There's a For Rent sign on a window in a brownstone building near where I live here in Chelsea.
A For Rent sign! I've lived in New York City for just about 17 years, and not until this recession have I seen landlords posting signs for available apartments.
I remember a year ago almost to the month, on a walk in the West Village, I saw a For Rent sign in the window of a studio apartment on Jones Street. I almost had to lie down from the shock. The West Village is a neighborhood a lot of people dream of living in but know they could never afford, and certainly not without paying a 15% broker's fee for the privilege of renting 200 square feet with one window and a half fridge, at street level, where you can hear weekend revelers' drunken hoots and smell their cigarette smoke as they pace outside and talk on their cellphones. And here was a modest sign, purchased at the local hardware store, the details handwritten with a black marker, wondering if anyone out there would want to live in this apartment on Jones Street. Wow.
A year later, it seems conditions are still amazingly rosy for renters. (The Times recently asked, "2010: The Year of the Renter?") I took the above photo in Chelsea, but not just any part of Chelsea—this For Rent sign was posted at W. 22nd Street, between 7th and 8th. There are two subway stations around either corner, restaurants like crazy, the beautiful park and bike path at the Hudson River just a couple of avenues over, and easy access to fun neighborhoods north, south, and east.
I remember a few months ago seeing a For Rent sign in the East 20s and then, maybe a month ago, spotting one on a lovely building on 22nd between 9th and 10th, one of the most gorgeous blocks in Chelsea. And even more recently, I saw one on East 18th. And last night, there was this one on East 9th, between 2nd and 3rd, a prime East Village block.
It's incredible to think that the people who do rent these places might have found them by simply strolling by one day and seeing the sign. No Craigslist, no high-pressure brokers, no fee. How civilized. How unlike the classic New York rental experience.
Now, maybe all of these apartments are utter crap, and that's why they have to offer themselves so humbly. But I doubt it. New York is a competitive place, and the rental market and its players do not know the meaning of modesty.
Sometime ago, I went to see a studio in the West Village, and the broker explained to me that her parents owned the building and she just wanted to find someone who would be good to the place and that she was charging less than market rate because her parents had taught her not to be greedy. She played the morality card, and I was completely won over. I wanted to do right by her parents too. The tub in this apartment, however, was badly in need of resurfacing; the enamel was worn away to the gray metal underneath, and the paint that had been applied it over was peeling off in big, mildewy chunks. I asked her about it.
"The tub is clean," she snapped. "If you're a neat freak, I can buy you a nice mat, but the tub is fine." If I'm a "neat freak." I wonder if her parents taught her to be an ass. Nah, I think that quality came from her.
Why do I have this photo? Because I rented the place. I did. And I paid a fee too. I paid a fee to that unpleasant broker. If you've rented an apartment here, you know how stressful it can be. Often, you have to make a decision on the spot, even though you've spent only 11 minutes in the place. I had seen a lot of apartments, and this was this the nicest of the lot. So I took it.
And while there was nothing I could do about the tub (I researched it, and it would have cost too much money and exposure to toxic fumes to do myself), I did go ahead and make the bathroom floor—which was also in a sad state—much nicer.
And after an investment of about 28 bucks and maybe an hour and a half:
Looking back, I should not have rented from a broker like that—her impatient dismissiveness about the tub was a sign of other not-fun qualities that I discovered only later—and definitely won't ever again. You'd think I would have known better after all my years here and so many rental experiences. But that's New York real estate for you—keeps reminding you that you'll never totally know what to expect from it.