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Later, while earning his M.B.A. at the University of California, Irvine, he lived four doors from the beach. When the garage door was opening or closing just beneath his apartment, “I felt it through the apartment,” Mr. Zaler said.
So when he landed a job as a management consultant in New York after graduating last spring, his aim was to find a nice place, which meant recent construction and a doorman building. He knew that plenty of New York apartments were less than ideal — “fifth-floor walk-ups that haven’t been renovated since the Eisenhower administration.”
“I wanted to live somewhere I would be proud of when I walked in the door, knowing I worked hard to earn it,” he said.
Mr. Zaler, 26, did his research. He decided that if he rented a condominium from an owner, he would almost certainly get a nicer apartment at a lower price than if he stuck to ordinary rental buildings. Such a place would very likely come without a broker’s fee, too. His maximum price was $2,200 a month.
So he hunted mostly in the rental section of Streeteasy.com to find condos, then checked for commentary about the building on curbed.com. If a place seemed reasonable, he contacted the owner or manager directly.
Mr. Zaler, who is from Arizona, flew to New York last spring for a few days of intensive pavement-pounding. He found a studio at 1 Carnegie Hill on East 96th Street for $2,100 a month. The building’s lap pool was a bonus.
But when he returned to California, he was informed that the owner had decided to let a relative stay there instead.
The news was annoying but not surprising, Mr. Zaler said. “It seems like everyone has a nightmare New York real estate experience, and this was par for the course.”
Again he flew to New York. This time, he focused on two different neighborhoods, the financial district and Harlem.
The financial district was conveniently situated, with good prices. The housing stock was newly converted, and buildings were filled with amenities.
Harlem, also well priced, “fit the bill for diversity, a burgeoning restaurant and nightlife scene, and express trains to Midtown,” he said.
He thought he had a deal for a one-bedroom at the Morellino on West 118th Street, but negotiations went nowhere. The owner wouldn’t go below $2,300, and Mr. Zaler wouldn’t go above $2,200. “That’s a principle thing,” he said. “I am a fantastic tenant.” With similar units renting for less than his offer, he didn’t think he was being unreasonable, he said.
On Streeteasy he found a listing for a 500-square-foot alcove studio at a building on South William Street, renting for $2,300. He negotiated the price to $2,250.
“I did go above my budget by $50 because I was desperate to find a place before my flight took off” later that afternoon, he said.
The unit was on the market for sale. He would be given a day’s warning if any prospective buyers wanted to see it, which was fine with him.
But “after I furnished it and made it look fantastic,” he said, “the first person to see it wanted to buy the unit and wanted their son to occupy it immediately.” The buyers paid $495,000, and Mr. Zaler negotiated a buyout for himself, to cover the hardship of moving and a few months’ rent.
Now he had two weeks to move. This time he decided he would rather live in a one-bedroom uptown than another studio downtown. “I had the chance for a do-over, a mulligan,” he said. “It was about value for money.”
He scoured Harlem, but nothing quite fit. He was tempted by the Sloane, a small condo building on 119th Street near Second Avenue, for the bargain price of $1,850, but it was inconveniently far east.
Then he found a Streeteasy listing in a condo building on West 116th Street. He loved the quirky construction, with the building cantilevered over the mosque next door. The 630-square-foot one-bedroom had a washer-dryer and even a linen closet. “I thought, this is too good to be true and I better move on this fast,” he said.
When he walked into this one, the 39th of all the apartments he had seen, “I knew it was where I had to be,” he said.
The rent was $2,350. But Mr. Zaler figured he could bargain, assuming that condo owners were more concerned with finding a trustworthy tenant than with getting top dollar.
He offered $2,150, emphasizing his reliability. “I will take care of it like it’s my baby,” he said. He was told that a couple was interested but their credit wasn’t as good as his.
He had a deal. Last fall he signed a one-year lease, and he was able to move in right away. The experience was nerve-wracking, he said, but added: “I have a totally irrational faith that things will work out if I’ve worked hard enough. I did it twice. I pulled two needles out of a haystack, but it takes a lot of work and focus and obsession with knowing what you want and not compromising.”
He is always happy to be home, he said. So many city apartments “make you want to come home from work, drop your stuff off and spend as little time as possible there,” he said. He finds himself “going out at least one night less per week.”
His view of Harlem rooftops is so open and sunny that he added blackout curtains so he can sleep in on weekends. The curtains block the light and muffle the noise from the bus stop across the street. He was concerned that there would be long wait times for the building’s one elevator, but that hasn’t been a problem.
In Harlem, which he is having fun exploring, “you see it all — young and old, black, white, Latino and Asian, and everyone is friendly, warm and genuine,” he said. “There is a sense of camaraderie and fellowship among the people in the neighborhood.”
When his friends visit, he said, “the typical response is: ‘I can’t believe this is your place and you’re paying what you do. How did you find it?’ ”
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