Although she is a seasoned homeowner who has bought five times in the South, when Ayanna Miller relocates from Houston to Bed-Stuy, she’s shocked by New York City's complicated buying process and high closing costs. But she’s determined to move here during the pandemic—even a case of Covid doesn’t stop her. For her, it’s brownstone or bust. Here’s her story.
I’m originally from Atlanta, GA, and was there for eight years before moving to Houston for a new job. I work for a large medical device company and have relocated several times for various career opportunities. I had just closed on my 3,400-square-foot, three-story dream home—it was new construction and even had a spiral staircase. Just a few months later—right before the pandemic—I found out about a potential promotion that would eventually bring me to New York City.
[Editor's Note: Brick Underground's series The Newcomers features first-person accounts about why a renter or buyer decided to take a chance on NYC and live here now. Have a story to share? Drop us an email. We respect all requests for anonymity.]
My Bellaire neighborhood in Houston is beautiful. Picture tree-lined streets, with manicured lawns and every type of architecture you can imagine: Tuscan homes, traditional homes, ranches, modern houses. Houston doesn’t have any zoning laws. You can build a church right next to a strip club! But Bellaire is one of the few places inside the loop of the Houston metro area that really feels like a neighborhood.
I loved that my neighborhood was close to the Medical Center where I worked much of the time. I also enjoyed being in a diverse community and I was immediately welcomed by all of my neighbors. Houstonians are very friendly and laid back.
In all honesty, I worked so much in Houston that I rarely had time for fun. But I did enjoy walking through the parks on Sundays and the city has amazing food!
Because of the nature of my job in Houston, I spent a lot of time in my car. I might drive 100 miles east of the city or 50 miles south, depending on the day. Even with so much travel, chores were easy. I had a washing machine in my home and would drive to do my grocery shopping and dry cleaning.
Nervous about NYC
I was both excited and terrified about coming to New York! From a cost perspective, Houston has higher property taxes, but no state income tax. In general, the cost of living there is low. So I knew New York would be much more expensive. But I have visited NYC at least once or twice a year for the past 10 years. It’s always been one of my favorite cities. Every time I visited, I’ve always imagined living here.
I have several friends in NYC and that played into my decision; I had very few friends in Houston. I also love art and NYC has a much better art/creative scene than Houston. As a single professional woman, it’s easier to meet people and there are more things to do in New York than in Houston. Houston is a very family-oriented, laid back city while New York is a bustling city with a good mix of families and single people.
Find Your Next Home
I interviewed and found out I got the job at the end of Feb 2020. I decided I would rent in the city for one year with the goal of purchasing a home by the end of my lease. I came to NYC the week of March 8th, 2020 to go apartment hunting and meet my new team. The city was open, but that was the week that they announced the Covid outbreak in New Rochelle. I signed a one-year lease for an apartment in Hell’s Kitchen before I left.
By the time I got back to Houston to prepare for my move, I had Covid. At that time, we knew very little about the virus, and I was learning about it while battling all of the symptoms: Dry cough, chills, stomach issues, heart palpitations, and lung soreness. Fortunately, I did not end up in the hospital, but being sick definitely stalled my move to NYC. I finally moved to NYC in May 2020.
I was fortunate enough to be working with a relocation firm provided by my company. I asked them to connect me with an agent who specialized in Brooklyn and had lots of experience. That is how I met my real estate agent Tammy Shaw of Brown Harris Stevens. She was the perfect fit for me.
Once I recovered from Covid, I felt like a superwoman. I wasn’t worried about catching the virus anymore so I felt comfortable seeing 17 properties! Tammy and I did a ton of walking; one day we saw eight properties!
Brownstone or bust
I met with her for the first time in August 2020. By that time, I had read as many articles as I could find on purchasing in NYC (many from Brick Underground). My dream was to own a brownstone in Brooklyn, but I knew that wouldn’t be easy with my $1.5 million budget. Still, I told Tammy it was brownstone or bust!
If I couldn’t find a brownstone in Brooklyn by the time my lease ended, I was ready to walk away from the idea of home ownership in New York altogether. I bought my first home in Atlanta in February 2009, in the middle of the Great Recession. So, I know the benefits of buying at the right time. To me, the pandemic presented an opportunity to purchase at lower prices, low interest rates, and with much less competition—or so I thought. My company was also paying my closing costs as part of my relocation package.
Based on my budget and desire to own a brownstone, my choices narrowed down to three neighborhoods: Bed-Stuy, Crown Heights, and Prospect Lefferts Gardens. I liked Bed-Stuy because it has a neighborhood feel similar to where I lived in Atlanta. I knew I wanted a safe neighborhood and a house at least 2,000 square feet. I hoped for a garden rental unit. I wanted a bedroom big enough to fit a king-sized bed and a lot of natural light. I didn’t want to be on a main street or thoroughfare.
