Each week I resist the temptation to offer any kind of advice. I would much rather convey a simple story or record one of my many absurd rental episodes, allowing the inherent foils and flaws of the business to reveal themselves as we go. Giving away precious secrets is not what this column is about, and I prefer to be rewarded monetarily for my insights. However, it is the season, and it is miserably slow anyway so … I’ve never paid a broker to find me an apartment. Why should you?
I’ve never been able to afford a broker, but that’s only a small part of it, as I have dealt with more than a few financial heavyweights who have also strongly objected to paying a broker. In fact, I was the broker to whom they strongly objected paying. They offered every imaginable excuse, none of which had to do with a lack of funds. They had already handed over their tax returns and bank account statements which at least settled one matter of contention: I needed the money a whole lot more than they did. Either way, whether you have it or not, no one wants to pay the fee. And if you’re creative, you shouldn’t have to.
I believed that I ought to be able to find my own apartment and that the process of searching and locating would offer its own reward. I enjoyed exploring the city and taking a hands-on approach. But don’t get me wrong; it was never easy. In fact, the entire rental business rests on just how difficult it is. And as with all things worth fighting for, if everyone could do it, well everyone would do it, and then there would be no point in bragging, giving advise or having rental agents for that matter.
How then, without a license or an abundance of contacts, was I able to find each of my six apartments without ever paying a fee? I like to think I was guided by raw real estate instincts, but truthfully it has a lot more to do with being flexible. I have never paid a broker, but I’ve also never had my heart set on a perfect little gem of a space in hopes it would complete my lifestyle. Again renting comes back to dating: keep your standards low if you’re looking for a deal.
I could live without views as I spent the majority of my time outside of my apartment and in claustrophobically close contact with Manhattan. I never needed a constant reminder while at home, and I still prefer to forget about the city when not drowning in the middle of it.
Neither did I ever feel the need to live in a fashionable neighborhood. Although it’s openly discussed in real estate offices, renters still haven’t caught on to the fact that most of Manhattan’s neighborhoods all look exactly alike. The once great divide between say the East and West Villages is virtually nonexistent as every business, restaurant and developer now competes for space. Clearly neighborhood doesn’t matter when luxury condos spring up all over Williamsburg. And if you still think you have to live in Soho, wake up, it’s over. If you really feel the need to get caught up in a wave of European shoppers, it’s only a $2 subway ride away.
And who needs to live on top of train station? New York is a walker’s dream and a great place to get lost in the uncertainties of life. Subways are for iPods and reading. I like to walk. And a doorman? Let’s just say I’m not interested in small talk and feel well capable of turning my own knob. (Another obvious dating parallel.)
When looking for the “right” space, there is no perfect equation or one simple method. Each apartment I have ever lived in has taken me in a different direction and forced me to employ a variety of means. The only common denominator was a whole lot of walking and talking. I would ask anyone I could find if they were aware of any available places and how they found their own space. My searches have led me through Washington Heights where I left my number with a half dozen supers until one finally called. In Brooklyn, I used a similar approach but found a doorman who not only showed me the space, he told me who I needed to speak with. I’ve used friends, friends of friends, co-workers and strangers, all of whom proved helpful. If you don’t have any of these contacts, leave the city at once.
So consider this my holiday gift. If you don’t need to live in the perfect apartment in the perfect little neighborhood, finding a space on your own is not terribly difficult. I’ve done it six times. If however, you must live on West 12th, but on the North side of the street because morning light is critical, and preferably on the eastern half of the block between Fifth an Sixth Avenues, and won’t consider anything without a new brand new kitchen … well then call a broker and quit bitching about the fee.