The $50 Week : Moving without Financially Shaking

As I write this installment of “The $50 Week,” I’m awash in boxes, bubble wrap, packing tape, and roughly four years of our life that my husband and I are currently trying to reconfigure into a new space. When we originally decided to move, staying in the same zip code but finding a more livable building, we had budgeted that the entire thing from start to finish—including real estate fees, security deposits, moving itself, and new items for our new place—would sit in the high four figures. As we check our budget, we’re happily well under that total, sitting at less than half of it, in fact. Some of this came down to luck, finding an apartment with no broker’s fee, and one within our price range. However, a lot of it was thanks to planning, open discussions, and more planning.

Moving is, as many of you will probably agree, the worst. It’s frequently listed as one of the top 10, top five, and even top three most stressful things a person can experience in life. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be. It’s still stressful, to be sure—but just as sure is the fact that there are ways of minimizing that burden.

And since May is one of the busiest times for moves thanks to college students and grads shopping for their first off-campus abode, I’m happy to pass on to you some lessons we learned to make the move efficient and as painless as possible.

Look Ahead

In New York, the rental market has become a bit cooler than it was in 2012 and, according to a Forbes 2013 forecast, the national trends are still favoring a buyer’s market. Back when I last moved in 2009, it was much easier to negotiate with future landlords over asking prices—but four years later there are still ways to make a new home work to your financial advantage.

The biggest concern over rent shouldn’t be in your first year, however—it should be in the year to come. Unless you’re particularly sadistic and enjoy moving on a regular basis (and, if so, I’m happy for you to come over and pack up my kitchen), you’ll probably want to renew your lease after the first year if all goes well. Unless you’re lucky enough to land a rent-controlled apartment, the fear that many face with landlords is that they’ll invite you in with a low first year’s rent and then gouge you in year two. A good way of testing this notion is to ask for a two-year lease up front. If the landlord agrees or takes the time to seriously consider your request, you can feel safe that the rent increase will be fair, if not downright modest. If they refuse, you might want to keep looking.

And in a stroke of good luck, rent-controlled apartments are not exclusively in the domain of buildings built between 1947 and 1974 (or those pre-’47 holdovers that aren’t outright rent controlled). Many new or renovated buildings are applying for rent stabilization to appeal to prospective tenants.

While we’re on the topic of deals, not every landlord may be willing to drop the rent, but they may be willing to offer a free month. Generally what this means is that you pay the security deposit and the first month, and the second month is free, thus driving down the net value of your home for one year. You’ll still pay the asking price, but in the end it will add up to less than its full annual price tag. (For example, if you’re renting a unit for $2,500 per month and the landlord gives you a free month as incentive, you’ll end up paying an average of roughly $2,300 per month for the first year, even though your monthly check will still be for the full price.)

Read before You Sign

It may seem very tempting to initial and sign where the landlord points and save your lease for reading when there are no new magazines in your bathroom. Even if the management company is rushing you, take the time to read every last word of your lease and its riders. Most of it will be fairly standard and unexciting—but specific policies, riders, and sections might jump out as points that require clarification or policies that can either save or cost you in the end. Will your landlord allow you to paint, strip your floors, install extra cabinetry or shelving, or set up a major appliance?

The adage of asking for forgiveness rather than asking for permission can cost you dearly when it comes to landlords. Moreover, you’ll also know what you’re responsible for if and when you choose to move out. Some landlords require that you repaint; others ask only that you spackle and sand any holes you’ve made.

For singers especially, reading your landlord’s policy on subletting and lease-breaking will be especially prudent points if a Fest contract or summer program comes through. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. And if your landlord doesn’t let you read the entire lease line for line before you sign it, you may have bigger problems in store. This is your chance to take care of those problems before you lock into them for at least a whole year.

Know Your Priorities

Most real estate brokers worth their salt will begin the apartment- or house-hunting process by asking a very basic question: “What are your musts?” Think about the reasons why you want to move. Are you looking to be in a new town or neighborhood? Would you sacrifice location for a larger space, or vice versa? Are you willing to pay more for amenities like a dishwasher, southern exposure, or backyard?

