After looking at some 60 studio apartments, Anthony Dewitt was delighted with the one he finally moved into four years ago at London Terrace Gardens, an Art Deco complex in Chelsea. Located on the 12th floor with big, north-facing windows, the apartment was, though technically a studio, graciously proportioned, with a dressing area, two large closets, and a spacious bathroom with the original black-and-white tile. It was the nicest place he’d ever lived.
Then he saw what the one-bedrooms looked like. “I have an amazing apartment — I love this apartment — but the one-bedrooms are three times the size,” he says. They have dining rooms, enormous living rooms, and, on the 12th floor and up, working fireplaces. The building even delivers firewood to residents’ doors. “That’s the worst part,” he says. “When it’s a cold winter day, I’ll see that bundle outside their door and be like, ‘I wish I lived in that one.’ ”
Living in New York means making constant assessments of, and comparisons to, all the other real estate that surrounds us. We feel no shame asking what someone pays in rent, scoping out our neighbor’s apartments on StreetEasy, or judging strangers’ décor choices from the sidewalk at night. But the intense competition for a decent place and the crappiness of many New York apartments, not to mention New Yorkers’ innate competitiveness, can also inspire envy at a micro level — whereby you covet not just magazine-worthy West Village townhouses but an apartment basically identical to yours with a better-positioned dining alcove. Call it being floorplantsy — having an agitated, almost lustful urge for another, presumably better, apartment within your building, one that’s maybe only marginally better. In another city subject to less real-estate madness, it would hardly be worth the trouble of moving; here, it can feel as though that sliver of extra light or air or space will absolutely change your life.
Michele Silverman, an agent at Corcoran, says that whenever she has showings, neighbors always come to nose around. Even when all the apartments in the building are essentially identical, “They want to see what other people have done or how you can live in the same space so differently,” she says. “It’s human nature that people compare, especially in such a close environment.”
Sometimes the most coveted apartments go to the tenants who’ve been patiently — and attentively — waiting for them, but often, it just comes down to luck and timing. Max McCormack loved his studio in a Brooklyn Heights prewar, but when he and his partner wanted to move in together, he casually called the Bond New York agent who handles the building, Ekaterina Vorobeva, to see if anything was coming up. She called him back immediately and said, “Drop whatever you’re doing. An apartment in your building just opened up. It has great outdoor space. You have no idea how urgent this is. You have 20 minutes.” She texted him twice during those 20 minutes as he scrambled to apply — and he got it, triple the size of his place with a terrace, for not much more than he was paying.
Then another tenant cornered him by the elevator and asked if he was moving in there. When he admitted that was, she told him she’d been eyeing the apartment for more than ten years. “I was like, ‘I’m really sorry.’ ” Explains Vorobeva, “Everyone falls in love with that building, so they’ll take whatever is available and then try to trade up.” What is available, Vorobeva adds, is often 1L — “this tiny unit on the first floor, facing the wall. It has bad light and doesn’t get cell phone reception.” It recently turned over again; the new tenant told me he wasn’t plotting an intra-building move. (Yet.)
Often the most desirable apartments are the ones that are very similar to your own, just subtly better. Ellen Sykes, a broker at Coldwell Banker Warburg, adores her two-bedroom at the Morgan Studios, an old artists’ co-op on East 78th Street that has huge, airy living rooms (though tiny bedrooms and kitchens). It’s very nearly perfect, only it doesn’t have the double-height ceilings the building is known for. Sykes thought she’d made her peace with that — she even passed up a similar apartment with the ceilings she coveted (it was in terrible shape, she explains). Then the woman who’d bought it invited some other residents over for drinks. “And that’s when I went bananas,” says Sykes. Not only did it have those wonderful ceilings, a second fireplace in the bedroom, and an extra bath, the apartment was renovated exactly to Sykes’s taste. “She did everything right.”
What’s it like to get the apartment you’ve been pining for? Crammed into an 840-square-foot Park Slope apartment with their two kids and two cats, Danielle Dorter and her husband used to drink coffee on their tiny balcony and gaze down longingly at the lush yards of the first-floor duplexes. “One was completely overgrown and we’d joke, ‘Maybe we could use a twisty slide to get down there.’ ” Extraordinarily, that apartment’s occupant soon expressed a desire to downsize, and Dorter’s husband proposed a temporary swap. They ended up buying each other’s units, and Dorter says they use the yard all the time.
Though, sometimess, the apartment that looks so great from a (slight) distance isn’t as wonderful as it seems. Last winter, Lara Buongiorno moved with her daughter and husband to the top floor of a walk-up on the Gowanus/Park Slope border. “The apartment got gorgeous light and I had a little office in the front of the building where I could look down at the street below.” She did, however, admire the first-floor apartment’s large yard — as anyone with a six-year-old and a large dog would. In May, the landlord told them that the woman downstairs was moving out and asked if they wanted to take it for an extra $300 a month. She wasn’t exactly floorplantsy, because she didn’t love the apartment — it was darker and railroad-style — but her husband persuaded her that a yard was worth the sacrifice.
It wasn’t. The yard was always soggy — their block sloped down toward them — and there are flies and mosquitoes. The grass turned to mud. “You think, ‘If I just had this one thing, it would make everything better,’ ” she continues. But Buongiorno eventually realized that, in fact, having the yard made everything worse. Being on the first floor brought street and hallway noise. Her daughter’s bedroom, which they have to tromp through to get to the yard, is now a de facto mudroom. Lately, she finds herself looking at the young couple who moved into their old apartment upstairs, thinking, “Should I ask them if they’re moving anytime soon?”