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The Power of Going It Alone: On Buying an Apartment By Myself

March 23, 2018 | Filed in: Your Brain

Buying an apartment in New York City is no easy feat, especially when you’re doing it on your own. Sarah, an associate creative director in her early thirties, found the process to be complicated and occasionally disheartening—but ultimately empowering. Below, she shares the story of how (and why) she put down roots on her own.

My first rental apartment in New York was, on paper, a dream: a pre-war three-bedroom, one block away from the L train, with exposed brick and an “open kitchen.” It was May 2008, and my friends and I were freshly graduated from a small liberal arts school upstate. We’d allotted a single day to find a place, and after being assured by our broker that this one was “a real steal,” we signed on the spot.

Never mind that the exposed brick was a dingy, decrepit shade of dark brown, as were the four cabinets that comprised the entirety of our kitchen storage. Never mind that only one person at a time could fit in the hallway, or that we barely had enough room for a futon in the living room, let alone a place to eat. My bedroom had a window, but the fact that it faced a neighboring building meant that I was more likely to see pigeons mating in the mornings than I was to see the sun. I kept my clothes in plastic drawers from The Container Store, and my mattress was perched atop them like an illustration from The Princess and the Pea.

Having grown up in a small town in Massachusetts, I was ill-prepared, to say the least, for life in a big city. After the job I’d moved to New York for fell through, I wondered if I was meant to be here at all. But I wanted to work in advertising, and it felt like New York was the best place to pursue that path.

I spent the first few years in the city feeling like I was living on borrowed time—as though one day, someone would figure out that I didn’t belong. I thought I was too quiet, too soft for New York. I didn’t know my way around the subway system, I often went uptown when I meant to go down. But as the years passed, New York started to feel less like a place I lived in, and more like a place I could call home.

Cut to 2016. A little bit shy of the 10-year mark, and approaching my thirtieth birthday, I took stock of my life in the city. I had a good job, great friends, and an active social life, but as people around me began to check off certain milestones—Engagements! Promotions! Marriage!—I started to feel like I was running behind.

The comparison game does no one any good, but I played it anyway. All around me, I saw happy couples: arguing over arugula at the farmer’s market, crouched over a candlelit table in a restaurant window. In the midst of building my career and creating the kind of full life I’d dreamed of as a kid—Exercise! Book club! Travel!—I had dedicated almost zero energy to dating. And now here I was, almost 30, with no romantic prospects in sight.

Around the time that this realization started to eat away at me, I came into a small inheritance from my grandmother. It wasn’t outrageous, but it was something: a sum of money that I could use at my discretion. Perhaps a more fiscally responsible person would have put that money straight into a savings account or 401(k). But as a lifelong HGTV fan, my mind immediately went to real estate. Could I, I wondered, use my money to buy a little piece of the apple?

After all, I had no plans to pop out two-and-a-half kids and move to the suburbs. On the contrary, it was seeming more and more likely that I’d be in New York, on my own, for the long haul. And if I was going to be here by myself, well, I wanted a comfortable spot to land. My parents had told me, years ago, that they’d help me with a wedding or a house. With no wedding in sight, I went for the house.

I started looking, casually, at real estate listings, and dragging friends to open houses in the East Village. And then in late autumn, I made it official. I hired a broker and a lawyer. I made a list of the things I wanted in a home—pre-war charm, not a walk-up, a workable kitchen, somewhere on the east side of Lower Manhattan—and I started looking for real.

It wasn’t until I put an offer in on a total gut job that the questions started coming. Over Bloody Marys at Jeffrey’s Grocery, my friend Lisa asked me, “Why now?”

She didn’t say the second part aloud, but I heard the subtext: Why buy now, when I was unmarried and untethered to anyone or anything? Other friends didn’t say anything at all, but their silence suggested confusion. I wondered if they thought I was making a mistake.

Meeting with mortgage brokers brought the same question, phrased a million different ways: “Is it just you?” “No boyfriend with you today?” “Have you considered a studio?” Even worse were the compliments with their pitying undertones: “Oh, good for you. Doing it on your own.”

“YES, IT’S JUST ME,” I wanted to scream. “RUB IT IN, WHY DON’T YOU?!” It was as though the universe was determined to remind me, at every turn, that I was about to take on something enormous—and that I was about to do it alone. I wanted, badly, to be the kind of modern empowered woman who cares not if she ever gets married. But the questions struck a nerve: My life was full, sure. I was lucky, yes—but if I was honest with myself, I wasn’t exactly thrilled to be single.

Throughout the renovation process, I teetered on the precipice of a massive breakdown: Who did I think I was? What did I know about the mounds of paperwork that come with applying for a mortgage, about rates and deadlines and professional references? What did I know about plumbing fixtures, paint colors, floor tiles, or the type of sealant you need for exposed brick? What business did I have standing in the aisles of IKEA on a Wednesday night, trying to tearfully explain to the salesgirl that I couldn’t possibly take the sink I was purchasing home with me that night, because it was just me, alone; that I’d ridden there on my Citibike?

But as the renovation progressed, my fear of what I’d undertaken was eventually superseded by another emotion: pride. Pride that I hadn’t waited for “the right time” to take a leap like this:—some indeterminate point when I was married, or had a baby, or a better job, or a better life. Rather than waiting for my life to live up to those arbitrary standards, I took the plunge. And I did it on my own.

I could have remained an eternal renter. I could have put down roots somewhere quieter, easier, and less expensive than New York. But I didn’t. One day, I woke up, and realized that I didn’t just live here. I had made a life here. The shy, small-town girl without a backbone—the one who could barely order Chinese food without stuttering, let alone talk to strangers—had become a New Yorker. And getting the opportunity to own my own little piece of the city made it feel truly official.

No one is ever ready to do the big scary thing. But having done it, I can tell you this: There is something magical about walking into a home in which you have chosen every single piece, right down to the knob that pulls open the drawer holding the trash can, and the cool tile floors underneath your feet. Some days, I look around, and I feel lonely. I climb into bed at night and wonder if anyone’s toes will ever tickle mine at two o’clock in the morning, or if I’ll ever carefully shift the pillow to stop my partner’s snoring.

But most days, I open my front door and think, “This. I have this.”

Most days, that’s more than enough.

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Sarah Jacobson is an advertising creative director in New York City. See more of her home renovation journey on Instagram at @_thegrandapt. Read more of Sarah's posts.


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