THE HUNT A Cozy Studio in a Presentable Building

New York Times

April 11, 2011


A Cozy Studio in a Presentable Building

Published: April 7, 2011

BENJAMIN BILBAO knew a nice apartment in his native borough of Queens was well within his reach. But Manhattan had been his home for most of his adult life, and even with its higher price tag, that is where he wanted to be.

Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

Benjamin Bilbao is pleased with both his place and the neighborhood.

iPhone App

The New York Times Real Estate App

A recently updated, free app offering in-depth property search tools and mobile features to help you navigate the real estate market.

Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

A studio on West 23rd Street had too many red flags.

Mr. Bilbao, 47, grew up in Richmond Hill. After graduating from Queens College, he rented for awhile in Queens and then bought a ground-floor studio in a small East Village co-op building. He owned it for about seven years, then sold it and moved into his boyfriend’s rent-stabilized two-bedroom on West 30th Street. They split the rent of about $2,000.

After four years, the couple had an amicable breakup, and Mr. Bilbao found himself again studying the real estate market ads. With a monthly budget of up to $1,300, a nice rental in Manhattan was unlikely, if perfectly doable in Queens. But he figured he could afford to buy a small place in Manhattan. Fortunately, the ex-boyfriend allowed him to stay on for several months while he looked.

Mr. Bilbao, who works as a recruitment manager for the Population Council, a nonprofit organization that focuses on developing nations, had a budget of around $300,000. He didn’t mind a small place — 300 square feet would do. A dishwasher was a must. “I hate doing dishes,” he said. He also hoped for a place in the back of a building. “I assumed from my previous experience with studios that they were on the first floor in the front,” he said. At his East Village co-op, when people sat on the stoop, “I could hear them having private conversations that I shouldn’t be hearing.”

Last summer, he saw a large studio in an elevator building on West 23rd Street, listed at $265,000. The 500-square-foot apartment had a lovely kitchen, great closets and lots of light. Monthly maintenance was almost $900.

Mr. Bilbao’s colleague and friend Laurie Constantino accompanied him there. “She has a keen eye for detail,” he said. “I wanted somebody to see the things I wasn’t going to see.”

Ms. Constantino also knows about construction. Both her husband and her father work in the field. She pointed out some water damage to the floor as well as an overhead light fixture powered by an extension cord running along the wall.

“I don’t think I would have noticed,” Mr. Bilbao said, “because I was too busy thinking, ‘My furniture will go here.’ ”

Still, “being a New Yorker from birth, the low price made me suspicious,” he said. Online, he found unsettling references to the building, which has a land lease, meaning the co-op does not own the land on which it sits. The lease expires in 2044.

“It is a complicated situation and depends on one’s risk tolerance,” said Melissa Green, a member of the West 23rd Street building’s board. “Prices reflect the fact that, in any ground lease situation, the value declines as you get closer to the expiration of the lease. Since we can’t predict the future, you made either the most regrettable decision of your life, or the smartest.”

Mr. Bilbao feared that the maintenance might soar, or that he would be unable to sell the place, so he resumed his hunt. (The apartment is now listed at $245,000. )

He went to see a studio with less than 300 square feet, in a 28-unit co-op near Stuyvesant Square. It was advertised as a fixer-upper, with a price of only $200,000. Maintenance was $660. Despite the need for updating, the place was livable.

“But the entire building needed fixing up,” Mr. Bilbao said. He pictured having his boss over for dinner. “I would be embarrassed to have her walk through the halls,” he said. “I could fix up the apartment nicely, but couldn’t do anything to the outside.” (The unit later sold for $174,000.)

A listing for a $299,000 studio on the Upper West Side caught Mr. Bilbao’s eye. Maintenance was just over $700. “It looked beautiful on the Internet,” he said. But he knew not to trust photos. 

He contacted the listing agent, Sabrina Seidner, a vice president of Nest Seekers International. She ran to the studio with her daughter, Lucia, a fifth-grader. “It was one of those ‘can you show it to me at the last minute’ things,“ Ms. Seidner said.

Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

A building on East 18th Street looked a little too lived-in.

iPhone App

The New York Times Real Estate App

A recently updated, free app offering in-depth property search tools and mobile features to help you navigate the real estate market.

Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

The layout of a small studio on West 73rd Street was clever.

The co-op comprises three contiguous walk-up brownstones, and includes 25 units.

Mr. Bilbao thought the building, with its steep stoop, was lovely from the outside. Even the stairway, with brick walls and gray carpeting, was nicer than he had expected, despite creaking stairs. The studio looked just like its photos, and was cleverly divided into three parts: a raised dining area, a rectangular living room and a lofted sleeping space. Two windows overlooked a back garden. Closets and cabinets were built in.

Mr. Bilbao was again accompanied by Ms. Constantino. She noted a drafty window as well as a sloppy saddle where the kitchen and living room met, but it was “nothing that Ben couldn’t fix,” she said. She found the space “inviting and welcoming.”

Here he would never be embarrassed to have his boss over. He was, however, concerned about the loft bed, which had a ladder anchored to ceiling and floor. He couldn’t figure out how to get into it.

But suddenly, there was Lucia, peering down. She had made the ascent facing away from the bed rather than toward it. “You go up backward and sort of sit,” Ms. Seidner said.

The decision was easy. “I thought this was the best I was going to see in that price range,” Mr. Bilbao said.

He bought the place for just under $290,000 and arrived this past winter. Though the studio is small, it is efficient. Mr. Bilbao uses his dishwasher every other morning. “I can get ready for work while the dishes are being washed all by themselves,” he said, “and it is a great feeling.”

Showering is a challenge. “I haven’t figured out any way to adjust it,” Mr. Bilbao said. “You are always jumping out because it is either too hot or too cold.” But the building’s boiler was just repaired, so the situation has improved somewhat.

Mr. Bilbao knew he would enjoy the neighborhood. “You have to go into this pretty little park to go into the train station,” at 72nd Street and Broadway, he said. “I have actually sat in the park. I am not really a people-watcher and I found myself doing that in this neighborhood.”

For the living room, he bought a small gateleg table with two folding leaves. Pulled away from the wall, it can easily seat six. When he invites his boss over, along with his entire department, the head count will be a nonproblematical seven. “We’re friendly enough to squeeze,” Mr. Bilbao said.