Saturday, October 25, 2008

Dear Roxy, tell me about living in NYC

I've been getting a lot of questions from friends, friends of friends and the like about moving down here lately. So I thought I'd compile the recent ones into a post. This time around, questions about how much you need to make, where to get the most space for your money and what a car fanatic should do.

Q -- What's it like living in NYC?
No joke, it's awesome. There is no other city in the world like it. You hear a different accent and language with each person you pass. The food, the shopping and the culture are unmatched. New York may not be as old as the cities in Europe and the East but it's unique in that the immigrants who've landed in America have taken neighborhoods and made them their own. No where else can you feel like you've gotten a taste of China, Italy, Ireland or Russia all in the same day.

That being said it's challenging to live here. A lot of people come to NYC and find out they aren't tough enough to survive here. If you don't know anyone here you will spend the majority of your first year alone. It takes a long time to make friends here. There are people everywhere and even your apartment won't feel like a true escape. If you need quiet or alone time you will not be happy in Manhattan. Everything is very expensive here -- food, rent, utilities, clothes, going out and the like. Your college dorm room will look like a mansion compared to your first NYC apartment. There's a me-first attitude that pervades and it is very grating. You have to learn to rise above and find people with a similar like-water-off-a-duck's-back attitude. Once you make friends it's great. Having someone to live through all those only-in-NY-moments with you makes it all worth it.

The people here are great once you learn the nuances of New Yorkers. But coming from the South or Midwest is often difficult. You will find the people here rude. Life moves ridiculously fast here. Just prepare yourself. You can do it! If you can make it through the first year semi-happy, sane and still stuck on NYC you will be fine. If you're unhappy, I really recommend that you leave. If a you're not happy here after a year you will most likely never be happy here and it's not worth dealing with all the bullshit. Move on. Try Philly or Chicago; cities with a similar pace but a different zeitgeist.

Q -- Should I move to NYC now, or should I wait?
Depends. I advocate moving here now for just about anyone. I say wait if you're under 18, just got married or just had a kid. Moving here is such a huge change and you don't want to be facing more than one life change at a time.

Q -- Are rents coming down?
Not yet. There seem to be two schools of thought on the matter. The first school says that of course rents are going to come down because the people that lose their jobs are going to move out of NYC. The vacancy rate will rise and more apartments will be available leading to lower rents. The second school of thought is that some of the people who bought apartments will be forced to sell. Then they'll rent instead. That would actually make the rental market even more competitive than it is.

My personal guess is that in 6 months the rental market will have to start correcting. Regardless of the number of people renting, sales prices are starting to drop and if they drop below rental rates people will just start buying anyway. Also, many of the financial peeps have severance pay that is just starting to run out. They will start making moves now as their cushion is depleted. So however it happens rental rates should come down. Just a guess though.

Q -- Where can I get the most space for my money?
In one of the boroughs for sure. Many parts of Brooklyn are just as expensive as Manhattan these days. And Brooklyn is only convenient to Manhattan below 23rd St. So I'd suggest skipping it for Queens. If you work on the East side Queens is pretty convenient. Long Island City is expensive but Astoria, Woodlawn, Forest Hills and Jackson Heights all have decent-sized apartments for 20-40% less than a Manhattan apartment. Take note that subway trains are kind of iffy on the weekends into Manhattan from Queens. Do your research before you commit to a borough. There's also Long Island or Connecticut though I can't recommend either with a straight face. If you're moving to New York, move to New York!

If you work on the west side, I would consider New Jersey (much as it pains me to say so). The PATH trains are pretty reliable. There's also a ferry. Jersey City and Hoboken are pretty cool little cities and have amazing skyline views. Then again, it's still Jersey.

The Bronx has some nice neighborhoods. Riverdale and Pelham Bay are a couple off the top of my head. If you have a family this is one borough you should look at closely. Make sure to factor in commuting time though. For jobs in midtown or south, count on at least a 45-minute commute.

In Manhattan you may get lucky in the Financial District. But not too lucky -- think 500 sq foot studios; same size for 1 BRs and on from there. Spacious is a relative term in Manhattan.

