I have lived in New York City for 11 years (15 if you include college which, for the sake of the math that’s about to happen, I won’t) during which time I’ve lived in nine different apartments.
NINE apartments! Do you know how many moves that is? Of course you do because you can read and it is NINE. And while I love my current apartment more than I love anything else in this world (except for my dogs, my boyfriend, my family, spaghetti bolognese and my torn-up Big Smith overalls), I will truly never forget my very first apartment. Moving that sticky sweet June was a nightmarish experience and I undoubtedly paid hundreds of dollars more than I should have for a fifth-floor walk up above a lovely Thai takeout place I would soon consider my second kitchen. But it was mine and I loved it.
And yet: eight moves and eight apartments later, I have a few things I would tell myself if I could go back in time and accompany a dewy-cheeked me, Casper the Friendly Realtor-style, on my search and subsequent year-long lease.
But since ghosts are rarely that utilitarian and Elon Musk hasn’t cracked the whole time-travel thing, I’m just going to share them with you.
Money (In Your Bank Account) > Location > Space.
I’ve said this before about moving to New York City but it basically applies to anywhere: Forget about living in a “cool” neighborhood or near work or a short commute or any of that nonsense. Move to a neighborhood that allows you to live in a not-entirely-terrible apartment that you can actually afford. Use the money you save on rent to explore the city and also to buy lots of cheap wine that you will drink in bed with your best friend.
That said, a hallway is not a kitchen and a crawlspace is not a bedroom.
Don’t let a realtor talk you into something you can’t stand. But do make sure your apartment meets the legal definitions of a habitable, residential space — especially if you are looking in a city with notably limited and therefore insanely expensive stock, like San Francisco — and that it has all the utilities and amenities you need. If you don’t cook much, sacrifice your kitchen space for a closet. If clothes aren’t your thing, prioritize lots of windows! It’s your first apartment, and it might be the size of a Q-tip box, but you should love it because it’s yours.
Pick your paint colors wisely and not on a drunken whim.
I What’s App-ed my best friend and former roommate (we lived together in that fifth-floor pumpkin seed of an apartment in the East Village in 2005) and asked her what advice she’d give our 22-year-old selves, and she reminded me that we decorated our very humble abode by gluing board games (Candy Land, among others) onto our walls and drunkenly painting our respective bedrooms watermelon pink and Miami Dolphins teal.
…You know what? I was going to use this anecdote as a case for why you should not do what I did but fuck it: I have the fondest memories (and hilarious photos) of that place and, well, it makes for a good story. So do you and paint your bathroom neon yellow if that makes you happy. But also: Ikea is your best friend and if you’re going to spend any money on anything, it’s a couch. The rest you can scavenge, buy on Craigslist and rural junk shops, or wheedle out of your friends and family.
As you should with every move for the rest of your life, use this opportunity to get rid of stuff. Keep the bare minimum (plus all your shoes) and let this be the start of a lifetime of loving accumulation. Give yourself a few months to find the perfect lamp. Buy that weirdo portrait you found on Etsy and hang it above your bed. Your first apartment, like going to college, is one of the few blank slates you get in your life. Allow yourself the time to fill it in meaningfully.
Roommates are you and your bank account’s best friend.
Moving out of your parent’s house or your college dorm and into your first apartment is a big deal. Resist the urge to do it alone. I have always been a solitary person (and somehow managed to avoid having the quintessential freshman year roommate), but living with my best friend and, eventually, her boyfriend, our first year out of college was. the. best. We had a standing date for Wine Wednesday, wherein we alternated weeks picking up three bottles of what was then Two Buck Chuck from Trader Joes, a wedge of triple cream brie, the best baguette $3 could buy and a package of pre-sliced prosciutto. If we were feeling fancy, we splurged on cherry tomatoes and olives. We got ready to go out together. We walk-crawled-stumbled to the corner deli for bacon, egg and cheese breakfast sandwiches on Sunday mornings before curling into one of our beds and marathon-ing Grey’s Anatomy or The O.C. I cried on her floor and she cried in my arms. We both saved money and we gained a lifetime of blurry, so-cozy-as-to-actually-be-very-cramped, city-sparkled memories. Win-win.
Don’t get a pet.
Seriously: don’t get a pet. (Yet!) I say this as someone who has two dogs, one of which I acquired in the aforementioned pumpkin seed apartment and neither of which I would give up for all the penthouses in the world, BUT: Pets are expensive (even if you adopt, which you 100% should), time-consuming and likely to cost your security deposit. (Trust me.) Just wait. Give yourself a few years to live a commitment-free life and then once you’re bored with drinking after work, impromptu day trips and staying out all hours of the night, march yourself to the local shelter and take home a loving, furry and needlessly homeless roommate. You’ll both be better off for it.
And until then: do the rest of it. Come home, get into your bed, pull your comforter up under your chin, look around you and smile because the apartment you’re in? It’s yours.
Illustration by Emily Zirimis.