Thanks to TV and movies, most New York City transplants have pretty unrealistic expectations when it comes to apartment size. Between Monica Geller’s kitchen and Carrie Bradshaw’s closet, how could a kid from the Midwest possibly steel themselves for the gritty reality of their first New York City apartment? With the help of a healthy dose of reality from my StreetEasy colleagues, I compiled some of our stories — including my own — and lessons learned from our first New York apartments.

Maggie (Me), StreetEasy Marketing Coordinator

‘Yorkville dungeon with sprawling views of a cigarette-ridden airshaft’ 

my first nyc apartment

From left: the entryway into my bedroom; the window into the airshaft; the airshaft’s cigarette graveyard.

How I Found It: Fueled by the desperation to move out of our parents’ houses ASAP and the standard “this is gonna go fast!” pressure from our broker, my roommate and I looked at a grand total of two apartments before committing to the first one we saw. We signed the papers that day.

The Apartment: A two-bed, two-bath duplex on the ground floor of a small building on 82nd Street, off Second Avenue in Yorkville. While we were initially charmed by the living room’s exposed brick, the rickety spiral staircase and the concept of having two whole floors to ourselves, the downside to having perpetually dark bedrooms in the basement quickly took its toll. Getting out of bed in the morning without the help of natural light felt like an unnatural feat of human strength. And the complete lack of fresh air didn’t help me feel ready to greet the day, either. Plus, sleeping in the basement of a New York City building was pretty much a guarantee for weekly battles against cockroaches and other subterranean critters. Once, a seemingly endless horde of tiny flies began to swarm out of my electrical socket for no apparent reason. And while I envied my roommate’s window out into the real world, its positioning just below the rowdy sidewalk traffic and into the building’s garbage storage area wasn’t exactly ideal either.

Lesson Learned: See more than two apartments before jumping on one. Avoid living underground, if possible.

Long, StreetEasy Senior Support Specialist

‘Harry Potter cupboard in the East Village’

A diagram of Long's first apartment. On the bottom left, the bedroom he shared. He slept in the lofted area that was too small to stand up in.

A diagram of Long’s first apartment. On the bottom left, the bedroom he shared. He slept in the lofted area that was too small to stand up in.

How He Found It: Long was living at his parent’s house in Berkeley, CA, when he accepted a position to work at StreetEasy. Via online search, he found many Harlem apartments that fit his budget, but a friend advised that it would be a long commute to StreetEasy’s Soho office. This same friend invited Long to move in with him so that he could explore NYC and take his time finding the right apartment.

The Apartment: A “three-bed,” one-bath apartment on the top floor of an eight-story walkup on East 3rd Street and Avenue C in the East Village. Though the apartment had been advertised as a three-bedroom, only one of the rooms could be considered a legal bedroom. When Long moved in, there were four people already living there: three lessees and a mooch girlfriend. Long was lucky No. 5, moving into a storage area in the lofted portion of someone’s “bedroom.” He had to climb a ladder up to his “room” — a space too small to stand up in — where he slept on a mattress and lived out of his suitcase for six months because there wasn’t enough room for a dresser. This arrangement didn’t sound so bad to Long; it was a reasonable tradeoff to live in a great neighborhood with his friends. “I was willing to sacrifice a bit of privacy and comfort for $500/month,” he explains.

Then summer rolled around. Being on the top floor of an old brick building did not allow for great ventilation, and lugging a bike up eight flights of stairs only to be greeted by hot, stale air and scantily clad roommates was not the ideal welcome home. “It felt like it wasn’t meant for living people to be there,” he says, citing a single AC unit in the only true bedroom, and another that could only be turned on from the terrace because it was out of reach from inside the apartment.

Lesson Learned: Heat rises. Never live on such a high floor without proper ventilation.

Kerry, StreetEasy Sales Director

‘Illegal sublet in an East Village tenement’


Clockwise, from left: Kerry’s shared bedroom, the living room and the kitchen.

How She Found It: After learning a friend’s boyfriend was moving to Hong Kong and looking to sublet his apartment, Kerry and a friend took over.

The Apartment: A one-bed, one-bath apartment on the second floor of a walkup on East 9th Street between First and Second avenues in the East Village. Kerry and her roommate shared the bedroom, which held both her roommate’s large and fluffy queen-sized bed (nicknamed the “marshmallow”) and Kerry’s twin-sized lofted bed, which her father created by removing the bottom frame of a bunk bed. Lying down in her lofted bed, Kerry was not only able to touch the ceiling, but could also see through to the apartment above her as there was no insulation between her ceiling and the floor above. “Our upstairs neighbors seemed to keep all hours — they would vacuum at super weird times,” she adds. Because they were subletting illegally, any repairs to the apartment had to be routed through to their subletter in Hong Kong, who would then call the super. They kept his message on the voicemail so as not to arouse suspicion.