Q -- What's the minimum annual salary I need to make to live in Manhattan?
In my opinion you need to make at least $50,000/year if you plan on living by yourself. With roommates I think you could slide by at $40,000/year. I know people who do it for less but it's not like they have a ton of spending money.

For one thing, most landlords require that you make at least 40x the rent in annual salary. So if you make $50,000/year you would qualify for monthly rent of up to $1250. I know of ZERO apartments in Manhattan for that price. Really the least I would expect to pay for a studio is $1550. Even if you have a guarantor paying anything more than 60% of your monthly income towards rent is asking for trouble, especially in today's economy. Do you really want to have no disposable income to buy things like clothes, movie tickets, books, drinks or dinner? That doesn't sound like a good way to live.

Think of it this way: making $100,000/year in NYC is like making $50,000/year anywhere else in the country. It's decent but you're by no means rich. There are people who make such ridiculously high salaries here that it's hard for the rest of us to keep up. And the city caters to the rich and not the rest. Them's the facts of life, bitches.

Q -- How much does it cost to move into the city?
If you're coming from the tri-state area expect to spend about $1200-$1700 on the move for a studio apartment worth of crap. If you're coming from east of the Mississippi put it around the $2000-$4000 range just for the movers and the truck. Further west you should budget anywhere from $2500 to $6000 for a studio apartment's worth.

Make sure you research your moving company very carefully. If you're coming from NY/CT/NJ/Mass I highly recommend Gentle Giant Movers. They did my move and two of my friends' moves and they are amazing. Incredibly dependable and honest, though a bit more expensive. Then again I'd rather pay an extra $250 to know that the movers will show up on time and take good care of my stuff. Anyway, out of state moves should be calculated based on weight rather than hourly cost. You should get a fixed bid contract -- you sign and agree to a price before the move. Remember to tip your movers!

Then there are the expenses once you get here. Some of your furniture is going to be too long, wide or just plain big for an NYC apartment. You will need to buy some new stuff adapted for vertical living.

If you plan on using a broker (sigh) to find an apartment expect to spend between $8,500 and $15,000 just to get into an apartment up to $2000/mo. That will cover: your first month's rent, your security deposit of one month, a broker's fee and a credit check or application fee. The broker's fee can range from one month's rent to 20% of the annual rent. Negotiate, negotiate, negotiate.

Q -- Should I live in a doorman building? and Why are doorman buildings so much more expensive?
Growing up, my Aunt lived in a doorman building. It was awesome -- his name was Oscar and he always gave me a piece of Hershey's chocolate when I came to visit. When I started looking for an apartment I thought a doorman was a deal breaker. They help you with groceries, they receive packages for you, they take care of your dry cleaning.

But the truth is a doorman shouldn't be a dealbreaker. True, doormen usually come in elevator buildings so if you want an elevator a doorman might be a byproduct. And it does suck trying to get a package sent to you via the UPS/FedEx/DHL trifecta. So you adjust. You get packages sent to your work. You learn to carry your own groceries or get them delivered. You take care of your own damn dry cleaning.

Doorman buildings are more expensive because the tenants combine to pay the doorman's salary. And you have to tip on top of that. In the end, the costs outweigh the benefits for most youngins.

Q -- I need to have a car. Where should I live?
Really? Really really? Because there's awesome services like Zipcar for when you absolutely have to drive. I heart Zipcar (95% of the time). You really don't need to own a car in Manhattan. And this is coming from a drive-aholic!! In Connecticut and Colorado I would drive just to drive. Gas was a lot cheaper then.

The public transportation in NYC is really good. Sure I bitch about it but it's way better by bus or subway then it would be by car. I can't tell you how many traffic jams I've sat in trying to get from the George Washington Bridge or one of the tunnels to my apartment. Hell, I somtimes take taxis home to the UES from Flatiron and it usually takes about 45 minutes vs. an 18-minute subway ride.

It's hard to park in Manhattan. Just about everything on the street is parallel parking. Parking garages are valet only and it costs about $20 per half hour. So good luck with that. They have weird rules like Alternate Side. Your car is 60% more likely to get broken into than around the rest of the county. Good luck with that too! Oh, and your insurance? Maybe better not to even talk about how high your rates will be.

If you absolutely cannot live without a car, try the Bronx. My car-owning friends say it's the best borough for cars.

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