer, my lender required I show maximize income, which meant minimizing my deductions—a business decision that in 2011 cost me an extra $12,000, and nearly sent my teeth-gritting accountant to the dentist.

Online, I checked out a two-bedroom HDFC (income-restricted) co-op in Washington Heights. At $250,000 and with a maintenance of $508, it seemed too good to be true.

The broker arranged an appointment the next week. He was upfront: The building would have to be approved by a lender and I would have to go through additional rigorous financial reviews to ensure I did not exceed the income cap for HDFC.

And since the apartment had not been updated in decades, I’d likely have a near-gut renovation ahead. Still, it was a true two-bedroom, had two street-facing bay windows, good light, and was on the sixth floor of an eight-floor building with near un-obstructed views across Broadway and over to the Hudson River.

My first step was to call Mary, my Wells Fargo loan coordinator. She told me they previously tried to review the building but the co-op board declined to complete the required questionnaire.

I called two other lenders: one did not deal with HDFC buildings, and the other never returned my call. Heeding my intuition this time, I said goodbye to the fleeting opportunity. Just a few weeks later it was pulled off the market.

I thanked my sixth sense and called Sidney, my former broker.

If I were a betting kind of gal, I’d gamble on Sidney being a good poker player. When I met him in a Harlem coffee shop to renew my apartment search and review my requirements, he greeted me with pleasantries, didn’t flinch when I told him about my Brooklyn dalliance, and didn’t show a glimmer of dismay when I told him I lowered my budget to $250,000.

“I’m sorry I strayed,” I said, sheepishly. 

“It’s OK, it happens,” he said.

If only all aberrations were so quickly forgiven! I was still steaming mad at my broker and my lawyer for their collective under-attention and oversights in the year-long Brooklyn debacle. I was annoyed not only because of lost time, but because of lost money—about $4,000 in expenses that I wasn’t likely to recover. 

We looked at online listings on my laptop and created a visual wish list—not dramatically changed from the year before, but now focused on Washington and Hudson Heights, which were still affordable. 

Within a day Sidney sent me a potential show schedule. I recognized some places still on the market from the year before, and like the intermittent online dater who knows all the serial posters, I immediately rejected those—obviously they were not boyfriend material or the equivalent thereof. A few others dropped off because of price or location, and at the end, I settled on four places. 

My friend Chris was back on board for Round II. We met Sidney at 17 Chittenden Avenue, a secluded street overlooking the river just off Cabrini Boulevard. I loved the windswept isolation and the pristine Art Deco lines of the building. The apartment was large—850 square feet with a sunken living room and plentiful windows. 

I relaxed some of my priors. For instance, this was on the third floor—something I would have rejected a year ago—but the living room’s corner window let in ample light from an unobstructed angle.

The kitchen wasn’t to my liking, but I thought I could live with it. At $285,000, the price was higher than I’d hoped but I thought I could manage it if I forewent the kitchen and bathroom renovations I would like to have done to bring it more to my taste.

I was relaxed, floating in a Zen-like state of  “it is what it is.” But it was the monthly maintenance of  $1,067 that made the decision for me. With only 32 apartments in the building, I knew that any capital repairs could make that maintenance completely unmanageable. I said a sad, but relieved goodbye to the apartment.

At 371 Fort Washington Ave., we saw two one-bedroom apartments in quick succession, both in the G line and priced at $280,000, with maintenances in the mid $500s. Both needed renovations that would bring the price over $300,000 (though #6G is now listed at $265,000), and though I had relaxed my requirements some, looking out onto brick walls was still a no-can-do. Ta-ta!

One-bedroom units at the Riverside Condominiums hovered just below $300,000 but were newly finished with attractive finishes and had low common charges. The 512-square-foot junior one-bedroom was perfect for a college grad, but not someone with 72 boxes of books, a piano and dining room set, and a boyfriend with a large dog. We were in and out of the building in 15 minutes. Cheerio, I said!

Dear reader, does this feel like speed dating? It did to me. But this time around, I knew I didn’t have the leisure of waiting out a set up through a friend. I needed nothing short of guerilla tactics to find a place and close before the tax man came calling. And, in Round II I was determined not to wear down Sidney lest he was the one to say “arrivederci.” 

Next up: Second date in Hudson Heights.


Elle Bee is a lifelong renter determined to buy an apartment in NYC.  She is documenting her experience for this column, Diary of a First-Time Buyer

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