*Thanks to David for his lovely photos of Astoria while he was in town.*
Recently, I had the pleasure (read: horror) of apartment hunting. Again. Throw in the facts that I’m in New York City, I have to look for a roommate situation since I’m broke AND it’s summertime and well, you just triple your fun. Let me start at the beginning, because why I was looking in the first place deserves its own story.
I moved out of my boyfriend’s apartment in February of this year, deciding I wanted to try Astoria, Queens. It’s convenient to Manhattan, less expensive and still has most of the conveniences New Yorkers come to depend on. Roasted peanuts guy? Check. Street meat guy? Check. Drugstore on every corner? Check. Bodegas that sell lotto tickets, beer and questionable deli meat? Yup. Unlike some other parts of the outer boroughs, you can even catch NYC taxi cabs since both the Queensboro and Triborough Bridges run to Astoria. And when those fail you, there are plenty of gypsy cabs to be hailed (or who will honk at you while you’re walking down the street or standing at the curb, regardless if you look like you need a cab or not). For those who are unfamiliar, a gypsy cab is a random sedan that doesn’t look like any sort of cab but maybe a car you would ride in from the airport with a shady car service. There are no meters and if you do not explicitly ask how much the driver will charge you before you get in the car, prepare to be ripped off. Moving on.
I had apartment hunted on Craigslist once before, when I first moved to New York in 2005. So I did what any person who can’t afford a broker fee does – I looked for a room/share situation. So I repeated the process and successfully found an apartment on the second story of a house in the Heart of Astoria (around 30th Avenue). It was almost too easy, between the seemingly instant roommate chemistry and it being the first place I looked at. Turns out, it was too easy. While the rent was reasonable and the landlord even paid for all the utilities (including electricity!), things quickly unraveled. Come to find out, I was living with a woman in her early 30s who did not live as though she had two other roommates, unless it was convenient for her. If she needed someone to check on her loud, screeching bird while she was away on weekends or needed a body to let a delivery guy in, she would casually ask you about your weekend before asking you for a favor. The other time she appreciated you was for paying for anything she didn’t want to buy on her own, so she would buy stuff “for the apartment” and then ask you for the money, claiming it as a shared expense. I believe I paid for a new shower rod, painting supplies, various cleaning supplies and a hamper that acted as a recycling bin, which was already purchased and in use when I moved in. She also needed quarters to wash the kitchen tablecloth one afternoon, another “shared” expense. Otherwise, she lived in the house as if she was the only one there, with visitors in and out at random or planned ahead but up to a week at a time, exercising late at night, vacuuming at times when most people are asleep, taking 30 minute showers in the mornings AND at midnight (sometimes with the bird, sometimes without) – the list goes on. Throw into the mix that she turned out to be an anal control freak about cleaning (the smell of bleach permeated our house every weekend – it was like living with my Italian mother all over again) AND she was a passive aggressive, Olympic Gold Medalist in the sport of pathological lying, and I threw in my hat and decided I needed to vacate immediately. This is only half the problem, as the other half turned out to be the crazy landlady who clearly received her real estate license at a drive-thru, as adhering to any kind of tenant law was beyond her scope of capability (or caring). We scalded ourselves on the metal shower knobs, had to light matches to turn the gas burners on, froze in the winter with our poor radiators and thermostat set at 68 degrees and suffocated in the summer from their having kindly painted our living room windows shut when she conceded to repaint. The only time she sent her soon-to-be-ex husband/super to come even replace a lightbulb was if we threatened a lawsuit.
Armed with what I knew I didn’t want in a roommate (e.g., liars, OCD, had noisy pets, drug addicts, complete slobs and aggressive passive-aggressivity), I quietly began searching for a new place to live with two weeks left in June. That gave me six whole weeks to look if I gave notice on June 30. Inwardly, I scoffed at how much time I had on my hands, eagerly anticipating that I could probably land something by July 1st or 15th. Clearly my optimistm had toked on some very good crack-cocaine or crystal meth. I had no idea what I was about to embark upon.
Combing through the Room/Shares listings became my second job. I already work nine to ten hours a day at a desk job, but whenever I could get away with it, I read and replied to ads, frantically checking my email to see if anyone had written back. If I wasn’t responding to ads, I was filling my evenings with as many apartment appointments as possible (which weren’t that many), thinking that since it’s all a numbers game, something would pop within two weeks. I didn’t really believe I could land something on the first or second place I saw, since that clearly didn’t work out for me. But I naively did not understand how many new kids move to this city in the summertime, thereby exponentially increasing my competition for the finite number of (crappy) room/shares available. If you ever saw the episode of Friends where Ross bribes the current renter of the apartment he wants by sending him a basket of mini muffins and hanging out with the guy naked (it was Ugly Naked Guy’s apartment, remember?), it really does have that much of a feeling of desperation stickily shellacking the entire experience. And not for nothing, but when it’s balls hot outside and you are visiting other people’s apartments that probably don’t have air conditioning, it intensifies the desperation.
