looking to settle

32 Days to Find a Not-Horrible Apartment for a Family of Four

Animation: Curbed; Photos: Emily Gould

In this series, Looking to Settle, Emily Gould will chronicle her search to find a two-bedroom apartment.

Things have been bad all over. After a few extra-hellish weeks, I decided to hand the reins of our apartment search over to my husband, Keith. He has a higher tolerance for pain and inconvenience than I do, possibly because he was born in the Soviet Union, definitely because he’s a Capricorn. In light of this decision, I decided to interview him for this week’s column about our search thus far and where we’re headed next.

Emily: Can you describe what was happening in our apartment hunt the week that we decided it was best for you to take the reins of the searching?

Keith: Was it the week Raising Raffi came out when we weren’t speaking to each other? Or the week of my book party, which gave everyone COVID, including us?

Emily: It’s all been one long, long week. But what was the final straw?

Keith: You found an apartment at 474 Grand Avenue, among all the shitty apartments you were seeing, that you liked. But I did not like it! I didn’t like all the construction across the street and the fact that it was so small you couldn’t actually open the refrigerator door all the way, nor could you fit a dresser in the master bedroom, nor was the dishwasher full size, nor that all of this cost $5,200 a month. It just seemed like a lousy deal, respectfully. And I was beginning to feel like maybe this column, instead of easing your stress, was actually just adding to it. But since you had found a place you were willing to settle on, and I was the one who was unwilling, it felt fair for me to be the one to continue from there.

The living room in 474 Grand. Photo: Emily Gould
And the kitchen. Photo: Emily Gould

Emily: For a minute, buying a place entered the chat! We really thought we were going to make an offer on 970 Kent, Apartment G6. We came super-close but then decided not to for various reasons having to do with money, the market, the apartment itself (its lack of walls), but primarily because, as I told you, I was pretty convinced that adding “the buying process” to the pile of shit we currently have to deal with in our careers, family life, and the larger world would cause me to die. I would simply die. And also we would get a divorce.

Do you have any regrets? Do you think we should have offered?  Do you still want to live at 970 Kent at some point in the future?

Keith: Well, as you know, I live in a constant state of regret. That is my primary mode of existence. I don’t regret marrying you and I don’t regret our children, but everything else I regret. Remember I did that whole n+1 book about regret — the regrets pamphlet? Therefore it should come as no surprise that I do, in fact, regret not making an offer! The problem was that we didn’t have the cash — between the down payment and the closing costs and building the walls, it was just this huge outlay of cash that we didn’t have. And if we had managed to scrape it together somehow, our monthly payments would have been so high that we’d have had to just huddle together in our apartment (which we would own!) and never actually leave for fear of going bankrupt. So that would not have been great.

But would it have been worse than this, right now?

Emily: Who is the most fun character you and I have met so far on our search? For me, it’s a tie between Elizabeth Stile, the angelic buyer’s agent, and Alan Medvinsky, the broker who grew up in Ukraine and Brookline and is having a hard time in his own apartment search at the moment. But I want to hear yours.

Keith: I am a big fan of my friend Nygel, the broker who I met because he represents an HFDC apartment in our neighborhood that we don’t qualify for. Nygel grew up in Clinton Hill in the ’80s and ’90s and he remembers what it was like — and he just doesn’t understand why people want to live here so much. When I told him how much our landlords wanted for our two-bedroom, two-bathroom (more than a million dollars), he was in shock. He said that was crazy. He said he’d never heard anything like it. I really enjoyed that conversation — it was like talking to a reasonable person, finally. I also liked Nygel’s formulation of our basic problem once I told him how much money we made and he said that it was too much to qualify for the HFDC. “You’re too rich to be poor,” said Nygel, “but you’re too poor to be rich.”

Emily: What’s important to you in an apartment? I want to have light and air and a washer-dryer and a third bedroom in which to have a “room of my own.” Have you thought more about what you want?