Kerry and her roommate never interacted with anyone in the building until the day a leak began creeping down their wall. Assuming that it must have come from the bathroom on the floor above, Kerry went upstairs to check in with the neighbors on the source of the leak. The person who opened the door didn’t speak any English, nor did the three people in the kitchen. But, they allowed Kerry into the apartment, which had no furniture but plenty of mattresses stacked up against the wall and ornaments hanging from the ceiling. She walked toward the bathroom, which was an old school toilet — a tank above the toilet with a chain for flushing — cornered off by two pieces of plywood. Next to the toilet was the source of the leak — a clawfoot tub filled with three five-gallon buckets full of live shrimp and fish.

Lesson Learned: Subletting illegally puts you in a position to be at the mercy of too many variables. Don’t do it or you’ll end up living in fear.

Sam, StreetEasy Public Relations Specialist

‘Overcrowded apartment run by one of NYC’s worst landlords’

sam's first nyc apartment

Left: Fridge in the living room. Right: Bathroom in which, from the toilet, you could put your hand in the tub and rest your chin on the sink.

How She Found It: A Craigslist find from one of Sam’s soon-to-be roommates. Shortly before moving in, a quick Google search of the landlord yielded an unsettling result — his name was on the list of NYC’s 50 worst landlords. But, desperation to move out of their parents’ houses in suburban New Jersey propelled them to take a leap of faith.

The Apartment: A four-bed, one-bath apartment in prime Williamsburg — on North 7th and Wythe, right off the Bedford L stop, close to the water. While their apartment building was surrounded by typical Williamsburg staples — luxury buildings, hip restaurants, and a flea market hawking hand-crafted anything — their building was, to put it succinctly, a dump. And their small apartment was constantly packed full of people; there were five people and a dog living in a four-bedroom apartment, and four of the residents had significant others who still lived at their parents’ house — meaning that on weekends, there were usually 10 people sleeping (and sharing one tiny bathroom) at the apartment.

Upon moving in, the apartment was already dirty, and the (only) living room window had a crack running through one of the panes of glass. They asked the landlord to fix it, but he refused. The kitchen was sparse, comprising just an oven and a stove — no refrigerator. They initially purchased a mini-fridge, but by the time they acquired a regular-sized fridge, they came to realize it didn’t fit in the kitchen — so the fridge was stationed in the living room instead. The kitchen’s countertop space was nonexistent, so any dinner prep had to be done on the coffee table in the living room; the oven was so small that cookie sheets had to be inserted at an angle in order to fit.

The building had access to a shared courtyard, which was great for all the 20-something residents to throw parties in, but not so great for the elderly woman who expressed her disdain for the noise by throwing eggs at party goers from her balcony. Because the buzzers in the building didn’t work, tenants had to go downstairs to let guests in. Between this inconvenience and the constant courtyard parties, the front door to the building would often be left propped open for guests, eventually resulting in Sam’s apartment being robbed.

Lesson Learned: If the internet tells you your soon-to-be landlord is THE WORST, heed the advice. Also, don’t prop your building’s main entrance open for the sake of convenience.

Mariela, StreetEasy Marketing Manager

‘Williamsburg boarding house run by overprotective grandma’

mar's first nyc apartment

How She Found It: After living at her parents’ house in Park Slope for a few months, Mar saved up enough money to move in with a friend. Their broker ultimately found the apartment, but there was a mad dash to sign the lease immediately so that he could get home before Shabbat. This was made all the more frantic by the fact that they had to pay their security deposit, first month’s rent and broker’s fee entirely in cash.

The Apartment: A two-bed, one-bath apartment on the second floor of a two-story townhouse in Williamsburg. The apartment had very low ceilings, wall-to-wall carpeting, extremely slanted floors and chintzy 1970s light fixtures.

The landlady, an Italian woman in her 80s, lived on the first floor with her family. Consequently, Mar and her roommate were unable to host parties, or even overnight guests. She was wary of visitors and insisted on knowing anyone who came to the apartment. “If someone was coming over regularly, we had to introduce them to her,” Mar explained. Though Mar’s roommate had a serious boyfriend at the time, she wasn’t allowed to make a spare set of keys for him. “No one could go into the apartment without one of us being there.”

Their lease was terminated early after the landlady sold the house. As reparation, she offered Mar and her roommate $1,000 each. However, she claimed that they did not clean the apartment thoroughly enough before leaving, so she kept the entire $2,500 security deposit. Very shady, grandma!

Lesson Learned: Don’t let your landlord be your neighbor. Don’t get rushed into signing a lease because you feel pressured to.

Which living situation do you think was the most unbearable?

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Think your first NYC apartment wins the award for the worst living situation? Let us know in the comments section!