The time comes in any first-time renter's life, distressingly often during that first year, when you have to make a choice: Find a new roommate or a new apartment.
Mike had decided to leave New York City and move back home to Las Vegas. I chose looking for a new place over the crapshoot of seeking a new roommate. My two stipulations: I wasn’t willing to pay more than my rent at the time, which was $975 a month, and I wanted a place that was easily accessible by subway. That pretty much meant I was moving to Brooklyn.
I had a few friends who lived in Williamsburg and Gowanus, but other than that, I hadn’t really ventured into the borough. I just kept hearing how inexpensive everything was there, so I figured finding a studio apartment for $800 to $1,000 in an area about 30 minutes from where I worked in Midtown would be easy. Looking back, yeah… not so much.
The problem with moving to Brooklyn is that it’s so trendy, everyone wants to live there, driving up the rent. Moreover, since Brooklyn has always been a family-oriented area with a goodly supply of houses and large apartments, it would be a rare find to get an affordable studio in an established neighborhood. Some studios in Williamsburg were more expensive than the Upper West Side. Given my budget, I realized that I had to move farther east and south to find what I was looking for.
Since I found my first apartment through an agent on Craigslist, I decided to go that route again. After looking at six apartments that were either too far from the subway, had a bunch of additional fees that were not advertised or were in need of too much TLC, I was starting to feel defeated. Then I discovered Rapid Realty, which had a too-good-to-be-true listing for a $900 studio apartment in Sunset Park. Without checking the reviews about the company (which I should have) or the BBB/ Better Business Bureau rating (which is an F, by the way), I set up an interview with the agent assigned to the apartment.
It turned out to be the beginning of a nightmare. Not only was the agent 30 minutes late, the spacious studio apartment ended up being a finished basement with one tiny window that barely reached street level. The place would be insufferable in the summer, especially since I couldn’t use a window air conditioner, and freezing in the winter, since there was no heat installed. I was told that I had to give access to the electric company, so field reps could read the meters in my “closet,” a dingy, moldy, cemented room with a couple of pipes on which to hang my clothes. There was no ventilation near the stove so if I decided to cook, I would burn the whole place down.
I questioned who in their right mind would move here, and if this place was even legal. “It would make a great bachelor pad, um, for someone who wasn’t at home a lot,” the agent assured me.
After seeing how disappointed I was, he said he had a bunch of other listings if I didn’t mind going to the main office. I was so sick of looking that I agreed. After calling a number of places from the agent's list, places where the landlord didn’t pick up the phone, I finally found a junior one bedroom in Ditmas Park for $975. We navigated through unfamiliar Brooklyn territory to see the place, which was only five short blocks from the Newkirk B, Q stop. I was told that I could definitely bargain down, since the apartment had been on the market for a while and was in an old building. So I decided to plunk down $900 and begin the negotiation process.
That's when my agent disappeared. It turned out he didn’t file the paperwork until a week after my down payment, and I was forced to negotiate directly with the landlord. Not only did I not get the lower rent, I had to turn around and sign really quickly because someone else had put in an offer before me.
According to the online reviews of Rapid Realty, some of their other agents did the same thing to other customers. First, they showed a ridiculously inexpensive apartment that was so dilapidated, no one in their right mind would call it home. Then, they took customers to their office to show “better” listings. Before you knew it, they roped you in for a more expensive apartment in a different location.
I complained to the Better Business Bureau, which could do nothing because I got this apartment, although it was no thanks to Rapid Realty since I had to do most of the work. (Rapid Realty's owner then called me back, blaming everything on the landlord and management company.)
At least the headache was over, or so I thought. What I didn't know was that my new building was infested with roaches and other vermin and didn’t have a washer and dryer (I know, I should have checked) -- both negatives that probably would have been deal breakers. Oh yeah, and I was paying $100 more than most other building residents; there is a drug rehab center on the third floor; it wasn’t as safe as I was told, seeing that a mere seven months after I moved in I was mugged at 7 P.M. walking my dog two blocks from the apartment, and the needed repairs to my place --including a window that doesn't sit in its frame and a badly chipped bathtub -- still haven't been completed, I even though I complained about them more than four months ago.
I probably could have complained to Rapid Realty, but judging from my previous experience with its agents, I figured it wouldn't do anything.
Next up: How a packrat packs for the big move.
Michelle Castillo moved from Los Angeles to Manhattan to attend Columbia University's Journalism School. She has covered arts and entertainment for The Los Angeles Times, Billboard.com, MSNBC.com, EW.com and Hollywood Reporter, and currently writes about geek culture for Time.com's Techland. Rental Rookie is a twice-monthly column chronicling her first year as a renter in NYC.