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One Couple's Epic Hunt For A $2,000/Month Brooklyn 'Unicorn'

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In this installment of the Renters' Diaries, a couple moving in together for the first time tries to find a Brooklyn apartment that has everything, from an easy bike commute for him to jogging access for her—all for under $2,000/month. They called it their "unicorn," and boy, was it hard to find. As expected, tears were shed, battles were waged, and compromises had to be made. Here is their story.

Crown Heights, I love you, but you're bringing me down. That was my lament when I thought about moving out away from my "definitely up-and-coming" neighborhood. Was it when I had to wait 40 minutes for takeout at Gueros? Or when Crown Inn's outdoor space devolved into an aggressive grab for chairs? Or when the only time I could go to Chavela's was lunch on days I worked from home? Or when Brooklyn Yoga Collective's 7 p.m. class became too crowded? But, really, it might have been when I started looking for affordable apartments in the area.

My roommate and I were paying $2,300/month for our two-bedroom railroad apartment, and we had stuck around for three years. The bedrooms were at either end of the apartment, though, so privacy was optimal. We loved the neighborhood (The food! The bars! The people!); we even knew our neighbors down the hall: a couple and their new. But traveling to Carroll Gardens to see my boyfriend had us both sleep deprived and stressed out — too many two-transfer subway rides to another neighborhood in Brooklyn had me biking in the cold all too frequently. So we talked about getting an apartment together. Both of us had secured our current apartments in the post-recession climate, so we thought it would be easy-peasy to find an affordable one-bedroom in Brooklyn neighborhood that we could agree on. Right? Boy, were we wrong.

To start with, my boyfriend D and I had set some high bars—at the outset, we had no idea just how high. Both of us had found our apartments without brokers and without going over a budget. D's apartment was a spacious and bright Carroll Gardens three-bedroom right by the subway for $3,200. He preferred a neighborhood near the bridges for biking to work downtown; I preferred good train lines and a park for running in the morning. We ultimately decided we were open to a wide range of nice neighborhoods: Carroll Gardens; Cobble Hill; Brooklyn Heights; Fort Greene; Clinton Hill; Prospect Heights; or Crown Heights. We voted against Park Slope (we're too young!), Gowanus (a flood zone?), Red Hook (no trains), and Windsor Terrace (far from bridges).

Before our search even began, D's friend from college—who scored a giant 600-square-foot apartment for $1,200/month on Nostrand and Park avenues, west of Clinton Hill and south of Williamsburg—called us with a hot tip. His landlord asked him if he had any friends who would want the 1.5 bedroom upstairs for $1,600/month—with no fees. The lease would start on August 15. With my lease ending August 30, and D's apartment month-to-month, it would work, but we'd be paying double rent for half month. D didn't like that, and I didn't like that it was even farther from Manhattan than my current apartment. But the apartment was beautiful: a large bedroom; an eat-in kitchen; a living room; a small room for an office for me, plus a friend downstairs!

But what they say about seeing the best one first is true—D and I figured the market must have many more options for us if this was the first thing we saw. We shouldn't settle. We should try to find the $2,000/month unicorn apartment near a bridge. I would totally regret this later, but at the time it seemed like the right decision to call off the lease-signing with the landlord who totally loved us. We'd refer back to this moment with cries of "Why?!?!" later on.

Since we were looking for no-broker apartments, we relentlessly trolled Craigslist every day. Every night and every morning before work, D and I would send each other e-mails with apartment listings we liked—then we waited for the other person to send back the ones they approved of, and we set up the viewings for those. For the first time, we shared a Google calendar. We saw nearly 20 apartments in the span of two weeks; it was like speed-dating. We cancelled club meetings and all our plans with friends so our evenings would be free for open houses and apartment viewings. We always carried with us a couple of copies of the standard renter power package in our bags: W2; paystubs; bank statements; recommendation letters from past landlords; tax returns (two years' worth); a utilities bill; ID; a checkbook for some hypothetical deposit; and $100 in cash for a credit check and miscellaneous fees. This was not our first time at the rodeo.

We found competition to be fierce for direct-from-landlord apartments, and, unlike our friend's welcoming landlord, it was a bit jarring to realize that not all of them liked us. It was also surprising how personal conversations would get. At one apartment, the landlord remarked that it was less risky to rent to married couples since "people who are dating can split up, then they'll want to break the lease and all this mess." To which I, offended and appalled at the idea that we were being discriminated against for not being married—in New York City no less—had a knee-jerk reaction and replied politely: "Married couples split up, too, you know." We didn't get that apartment.

We found a truly wonderful apartment for $2,000/month in Prospect Heights from lovely French landlords who were film and entertainment people. It seemed perfect. It was above Le Gamin on Vanderbilt Avenue, plus the same layout as the $1,600 apartment we saw in a much better location. Downstairs was one of our favorite ramen places, Chuko. We jumped.

No one else had come to the viewing that night — how could it not be ours? And it turned out, it wasn't. I called the landlord multiple times, like a crazy jilted ex, asking him "Why, why, WHY?" His wife eventually took over to tell me that, even though we were the first to see it, they wanted to rent to a couple with a new baby. Again, we felt so rejected.

I even called my old landlords: Alma Realty and Prospect Management. They were really nice, saying I had been a good tenant, but they didn't have anything for me.

