What to Expect When You’re Expecting to Live in New York City

In most places, once you move to a new apartment, you can survey your new digs with satisfaction and begin unloading boxes, secure in the knowledge that you probably won’t have to move again for a little while. You can hang pictures, assemble bowls of potpourri, maybe even paint the walls. After all, until you decide it’s time to boomerang home to live with your parents again, or move to Seattle to join your girlfriend on her new houseboat, this is home! Settle in.

Life in New York is different. You probably know that it’s expensive to live here, but perhaps you have only a hazy sense of what kind of expensive we’re really talking about. Put it this way: If the Big Apple were an actual apple, it’d be an organic Honeycrisp ($4/lb).

In the same way that a Honeycrisp has limited surface area, the island of Manhattan only has so much space for residential buildings, and at least half of those buildings are filled with Never Say Die-type New Yorkers who have been here since 1972, fighting off the junkies, and damned if they’re going to surrender their rent-controlled two-bedrooms. About 10-15% of the rental housing stock that remains is controlled by the richest people in the world, for whom a pied a terre near Lincoln Center or a luxury downtown penthouse is a vital status symbol. 

That means you can either duke it out with every other wide-eyed wannabe to overpay wildly for what’s left—hey, look, an alcove studio in Midtown West* for $2,590!—or, more wisely, look to the other four boroughs, where deals are easier to come by. That is not to say, however, that rentals in the hot spots of Brooklyn or Queens are cheap. They are “more affordable,” which means they probably won’t make you feel as much like your wallet was sexually assaulted and forced to walk home naked.

This one-bedroom in Battery Park for $3,600 is a good example. It is advertised at 687 square feet, which is so precise I’m guessing the realtor measured the inside of the closet. How big is 687 square feet? Well, for contrast, the Elephant Center affords each adult male elephant 3,100 square feet. (An elephant 2-bedroom, so to speak, is 4,900 square feet.) Sounds palatial, doesn’t it? If you’re just squeezing an elephant somewhere temporarily, say in a stall overnight, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Standards for Elephant Management and Care from 2011 mandate a minimum of “no less than 600 square feet.” But in the long-term, that would be inhumane.


I can attest to that. My first real apartment in the city, which I shared with my then-boyfriend, now-husband Mr. Ben, was a 350-square-foot studio in Brooklyn Heights. That would hold just half an adult elephant. On the bright side, it would hold about 87 vintage English K6 telephone boxes! (If you didn’t have to worry too much about opening the doors.)

It worked okay for three years because we were young, desperate, and relatively compact, being short (me) and skinny (him). We paid about $1,550 in rent and counted our blessings. Still, no two adult human beings should have to share a space that would make Dumbo feel claustrophobic.

Our next apartment, a one-bedroom just outside of Park Slope, was $1,800 for three times as much space. We could have fit the entirety of the Brooklyn Heights studio in our new backyard, and two New York City medallion taxis in our living room / kitchen area.**

It was awesome. Like all awesome things, however, it was too good to be true for long. Our landlord sold the building out from under us to a nice Japanese family, and we found ourselves, once more, seeking maximum space for minimum money.

Overall, in the 7.5 years we’ve been in New York City, we’ve lived in two boroughs, four rentals, and one co-op, for which we coughed up enough money to buy Khartoum, the ill-fated racehorse from the Godfather. The co-op, our current home, is three rooms, plus one bathroom and a kitchen reminiscent of Harry Potter’s cabinet under the stairs^, and it would fit five dumpling trucks, although not all the impatient urban foodies waiting in line on an average Sunday. We bought the apartment so that we wouldn’t have to move again until we want to (say, because we buy an elephant). That is one of the ironies of living in New York: at some point, it can feel less expensive and less stressful to buy.


* Not a real neighborhood.
** A yellow cab is 6.5 ft wide and 17 ft long, for a total of 110 square feet.
*** A food truck is 7 ft wide and 24 ft long, for a total of 168 square feet.
^ Exact dimensions unavailable


Ester Bloom writes for money during the day, and for love all other times. She tweets in full sentences as @shorterstory.

Illustrations by Charrow. She lives in Brooklyn.


28 Comments / Post A Comment

Yes, but what should the younglings moving to New York for the first time in a few months do?! I’m going to be attending NYU for grad school, and I have a panic attack every time I look at craigslist.

melis (#42)

@myrna.minkoff For starters, steel yourself against the hordes of folks who will tell you things like “DON’T GO TO GRAD SCHOOL” and “DON’T MOVE TO NEW YORK” and “DON’T LOOK AT CRAIGSLIST.” They will assume you have never heard any of that before!

