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Real estate agent and blogger Malcolm Carter explains why he's giving up on New York

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Like everyone who appreciates the city, I have celebrated its universally acknowledged virtues — the myriad restaurants, the energy, all types of diversity, the stimulation that almost every block offers, the glorious parks, the vast range and high quality of cultural offerings, the climate of creativity along with residents whose intellect can be challenging, whose openness is endearing and whose directness can be refreshing.

I left Manhattan once, in 1995, to undertake a new and rewarding project in Washington, D.C. for the U.S. government.  I expected to be away for just a year, but that year stretched into 11 years, the last four of which unexpectedly involved a detour from communications, public education and journalism into what became a thriving real estate business.

But I missed the Big Apple, so I gave up that business to start a new one as a real estate broker in Manhattan.  Although returning in 2006 filled me with delight and impressed me with new discoveries, my business never reached the heights that I had achieved in D.C., Maryland and Virginia.  Moreover, the practice of real estate here left me yearning for the level of involvement that it requires in the Washington area, where agents and brokers complete contracts themselves, without a lawyer’s participation.

The author, Malcolm Carter, in Central Park's Conservatory Garden, one of his favorite spots in New York.

I have felt—and I am sure I will be accused of hyperbole—that all we real estate agents do in New York is open and close doors.  True, we counsel, we negotiate (to a limited extent), we analyze the market and we peddle properties.  Yet I have found the demands of the work to be wanting, especially in comparison with D.C.  That’s me.

Despite my lackluster income from real estate in New York, I have somehow managed to acquire substantial assets.  However, I have in recent years become concerned about the chance that I might outlive them.  One reason, ironically, is the cost of housing, in my case owning and maintaining a modest two-bedroom apartment in an undistinguished building on an ordinary block of the Upper West Side between Riverside and Central Park.  With mortgage, maintenance, electricity and communications expenses, my annual outlay runs close to $70,000.  Let’s hypothesize that I have accumulated $1 million, receive no income (including Social Security) and pay no taxes; in this example, those funds would evaporate in a little more than 14 years owing only to what I spend on housing.

Such is the math that has dogged my sleep many nights, leading me to decide a while back to be prudent.  What prudence has meant is that I forego most theater, conclude that many new movies aren’t worth watching, rarely dine in restaurants, stalk sales even of food and generally look for other ways to husband my resources.  I have pretty much given up on reading restaurant reviews, merely skim the Times’ arts sections and pass up opportunities to stock my larder with the latest and greatest gourmet treats.

Certainly, I am far better off than those many families enduring lives below, at or even well above the poverty line.  I’m hardly suffering, and I fully appreciate how privileged my own life is.

Still, I find myself living in New York as an outsider.  From that perspective, New York frustrates and depresses rather than excites me.  I am the kid looking through the window of a bakery at heaps of macarons or, often more likely, at ranks of iPads in an Apple store.

The option consequently began to come into focus for me months ago to cease selling real estate, turn my back on New York and move forward toward an exhilarating new chapter of my life.  Rather than feeling angry about leaving, I am excited about the galaxy of possibilities that lie ahead.

You doubtless will be shocked to learn that I am going to an extreme: I am moving not to Queens but to Cambodia.

Phnom Penh.

Yes, the notion of making such a dramatic change at this stage of my life may seem quixotic, impulsive, rash and, as some of my friends, relatives and acquaintances have intimated, just crazy.  The fact is that I have been carefully considering the possibility since early this year and weighed the risks, which embrace a constellation of potential downsides — political instability and corruption, crime, a hostile tropical environment, loneliness, inescapable signs of overwhelming poverty, sub-standard medical care and cultural dissonance.

Carter on a trip to Cambodia this past spring.

At the same time, I somehow never acted on a lifelong desire to live overseas.  If not now, when?  Having traveled the world, from Suriname to Singapore and Kenya to Kazakhstan, I always have been attracted to the gestalt of developing countries.  As one of those countries, Cambodia is one in which my hope is to make even a minuscule difference in the lives of a few souls.

Before my Cambodian-born partner and I went to Cambodia last March, I knew through him and Skype a family whose warmth and needs filled me with a vision of opportunity in that country.  I came to realize that anything I would be able to do to help even one family a year could rank among the most fulfilling efforts of my life.  Now, I hope to discover a way to do just that.

The three weeks we spent in the country were not merely as wide-eyed tourists.  I met with half a dozen microfinance businessmen and an official of the U.S. embassy.  I also chatted with a number of ex-pats to try and obtain an understanding of what life might be like for me.  Equally important, I went to look at apartments in my preferred Phnom Penh neighborhood, learning that I could rent a furnished unit not so different from my current one for $1,000 a month or considerably less.  There are nearby at least four upscale coffee bars, among them a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, plus a gym three times nicer than my Equinox and half the cost.

Must I travel so far to extend my financial resources? I have been asked.  When I consider my options in the U.S., I see no place that could come close to vitalizing me and nurturing my spirit as much as Cambodia.

Carter in a Phnom Penh market.

The prospect of volunteer work that would simply fill my hours here leaves me cold, and full-time employment doesn’t attract me in my late 60s.  I have a nephew in San Diego and brother and two other of his children in or near Santa Rosa as well as an aunt in Florida, plus assorted cousins scattered around the country.  How would I make time fly in those areas?

To me, retirement or semi-retirement in even the most appealing parts of the nation either outside of New York or in the city’s fringes amount to living in a nursing-home warehouse without walls.  I am too healthy, willing and able to become a couch potato or beach banana for the rest of my days.  As long as I am going to gamble with my future happiness, I have reasoned, I may as well go in for dollar, not a dime.

Fully appreciating how easily my hopes for this new life may not crystallize, I nonetheless am starting almost from scratch.  I am in the process of emptying my apartment of virtually everything, not only household items and works of art but clippings of my journalism going back to high school.  I have shipped family photos, my diplomas and little else to my brother in California for safe-keeping.  I am ridding myself of virtually all my belongings, a cathartic experience I can recommend heartily.

Sunset in Cambodia.

In short, I feel as though I have become my own heir, having cleared away items of either sentimental or economic value.  At first a stomach-clenching and sleep-stealing endeavor, the process has proved to be a relief, cleaning my slate for the future.  

When we head to Cambodia at the end of the month, stopping in California for a few days, we are traveling with two suitcases and a backpack each.  Nothing more.

As others have noted, if this adventure doesn’t work out, nothing says we can’t come home.  Or, I’ve heard the living is easy in Mexico, Panama, Ecuador and Spain.  While I am struggling with some small success to learn Cambodian, I already get along pretty well in Spanish.


For the past 7 years, Malcolm Carter has been a real estate agent in Manhattan, and the voice of wisdom and reason behind his daily blog about New York City real estate, Service You Can Trust, where this post originally appeared.

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