For me and my husband, living in a quiet building with a doorman was our chief “must.” After years of living together, we’ve come to realize that our lifestyle is such that we would rather nest and pay more for an apartment conducive to staying in on weekends versus paying that money to go out and avoid noisy neighbors and minimal security. For that, we were also willing to sacrifice some of the square footage in which we were currently living and pay a few hundred more each month. However, that few hundred was quickly negated when we found a building with not only cement-filled walls and a fantastic doorman, but also in-unit laundry and an on-site gym. The money we would save on our fluff-and-fold service and our gym memberships meant we could accommodate the increase in rent. Moreover, the indoor and outdoor common areas for tenants made the downsizing more livable. (As my mother said, it’s possible to spend a year in our new building without leaving the property.)

For New Yorkers—or the New York aspiring—the website NakedApartments
.com is a great resource for this kind of prioritization. You can pick your neighborhoods, set price limits, and check off a list of amenities, and they’ll pair you up with apartments that meet your needs. Think of it as a domestic Match.com.

The 40 Rule

Unless you are working with a guarantor for your lease, landlords will require that the total income of all inhabitants of your apartment be a standard 40 times the monthly rent. That means if you’re looking at $1,600 per month for a two bedroom, you and your roommate would need to earn a combined $64,000 per year. This is not only a good guidepost for determining whether your application for tenancy will be approved (if, that is, you also boast great credit and references), it’s also a useful number to keep in mind when you’re trying to define what an “affordable” place to live is. If a $1,000-per-month studio seems burdensome to pay for when you take home $40,000 a year, it may not be that you make too little—rather, it may be that you need to re-examine your spending habits and restructure.
 
Don’t Box Yourself In

Oftentimes the act of moving is in and of itself more expensive than finding a new home. And unless you’re moving into a completely reconfigured place or to a new city, state, or country, a good chunk of that cost doesn’t come from new things, it comes from packing your existing stuff. Before you start to pack, go through your major storage spaces—bookshelves, media racks, closets, dressers—and ruthlessly edit.

Have you not worn that sweater since the Bush administration? Toss it. Do you really need that paperback of The DaVinci Code that was read once and has since been following you from apartment to apartment? Toss it. Can you live with having an online Italian-English dictionary or do you also have to keep a print version? Perhaps that sort of question requires more pondering, but that’s why it’s best to start early.

Also think about which of your current items can be repurposed. I have a four-cube EXPEDIT bookshelf from IKEA that, in my old place, served as storage for CDs and office supplies and my printer. I don’t have that spatial luxury in my new living room, but the four-cubby-hole unit fits perfectly into our coat closet and serves as storage for our fancy china (which previously had a life in our old kitchen but has no such home in our new pad). The less you have to move, the better. But the less you have to buy once you move, also the better. So your task is finding the happy medium between those two points that works for your needs and lifestyle.

Find the Right Tools

When we found our new apartment, my husband and I realized something as we looked around our current apartment: we had very few packing tools at hand. And boxes are expensive (and the scarring fear of bedbugs has us wary sourcing cardboard from our local bodega). One option we considered was Jugglebox, a NYC company that delivers plastic bins and then picks them up again when you’re done. It minimizes clutter and waste, and at $99 to pack a studio or $129 for a one-bedroom apartment, is a pretty good deal.

Ultimately, however, we found a better deal with Home Depot, which sells boxes for roughly $1.50 a pop. Considering we had fewer boxables than the average one-bedroom, we paid less than the Jugglebox option, though we splurged on two wardrobe boxes in the name of convenience and some Container Store boxes designed to keep dishes from breaking in transit.

Where we really saved, however, was in the move itself. We considered hiring movers to transport (and possibly pack) our belongings, but after pricing those options out and ending up between $300 and $900 in the hole, we realized that money could be saved with the cost of a U-Haul. Considering we moved all of five blocks away from our current apartment, it was money well saved.

Olivia Giovetti

Olivia Giovetti has written and hosted for WQXR and its sister station, Q2 Music. In addition to Classical Singer, she also contributes frequently to Time Out New York, Gramophone, Playbill, and more.