@myrna.minkoff Don’t worry. First, Craigslist is no longer the be all and end all. There are other sites that are easier to navigate and manage, like PadMapper (Motto: “Making apartment hunting suck less”): http://www.padmapper.com/. Look for sublets on subway lines that will get you to NYU without too much trouble. If you can find a friend to house-hunt with, all the better, since random roommates can be a godsend or trial on par with locusts and boils. The key things are: Don’t live in Manhattan; don’t expect to live alone; and find a place with a workable kitchen, since to afford living here as a youngling grad student, being able to cook is vital.

Congrats and good luck!

kellyography (#250)

@myrna.minkoff: If roommate-hunting on Craigslist gives you panic attacks (I know it all too well – I have had more than a dozen roommates in the past six years), maybe check out the dorm situation at NYU until you know some people in town that you’d want to apartment-hunt with. I think NYU even has internal listings for students who are looking for off-campus housing or roommates. They’re a huge institution with tons of resources, so even if you don’t want to deal with searching for a place off-campus, I’m sure they have grad student housing all over the city.

Meanwhile, I’ve been trying to rent my first studio/1br for over a year, and nobody will rent to me because my full-time office job will never make me the 40x monthly rent required. Worst!

@myrna.minkoff Perhaps the most important real-estate variable, in my opinion — and one of the most overlooked — is the walking time from your door to the subway. Okay, so the place is off a good couple of trains that run to places you need and want to go — but it’s an eight-minute walk to the station? Fuck that. Do not rent that place. It makes a lot more sense to go one or two stops farther out and get a place that’s a block from the subway.

@myrna.minkoff Congrats, first off. I moved here in January for a program at John Jay and It’s not a good program.

It’s going to depend on what your range is. Right now I’m paying $850 a month for a pretty nice room in W. Harlem, right on Riverside. That seems about average for Manhattan above a certain street threshold. You want to pay out the nose for a closet, move to Chelsea or the Village. Plan on living with roommates in any case.

Basically what i’d just pick a neighborhood in Manhattan, or a burrough that is not too far from NYU campus. I loved Harlem. Bushwick is cheaper right now but getting more expensive. If my friend hadn’t already sprung on it, I’d invite you to live out with us in an unsoundproofed room for $450 a month. I’m going to be paying $700 for about twice the room I had in Harlem.

FWIW, I got my first apt through sublet.com, which like anything on the Internet is a crapshoot. I lucked out in terms of the quality of the lodgings, but my landlord turned out to be too much, which happens.

Anyway, I don’t know if that’s of any help at all, but I will tell you that you’re going to have a commute, and it won’t be as bad as you expect it to be. Unless you live in Red Hook..

@John Thompson@facebook Burrough? Damned iPhone.

I lived in Manhattan for 6 years, and never paid more than $700 in rent. I had roommates, and lived places like Harlem and Washington Heights, but they were fine apartments in diverse areas with great culture. Don’t let stories like this article freak you out. Living space is smaller, but if you are spending all your time in your apt when living in NYC, you are doing something wrong.

Mike Dang (#2)

@Tricia Cannon@facebook Yes! I also paid $500 a month for two years while living in Queens. You can make it work!

Niko Bellic (#311)

@Tricia Cannon@facebook Harlem and Washington Heights are Manhattan about as much as Staten Island is New York City, which is to say: geographically/administratively – yes, but for real-life purposes – not really. Good chunks of Brooklyn are more expensive than Harlem and Washington Heights because they are closer to the “relevant” areas of Manhattan, plus they have their own qualities that Harlem and Washington Heights lack. In short: you still get what you pay for, and nothing more.

Niko Bellic (#311)

@Tricia Cannon@facebook And yes: if you are spending a lot of time in your apartment, you are doing New York wrong. The questions like “where is my kitchen going to be?” and “where am I going to study/work/read/relax?” refer to your neighborhood, not your apartment. Which is why the location is given a lot more of a priority than the apartment itself.

@Niko Bellic Staten Island? Come on. It’s just not true that you have easier access to the “relevant” parts of Manhattan — by which I take it you mean downtown — from the pricier swathes of Brooklyn than you do from Upper Manhattan. Like anything, it depends. And Manhattan has most of Brooklyn beat in one important respect: transit. Take West Harlem: you’ve got the A/B/C/D and the 2/3. Four express trains — and good express trains, express trains that run express 24 hours in Manhattan, instead of going local at night and on weekends, or even all the time, as they do in the outer boroughs — plus two locals. That translates to a transit time of 10ish minutes to Midtown and 20ish minutes to downtown. Brooklyn is nice if you want to live in Brooklyn, but it’s not necessarily convenient. If you worked in Chelsea, you’d be a lot better off living in Washington Heights than you would Carroll Gardens. And if you worked in SoHo, it’d be a toss-up.

