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An Upper East Side Renter's Search for Space in Astoria

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In this installment of renter diaries, an Upper East Sider of four years decamps for the more spacious apartments of Astoria.

When I moved to the Upper East Side in 2008, a good deal?$1,700/month for a two-bedroom?led me to overlook some of the more unpleasant features of the apartment, like the fact that the second bedroom was more the size of an office and contained both the bathroom and the front entrance. (Other highlights: there was only one closet, and the kitchen/living room space was too narrow to accommodate much more than a two-seater couch I'd had since college.) The same good deal -- the landlord never raised the rent -- kept me there for four years. But eventually even the price and easy commute couldn't outweigh the space issues, and I set off with a roommate in search of a new place. Our budget: $2,200/month, or $2,300/month as an absolute max.

After brief flirtations with Crown Heights and Fort Greene, we narrowed our options down to two. The first, which would be the logistically easy choice, was to stay on the Upper East Side but look for a place with a better setup. The second was to venture into a neighborhood we didn't know well, but where the amount of space available for the price seemed like a good match for our needs: Astoria. I made an appointment with an Upper East Side broker whose listings I stumbled on using Naked Apartments, but we were quickly laughed out of his office. There would be no non-railroad Upper East Side two-bedrooms in our price range, and in fact, the broker seemed more fascinated by the existence of our $1,700/month pad than interested in helping us find a new place. Renew the lease, he urged us?we could always break it later if something better came along.

A lease break didn't sound like what we were looking for, so my roommate and I set our sights on Astoria. Inspired by a tour from some enthusiastic friends in the neighborhood, and wishing to avoid the long trek to the subway that had been part of daily life on First Avenue, we focused on the areas right around the Broadway and 30th Avenue N/Q stops. After the first broker I'd scheduled an appointment with stood us up, we sat in a cafe and called the number on every two-bedroom listed on Craigslist. One broker had an apartment to show us a few blocks away, a perfectly nice two-bedroom that, unfortunately, would likely be off the market before we were ready to move. But after hearing our incomes and professional information, she offered to show us another apartment with a pickier landlord nearby. We were thrown off by her insistence on knowing our financials in advance, but we followed her to the apartment anyway.

That turned out to be the right move. It was?and remains?one of the nicest apartments I've seen in that price range so far in New York, with a loooong living room, a quiet top-floor location, and laundry and a live-in super in the building. It was only $2,000/month and was rent-stabilized, so of course we followed the broker back to her office under the subway tracks to fill out applications. She told us we were "vanilla" candidates with solid incomes and credit scores, exactly the words we wanted to hear, and promised to present our documents to the landlord the following day. Because the apartment was under renovation, it wouldn't be ready for about three weeks, taking us close to our ideal move-in date. While we waited to hear from the landlord, we tried not to think or talk about the apartment too much lest we jinx the deal.

Unfortunately, maybe we did. When we next heard from the broker, it was to tell us that the landlord had gone with another applicant whose income was far larger than either of ours. The apartment became the One That Got Away, and we had no choice but to resume the hunt.

Since Craigslist had (indirectly) led us to our best find so far, we decided to continue searching there, even knowing how depressing Craigslist can be. Few listings came up in our preferred neighborhood, and brokers we talked to told us what we'd come to suspect?there was just very little available from the landlords they knew. The only apartment we succeeded in seeing through a broker was a two-bedroom for $2,300/month, and while it met some of the criteria on our wishlist (equally-sized bedrooms and in-building laundry), the fact that $2,300 was as low as the landlord was willing to go (the original price had been higher) was worrisome. Taking the broker fee into account, that was edging close to the top of our budget, and the clock was ticking.

So we did something that I'd sworn never to do: made an appointment to see a Craigslisted apartment with no pictures. The price ($1,900/month) and neighborhood (near 30th Avenue) were right, the description sounded promising, and we were running out of time.

The broker met us at her office, where we'd arrived armed with our financial documents just in case. She drove us a few blocks to the Craigslist listing, and we waited nervously in the entryway while she called the husband-and-wife landlords and spoke to them in Italian. They let us into the building and we followed them up to the apartment, already an improvement over our last place because it was on the second, rather than the fourth, floor of a walk-up. And that was only the beginning of the improvements: this apartment had a living room separate from the kitchen, the bathroom wasn't in one of the bedrooms, each (normal-sized) bedroom had its own closet, there was another closet in the hallway?and there was a hallway. The Upper East Side apartment had practically been a hallway.

The broker took us to one other apartment, a ground-floor place with odd paint colors near the Astoria Boulevard subway stop, but it couldn't compare to the place we had just seen. We hurried back to her office to complete the paperwork, drove back to the apartment to leave our information with the landlords, and, after a slightly tense negotiation over the move-in date, they agreed that the place was ours. A few days (and a broker fee) later, we signed the lease, and the broker took us on a drive-by tour of neighborhood restaurant highlights to celebrate. I still haven't filled the hall closet.
· Renter Reports [Curbed]