The apartment was perfect, according to the listing. A block away from Prospect Park! A doorman! A laundry room! And a gym! There were almost as many exclamation points as amenities. And there were a lot of exclamation points.
There was just one problem: I could afford it.
It was early August, and I had just one month to leave the sprawling Ditmas Park manse I’ve shared with an unknown number of housemates for the past two years.
I decided to leave because I don’t know where I’ll be reporting this fall and I didn’t want to risk bringing novel coronavirus into a kitchen I shared with the unknown number of housemates I like very much.
But almost as much as I feared COVID-19, I feared landing myself in another bad building.
My last bad building was owned by a slumlord who made the Public Advocate’s Landlord Watchlist several times.
I once fled that bad building in the middle of the night when flames exploded through my neighbor’s window downstairs.
Weeks later, the roof collapsed in to the middle of my living room.
My landlord did not respond to my suggestion that maybe he could fix it, but he did try to sue me for rent I didn’t pay after my lease ended and I moved out.
I swore I would never be fooled again.
So, for this apartment hunt, I relied on skills I’ve picked up from years of reporting on New York City.
Among the reasonably affordable apartments I hoped would be my home, I avoided the following:
- That “perfect” Prospect Park-adjacent one-bedroom in a Windsor Terrace building residents say is infested by cockroaches and looks like a “falling down bunker” ever since the lobby caught fire.
- A Ditmas Park one-bedroom in an apartment building whose tenants say the superintendent recorded them in their homes, spit on them and referred to them by race.
- A Midwood apartment building owned by a multi-millionaire developer who nearly bankrupted the New York Post, but was ultimately rescued by the man who pulled Ponzi schemes with Jeffrey Epstein.
Last weekend, I moved into my new home. It has laundry in the basement, but it is not near Prospect Park.
It doesn’t have a doorman, but a neighbor ran across the street to help move my sofa and later brought mis-delivered packages to my door.
It’s got classic Brooklyn architecture. It’s got old Brooklyn plumbing.
It’s not perfect, but I knew its defects before I moved in, so I don’t feel like I sucker, I feel OK with the sacrifices I made for a home where I can’t get anyone sick.
You too can do this! Here’s how:
Look up the building’s violations on the Department of Buildings website.
When a facade crashes off a Midtown high-rise or a Brooklyn brownstone collapses in on itself, there first place I look for confirmable information online is on the DOB website.
That’s because the agency is responsible for making public every complaint and violation pertaining to a building as a whole.
All you have to do is enter your borough, street number and street name, and you’ll find a complete log of every time a tenant complained about the elevator breaking down, a boiler burping hot steam or illegal midnight construction.
True, a single complaint could be a grumpy resident blowing off hot steam. But when 27 people all report the same problem, it's likely not a conspiracy.
This is also where you’ll find the tax block and tax lot numbers. Jot those down, you’ll need them later.
Look up apartment condition violations on the Housing Preservation and Development website.
You very much need to know about bedbugs. HPD can help with that.
HPD is the agency that logs (and ideally holds landlords accountable for) living conditions in individual apartments.
Again, put in your borough, street number and address, then head to “all open violations.” Here you’ll find every violation issued in the past year ranked by severity from A (annoying) to C (potentially catastrophic).
It will also tell you the name of the owners and building managers. The listed owner is often an anonymous LLC, but the managing company usually provides a name. Write them both down.
Finally, look to the left again and check out those annual bedbug reports. You want to know.
Look up the owner on ACRIS.
You know that old reporter’s saying, “Follow the money?” Follow the money.
This is the Department of Finance’s online database of real estate documents that include mortgages and deeds. They’re listed in reverse chronological order, which means the newest owners’ documents appear on top of the search.
The search also shows “doc amount,” or how much money exchanged hands in any given transaction.
Open up those documents and look at the images. Developers can easily hide behind LLC but in these documents, eventually someone is going to have to sign a name. And you want a name.
Check those names.
Honestly, just throw the names of any LLC, management company, CEO or owner in quotations and Google it. Works most of the time. Any news stories you see from a local newspaper or real estate site will likely be worth a read.
Remember the story about the spitting super? I found that one out thanks to Gothamist.
Talk to a building resident.
This one can be tough if you’re pressed for time or shy (I am both), but no one knows the building like its tenants.
After the broker showed me this apartment, I took a stroll around the block to get a feel for it. How many people were blasting music? How many kids playing on the sidewalk? How far would I have to walk for milk in a blizzard? I liked the answers to each.
When I came back, a woman was just about to put her key in the lock and go inside the building I was considering.
I darted up the steps and asked, as politely and directly as possible, if she recommended the building.
She laid out her concerns, and there were more than a few. But then I asked her if she’d be resigning her lease next year.
“Oh yes, absolutely,” she said. “I love it here.”
I submitted my application that night.
Join the local Facebook group.
This one is best for people choosing a new neighborhood or looking to rent directly from an owner.
You won’t see as many options as on StreetEasy, but if you see a person renting out an apartment in her/their/his building, all you have to do is click on that name to find out JUST HOW MANY POSTS THEY WRITE IN ALL CAPS WITHOUT PUNCTUATION THIS IS A HINT AS TO WHAT DEALING WITH THEM WILL BE LIKE.
You’ll also find out what your neighbors care about, furniture on the cheap and possibly a mover who doesn’t want to charge you a month’s rent.
This is how I found a mover who charged me less than $200 to move my furniture from the top floor of a Ditmas Park manse into the new studio about a mile away.
True, I had to help a lot, and the next day I had three times as many bruises as I own pieces of furniture.
Yes, I counted.
On moving during the pandemic
I'm in no place to tell you how to protect yourself. I still don't quite understand how health insurance works.
As to the "New York is over" debate, I will say this: Before you give up and flee the city forever, maybe try fleeing your block instead?
This is New York. It will be different. That's why we stay.