I ended up buying a 2,200-square-foot, three-story brownstone in the historic district of Bed-Stuy. I have a grocery store, Halsey Market, on one end of my block and numerous restaurants within two blocks of me. I’m also a quick walk to the A and C subway station at Utica Ave. It felt like home from the moment I set foot in it.
I’m very big on the energy of a place and I could feel that this home had been loved. In addition to it being well taken care of, I also loved that it has a small garden in the front with an apricot tree, roses, and a hydrangea bush. I look forward to having a garden again.
Buying in NYC is complicated
When we first started, Tammy warned me that the process of buying in NYC is not like purchasing anywhere else. Boy was she right! This is the fifth home I’ve purchased but buying in New York makes you feel like you know nothing about home buying.
Everything here is different: You have to get a real estate lawyer, you have to pay extra taxes like the mansion tax and transfer tax, and you have to agree upon terms before officially being under contract. This process is not for the faint of heart. In fact, the first home that I put an offer on fell through because the brokers used my offer as leverage to get another buyer to increase their offer and go to contract less than 48 hours before I was supposed to go to contract. I was heartbroken. Tammy had to be both my agent and my therapist after that disappointment.
In the end, I found a place that was closer to my budget and in a better location, so as they say— everything happens for a reason. It was originally priced at $1.595 million but after a bidding war, I ended up paying $1.67 million.
I finally closed this February, just in time for this winter’s major snowstorm. Tammy politely let me know that my neighbors would not be happy if I didn’t shovel the snow on the sidewalk. There are all of these unwritten rules about being a good New Yorker. [Editor’s note: NYC law requires owners to shovel snow from their sidewalks.]
I have been slowly moving in since my lease in the city doesn’t end until the end of April. Since I want to renovate, I’ve been bringing contractors and project managers by to get quotes for some renovations that I plan to do next year. I plan to be fully settled in by the end of April.
How I made it work
NYC is more expensive but I’ve made it work. My monthly mortgage payment is way more than in Houston, where I bought my home for just $825,000. However, I have rental income now so it balances out. For me the biggest hurdle was affording the additional closing costs like the mansion tax and mortgage recording tax. Those don't exist when you close on a home in Houston. My closing costs here were $60,000! I paid under $15,000 in Texas. Even though my company reimbursed me for the closing costs, I still had to front the money.
In fact, I sold both my home in Houston and a rental home in Atlanta in order to afford my down payment. I was able to secure a 30-year, fixed jumbo loan at 3 percent, so that helped a lot too.
From an overall cost of living perspective, I no longer have a car note because I paid off my car last year and I drive much less in New York. My food expenses are almost twice as much per month though.
Why I love it here
I was very happy in Houston but I find NYC to be a much better fit for me than despite the higher cost of living and cold weather. (I’m a southern girl!) I like to say that I’ve found my people in New York. As a person who loves to grow, learn and experience new things there isn’t a better place to be in the world than New York. The museums are better here and people are more informed when it comes to politics and the latest trends in technology.
Houston had amazing food and I miss some of the restaurants there. However, I already have some favorite places in Bed Stuy including Trash Island, Saraghina, and Mama Fox. I look forward to exploring Brooklyn even more when the weather warms up! I’m also more of a European-style grocery shopper. I like to go to the store the day that I am cooking instead of buying things in bulk. So, having a grocery store on my block in Bed Stuy is a dream come true.
Owning a car here is hard
The only thing that will be a major adjustment for me is street parking. I have to have a car for work and it will be an adjustment to deal with street cleaning, snow, and the wear and tear from outdoor parking. I’m sure I’ll be fine though.
Some things I learned on the go: I was driving in Brooklyn with a friend in the car and made a right turn after stopping at a red light and my friend said, “You can’t do that!” I had no idea what he was talking about. No one tells you when you first move here that you can’t make right turns on a red light.
Driving isn’t the only difference. Dating has been very different. Because to the pandemic, the only way to meet people for dating is via dating apps (I use Hinge) or if a mutual friend introduces you. The pandemic has also made it difficult to have guests, but my dad is now fully vaccinated and plans to come see my new place in April. I look forward to having more family and friends up to visit from Atlanta.
One thing that made the move easier was that I had a network of friends here. I’ve also found it easy to meet like-minded people and make new friends despite the pandemic, since many of my existing friends have connected me with other people they know.
I plan on staying in NYC for a long time! I love it here. Plus, most of the people I know who have moved to New York from elsewhere typically stay for 10-plus years. I doubt I will be any different. After moving so many times in the past few years, I’m ready to stay in one place. It really is a dream come true to own a brownstone in Brooklyn.
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