We finally decided we'd go see some apartments with brokers. Through Craigslist, Padmapper, the new website Urban Compass, and recommendations from friends, we set up lots of meetings. Most of the brokers were nice enough, but some had clearly never seen the place or listened to what we were looking for. They were just the middlemen, and we were desperate enough at this point that we'd readily hand over thousands of dollars in broker fees to anyone who could literally open the door to the apartment of our dreams, I really liked Urban Compass, but I wish they had more apartments to show. Their software was great — you could schedule viewings online, and their brokers were the most on-time of all the ones we worked with. One (Liz Oh) would be there 15 minutes before me, and told me knowledgeably about the neighborhood and the landlord. I wished that Urban Compass were negotiable on broker fees, though, since an un-bargainable 12 percent is a bit high for Brooklyn. It takes a little pushing, but most of the brokers we talked to were happy to cut a deal for a month's rent or 10 percent instead of 15 percent of a year's rent.

[With a broker, the couple considered this place, for $1,900/month, but they didn't get it.]

The lowlight of this phase: we saw what was listed as a 1BR in Fort Greene. The building was nice, and the location was great (on Hanson Place, right by Barclays Center)…. but it turned out the "one- bedroom" was a tiny studio, with a tiny kitchen, and a tiny lofted area with three feet of space up to the ceiling that would fit just a twin bed. That was the "bedroom," apparently. The apartment was also disgusting: whiskey bottles and dirty boxer shorts disgusting. I suddenly felt like it was 4 a.m. at Lit Lounge, and I had to get out.

The absolute worst experience in our whole hunt was with David Nissanian of Zuz Realty. David offered a rare unicorn: a spacious $1,900/month apartment on Washington Avenue and Eastern Parkway. It was well-lit, with a big kitchen, a great living room, and a real bedroom. Available immediately.

I was the first one to see it, or so he said. I immediately gave him my paperwork and $150 cash for application and credit check fees, plus $250 more in cash as a "partial deposit." I know it sounds like a crazy drug deal—giving money to a dude in a car on Eastern Parkway—but that's how good this apartment was. And I got a receipt, which was the best I could do. My boyfriend was skeptical—it sounded kind of shady and, indeed, it was. Nissanian promised to call the next day to let us know when we'd be meeting the landlord and signing the lease, but instead he stopped taking our calls. We called and texted and heard nothing back. Five days later, he told us that the apartment had gone to someone else. We asked, "How is this possible? You said the lease-signing was this week?" He asked us not to get angry and promised he would show us plenty of other apartments in the area, but they were not the same prime location. I promptly changed David Nissanian's number in my phone to "Shady Broker David I Hate." He took our money and pulled a bait-and-switch. At least after 50 text messages, he finally mailed us back a $250 refund. Thanks a lot, David. We'll never call you again.

[A $2,000 Brooklyn Heights apartment the couple liked, but it, too, got snatched up.]

Exhausted and exasperated, we finally decided to try the king of brokers in the BoCoCa area: Allan Gerovitz. He had found apartments for all our friends who live in that nexus of Boerum Hill, Cobble Hill, and Carroll Gardens, but we were given copious amounts of (contradictory) advice on dealing with him: be tough; super nice; not too curt in the first e-mail; enthusiastic but not overwhelming, flexible and open-minded, etc. etc. We got an introduction to him from our friend Lila, and we were elated when he answered our e-mails with short questions about our income and what we've already seen. He asked us to come in, and so we did. Allan interviewed us for about an hour about our jobs, our backgrounds, and what we wanted, then he called landlords and hustled them…for us! "Lovely couple, college grads," he said. "I have to place them, so let me know what you have open." We were immediately on board. The legends were true. We ate chicken wings with Allan that Sunday afternoon, and hopped into a car with his friend to see apartments that weren't even on the rental market yet.

Eventually we settled on a lovely studio in Cobble Hill. It was way below our budget at $1,725/month, and smaller than we wanted, but it was something we could agree on. It's on Wyckoff between Smith and Hoyt, near many of our friends and favorite restaurants. My boyfriend's bike ride to work is just 15 minutes; my commute by subway about 25. The apartment is a big square studio, but everything works. The hot water pressure is strong. It has a brick fireplace (even though it's just for show) in a red brick building with a Japanese maple outside.

The neighbors we've met in the building are all wonderful. The dry cleaning is more expensive than in Crown Heights (actually, everything is more expensive than in Crown Heights). I miss running in Prospect Park, too, but now I've joined the YMCA and swim weekly. There are pharmacies open when I'm sick in the middle of the night. And Bien Cuit has some of the best bread in the city.

It took a bit of sacrifice since the lease started in October, so I had to live at my boyfriend's and crash with friends once mine ended. Feeling homeless after an intense apartment search almost broke my spirit. But now that we're all moved in, and the art is on the walls, it's very cozy. And there's that extra money we're saving on rent—the pragmatists in us are saving it for the next broker fee; the dreamers saving for a trip to Beirut we might now be able to afford. There was one more great surprise. We were told the apartment doesn't get much light. It turns out our landlord had just never been there in the morning, when it's very bright indeed.
· A Growing Family Leaves Woodside For Boerum Hill's Benefits [Curbed]
· West Village Renter Gets In Bidding War For 'Grown-Up' Pad [Curbed]
· A North Brooklyn Renter Finds More Space In Crown Heights [Curbed]
· Renter Report Archive [Curbed]
· All Renters Week 2013 coverage [Curbed]