What It Really Costs To Live In New York City

By | Monday, November 24, 2014

So, a few days ago, I put out the call to my readers to ask some questions so that I could get together a little financial Q+A on some basic stuff. As it happens, all of the questions I received — with the exception of one — was about “how do I move to NYC?” or “how much does it really cost to live in the city” or “what neighborhood should I move to?”

In the interest of giving the people what they want, and of ~financial transparency~, I will tell you my NYC living cost experience.

When we moved to New York a little over a year ago, we knew a little about the rental market, but in retrospect, not nearly enough to make an informed decision. Because Marc is out of town four days a week — and thus had relatively little concern with where our apartment was — we decided to get a place right next to my office, in Williamsburg, on the Bedford stop (one stop outside Manhattan on the L, for those unfamiliar). Because I had little credit, Marc had none, and we had both been living outside of the country for the past three years at least, we found a realtor and were basically like “we’ll take whatever you’ve got.” We literally took the first apartment that was shown to us, and have been criminally overpaying ever since.

Right now, we are paying 2500 per month, plus utilities, which is more than I ever hope to pay for a rental ever again in my life. There is no reason that at that price, we shouldn’t be owning, but we were naive and new to the city and ready for any one-bedroom that would have us (even if it meant basically no natural light in our living room, and living in the heart of Hipster Gentrified Coffee Shop Disneyland). I can tell you that if you want to live in Williamsburg, and want a one-bedroom, this is about what you will be paying (by yourself or with another person). Any of the newer condos will cost you about 800 a month more, and there a few places to the south or the right of the BQE which will be a bit less. But generally, in central Williamsburg, you’re looking at about that.

From what I understand, Bed Stuy and Bushwick are more affordable, but I only know people who live in roommate situations around there, and (as if by miracle) all of them seem to be paying 750 dollars a month for a relatively spacious bedroom in a decently-appointed apartment. Depending on where you work, you might want to be in either. There are also the parts of Brooklyn further down near Prospect Park, where I hear the rent is comparable to Bed Stuy, but with the added bonus of being within walking distance of a Really Sweet Park. I have a few friends in Queens, who seem to pay the least of anyone, but are constantly complaining about the public transport access to a lot of the places they want to go. Williamsburg is undeniably the most convenient location to be in for access to most of Manhattan (unless you’re headed really far south or north), but it’s also the most expensive (and, in my opinion, soulless) of the Brooklyn neighborhoods. I guess Park Slope might be more expensive, but I don’t know anyone who lives there, so I am not really equipped to address it.

Most of the people I know who live downtown are students, usually living in roommate situations, but I can give a few examples of people I know. We have a couple friend paying 2400 for a one-bedroom near St Mark’s place, which is almost unheard of in its cheapness, so I assume they got it in some sort of package deal with the devil, but it definitely exists. I know a couple of people who live in Stuy Town, all of whom seem to pay 1,000 dollars for one bedroom in a several-bedroom situation. I know a few couples who have one-bedrooms in the 3000-3500 range downtown, in the Flatiron, West Village, East Village, and SoHo. If you’re looking to pay a lot of money for convenience and hipness, downtown seems the way to go. Obviously (as with my St Mark’s friends), there are some gems to be found, but from my experience, it requires a bit of searching.

Then there are the people who live all the way up north, in Harlem/Washington Heights/Morningside Heights/etc. All of them say the same thing: It’s great, the rents are good (comparable to Bed Stuy, paying about 750 for a bedroom), but no one ever comes up to visit. The life up there seems to be good, with lots of restaurants and coffee shops and nice things to do/see, but you are relatively isolated, and have to take a long ass train ride to get anywhere.

For our part, as we are no longer interested in paying 30,000 a year for the privilege of living in an Urban Outfitters commercial, we are moving to the Upper East Side in January. Despite its moneyed reputation, it’s actually become one of the most affordable areas of Manhattan, for two reasons: One, it’s not in any way “hip,” and pretty much no one goes up there to “go out,” so it’s not considered any kind of hotspot/destination/trendy area. And two, it’s fairly isolated, and thus filled with old ladies in their fur coats and small, aggressive dogs. While this is not the ambiance in which I hope to spend the rest of my life, it’s great for now. There is the park, tons of museums, great, old-school restaurants and bakeries, and — most importantly — nice 1-bedrooms by the train for 1,900 bucks a month. Plus, they come with great architecture, large windows, and no drunk men dressed like a Mumford and Son screaming under my window on a Thursday night. (We currently live next to a bar.)

As you can see here, my knowledge of the rent breakdown in New York is pretty limited, and mostly based on anecdotal evidence. But if I can provide one important piece of lived experience, let it be this: When you move here, make sure to do as much research as possible, and that means asking people what they pay (if they’re open to saying it), and exactly how they found their place. Other people are going to be your greatest resource, particularly if you don’t use a broker (though frankly I think they are worth it in the long run, and can do a better job of finding you the right place than you can yourself if you’re getting the entire place). Don’t do like we did and take the first place you see, just because it’s really convenient and available. Give yourself the benefit of looking at a ton of places online a month or so you plan on seriously getting one, so that you can have a really good idea of what your budget can get you. And if you know you have a certain amount to spend, make sure to consider all of the neighborhoods in that price range. I never even considered Manhattan, because I assumed it was universally pricier than Brooklyn, and that mistake has cost me thousands of dollars over the course of last year.

Above all, set your expectations low, and let yourself be pleasantly surprised if anything. You’re going to tour a lot of places with a vis-a-vis on a brick wall, or a kitchen that has sink not big enough for one plate. But it is only in this struggle that you will the find the apartment for you. The New York City Gods reward the intrepid, and the committed. Hang in there.

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