Layoff and the apartment that never was

co-op-picWifey told me one evening last week that someone bought our apartment. She was scrolling through a real estate agent’s website while awaiting her next turn at Lexulous. I was sitting at the dining room table a few feet away, probably screwing around with Twitter. I asked what she was talking about, as I am a space cadet most of the time.

To be precise, the aforementioned apartment was only ours for a short while and insofar as we’d signed some papers committing to buy it. We didn’t actually own it or live there, or even have keys to the front door. Wifey and I needed co-op board approval and a mortgage before it would really be ours. But we’d already started making big plans and talking about it in those terms. When I was laid off, it wasn’t “ours” anymore, and never would be.

Last summer seemed right to look at potential new homes, especially in a gentrifying (i.e. less expensive) New York neighborhood like Jackson Heights. Plenty of decent-sized apartments were available, and prices were flat and starting to decline in a market that never declines (until it does). Potential buyers – spooked by economic storm clouds – were no longer looking. Mortgages were still available, if a little harder to come by. And both of us were employed. When would we ever have a better opportunity to upgrade?

Wifey and I kept an eye on local real estate listings and popped in to open houses when we happened upon them. Agents around here are fond of posting signs and balloons along main avenues directing perspective buyers (and everyone else) to their properties. (Sellers, for their part, are fond of “staging” that involves large and gaudy religious icons guaranteed to weird out potential buyers.) Finding available places wasn’t hard. Finding affordable places with a second bedroom was. We saw many two-bedroom apartments that were barely the size of our current apartment, a one-bedroom. Paying tons of money for a couple extra walls didn’t make much sense… call me crazy.

We were just looking, and in no rush to buy. Our current apartment was a good size for us, especially in New York where people happily live in rooms considered closets anywhere else. And the real estate market would probably remain buyer-friendly for the foreseeable future. But the day will likely come when space enough for three is needed. We’re still deciding whether to have a kid or adopt an old guy who hangs out at OTB smoking Kools and betting on horses. When that theoretical third person (to be named Vito regardless) starts walking and talking and crying and puking and demanding every toy and sugar cereal advertised on TV (or money for smokes at the track), our current apartment could get a little tight. But there was time to be choosy.

Then, without trying too hard, we found a great apartment. Located on the top floor of a good building in the neighborhood’s leafier section, it was open and welcoming and full of potential. Some windows faced a beautiful manicured courtyard, some faced a quiet street. Natural light would stream in all day long once the heavy drapes and monstrous wooden furniture were removed. It wasn’t perfect – the kitchen could fit in a mcmansion bathroom – but could be with a little work.  Most importantly, there was room to start a family.

Wifey claimed the second bedroom as an office until Vito arrived and took over. I was granted permission to sit with my laptop on a yet-to-be-obtained couch that she’d decided would occupy one office wall underneath some shelves. We brought in contractors to propose kitchen renovation options. We attempted to rent our current apartment; a great market for buyers means a terrible one for sellers. The co-op board was reviewing our application. Everything seemed to be coming together. We would soon have a new home and step into the next phase of life.

I lost my job in late October, and everything fell apart. We no longer qualified for a mortgage on one income, and couldn’t afford the payments even if we did. The deal fell though, and our deposit almost disappeared. I spent the first week of unemployment resolving issues with lawyers. Thankfully everything worked out and, aside from a few fees, we ended up exactly where we started.

Wifey and I both took it hard, but in different ways. I think the apartment had become a home to her. She was attached to it and what it could become on an emotional level, and understandably so. This was our future becoming the present. That was my take anyway; I may be corrected. The apartment still felt like a purchase to me, a business transaction. But I understood what it would become and what it meant to her. Losing my job meant I’d failed to provide. The whole experience was devastating.

Over the weekend, we strolled past our not-quite apartment… the building anyway. It’s close to our current apartment, but in a direction we rarely go, making it easy to avoid. We joked about the ordeal and moved on to some other topic. I still felt a twinge of regret, like there was something I could’ve done differently. There isn’t, of course. And had my layoff occurred later, wifey and I would have been stuck with an apartment we couldn’t afford – which may be worse than losing out. If there’s a brightside, that’s it.

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  1. Fate is funny like that. It sounds like it was probably a very good thing in the long run. I got a new car in October and I’m kicking myself now. With the number of people that ended up with houses they couldn’t really afford when they had jobs, I’m glad I realized I couldn’t. My one bedroom could use an extra wall, but for now it’s fine. Maybe my son will have his own room by the time he’s in high school.

    It’s funny how the “I wish I had bought” vs. the “Why did I buy that?” have surfaced during my time of no income.

    Tuesday, April 7, 2009 at 12:55 pm | Permalink
  2. SUPL Blog wrote:

    I just found myself browsing apartments for purchase in NYC. So many “good” deals now, one bedrooms or small two bedrooms that are going for the price of what a studio cost a year ago. Of course, 300-400k could get you a foreclosed mansion in Vegas or something…Alas, all doesn’t matter when you ain’t got no jarb.

    Thursday, April 9, 2009 at 7:20 pm | Permalink