Getting my priorities straight helped me find a community I love.
When I moved back to New York after five years away, it felt completely different from the city I had left. I decided to crash with my parents for a year before I ventured out into an apartment on my own. And I’m glad I did because I needed that time to decide where to live.
Choosing a neighborhood isn’t as easy as it seems
At least, not as easy as I thought it would be. I’d missed several neighborhood changes while I was gone, which sometimes seem to happen overnight. Williamsburg had run the full course of gentrification and was overtaken by chains and restaurants built more for Instagram than food. Former food deserts in Upper Manhattan now had organic grocery stores. I didn’t know what I was dealing with by just looking at neighborhood names.
What to ask before deciding to move
Asking myself a few key questions helped me figure out the type of neighborhood that’d work best for me. I had a vague idea before but hadn’t articulated what mattered most to me. And while I was very specifically looking for a place to live in New York, these questions could to apply to anyone moving to a new city.
1. Where do I spend most of my time outside of work?
I like to keep my work and personal life separate, so living near the office was never a priority for me. While I’m willing to commute to the office, I’m much more likely to flake on social events if they’re an hour away.
When I moved back, my parent’s place was more than an hour away from where most of my friends lived. I often couldn’t make that last-minute New Year’s Eve party or impromptu barbecue. So I knew easy access to those areas was important.
What I didn’t realize until I asked myself this question was that I also spent a lot of time downtown when I was out by myself. In fact, I did most of my shopping, eating out and entertainment in that area, not necessarily near my friends.
2. How much can I pay in rent?
The old rule was that you shouldn’t spend more than a third of your income on housing. Today — in New York City, at least — many landlords won’t rent to you unless your annual gross income is 40 times higher than your monthly rent.
You can calculate this by dividing your salary before taxes by 40. So, if you make $50,000 a year, try to limit your search to areas where you can find an apartment or room under $1,250.
Because I also wanted make sure I could save, have money to travel and generally live comfortably, I made it a priority to look in areas where standard rent was below my limit by at least $500.
3. How many roommates can I handle?
I had eight roommates in the apartment I lived in before moving back to New York. While I’d never want to live with that many people again, I also knew that having a roommate could save me a ton, especially since one- and two-bedroom apartments are nearly the same price in some areas.
Turns out, knowing the number of roommates you’re willing to work with can help you narrow down where you choose to live. Some neighborhoods in New York were designed with a particular type of tenant in mind. Areas that are more residential might only have three-bedroom apartments meant for families, while other areas might have a mix.
4. What would my commute be like?
Being on the right subway line was key to me, since I hate the bus and can’t drive. That alone seriously limited my options to places near train lines that could get me to the office in the morning.
I like having the time to read or listen to podcasts before starting my day, so I wasn’t opposed to a long commute. But I also didn’t want to wake up at 5 a.m. to take a ferry (sorry, Staten Island). So I limited myself to an hour-and-fifteen minute radius, which seemed reasonable to me.
When I was seriously considering neighborhoods, I made a point of timing how long it took to get there from my office.
5. Do transportation options fit my budget?
At first I considered living in neighborhoods that were farther away if they had express bus access, which is faster, cleaner and all around more convenient than the train. But I quickly wrote that out after crunching the numbers.
A monthly unlimited MetroCard is now $127 — already pushing the limits of my budget. There’s no unlimited option for the express bus, which costs $6.75 a ride. During a 30-day month, that’s more than $155 on my commute to and from work alone.
6. What’s the food and grocery selection like?
Variety aside, having a good, affordable grocery store and good, cheap take-out places can be a lifesaver. Having access to a late-night grocery store instead of ordering delivery or picking up a $5 sandwich after a night out has probably saved me thousands over the years.
So I immediately wrote off food deserts with cheap rent but not a green plant in a six-mile radius. And I also wrote off areas that only had pricey bars and grocery stores where a banana costs $10.
7. Which utility companies serve that area?
ConEd has a notorious monopoly over most of New York’s gas and electricity. Spectrum is also the only Internet provider for large swaths of the city. I’ve had bad experiences with both.
So when I found out that some areas had other options like National Grid for gas and Verizon for Internet, I started seriously reevaluating my options.
8. What’s it like at night? In the morning?
Being able to go out without traveling long distances is important to me. Equally important? Being able to run to the pharmacy (or at least a corner store) for a late-night emergency. That said, I have a 9-to-5 job and don’t want to be kept up all night by drunk people. Finding the right ratio of late-night options to residential streets was an important factor when I was looking for where to live.
But the night isn’t the only time of day that’s important. The morning can be equally as much of a deal breaker. I went to elementary school in an area with a lot of bars. This meant the sidewalks were lined with bags full of recycling that reeked of that vomit-inducing sweetness you can only get from stale beer. I will never live near a lot of bars for that reason.
9. Do I feel safe?
Crime happens everywhere and in my experience, police blotters don’t really give you a sense of your personal safety in a neighborhood. There are a few things I look for when I check out a new neighborhood based on what makes me comfortable. These might not be the same for everyone.
Do people hang out outside?
If my neighbors are comfortable hanging out outside, then I’m less likely to feel the need to make a key claw when I’m walking home. Plus it builds a sense of community, which in my experience is a great way to expand your social safety net.
If you get hit by a car on your way to the bodega, chances are someone will witness it and be there to make sure the police get called, take down the driver’s number and bring you to the hospital.
Are there enough street lights?
Dark areas can be terrifying if you’re coming home alone at 4 a.m. I don’t care if nothing happens to me — I want there to be light so I know what I’m walking into. And according to a study by the University of Chicago, adding street lights to a neighborhood can help reduce outdoor nighttime crime rates.
10. Where can I exercise?
Working out has always been crucial to my mental health. I was already the member of a gym with a hefty cancellation fee when I started looking for apartments. But I was willing to cancel that if there were good, inexpensive alternatives. While not the most important factor, having a decent gym or yoga studio nearby ended up being a tiebreaker when I’d narrowed down my options.
11. Are there trees?
While I was away from New York, I lived in a city that didn’t have many trees or public parks. I didn’t realize how much it affected me until I came back and saw how much happier (and more productive) I was around trees. I don’t need to live in a forest — I just have some kind of plant life around beyond my sad millennial succulent collection.
It didn’t take going through this whole list to realize which neighborhood I wanted to live in, but asking all of these questions reaffirmed my decision. And it encouraged me to look for apartments in that area and only that area — which I wasn’t doing before.
Since it was a neighborhood where I had friends, I was able to ask around and ended up with something virtually unheard of: a three-bedroom I could afford on my own with access to a backyard and roof, right near two trains that went to my office.
Once you’ve found the right neighborhood, check out our moving checklist to make sure you aren’t forgetting any crucial steps.