July 27, 2008

The other night I spoke to my friend Sophie who had just returned from an afternoon of apartment stalking. It's a little like deer stalking. Only instead of taking place in the woods, it takes place in Manhattan.

In Britain there are plenty of apartments for sale thanks to the credit crunch. But there are no mortgages to buy them with. In Manhattan the problem isn't finding the money, its finding the right apartment. Or rather finding an affordable apartment that comes with sunlight. And New Yorkers have highly developed strategies and skills to get what they want.

My friend Jane got her two bedroom by befriending the doorman of the building she wanted to live in. Every time she passed by she would stop and chat - until one day he said the woman in 14-C had died. Before the obituary ran, she'd signed the lease.

I was in college when I first heard of apartment stalking. A guy I liked would make daily trips to the building he wanted to live in and hang around outside. Just being close to it made him happy. One day he asked if I wanted to join him. I stood outside on Central Park West in a snowstorm because the way he felt about the building, I felt about him. Eventually it sunk in: he would never be as excited about me as he was about the apartment.

New Yorkers also know how to navigate the newspaper real estate section. It's similar to reading the personals; you have to decipher the code. Great lobby means the apartment's a shoe-box. Northern exposure means from 4-5pm you'll get a sliver of sun. I met a broker who asked, "Do you really need light?"

When I asked why she explained it had really good closet space. You can't have everything.

Sophie has been living with a friend on the Upper West Side for the past year while she searches for her perfect place. She's become obsessed with finding The One. Every week or so a real estate broker will let her know there's something new on the market and she will tell me she is on her way to see it. Just like a blind date. She describes the location, the neighborhood, and the size. Expectations are high. I can hear the excitement in her voice.

Half an hour later she will call with the bad news. She sounds depressed and hopeless. The more this happened the more she began to explain them as bad dates. One "didn't speak English." Last month it was a 250 square foot studio in Chelsea for $2000. She walked in and walked out. "5'2" with a comb-over who smelled of stale beer."

But then she found true love on 15th Street. She had been to visit a friend who lives in the building and was told another similar apartment was opening up on September 1. She called me that afternoon. "I know where I'm going to live," she said. "It was meant to be."

Suddenly she started telling people her new address.132 West 15th Street. And she would frequently say it out loud - testing it out - the way women dreamily recite the first name of the man they want to marry.

She would open sentences with "My new apartment" and make trips to the area to scope out her future dry cleaners, pharmacy, and super-market. When we happened to be walking on 15th and Sixth Avenue she pointed to a nail salon.

"This is where I'll get my mani-pedi."

Now for the past few weeks she has been stalking the 'super'. Every building has one, a superintendent, who manages the property on site. Like every good restaurant has a maitre d'. She calls, texts and e-mails him constantly. This Monday, he's agreed to meet. Meeting the super is like meeting the parents. She got a manicure.

Just then it occurred to me to ask if she's ever actually seen the apartment. What a mistake. Mentioning this was like trying to talk to a hypochondriac about cancer. She didn't want to hear it.

"Not IF, but WHEN I get the apartment, I'll make it work."

There was no room for doubt. Plus, standards had been lowered. As long as it had running water and a front door, she'd be happy.

She had decided this is where she was living and that was that. It was an arranged marriage. I only hope when she meets the super he doesn't tell her that he's already committed her true love to someone else. With deer stalking the objective is to end up with a dead animal. Apartment stalking, the objective is to end up with a place to live - not a dead super.