Before I start into a long post that will largely make New York sound like a horrible place to live, let me say that moving to the City (City capitalized, because it truly is the City) was the best choice I ever made. New York is, thus far, since I am intensely single, the great love of my life. It’s a city of dreamers and weirdos. It’s full of cultural history, iconic landmarks, beautiful stories, and the most incredible energy I’ve ever felt. It’s also stressful, dirty, and aggressive. NYC can be a tough place to live, but being prepared before you make the big move can make the difference between a highly stressful experience and a wonderful, but still highly stressful experience. Read on for a few things I wish I had known before moving to New York City.
1. Apartment hunting is HELL.
This is kind of common knowledge, but GOD is it true. It’s actually much better right now than it ever has been before, because of the pandemic. Landlords are so desperate to fill vacancies, finding an apartment is unusually easy. I’ll be moving December 1st and am honestly not stressed about it. But I am fairly certain apartment hunting here is still worse than it is in almost any other city. For starters, income and credit requirements are usually stringent (you must make forty times the rent and usually have credit over 600 to qualify, or guarantors). Those requirements may be relaxed somewhat now, if not officially, but aside from that, it’s highly likely you’ll have to pay a broker’s fee in addition to first month’s rent and security. The fee is usually somewhere around the monthly rent, but can be significantly more.
It’s also important to really jump on an apartment if you love it, because they go fast…that part is not as true right now, which is the main reason it’s actually a great time to move to New York. Once you do apply, there’s a large portfolio of documents you’ll need, and you can expect a very stressful few days as you wait for your application to be processed. Brokers can also be very, very pushy. Do not be intimidated or let them coax you into anything you don’t want to do.
As far as a jumping off point for apartment hunting—know what you want going in, particularly what neighborhoods you want to focus on, and while you don’t want to be too picky, make sure you see various options before deciding. When I moved to Ditmas Park last October (really every time I’ve moved in New York), I was so eager to just find a place and be done with it that I ended up in an apartment I didn’t love. I am now moving again. Just keep in mind that you’re probably paying a lot for this place and that there are countless options, especially now.
2. But with that said, lower your standards for apartments—you’re paying for the city, not the place.
It’s true that there’s a huge variety of housing in NYC, but our living standard in New York is a bit different from the rest of the country, in numerous ways. If you’re young and on a budget, chances are the place you’re living will be quite small and possibly have some issues (mice, five floor walk-up, shitty roommates…always exciting waiting to find out what you’ll hate about your living arrangement). Because of this, IMHO the single most important factor in your choice of apartment should be location. That may not be true for everyone in every situation, but I’ve found that living in a good neighborhood can truly make or break the New York experience.
When it comes to the apartment itself, you obviously can’t have everything if you’re looking for a decent price. So decide up front what you really need. Do you need laundry in the building / apartment, or are you willing to go to a laundromat? Are you okay with a walk-up, or do you need an elevator? Would you feel comfortable living on the first floor? Do you mind if the nearest train station isn’t super close? Does it have to be renovated? If you’re not living in a new-ish building, sometimes even if you are, there will be rodents. Having a cat can seriously be helpful. I am creepy and obsessed with mine, so I find it kind of charming when they bring me dead mice. Something else to consider—if you’re gonna get a cat or any other pets, make sure the apartment allows animals. And just be mindful of anything problematic. This seems obvious, but at the end of the day it’s crucial to strike a balance between being too picky and not picky enough.