But having lived in New York for three years and this being my third time doing a Craigslist roommate situation, I felt I had a superior edge over those who were moving here and would just throw their stuff and money down to the first people who opened their door to them. I assumed that since I am a normal, down-to-earth person who has a pretty decent sense of humor and knows how to write and spell correctly (and let’s face it, a serial killer could write and spell correctly but we generally take people more seriously who know how to put sentences together with correct grammar and punctuation), that I would get snatched up quickly. Writing your introduction email to the people who are posting ads for an available room is exactly like writing a cover letter for a job. Once you have the right one down, you simply change the facts that will be appropriate for the place at which you’re applying. I had quickly thrown together a 2-3 paragraph introduction about myself, including all the basic need-to-know stuff, a few extras to display some semblance of personality and occasionally inserted something slightly witty but not overly quirky – you don’t wanna scare any potential roommates off.
But there is a delicate balance to this process. You can’t write too much nor too little. Any typo or spelling error will convey that you are either careless or a moron, or a careless moron. If you do not address each of the specific roommate qualities or answer the questions that the roommate seeker puts forth in the ad, you could and would certainly be disqualified. Then there is the je ne sais quoi aspect of the entire thing, which is to say that there is an intangible factor that no one can ever predict why someone does or does not respond. And it’s a two-way street: if I do not hear back from a person within a couple of days, I write that one off. I got at least two emails weeks after my original reply, asking me if I was still looking for a place. Even if I had been, it is obvious I could not count on that person to be reliable or even really interested in me – s/he was just scraping from the bottom of the barrel. No thanks. I did not want to simply be just one-third or one-half of the rent to the landlord. I was really looking for a home, and you have a small window of a few minutes to take in everything you can about someon else’s apartment, where you have to ask yourself, “Could I live here? Could I deal with that grout in the bathroom? What’s that smell? Could I get rid of that? Is there room for my DVD collection?”
My friends agree that when apartment hunting in New York, one must ALWAYS ask him or herself the following question: “What’s the catch?” I defy anyone to move to this city and not have at least one glaring flaw or big catch to the living situation he or she chooses. Usually, it’s the cost of the rent. But after rent comes the question of landlord, size, location/neighborhood, proximity to the subway, and let’s not forget – the current roommates with whom you’ll be living. I had presumed that since Astoria was such a popular place to live (albeit old), that it would not be difficult to find a decent apartment. I could not have been more wrong. I probably interviewed at two dozen places, most of which were tiny shoeboxes, with rent ranging from $750 to $950 for my share. Putting the common area of the apartment aside, the issues with the rooms ran the gamut of whether it was too small to even fit a double bed and a dresser (aka “cozy” or “nice size”), didn’t have any windows, didn’t come with a closet, hadn’t seen a coat of paint or spackling in two decades, had questionable flooring, couldn’t accommodate an air-conditioner, had accoutrements on the wall(s) that couldn’t be removed, were a horrid color, came partially furnished, didn’t have a real door and you had to enter through either the bathroom or the roommate’s room (really), shared a wall with the one roommate you were interviewing with that you just knew would do something noisy or gross to disturb you, faced a “courtyard” or a brick wall or the trash bins, and the list goes on and on.
My needs were simple, at least to me: I wanted a room more than 10×10 since I had 5 pieces of bedroom furniture to cram into it, at least one functioning window that could accommodate an air conditioner, preferably uncarpeted, with its own door (yes, my own door!) and if there was no decent closet, space to put my wardrobe that I had purchased for my current apartment (where I also had no closet – but instead, six large windows facing west that baked me in the summer like I was in my own terrarium). I also required there to be enough living room space to accommodate a bookshelf, two DVD stands and possibly a small purple bucket chair. I also have some kitchen things. I knew I was pushing the boundaries of the room/share situation since I have enough stuff to help furnish an apartment, but I had never had any trouble fitting these things into any other apartment I had lived in – and this was my fifth move! Five. In three years. Yeah.
