The New York Times: "The Hunt" - Growing Into a Nicer Place
by Joyce Cohen (published August 3, 2008)
ONCE Matt Mager abandoned the instability of an actor’s life and landed a steady job, he knew it was time to upgrade his living situation.
Mr. Mager, 27, had spent five years living in less-than-ideal conditions. When he rented the sunny two-bedroom apartment on West 153rd Street in Hamilton Heights, in Upper Manhattan, he concentrated on the great light and the $1,100 rent, which, split with a roommate, was truly affordable.
“I didn’t notice a lot of problems, but there were things that were totally obvious once I moved in,” he said.
The kitchen island was a few inches too tall. “I would have had to have stools specifically made to be at the right height,” Mr. Mager said.
And the island “was terribly made, like pieces of plywood nailed together.”
For three years in a row, when the heat came on, the radiator in the apartment upstairs leaked. A corner of his ceiling collapsed onto his couch. He used a bucket to catch the drips. He wasn’t bothered by the roaches and mice, which seemed to emerge from a fissure behind the sink, but “they signified other issues — a grossness lurking behind the walls,” he said.
Miserable at home, he spent as little time as possible there. By last spring, the rent had risen to $1,250.
Mr. Mager (pronounced “major”), who is from Fredonia in western New York, was also becoming disillusioned with acting. He worked mostly in musical theater, feeling that he sometimes landed roles because he fit the costume. He grew weary of endless auditions.
“Unless you play one part for your entire life, you are unlikely to get into a position where you are not going to have to audition all the time,” he said.
So, last spring, he took a job in the field of Internet advertising technology that increased his income fourfold. His first priority was to move.
This time, older and wiser, he planned to pay more and get more. Hamilton Heights was still affordable, and he had watched a positive transformation over the years.
“It has gone from having a certain dodginess to being pretty decent,” he said.
Luxury condominiums have risen on parcels that formerly held crack houses and burned-out tenements.
Mr. Mager also planned to avoid paying a broker’s fee. “I am totally capable of looking at an apartment and don’t need to pay someone extra for that,” he said. “I don’t feel I should pay a middleman.”
He knew he would be annoyed if he spent a few thousand dollars on a fee, especially because it didn’t guarantee a good housing situation.
“If I hate the place six months later, I can’t get my money back,” he said.
A friend did a computer search for “no-fee apartments,” and Rent Direct New York (rdny.com) popped up. The Web site lets people sign up at no cost and receive information about the approximate location, price and size of available apartments.
“The teaser worked,” said Mr. Mager, who then paid the $209 fee, allowing him to hunt for rentals costing up to $1,800 a month.
Mr. Mager’s price range was between $1,200 and $1,600, which would be split with a new roommate. (His most recent roommate, a friend from high school, was about to leave for a place of his own.)
Mr. Mager took a day off from work, rising early to call the superintendents and management companies of the buildings that he was interested in.
Several two-bedrooms, for around $1,600, were available at a West 148th Street building. He liked the superintendent, who “was on top of everything, and you could tell he cared,” said Mr. Mager, who was now alert to signs of bad maintenance and shoddy construction.
One apartment there was spacious and bright, but a big, ugly radiator pipe in the living room meant there was no place for a couch. Another had a similarly unworkable layout, where there was no place for a refrigerator in the joint kitchen-living room except in front of a window.
In most cases, the apartments in the buildings that he looked at were simply too small.
“If it wasn’t bigger than my old apartment, I was going to feel cramped,” Mr. Mager said. “I am trying to simplify. I am kind of a hoarder, especially when it comes to clothes. The more space I have, the more likely I am to be neat.”
A two-bedroom for only $1,350 was available on West 143rd Street, but “I didn’t get a good vibe” from the many people hanging out on the block, he said.
At day’s end, he saw a place on St. Nicholas Avenue between 141st and 145th Streets — a long, quiet block that includes a row of apartment buildings across from a City College parking garage. He was glad that the closest subway station was an express stop.
The only thing he didn’t like was the building’s old, slow elevator, but it was slated for replacement.
In the two-bedroom, “the first thing I saw was a huge closet,” he said. “My joke to my friends is, if I had a kid, I could put them in there and it wouldn’t be considered neglect.”
The kitchen had plenty of counter space, and “the countertops are this gorgeous black marble flecked stuff,” he said. “There are tons of cabinets and as a person who cooks, I was basically sold when I saw the kitchen.”
The neighbors whom he spoke to while he was entering and leaving all said they “really dug this building.”
Mr. Mager moved in early in the summer. The rent is $1,500. His share is $850 for the big bedroom off the living room. He is about to get a new roommate — a friend who is attending law school — who will pay $700 for the smaller bedroom off the kitchen.
He has identified only two shortcomings so far. The walls seem to accumulate scuff marks easily, and the bathroom is short on towel racks. But “the management company has been really on point,” he said.
If he is home during the day, he sees the super in the building. A plumbing problem was resolved within the hour. The elevator is currently closed for replacement, so he gladly walks up four flights.
Mr. Mager is currently adding art to his walls and buying furniture.
“I know people my age who move every year,” he said. “I don’t like to move a lot. I tend to settle, so I’m hoping not to have to do this again. In this building, they are constantly upgrading things, and that’s what I want to see. My friends all think it is a vast improvement.”