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Searching for a new apartment recently, I pounded the pavement of the Upper East and West Sides, often with my intrepid broker by my side.
The doors to buildings large and small were opened for us by smart-suited doormen, or automatically, or by code, or by buzzer, or with a key held by another broker. I rode in slow and fast elevators, some attended some not, and trudged up stairs. I walked down musty hallways and corridors so new and fresh they still smelled like paint.
However, it was inside the apartments themselves, behind doors that are normally closed to strangers, that I became a combination voyeur/time-traveler/anthropologist. Any good doctor will tell you that you learn more from a single home visit than from 10 office interactions; seeing the interior of a person’s abode is like an MRI of the psyche.
I walked through a still-lived-in but staged apartment where the picture frames were filled with decorative paper. It felt like the lives (and the life) in the apartment had been erased. It gave me the chills.
There was the spectacularly and newly decorated apartment inhabited by four children, calendars and class information from Chapin and Buckley, and the real estate broker who whispered, “They have to sell.”
Sometimes interiors are so cliché that you are almost shocked and saddened to hear that all your suspicions are true.
The interior of one condo spoke volumes - the gilded yet badly installed molding; the kitchen sorely in need of updating with the new leopard-print drawer pulls; one picture of the children and a giant faux-Andy Warhol of the mother plus countless other pictures of her alone or with friends; the two children’s rooms so small that their closets were removed; piles of Hermes boxes arranged artfully as though to say that expensive clothing is form of art or culture; 1,000 square feet of the allegedly 3,000 square foot apartment devoted exclusively to the master suite, newly minus the master, with 250 square feet of that an electronically padlocked closet that cannot be seen unless coming for a ‘second look’ at the apartment that vanity built.
The real estate agent was only too happy to tell me that the sellers were divorcing, the husband held all the cards, and the price would come down drastically. Though I was tempted to come back just to gain entree to the closet and see the treasures (or horrors) inside, there was really no point: The apartment not only needed a gut renovation but an exorcism to rid it of evil spirits.
Then there was the duplex on CPW with the hot tub large enough for 8, necessitating a rounded wall on the lower floor landing and the optimistic suggestion that one could make a triangular room out of the wasted space. I can only assume said hot tub passed the board if some of the board members numbered among the 8 hot-tubbers. The carpeting in the master was brown shag; I didn’t even bother to look at the ceiling because I assumed it was mirrored. Great space and location for the price but I felt like I needed a Silkwood shower with bleach and a shot of penicillin after leaving. Did I mention they had a wet bar upstairs in lieu of a dining room?
In every apartment, the owners’ priorities and passions are on display. A pre-war classic six on East 72nd Street offered bathrooms from the 50s, a kitchen from the 70s, and an art collection of modern and contemporary art that in size and scope could give the MoMA a run for its money.
It was like Aladdin’s cave, if Aladdin had been a fan of Jeff Koons and Barbara Kruger. Having been an art minor in college, I had to bring my husband to see it, not because there was any chance of our buying the apartment, but to witness the dozens of famed canvases stacked against the walls like posters at IKEA.
("Do you understand what we are looking at???" I said, shaking my husband. "One of these paintings is worth more than the whole damn apartment!!! I would KILL to have one of these!!!")
Perfect strangers open their home to you for your review, though they are not seeking an opinion or constructive criticism; they are merely seeking an offer, money, cashola... “Do you like it or don’t you? Do you want it or don’t you?”
Given the stakes, in most cases the decisions are made remarkably fast. By the time you have passed the board and the closing date is nigh, you may have forgotten just what the apartment looks like. Then again, that may be a good thing. Someone else’s home is about to become your project, your responsibility to make it your own, whether that simply means a coat of paint or a gut renovation. You will go from being the invited uninvited guest to the paying guest, and eventually it will start to feel like home.
We bought our apartment almost in spite of what we saw – an awkward combination with shoddy built-ins and poorly installed parquet floors layered on top of more poorly-installed parquet floors. I had to have (x-ray) vision to see my young daughters in rooms filled with adolescent male paraphernalia and redolent with their smell. Behind the covers, the radiators were wrapped in what we thought at first was some kind of insulation but later discovered to be enormous dust bunnies.
The space, location and price were right. I couldn’t possibly hope to like the bathrooms as well, could I? We plan–if the fates, finances, and co-op board are unanimously kind–to have this place completely renovated by the time the girls go off to college. So far, we are happy IN the apartment if not always WITH the apartment.
On the day we moved in, one of those ripe teenage boys left a note on the hideous kitchen counter, “I hope you are happy in this home.”
Maybe it wasn’t the good bones I was seeing after all, but the good vibes….
Alana Mayman lives on the Upper East Side with her husband and two young daughters. When she is not on Facebook or on StreetEasy.com (checking to see whether or not she overpaid for her apartment), she loves to write.