I got a LOT of “You sound like a great/ideal roommate” responses. And let’s face it, I’m awesome. But as I learned, I had to be wary because there are freaks out there who post for a roommate but have something else in mind altogether or conveniently forget to tell you that the 2-bedroom apartment they advertised was really a 1-bedroom but s/he was going to live in the living room. I wanted a real place to live. Not a dorm. I visited an absolutely gorgeous, newly constructed 3-bedroom apartment that clearly was meant for recent college graduates. The living room (or “common area,” as college kids call it) was probably 5×7, adjacent to the same open area as the kitchen. The absolutely gigantic side-by-side, stainless steel refrigerator sat where a table might go, as it was too large to sit next to the counter and stove across from it. All three bedroom doors faced the living room, two in the back and one in the front. All three bedrooms were way too small for what you were paying. I quickly interviewed with the nice kids who lived there and said I would be in touch. As with job interviews, there is a definite code for if you will hear back from someone and whether they will hear from you. What I didn’t understand was, these people are interviewing strangers to come into their home to potentially live there. Why not come up with some questions to ask? Is it really that hard? Surely they must have some semblance of an idea of the type of roommate I want. But I lost count of how many apartments I showed up at where I had to carry the conversation all on my own. I loathe talking about the weather, but it was a frequent topic of discussion. I had to compliment furniture or floor plans I thought were hideous, ask about hobbies and backgrounds, anything and everything to come across as a laid back person who can carry a conversation. Meanwhile, that person is sizing you up in ways you can’t even imagine. I got turned down via email immediately after an hour-long interview, saying they were going with someone else. I got the hint. I wasn’t the right fit. I wasn’t overly broken-hearted.
Then you have the scam artists. One girl was advertising for an apartment at which she hadn’t even signed the lease. She and I hit it off in our emails but then when I learned that she didn’t even have the place yet, I began to get suspicious. She eventually did sign the lease, but because she was also paying a broker’s fee, she was only advertising what she wanted the roommate’s share of the rent to be but wouldn’t part with the information on how much the apartment actually cost per month. I caught on to that one pretty quickly, thank God. I saw her ad go up every other day until she finally found someone about four weeks in. Another guy wanted to meet at a coffee shop to see if we had the right vibe before he even showed me the apartment. I agreed, but only because his ad was very well written and he came across as a nice guy with a dog that he liked to take to the park. Towards the end of our emailing, he threw me his MySpace link and told me to check it out. I was at work but a friend of mine agreed to look at it for me, just so I could get some background info before our little tete-a-tete. I got a sour feeling in my stomach when the link turned out to be his name followed by “datesyourmom.” His favorite book was American Psycho, favorite movie was A Clockwork Orange, one of his “interests” was beautiful women and he had all kinds of girls writing on his page things like, “Hey lol why is your phone off? I keep trying to call you lol.” I quickly wrote him that after checking out his profile I didn’t think we were a match. He was fine with it so that was the end of that.
The other dude apartments I actually got to visit weren’t much better. I tried to keep an open mind that the apartments didn’t necessarily have to be gross if they were advertising that they were clean and were open to having a female roommate. But each time, I would enter and my hopes would be dashed virtually instantaneously. Clear signs that the place was not meant for a girly girl: dartboard or foosball table in the living room, shitty, ragged or makeshift furniture, weird smell and/or just downright filthy. One dude apartment was right next to the elevated subway tracks and you could barely hear yourself think every 2-5 minutes as a train squealed overhead. The guy was nice enough but he thought his apartment was just the absolute shit and actually said to me after a few minutes of me trying to keep my eyes from bugging out of my head in disbelief, “So ya diggin it? You like it more than your current place?” I had no words. How could I possibly tell him that I was living in an apartment three times the size of his on a beautiful, tree-lined street where things were kept clean and the subway is blissfully far enough away? Moreover, the amazing bedroom he had for rent was an oversized closet that boasted its own (teensy) balcony that overlooked a crappy backyard onto the backs of other crappy buildings. I told him I would let him know my decision in a few days time and he did the laid back cool guy thing by saying, “By all means, go check out some other places and then let me know.” I think he really convinced himself I’d come back and say “Hey roomie when can I give you a check?!” I saw a revised ad for that same place a few days later where they stipulated that a girly girl probably would not be a good fit and they wanted someone who could fit into their beer swizzling lives. That would have been nice to know upfront. The other dude apartment I saw was bigger and less offensive but the room for rent had no window except for a skylight in the ceiling and thus you’d have to get creative about staying cool. I’m really sensitive to heat so this just wasn’t going to fly. As it was, I was roasting in the apartment just standing in there and had already made up my mind (dartboard in the living room! Ding.). Plus, I was doing the tour with this other desperate guy who was trying to vacate his place in Spanish Harlem and he was basically telling the guys he’d take the place on the spot. I dutifully filled out the “interested parties” sheet where we put our names and phone numbers but I emailed the guys a short while later to politely decline. As an aside, I hate having simultaneous interviews because you’re expected to be friendly to this person who is competing with you for the same place. You can’t be yourself, and if you’re less yourself, you have even less of a chance of impressing the person or people considering you as a roommate. When I showed up and there was already someone in the apartment or someone showed up shortly after me, I took off major points for the people interviewing, because it was so disingenuous.* And as it turns out, I moved in with someone with whom I had a one-on-one with no interruptions. So there you have it.
