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Question: Hi! I’m thinking about moving to New York but every time I look at rent prices I’m just blown away by how expensive everything is. I know there are parts of Brooklyn that are good to move to, but even those seem pretty pricey. Any suggestions on new places to live in New York? —Jill A.
Answer: Since 1621, when Dutch traders purchased Manhattan from Native Americans (and ever since which time many agree that it’s “really lost its edge”), patches of land in New York have been in a constant state of gentrification—of being rediscovered, remodeled, and resold as acceptable areas in which to live. In fact, only 30 years ago Soho was uncharted territory, the domain of artists and their drug dealers, and Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke could regularly be spotted having sex in a stairwell. Look at it now! These days, you can’t even afford that stairwell. So to move here on the cheap, you have to find someplace new to people like you but old to people like them, someplace that nobody at New York magazine knows anything about yet. Someplace you can gentrify on your own.
It’s true there are still such parts of New York, parts even real-estate brokers can’t with a straight face qualify as “up-and-coming neighborhoods.” And those areas are exactly the outskirts, the hinterlands, the ridiculously cheap-rent neighborhoods you’re looking for! You want to find a place that makes you, upon emerging from the subway and coming face to face with the locals, recoil in fear. But no worries! You are a pioneer, and everybody loves a pioneer, and you have health insurance.
Here’s how you do it.
Find a Neighborhood
First familiarize yourself with all of New York’s many wondrous neighborhoods. Now immediately scratch those off your list. Accept now that you won’t be living in a desirable area—that is, until you’re done gentrifying it! Also, knowing where the sought-after areas are located will make you privy to the ways New York real-estate brokers redraw neighborhood borders to spiff up their housing ads. For example, according to brokers right now “Williamsburg” reaches all the way north to Long Island City, everything is “ONLY 15 MINS TO MANHATTAN,” and Brooklyn’s “South Park Slope” is in fact the northern tip of Staten Island.
No, brokerages and housing ads won’t find you into the place you’re looking for, because the only places worth advertising are already well-gentrified or close enough. Thus, you’re going to have to go a step further—or rather, a stop further. Take a train, any train, to any desirable area, stay on for four more stops, get out there, and perform the following litmus test.
Do you see anyone between the ages of 18 and 34 with speckles of paint on their clothing?
Do you see any bars, restaurants, or stores that look worth going into?
Was that a tumbleweed that just blew by?
Rent an Apartment
The best way to find somewhere to live in an ungentrified area is through word of mouth. Since you don’t speak the native language around here (Is it Dutch? Can’t tell), you’ll have to do the next best thing—look for rental signs taped up in windows. Lucky for you, every landlord the world around uses those pre-printed “ROOM FOR RENT” signs you can pick up at the hardware store, so just keep walking up and down the blocks until you spot one. Then knock on the door and play it by ear.
Landlord: [says something in Dutch]
You: Hi! I’m here about the apartment?
Landlord: [looks you over, says something else]
You: Is now a good time?
Landlord: [silent, steps back, folds arms across chest]
You: How does five hundred dollars a month sound?
Landlord: [lets you in, leads you up to your new apartment]
Blend in With the Locals
You may have bought your way into the area, but you won’t be able to buy your way into their hearts. In fact, being a New York gentrifier is a lot like being a nerd in middle school: Everybody around you thinks you’re dressed funny, you can’t even pay people to be your friends (you’ve tried), and you get beat up every time you walk home from the subway.
Thankfully, the area’s homeless aren’t as discriminating. Besides, the locals know to steer clear of them—so by befriending a bum, you get a bodyguard at the same time. But don’t offer your friendship through the expected ply of free alcohol and cigarettes. No, get a bum to be your roommate. But claim the top bunk now, and I cannot stress how important this is.
Then it’ll be just like the movie My Bodyguard, with the bum being the big, tough guy who protects you, and you being the other guy. Lucas or something. Rodney maybe.
Once you’re ready to plant permanent stakes, it’s time to say goodbye to your landlord and your roommate (leave no forwarding address to either, by the way) and consider purchasing your very own home. By now you will have learned your way around enough to know where those guys who stole your iPod usually hang out, so it’s best to not shop in that part of town.
While looking into residential dwellings may sound sweet to your domestic side, keep in mind that you’re not just here for the cheap housing—you’re here for the spoils. Look for empty warehouses and shut-down factories, the kinds of places you’ll eventually build into lofts that you’ll sell in 2025 for a billion dollars a pop to Busta Rhymes’s children.
Keep in mind, though, that there are some types of buildings that are especially well-suited to your dreams of a future—and marketable—loft empire that will attract young financial workers. Such buildings include:
—burned-out plastics factory
—abandoned experimental psych ward
—anything haunted or said to be haunted
Start a Real-Estate Craze
Now that you’re living rich, or at least not rich—yet—but you’re living cheap with lots of floor space, remember this: The neighborhood needs some high-profile attention or it’ll never become the kind of place other people would pay, beg, or provide their parents’ tax returns to live in. So take a grassroots approach, and tell everyone how great your new neighborhood is…whatever it’s called. Helpful tip: If the neighborhood’s old name has an unfortunate history or reputation to, simply add “Heights” or “Hill” to its original name.
Before you know it, your friends will move into the buildings around you, art galleries will open their doors, finally a decent place to get cilantro will show up around the corner, and people will be absolutely flooding over from Manhattan—which you can tell everyone is only 15 minutes away.