My best friend looked at one place a few years ago that was very nice…except for the fact that her bedroom would’ve been in what used to be the front room of a store. Meaning that in addition to it being on the first floor in a not so great neighborhood, there was a huge, huge window with no bars that someone could easily throw a brick through. People could’ve literally looked in on her like a zoo animal while walking by, which is kind of hilarious, but this is one example of the type of odd thing to be aware of when searching for an apartment in the City. As is the case with most things in life, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
3. You really don’t need a car, and generally it’s a big pain to have one.
Unless you have plenty of money and need to leave the City with relative frequency, I would not recommend having a car in New York. It is literally the worst city in the country to drive in, and finding somewhere to keep your car is both a tedious process and a huge financial burden. As far as I can tell, the cost of parking per month is usually somewhere from $300-600. Public transportation is convenient and cheap, and Manhattan in particular is so small I’ve walked most of the length of it in a day (a very tiring day spent walking, but still—tip top to bottom, it’s around 13 miles). If you do regularly need to leave the City, it still may not be worth it, depending on where you’re going. Metro North and LIRR are good options, and you could always rent a Zipcar.
4. The weather kinda sucks a lot of the year, but when it’s good, it’s REALLY good.
Having spent a lot of time in Seattle (my other favorite city), which has notoriously bad weather, I can say that it’s a little known fact that New York is almost as bad. Especially if you’re coming from anywhere outside the northeast. Winters are brutal, and summers tend to be extremely hot. Everything is more intense in New York, and weather is no exception. When it’s cold, the buildings kind of create a wind tunnel effect and block out a lot of light. When it’s hot out, being in the city somehow (maybe the population density?) makes it feel even hotter. There are a lot of cloudy days, quite a bit of rain. But on the upside, when it’s good, it’s great. Late spring and early fall are absolutely gorgeous.
5. Something of an obvious one, but New York City is LOUD.
Car horns and sirens twenty-four hours a day. This was something of an adjustment for me when I moved here, and is worth considering if you have animals or young kids. Generally it’s just something you learn to live with—nothing overwhelming, although I am probably pretty desensitized to it. And the sound of a train approaching the station is pretty deafening…but whatever you do, don’t be one of those people who covers their ears in the subway. There are always a few, and they always look stupid.
6. You will very likely have to have a roommate—that’s okay, and nothing to feel uncomfortable about even if you are a little older.
Being thirty in New York is honestly the same as being twenty-five, maybe younger, anwhere else. Do not be embarrassed about having a roommate, or expect to live alone if you make less than $80K. It’s one of the more annoying things about living in NYC. Finding one isn’t hard—Spareroom, Craigslist (be careful), and Nooklyn are all good places to start. Just be ready for some awkwardness and expect that conflict resolution will be required along the way. Possibly a lot of conflict resolution. I have had several roommates, including a few bad ones. I have, debatably, been the bad roommate before too. Two easy ways to be courteous in a co-living situation—clean up after yourself, and contribute financially / materially (divide bills fairly, regularly buy essentials like toilet paper, and bring stuff for common areas if you can). I am very excited to be moving back in with my best friend from high school. She’s like a sister to me and we lived together for three years when she first got to the city, so that’s the ideal situation as far as roommates go. Try to live with a friend would probably be my number one piece of advice when it comes to sharing an apartment. Because there are just so many annoying moments built into the experience of rooming with a stranger—they’re in your tiny kitchen when you want to cook dinner, they take a super long shower right when you have to use the bathroom, etc. And those are issues even in a good situation. Bad roommates do at least make for good stories. I had a few my junior year at NYU that were so bad my family all but refused to enter the apartment due to the smell. Also they ate all my pot brownies.
7. Literally everything is at your fingertips.
Of course. It’s New York City. 100% true that it never sleeps. Most stores and restaurants are not actually open all night, but there are plenty that are, and last call at bars is at four in the morning (and they’ll usually let you stay until five). During daytime hours, there is quite literally nothing you cannot find in this city. Whatever cuisine, specialty shop, or strange fetish you’re looking for, IT’S HERE. And what’s more, it’s better here than anywhere else. The hardest part is wanting to do it all but not being able to afford it.
8. It’s pronounced HOW-STUN street, not like Houston, Texas as the spelling would suggest. If you say it wrong you’ll out yourself as a newcomer.