In apartment hunting, you can’t take anything personally, but that’s harder to practice than it sounds. I had zero problems with writing to someone whom I had just told “Yeah I’ll be in touch, I’m totally interested” that in fact, I had given it “serious consideration” but had decided to go with another place. Similarly, I got turned down just like that – sometimes sooner, sometimes later. The worst was getting turned down for the apartment(s) I really, really wanted and from the people I really clicked with. At one point, I had received so many “Thanks but we’ve gone with someone else” emails that I began speculating that I was getting turned down because I’m not skinny. I just couldn’t possibly fathom why the decision process was taking so goddamn long. I’d meet someone, we’d have an awesome interview (and the good ones lasted anywhere from 40 minutes to an hour) and then I’d express my total interest and s/he’d say “Well we’re making our decision in about a week and a half.” And I was just shocked. I was getting turned down practically on a daily basis in favor of others had been decided upon immediately, but I always got the people who had to really think on the decision. I wanted to scream. I’m totally normal! Courteous! Respectful! I pay bills on time! Clean! I just have more furniture than the average person who can’t afford her own apartment and has to ask permission to move in to someone else’s.
After looking for one solid month, having two interviews with these two fantastic people who lived not very far away and really believing I had it in the bag, I received a call about their final decision on Friday, July 18, the same day I had one of my best friends in town. (Thank God he wasn’t around when I got the call, seeing as I promptly burst into tears upon hearing I didn’t get it.) It was a very kind turn-down, and the guy even expressed how disappointed he was that he couldn’t take both me and the Other Perfect Roommate, but they “went with a hunch” and were turning me down. I was taken aback, appalled, a little hurt and so fucking tired of apartment hunting at that point. It was all I could do to get off the phone without my voice wavering and sounding like a 5th grader who just got picked last for kickball. I had my defeated crying jag complete with sniveling and feeling very sorry for myself, but what other choice did I have but to pick myself up and continue apartment hunting? I saw two more places that same weekend and incidentally was picked as a roommate (versus the other place at which I interviewed twice – again! – but I think the fact that I wanted to get cable and they were anti-TV was the deciding factor), but it was with an apartment that I never really believed I’d get. Maybe in the end that’s why I got it, since my expectations were so low and I was just like “Yeah, whatever” about it.
Since I was keeping an open mind, let’s remember, I responded to the posting for this 2-bedroom place because it was right down the street from me and I thought, eh what can it hurt? I could tell by the way it was written that a guy had written it. That’s no disrespect to guys, but they write very differently than a female. The ad was strictly about the apartment with bare bones details. The saving grace was that there were some photos attached, so at least you could see that it was a cute place. Keeping my expectations in the gutter, I went and met with my soon-to-be-roommate but I barely glanced at the bathroom and kitchen and just focused on having a nice conversation. I was shocked when he flat out offered to have me apply for it (with a legitimate landlord!). Incidentally, between my credit score and the fact that I’m awesome (I have to believe that), I was chosen to move in and it was the best move I’ve had in three years. I moved 500 feet down the street and didn’t even have to rent a truck. The relief that came when I signed my name over the old tenant’s on the lease and got new keys was immense. I didn’t really know what to do with myself when I got to work and I didn’t have to go onto Craigslist anymore. I had grown to loathe Craig and his list. I had started to become bitter about New Yorkers and living in this godforsaken town. But Craigslist came through for me once again and so far, I’m happily residing psycho-free. I made it over the cuckoo’s nest.
*I changed the word “ingenuine” to “disingenuous” because the Grammar Police alerted me to my incorrect word. Apparently my blog is “aflood” with errors. Not like I care too much, but I don’t like using erroneous or fake words.*