A Catalog of My Worst Apartment Hunts

by Lindsey J. Palmer

Having lived in New York City for nearly a decade (in six separate residences), I’m convinced that the only variety of New York apartment hunt is the soul-crushingly terrible one. I admit I’ve been scarred by my various changes in address, and since my main strategy for dealing with trauma is to turn it into fiction, the result of these scarrings is my new novel (If We Lived Here, out March 31st), which is about a bright-eyed couple’s journey towards cohabitation — and the many small disasters they face along the way. Here’s an inventory of my own apartment hunt woes:

August 2005: Fresh out of college, my friend and I camp out in my brother’s West Village one-bedroom to dog-sit while he’s away, and we launch our search for the greatest, cheapest apartment in the choicest location, i.e. somewhere just like where we’re staying! (What we fail to consider is that my brother is an investment banker, whereas my friend is an intern in publishing and I am jobless).

September 2005: Surprise, surprise, our search fails, and we scramble to find a sublet. On moving day, I return from the gym to walk the dog before showering and hauling out. But I’ve forgotten the keys, so my sweaty self is locked out along with the dog. We spend the next 8 hours waiting for my brother to return from his trip, holed up in the apartment of my only acquaintance within walking distance, a guy who grows increasingly frustrated at both my sweat and the dog hair sullying his couch. My friend and I move into a studio, trading nights on the one futon available, and due to the cramped quarters, I am a constant third-wheel in her long-distance relationship: Whenever she and her boyfriend Skype, I am inevitably on-screen as well.

October 2005: My friend and I find a semi-sketchy apartment in a lame part of town, where my college’s entire Greek scene seems to have relocated post-graduation. The place is approximately 2 square feet (give or take 200 feet) and, upon signing the lease, we’re convinced by the realtor to smoke celebratory substances that may or may not be illegal. The following day my friend lands an interview for her dream job, which will involve a drug test, so she spends the next 2 days chugging a weird detox drink and hogging our studio’s bathroom. She passes the test, gets the job, and promptly moves to D.C. (the next time I see her will be at a party at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, where we’ll both blame our extreme drunkenness on the altitude; I will be panicking about whether my boss just saw me make out with a guy on the dance floor, and my friend will be panicking about the steady stream of ALL-CAPS text messages she’s receiving from her very demanding boss).

October 2006: Now roommate-less and still jobless, I devote the first 2 weeks of my tenancy to painting. The paint store guy laughs when I tell him my apartment’s dimensions, claiming I can’t possibly have it right, but then he sells me the exact right amount of paint. I find a so-so roommate who works out to Biggest Loser DVDs each morning at 5:30; I never learn to sleep through those 45-minute earthquake simulations, our shoddy walls’ shaking and shuddering. Her boyfriend all but moves in, too, paying not a penny and communicating exclusively in grunts. Meanwhile, the building’s front door lock is always broken and the door to our place is pretty much made of cardboard. As a result, our apartment gets broken into twice in quick succession: The first time our laptops and my roommate’s jewelry gets stolen (I’m offended that the thief doesn’t touch my H&M baubles); the second time he (she?) mysteriously leaves a trash bag full of the rest of our valuables, including our recently replaced laptops, on my bed. My roommate and I no longer trust anyone in our building, never mind each other, and she moves out.

December 2006: I decide I’m terrible at choosing roommates, so I plan an open house and invite my friend Jill over to pick one for me. Jill picks another Jill; at first I’m mildly suspicious — name bias, etc. — but Roommate Jill turns out to be great.

October 2007: Roommate Jill and I decide to move to a non-horrible neighborhood, which at the time we deem to be the East Village. We find what most accurately can be described as a hallway with two hovels jutting off, up a hundred flights of stairs (give or take 95) and reeking of cat pee. We plan to douse the place in bleach several times before moving in, but when I return, the apartment is… missing. As in, there is literally no door where the entrance once was. I freak out, assuming I’ve been the victim of some Incredible Disappearing Apartment scam. Defeated, I leave, at which point I realize that there are in fact two identical buildings on the block, both of which can be opened with my key — and I’d entered the wrong one. Our apartment does in fact exist, though the smell of cat pee has not dissipated since our last bleaching.

I remain in this apartment through several iterations of roommates (including one who never moves in, but instead stops by once a month to pay rent and retrieve her mail — amazing, yet baffling). When college bars begin populating the block at a rate of about one per week, making it impossible to nod off before 4 a.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, I decide my East Village days are running out. Plus, my boyfriend D. and I are ready to shack up.