I don’t have too much to say about this, but this is something I hear all the time from people who do not live here and it’s annoying.
9. NYC has its own code of etiquette…try to follow it, because New Yorkers are easily annoyed.
Mostly basic courtesy, NYC edition. When the subway doors open, wait for people to get off before you get on. Also take your backpack off and put it at your feet if the train is at all crowded. Don’t take up the whole sidewalk when walking, especially if you walk slow. That in itself is an issue. New Yorkers move quickly. To the point where when I am visiting friends and family out of town, especially in other cities, I am struck by how goddamn slow everyone is. If you have a bike, stay in the bike lane. In general, don’t waste space or time. If you’re ordering food or checking out, know what you want when it’s your turn. There’s probably more I’m forgetting, but I think a lot of it is or should be fairly obvious.
10. You are constantly—truly, constantly—surrounded by people.
It can be a lot at first, or ever after several years living here, on certain days. The population density is unlike anywhere else in the country. We’re living on top of each other, which may be partially to blame for the fact that New Yorkers are, truthfully, quick to anger. On the upside, it’s only hard to make friends if you don’t try. I don’t try. I might even say I actively avoid people to some extent, but I still managed to meet plenty of people when I moved to NYC. Aside from work and school, I’ve met people while volunteering, around my building, at religious services (NYU Bronfman Center rocks!), friends’ parties, and of course, in bars. People are actually pretty friendly here when they’re in the mood to be. Don’t speak to anyone on a weekday morning subway ride (or any subway ride, really…it’s a good time to meditate), but I’ve found people here to be receptive to social interaction for the most part. When it comes down to it, in times of tragedy or hardship, New Yorkers are actually really supportive of each other. And we can always find common ground in our love-hate relationship with NYC.
11. Times Square and Midtown suck.
Time Square is for tourists and Midtown in general is for corporate types. Bars there are very fratty and restaurants are overpriced. There are a ton of iconic attractions, but otherwise this area of the City just doesn’t have that much personality…or at least it doesn’t have an interesting personality. Times Square is just stressful and overcrowded. Full of people taking selfies, kind of pointless flagships like the M&M store, and people asking you if you want to see a comedy show or follow Jesus (my answer to both is always no). Times Square is one of those things worth doing once, although realistically if you live here you’ll end up there more than once, and probably have to go to Midtown occasionally if not regularly. But there’s just so much to do elsewhere in the City, and so many less irritating, less bougie neighborhoods. So Midtown is low on my list.
12. Get to know your super, and landlord if possible. Be nice to them. You will eventually need their help with something.
I have had major problems with something or other in every single apartment I’ve lived in. I don’t think I’m unlucky…it’s just part of adulting, especially when you’re living in a pre-war building (apartment listings in New York are categorized as either pre or post WW2). There is usually only one superintendent except in large complexes, so they tend to be pretty busy and can take a while to help when something breaks. But as is the case with pretty much everyone, they’re a lot more helpful if they like you. Same with landlords when it comes to any issues with rent or late fees. Be kind, be polite, offer them a drink when they come upstairs to fix something. It makes a difference.
13. You should always carry some cash.
Good to have in case of emergencies, and there are also many, many amazing and affordable restaurants that are cash only (some of which I recommend here). Halal carts are incredible pretty much across the board, and dollar pizza is a million times better than you’d think. Hole-in-the-wall dumpling shops, Mr. Softee trucks, Gray’s Papaya—all cash only. So if you only carry cards, you miss out.
14. Despite NYC being one of the most expensive cities in the world, there are actually a ridiculous number of really good cheap restaurants…like really cheap. Eight dumplings for two dollars cheap.
As linked above, there are so many cheap places to eat in New York. So many that you can really experience the City in all its glory even if you’re broke. There have been times I’ve mostly lived off NYC fast food / counter service cheap eats—because it can literally be cheaper than grocery shopping. There are plenty of spots where you can have a great meal for under $5.