Keith: Our kids are still very loud and energetic and still want to build forts near the couch and jump on them, and I, meanwhile, still pretty frequently find that I have to yell at them, very loudly, in Russian, so for this reason, the No. 1 quality for me in an apartment is that it be soundproofed. I hated when we lived above Mr. A and I had to yell at Raffi all the time just for running around. (There are so many other, worthier things for me to yell at him about.) I’ll admit that I’ve grown used to having a dishwasher. I really, really like living within walking distance of our school; it makes our lives and our kids’ lives so much easier. And finally, from having lived on Atlantic, I now know that I do not want to live on Atlantic. I don’t want to walk out of my house and see Atlantic Avenue. I like having a place to stash our kids’ bikes and scooters and strollers — all our apartments have had that, but we’ve also seen a lot of apartments recently where you just walk into the kitchen, basically, and where are you supposed to put all your junk? We have two kids. Finally, I want to have a bedroom large enough that we could fit two dressers in it. That way, you could also have a dresser. I think you deserve this. That is my dream.

Emily: We keep talking about the “live-to-fight-another-day apartment” or the “minimum-viable apartment.” Can you briefly explain what these two terms mean to us?

Keith: The MVA, minimum-viable apartment, is an apartment that does not have all the dreamy qualities listed above but has a few of them (soundproofing, say), such that we could live there for a while and not kill ourselves or each other, so that, when a little time has passed and we’ve gathered back our strength and our resilience and some cash, we could reenter the market and try to buy something to live in until our kids go to college. We could live to fight another day.

This has proved to be easier said than done. You found a place that was basically an MVA, and I surprised myself by vetoing it on grounds of lack of room for a dresser and cost. I do think cost is a major factor. We’re not really husbanding resources and living to fight another day at $5,200 a month, especially when on top of that we need to rent storage at CubeSmart for our books. Also, not to harp on this, but I do fear that if I lacked a dresser my clothes would be everywhere and you would, in fact, kill me, which would mean that I would not live to fight another day — or even live.

And I would very much like to live with you another day and many, many days, in fact.

Emily: What has it felt like continuing to live in our current apartment as it was sold out from under us? I myself have used the phrase “like fucking a corpse” to describe the feeling. But maybe it feels different to you. How do you feel about it?

Keith: I do feel differently. For our kids, it’s still their apartment. It’s still near all our activities. Our rent is still, for the moment, given the current market, reasonably priced. So while I understand how you feel about it, for me, it’s a convenient location from which to fight this last battle of finding a new place to live.

Emily: What’s our next move (in the search)?

Keith: We’re advancing along several fronts. I’m in near-daily touch with T, our old agent who found your apartment on Ryerson and our apartment on Franklin, who has a lot of good landlord contacts in Bed-Stuy and who says he’s anticipating he’ll get a flood of August 1 (and some September 1) listings after the first of the month. And we’re getting a lot of great leads from friends who know people who are moving, and we’re going to visit every one of those apartments and see if one of them works for us. I just feel like it’s not too much to ask — two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a dishwasher, a washer-dryer, enough room in the master bedroom for one small dresser, enough room in the living room for a dining table and a couch, within one mile of PS 11, and $4,500 or less. Truly, I don’t think I’m being crazy by asking for this.

But I still think the plan to possibly move into a friend of a friend’s apartment after they move to a larger unit in the same building, in September, is our best bet. I recognize it involves a tolerance for uncertainty — we won’t find out for sure if it’s a go until the first week of August, by which point we’ll already be out of our current apartment and our stuff will be in storage — that is pretty intolerable. But remember what Joyce the school lady says — she says a lot of movement happens in the first week of September, or rather the first week of school, as people who were supposed to show up don’t show up, and those spots are filled by other people, whose spots then open up, etc., and that if you can stand it, you will be able to make a move that week. The first week of August is our first week of September! We just have to figure out a way to stand it.

And then, once we find a place, I think we need to take the stuff out of boxes that we intend to take out of boxes, put the rest of the boxes, unopened, into the closet, and take a break.

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32 Days to Find a Not-Horrible Apartment