The Hunt: They Had USD 350000 and a Dream to Live Together. Could They Make It in Manhattan?

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By Joyce Cohen from the New York Times

April 6, 2023

After years of managing a long-distance relationship, a couple decided that buying a small co-op together would be more affordable than renting forever. But they had a few requirements.

   Joy Ladin, left, and Elizabeth Denlinger in Upper Manhattan, where the couple recently bought a one-bedroom. “I got lost in the wilderness of online prequalifications,” Ms. Ladin said. “The whole thing seemed crazy and scary.” Clark Hodgin for The New York Times

Elizabeth Denlinger and Joy Ladin met in 2010 and married in 2015, but until last year, they had never shared a place of their own.

For 30 years, Ms. Denlinger rented a sunny fifth-floor walk-up in Manhattan Valley. When she moved in, the rent was USD 550 a month. Over the years, it rose to USD 1230.

“It was a tiny studio, but it wasn’t so small that my bed was in a loft,” she said. “It was a fantastic little apartment for one single person. I was a prisoner of low rent.”

Ms. Ladin, a poet and literary scholar, was living in Western Massachusetts, near her elderly mother. The couple nurtured their long-distance relationship, traveling back and forth to see each other, until the pandemic changed the script. For much of the shutdown, Ms. Denlinger, 58, a curator at the New York Public Library, stayed in Ms. Ladin’s two-bedroom apartment in Northampton, Mass.

But more changes were afoot. Ms. Ladin, 62 — the first openly transgender professor at Yeshiva University, where she taught English — suffers from myalgic encephalomyelitis, also known as chronic fatigue syndrome. In 2021, she became too ill to teach and began using a wheelchair much of the time. Then last summer, her mother died, leaving her a small inheritance.

With Ms. Denlinger set to return to work in Midtown, and with no reason to remain in Massachusetts, the couple decided to find a bigger place in New York, expecting to rent.

They barely knew where to start. “I had not done any real estate hunting for 30 years,” Ms. Denlinger said. To find her Manhattan Valley apartment, “I got a Village Voice, looked in the ads, called up the landlord and made an appointment. It was very simple.”

With rents unpredictable and rising, the two decided that buying a co-op would make for a more stable monthly payment. They figured they could spend around USD 300000 for a spacious, sunny one-bedroom with prewar charm in a wheelchair-accessible building.

Upper Manhattan was their best bet.

“We needed two rooms that could be really separate, where one was not a bathroom or a kitchen,” Ms. Ladin said. “I got lost in the wilderness of online prequalifications. The whole thing seemed crazy and scary.”

But the couple learned they qualified for a SONYMA mortgage for first-time homebuyers, which has caps on household income and purchase price. Their mortgage broker connected them with Jessica Renda, a real estate agent with Keller Williams NYC.

They thought about Harlem, but soon realized it was out of range. “In Harlem, they would be getting less space, and it was challenging to find something with light,” Ms. Renda said.

So they headed farther uptown. They also pushed their budget up, to about USD 350000, which opened more doors. “Going up USD 50000 made a world of difference,” Ms. Ladin said.

Among their options:

No. 1

Corner Unit in Hudson Heights

This corner one-bedroom, with 750 square feet, faced south and east in a six-story brick building from 1951. It had a large foyer, four closets and an eat-in kitchen that was old but serviceable. The building had a common back patio and a parking garage with a waiting list. The asking price was USD 350000, with monthly maintenance of about USD 875.

This one-bedroom was more than 700 square feet, in a 1940 building near Isham Park. It had a foyer, a sunken living room, arched doorways, built-in bookshelves, the original pink bathroom and a run-down kitchen that needed plumbing work. The price was USD 340000, with maintenance of about USD 815.

No. 3

Doorman Building in Hudson Heights

This boxy, west-facing one-bedroom was around 525 square feet, with a relatively small bedroom off the living room. It was in a renovated 1963 doorman building on a sloping street. The price was USD 328000, with a low maintenance fee of about USD 580.

WSJ Hunt 6

Which Would You Choose?

Corner Unit in Hudson Heights

Charming Prewar in Inwood

Doorman Building in Hudson Heights

Which Did They Buy?

Corner Unit in Hudson Heights


Charming Prewar in Inwood


Doorman Building in Hudson Heights


Corner Unit in Hudson Heights

The couple loved the charming prewar apartment in Inwood, but the inspection deterred them. When the kitchen faucet was turned on, water also trickled out in the bathroom.

The plumbing repairs would have been extensive. “You need to know the potential pitfalls,” Ms. Renda said. “Some stuff is cosmetic, but some goes a lot deeper, and you can’t tell without an inspection.”

She advised against buying the unit, saying, “I promise you there are other things that are wrong.”

The couple decided against the doorman building in Hudson Heights, put off by the bedroom’s proximity to the living room. “This was a big step in my real estate evolution — to realize you have to look at the floor plan,” Ms. Ladin said.

And the sloping terrain was tough to navigate. “It’s a jolly good thing we didn’t take it, because Joy is in a wheelchair, so if we go out I am pushing her,” Ms. Denlinger said.

They chose the corner unit in Hudson Heights. It lacked prewar details — no sunken living room or built-in bookshelves — but the inspector found no major problems.

The two paid the asking price and arrived last fall.

“Shares in a co-op with the mortgage held by the bank is such an abstract idea that I don’t think I get it,” Ms. Ladin said. “But it’s ours. It feels different and stable in a way that I haven’t felt since I was a kid in my parents’ house.”

Ms. Denlinger has resumed commuting to Midtown most workdays, and even enjoys her ride on the A train. “I have enough time to read and write and get stuff done on the train, and I always get a seat,” she said.

The area’s hilly terrain, however, is challenging. “You are constantly climbing or descending, so that’s hard, and it’s not a great place to be in a wheelchair,” Ms. Denlinger said. Whenever they go out, they plan their route.

Outside, they hear church bells, sirens and helicopters. Ms. Denlinger tolerates the noise, but Ms. Ladin rather likes it.

Limited by her illness, “I feel so cut off from the world,” she said. “I’ve come to realize that noise is one of the ways I can be in touch with the world — hearing children’s voices, hearing birds, even hearing traffic.”