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Part 1: Falling for the dream of owning in New York City

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“Going deep into Zillow and StreetEasy meant coming to terms with how deeply unoriginal our desires actually were”

Welcome back to Renovation Diary! In the past couple of years, we’ve taken you down remodeling rabbit holes courtesy of a meticulously reimagined Brooklyn brownstone and an historic fixer-upper in California wine country. In this year’s series, we’ll follow the joys and challenges of renovation with a first-time homebuyer on a budget in Ridgewood—prices and all. First up, our Anonymous New Yorker reflects on the house hunt.

For my first decade in New York, I didn’t feel an ache for my own charming turn-of-the-century rowhouse in a tree-lined neighborhood, not in any way more concrete than someone might dream of NASA.

I admired historic houses, but vaguely, without the vocabulary to describe why: intact cornices, picture-frame moldings, porticos. (I know these words now.) Brownstones were the scarcely-noticed backdrop of my twenties, where I paid $700 a month for a windowless middle room, with gaping original floors and crumbly plaster corners.

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By my thirties, I had grown a little more spoiled, like requiring-a-bedroom-window-spoiled, and sometimes I thought a dishwasher would be nice, although not nice enough to move to the suburbs or go into finance. Everyone my partner and I knew who had bought anything at all in New York City was either a generation older, had family money, or had picked an absurdly lucrative career path—or all three.

New Yorkers manage our desires within the realm of the possible, because if you came here by force of will, or if you stay by choice, you make peace with the city’s limitations as well as its glories. You turn scarcity into virtue, traveling light (if expensively) and sharing public space as a matter of course. I worried about what boatloads of money was doing to the city and the more fragile people inside it, but I didn’t think too much about what it meant for my own choices, as long as I could pay the rent.

And then I got a little luckier, with a creative project that unexpectedly took off and a partner who had a stable middle-class job, some savings, and about $40,000 worth of bonds from a grandparent. Combined with my earnings, we had around $135,000 to start out, and our parents offered to pitch in some more for closing costs and/or a renovation. We were within spitting distance of... something. We began to look. I began to let myself want. A house in the city, maybe a two-family to help pay the mortgage, something we could fix up and work in and grow into.

Among tickets in the birth lottery, we’d fall above the vast majority of New York City—where the median Brooklyn home costs 123 percent of an average local salary, and Queens isn’t much better at 83 percent. But we fell below the buyers featured in love-to-hate-them New York Times real estate columns, in which people with improbable careers casually double their even-more-improbable budgets without an acknowledgment of where the money might be coming from.

We were not the people paying over a million dollars in cash for un-renovated limestones in deep Crown Heights. We were the people who gulped when we found out that closing costs alone could be over $30,000, and that if our house cost over a million dollars—not hard for multifamily property in a galloping market—we would be paying at least $10,000 in a mansion tax.

Devon Banks

Allowing ourselves to want, to go deep down the Zillow and StreetEasy clickholes, meant coming to terms with how deeply unoriginal our desires actually were. Oh, you like high ceilings and weathered pine floors, too? I thought only I could see past the lead paint on this marble mantel. On any given day, in almost every neighborhood within commuting distance to midtown, developers are carving out condos with 21st-century amenities and floor plans and finishes, ones that a particular buyer could move into and never think about again. But charm is no longer being manufactured, at least not convincingly, and the brokers know it. Every single listing in Brooklyn read, This is your last chance to own a piece of Brooklyn.

It took being shoved by a complete stranger at a particularly hot open house for us to come to terms with the sting of our own frustrated entitlement. We rolled our eyes at the guy who threw a fit over the fact that others had seen the place before the official opening. But we also recognized ourselves, a little.

After years of trading stories about terrible landlords, we cringed as real estate agents hyping multi-unit homes assured us that the existing tenants would be gone at move-in. Even as children played behind them in an illegal, overpriced basement conversion. That was the open house I left crying.

We vowed not to displace any tenants, which in the hard math of rising prices and mortgage payments meant finding a place without any. We started talking ourselves into vacant or owner-occupied fixer-uppers, and then started talking ourselves out of them. One Bushwick house was a little too far from the subway and smelled moldy; another’s owner wouldn’t budge on the $1.1 million price for an un-renovated two family despite months of it languishing on the market. On the runaway train of Brooklyn prices, we started out thinking we could afford Bed-Stuy, and in a month or so, admitted we were priced out.

And yet, the laconic British broker we’d cold-emailed suggested we look at a Stuyvesant Heights spot we thought had been snapped up. Sure, there were feral cats—featured frequently on the owner’s Instagram—in the basement and in the master bedroom. How hard could it be to get the piss smell from a hundred strays out of original plaster moldings? (Newsflash: It’s actually impossible.)

We nearly broke the no-displacement vow when we got desperate and put in a lowball offer ($825,000) on a price-chopped Bushwick wood frame that had been sitting on the market for months. Fate rescued our bendable ethical code: Just as we signed the contract and waited for the owner to do the same, he ghosted us for an entire month, then sold it to someone else for just a pittance more, without so much as a reply from his lawyer.

We told our broker we were done, or at least needed a break. My partner wanted to quit. The weekend open house slog was straining our relationship. But I kept refreshing the listings apps. The broker had sneered at Ridgewood, Queens, where very little seemed to go on sale anyway, and lots of what did featured disco balls and indoor Doric columns, and I’d nearly stopped looking up the zip code.

But it was intriguing: a jumble of immigrant families and creatives, late-Victorian golden brick rowhouses, not grand but lovely, an easy commute to Manhattan. And then, a listing in our price range, whose address I hungrily glimpsed on Google Street View before the broker had uploaded any photos. When she did, I took one look at the plaster moldings in the vestibule and the yellow-brick facade and told my partner, “This is the house we’re buying.”

It was a two-family, but there hadn’t been tenants in decades. Owner-occupied, so they, and not some faceless investor, would reap the benefits. Sure, it had aqua midcentury bathrooms, complete with aqua toilets, and ugly, hulking oil tanks in the basement. It needed new plumbing, electrical systems, and a gut renovation of the kitchen. Would there be anything left in the budget after we did the mechanicals? We had no idea.

But the house was livable, and it was loved. It could be our home. It could be ours. We bid asking price: $950,000, just shy of the mansion tax. They picked us from three bidders, they said, because they liked our letter.

And that was how it began.

Next week, on Renovation Diary:

Our faithful scribe details the budget, gives the skinny on getting a home inspection, and hires a local architect.