September 2011: D. and I are overflowing with hope and optimism, especially when the first apartment we visit is a lovely, affordable 1.5-bedroom in a great neighborhood, and the landlord approves our application. But she puts off the lease signing for a few days, then a week, then two… and then it’s one week before D.’s and my respective leases will be up, and the landlord changes her mind, going into way too much detail about the couple she’s decided to rent to instead: They make more money, seem more committed, have perfect credit, and probably perfect bone structure too, have both won Nobel Peace prizes, regularly achieve simultaneous orgasm, etc. etc.

Feeling increasingly anxious about our imminent homelessness, D. and I sign a lease for a place we feel not great about. We’re lured in by ample square footage and proximity to an express train, but the landlord is a nightmare and immediately begins breaking promises. We go to paint, and bedbugs crawl out of the walls. The landlord insists first that we brought in the bugs, then that we’re lying about them, and lastly that he won’t pay to fumigate since housing law apparently doesn’t apply to him. He refuses to communicate with me and will only speak “man to man” with D. With just a handful of days before we have to vacate our current apartments, D. and I break the lease. We spend the next two years battling the landlord in Housing Court. (We eventually win, then the landlord appeals and we win that too, but he still won’t pay, so I go all Super-Detective and, among other actions that require filing reams of paperwork and navigating dozens of bureaucratic departments, I obtain a court order to have his bank accounts frozen, and then he pays. The time I devote to this venture results in a payout of approximately 10 cents per hour, plus the realization that I’ve been sidelining as a detective in order to compensate for my lack of job fulfillment and should probably explore other career options. But still: Justice served!)

With about an hour before the subways will shut down for Hurricane Irene (which turns out to be no big deal, like nearly all storms predicted in NYC*, but still, no subways), D. and I find a decent enough apartment in the heart of Park Slope, sign the lease, and plan to move in two days later.

*I know, I know, I’ll get to Sandy.

October 2011: We move in to our new place, psyched about its pros: a roof over our head, a nice neighborhood, cheap rent. We soon discover some cons: Our landlord and his many relatives who live below us are enthusiastic proselytizers of their fundamentalist faith. I’m Jewish, but I can handle the Jesus bumper stickers on our doors and the frequent invocations of “the Lord’s will” during chit-chat about the weather; I’m more concerned that the landlord will discover that D. and I are living “in sin” and evict us. Also, no one in the landlord’s family seems to have any kind of employment, save monitoring our cracking of windows (unacceptable) and our mail (so many clothing catalogs!). Additionally, the landlord’s adult son, who has some sort of mental disability, sits all day long in an open closet directly opposite the front door. Each time I come home this sight not only terrifies me but also prompts a conversation in my head about whether I should report this to some kind of human-rights authority, plus whether my failure to report it thus far has something to do with my fear of being evicted.

September 2012: D. and I are evicted. We’ve suspected it’s been coming ever since the landlord listed the house for sale, but we’ve reassured ourselves that no one would buy since the photos posted on Zillow are of plastic-covered couches and tchotchke-crowded mantels, i.e. totally creepy. Still, weekends become filled with prospective buyers traipsing through our apartment and fingering our things, while we glare resentfully at those who can afford to buy a Park Slope brownstone — even a ramshackle one like this. A toddler knocks over and breaks our vintage globe and no one apologizes. We feel not at home in our home.

The house sells, and we are given three weeks to find a new home. I am in grad school (see above re: former lack of job fulfillment), i.e. bleeding money rather than earning it, and in class until 10 p.m. every night. In addition to lacking the time and money to move, D. and I are still reeling from our last apartment hunt horror.

October 2012: Hurricane Sandy hits. It’s pretty much just a rainstorm in our neighborhood, so our apartment becomes a hostel for stranded, flooded friends. In between hosting duties, D. and I look at apartments within walking distance (the subways are shut down). We think we find a great one. I tell my mom and she Googles the address (because unlike me, she thinks to do smart things like this), and unearths a website devoted to publicizing the landlord’s evil, sadistic landlording practices; a slew of former tenants have sued. We pull out of the lease, sacrificing our deposit.

And then, we find an apartment that seems too good to be true: The rent is reasonable, the location is ideal, and the landlord seems nice. Surrounded by stories of destruction and collapse and heartbreak in the wake of the worst hurricane to ever hit the city, we are acutely aware of our luck and good fortune. We move to our new home, where we’ve lived ever since. I pray that I’ll never have to move again.

Lindsey J. Palmer is a high school English teacher and the author of the new novel, If We Lived Here, which is based in part on the above saga. Her first novel, Pretty in Ink, a satire of the world of women’s magazine, is based in part on her experiences as a writer and editor at Glamour, Redbook, and Self. She’s on Twitter.

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