Real estate, a subject that can be taboo in many a city and town, is practically an open forum in New York. It’s not uncommon to find out how much a stranger pays for his or her fourth-floor walk-up well before last names have been exchanged. In short, New York real estate is a fascinating window into the soul of the people who live here, and it’s prompted us to begin collecting stories of real estate ups-and-downs from New Yorkers across the five boroughs in our new series, On the NYC Real Estate Roller Coaster. Have one to tell? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
First up is chef, writer, recipe tester, food stylist and traveler Anna Watson Carl of The Yellow Table, who moved to New York from Nashville in 2007. She is currently working on a project called The Cookbook Diaries, chronicling the creation of a cookbook from the tiny kitchen of her apartment in NoLita. In this interview, she shares her real estate woes, wishes and thrills, and how she scored that NoLita pad.
1. What was your first apartment like? How did it compare with your expectations of New York City living?
I left behind a big two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment in Nashville with plenty of room for my yellow table. I threw dinner parties all the time, and had this vision that I could move to NYC and do the same. I quickly learned that was not the case. I first moved into a room in a shared apartment in Astoria. It was cozy and clean, but mostly what I could afford: $650 a month. I stayed there for three months.
2. What was the biggest real estate challenge you encountered?
I was determined to move into Manhattan, and I found a closet-sized room in a converted three bedroom in Gramercy. My “bedroom” was actually half of the original dining room — 3 IKEA wardrobes made a makeshift wall and there was a curtain for a door. I lived here for the next two years and paid $950 a month for it! The extreme lack of privacy here was probably my biggest challenge.
3. What was your happiest New York real estate moment?
Moving into my current apartment! My husband Brandon moved in a year before we were married. He found it in 2009, when the real estate market was really low. It’s a duplex apartment in NoLita, with a private terrace, so the broker knew it would go fast. Brandon talked them down from the original price — but they wanted the deposit in cash. Brandon literally ran to the bank, but he got the apartment. I had sold all of my furniture from Nashville, except my table, which I finally brought to this apartment in 2010. I never dreamed it would take me three-and-a-half years and getting married to have the space to entertain in the city.
4. What do you love about your current apartment? Is it missing anything?
Despite the fact that it’s up five steep flights of stairs, I love our apartment. It has great light, high ceilings, hardwood floors, and an exposed brick wall. The layout’s great too — there’s an open kitchen and living/dining area with a spiral staircase leading up to the bedroom. I think the terrace is my favorite part. It’s nice to have a little piece of space outside. We live out there in the summer. And I love my neighborhood. I feel so lucky to live here. It feels very intimate and European in a way. I love the cafes, the shops (though I can’t afford to shop in them!), and especially the Elizabeth Street Sculpture Garden. I also love the fact that it’s so close to Chinatown, Little Italy, the Lower East Side and SoHo. I have so many completely different cultural experiences within a few blocks of my apartment.
As far as what it’s missing — I wish the apartment had an elevator and a washer/dryer! I’m shooting a cookbook in the apartment right now, so carrying groceries and props up all of these stairs is insanely challenging.
5. What is one piece of advice you would give people looking for an apartment in New York?
Once you start looking, be ready to make a decision on the spot! The good places go really quickly. Also, put feelers out with friends once you start looking. You never know who is about to move — word of mouth is often the best way to find a place.
For example, when I was living in that Gramercy apartment, a friend randomly called me one night when she was looking for an apartment in my neighborhood. She was planning to live alone, but her broker wanted to show her an affordable two bedroom. I was wanting to move as well, so she asked if I wanted to come take a look. We went and saw the space — it was really cute, and a steal at $1,900 for a 2-bedroom on 21st between First and Second Avenue. The broker said we were the first to see it, and if we waited, it would be gone the next day. My friend put down the deposit and we said yes on the spot.