@Niko Bellic man, I don’t believe that. I’m living in West Harlem and I feel like I have easy access to basically the entirety of downtown Manhattan, whereas my Brooklyn friends are always complaining about how difficult it is to get out of their borough. Really it seems like the rule is that you just shouldn’t be planning on going too far away from where you live. But W Harlem / Washington Heights were perfect for me.

Niko Bellic (#311)

@Jenna Sauers@twitter, @John Thompson@facebook:

While we can have this conversation (for example, I live in Brooklyn and I have 1 stop to East Village, 1 to Lower East Side, 3 to Union Square, 2 to SoHo, 3 to West Village, 3 to City Hall, etc.), the point is that when you live in Harlem or the Heights you can’t just say to someone who has never lived in the city “hey I live in Manhattan!”. You make it sound like you don’t even need to go anywhere, when you know you need to take quite a hike, especially on weekends (even if you can beat most of Brooklyn) to get to any of the places that people think of when they think of “life in Manhattan”.

In other words, if you live in Heights, say “hey, I live in Washington Heights, and it’s cheap and not too far” and not “hey I live in Manhattan, and it’s cheap!”. It’s misleading.

@Niko Bellic I guess that depends on what kind of NYC experience you want. If you only want to hang out in SoHo or the LES, then yeah, probably where you live in Bklyn is a bit closer. But that’s not the entirety of the NYC experience.

Manhattan has amazing things to offer, surprisingly, above 14th street! I know! I lived on the UWS for years and would much rather spend time there than downtown. Broadened horizons means living on the upper portion of the island doesn’t cut you off from “life in Manhattan.” Keep your Brooklyn, I prefer Manhattan and all of it’s apparently “irrelevant” greatness.

@John Thompson@facebook I think the problem is, people in Brooklyn think life in Manhattan ends above 14th street. I actually prefer to be above 14th street most of the time!

@Niko Bellic I don’t see how it’s misleading in the least to say that I live in Manhattan. I live in Manhattan. Which is not the same thing as living in Staten Island.

I love that after living in new york, $500 rent (with roomates) is A STEAL. My first apartment was 250 sq. ft, shared with a boyfriend, first floor with trash cans outside the windows, and facing wyckoff hospital. And all that luxury for only $800!!

In contrast: I pay $825 in Chicago right now for three times the space in a nice neighborhood, and the trash cans go in the alley.

mishellie30 (#309)

@Jake Reinhardt — ooooh. Please tell me more about Chicago apartment hunting! I am looking to move soon. :)

@mishellie30 Gladly! Where are you moving from? That matters a lot, in my experience. Where are you working? What kind of after-work things do you like to do? I should also note that I am coming from a female perspective, as I only took this user name to torture a friend of mine (hey jake!)

Niko Bellic (#311)

@mishellie30 I lived in Chicago before I moved to New York, and here is all you need to know about Chicago apartment hunting: it’s sane. Chicago has it’s problems, but finding a place to live is not one of them.

boston imo

@William Ventura@twitter Philly.

Please also know that most New Yorkers (myself included) assume that we are getting reamed on the rent, it’s just a question of HOW MUCH we are getting reamed. I for one pay almost $1500 for a 700 sq ft converted storefront in a trendy but somewhat crime-speckled corner of North Brooklyn. My out-of-town guests (yes! I have a tiny office/guestroom) are horrified at what I pay and my New Yorker friends think I have an incredible deal. It’s all relative(ly expensive)!

@sharilyn@twitter An incredible deal! Are you kidding?? 700 sq. ft!!! From now on, only invite people from New York and San Francisco.

piehole (#290)

Another thing new NYC arrivals should know: check your facts before blaming rent control. 2 percent of NYC apts are rent-controlled. about 45 percent are rent-stabilized, which is a very different thing, and the vacancy rate on these is the same as for any other type of apartment.

liznieve (#37)

Also, don’t forget about brokers’ fees. They’re astronomical, and should be avoided at all costs, but this isn’t easy. They’re typically 10-15% of annual (!) rent. So that rad $1200 studio you found in bushwick? could come with a nice $2160 gatekeeper fee to a person who (in my experience, though some are actually helpful?) does fuck all, except guard the best apartments. Sigh.

When you throw out a figure like $500 for rent, are you referring to monthly or weekly?

Comments are closed!