15. If the light on the top of a cab is not lit, the car is already occupied.
So I did not know this for literally like a year after moving here, and felt incredibly stupid when a friend finally explained to me why I couldn’t get a taxi to stop on a rainy day. In any kind of inclement weather, or at certain times of the week (ie. Saturday night), it will be quite difficult to get a cab. Plan for a wait, and get ready to pay a lot for an Uber, take the subway, or walk need be.
16. Trader Joe’s is the best grocery store in the City, but the lines to get in are intimidating AF.
I highly recommend TJs because they have the best prices in the City (personally, I avoid Whole Foods like the plague) and a great selection. Other than running to my corner bodega in between trips, I do all my grocery shopping at Trader Joe’s. BUT. The lines can be insane. Like winding through the store and out the door insane. So my suggestion would be to give yourself a lot of extra time and essentially block out half a day for shopping…it won’t actually take that long, but it’s very hard to gauge how long it will take. The line moves pretty fast, but still. Also, Trader Joe’s is the perfect place to not be an asshole. There are always a bunch of idiots getting in the way, going super slow, etc. Do not be one of those people.
17. It’s a good idea to research what subway line you’re living closest to before moving, because ease of public transport will really affect your life.
I hate the Q / B. I have lived off the Q / B, with no other subway lines in the vicinity, for three of the six years I’ve lived here. It sucks. Looking for an apartment next month, I will be very conscious of what trains are in the neighborhood. It’s all a matter of priority and where you’re gonna be going in the City. For example, the B and Q are great for getting to and around Manhattan. But I am definitely more of a Brooklyn girl, and it’s a huge pain to get to Williamsburg, Bushwick, and Bed-Stuy without transferring multiple times. So while it may not be your number one concern, do take into account public transport in the area you’ll be living.
18. Know exactly how much money you need and what living in New York will cost before you move.
As everyone knows and I’ve said multiple times in this post, New York is expensive. And it’s important to know specifically how expensive when you’re saving money to move here. Studios in cheap but reasonably safe areas of Brooklyn and Queens start at around $1,600. Studios in most of Manhattan are at least $2,000. A single room will be anywhere from $700-1,300 a month. Utilities are usually not included and are typically around $50 a month, give or take depending on the time of year and whether you have an air conditioner. Basic wifi plans are $50-60 a month. As far as transportation, a monthly unlimited subway pass is $127. And in my experience, you’ll need around $50 a week for groceries and incidentals for one person. So without any other expenses like loan payments or entertainment, living in New York will cost you around $1,200 at the absolute least. Obviously most people do have other bills and additional costs. When I was working a minimum wage job and really trying to be thrifty, my monthly expenses were still closer to $2,000. If you’re moving here without a job, I would suggest having enough saved to survive for at least a couple months—and honestly I tend to be kind of reckless with money and am a poor planner, so I am sure many people would suggest having even more money in the bank before moving to NYC. If you’re moving here without a solid plan, just be ready to take whatever work you can find and possibly subsist on beans and potatoes for a while.
19. You’re moving to the greatest city in the world, bar none. There is so much to do it’s overwhelming.
One of my favorite quotes about New York City, from John Updike—“The true New Yorker secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense, kidding.” Really, truly. I can’t completely explain my feelings for this City. When I was twenty-four, I left New York for a year planning to move to Seattle. I was in a weird place and wanted a change. I had also wasted all my money and needed to live with my parents for a while to save. But long story short, I wound up back in New York. And I am heavily planning on staying. Another favorite quote—“You haven’t lived until you died in New York.” (Alexander Woollcott)
It’s not for everyone, but it has everything anyone could possibly want. It has an extremely strong personality, as some places do, and endless opportunities for professional, emotional, and spiritual growth. And it’s also really cool being able to say you live here. Life automatically becomes more interesting when you move to the City, and I think it tends to stay that way.