apartment searching during covid-19

An eerily empty High Line, in the author’s West Chelsea neighborhood. (Sascha Kilmer/Getty Images)

Editor’s note: Writer Jordi Lippe-McGraw will be chronicling her family’s apartment hunt in a changed New York for StreetEasy. This is part 1 in her series on apartment searching during COVID-19. Look for more installments of her story here throughout the spring.

With spring around the corner, I found myself in a similar situation to many other New Yorkers: needing a new apartment. The lease on the 1-bedroom West Chelsea apartment I share with my husband and 21-month-old son will be up in May, and with a rambunctious toddler, we’re itching for more space. So at the beginning of March, we started looking at listings on StreetEasy and chatting with real estate agents. Then coronavirus hit.

Apartment Searching During COVID-19: What We’re Looking For

Obviously, the pandemic situation is changing daily. Our apartment requirements are not.

We currently have a 1-bedroom with three large closets. Our living space is big enough to accommodate a sleeper sofa, chair, side table, dining table, and a lot of toys. The bathroom is also large, with a separate tub and shower, and the entryway has a spot for the stroller. Bonus: Electric is included in the rent.

apartment searching during covid-19 - jordi and family

The author and her family. Their current lease is up in May.

But alas, all is not perfect. Our outdated galley kitchen makes it impossible to have more than one person cooking — especially since our chihuahua, Taco, has claimed it as her own. And if the oven is on for even a second, the entire apartment feels like a sauna for hours.The biggest problem of all? Our son currently sleeps in a converted closet. It’s big enough to fit a crib and a dresser/changing table, but it’s in the living room. Once he goes to sleep, we lose all access to the common area. That means no enjoying dinner or watching Netflix on the couch after 7:30 p.m. Not exactly ideal for me and my husband’s alone time.

We’re hoping to find a 2-bedroom, or a large 1-bedroom that’s convertible. The living room needs to fit at least a sleeper sofa (for the in-laws’ visits) and a dining table. Decent closet space is important, too, to hide various household items, toys, and bikes. A pet-friendly building with an elevator is a must. Amenities like a children’s playroom, a terrace, additional storage, and modern finishes would be welcome bonuses. And if there’s an in-unit washer and dryer? Sign me up immediately.

apartment searching during covid-19

The living area of the author’s West Chelsea rental.

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At First, It Was Real Estate as Usual

When we began our search, the spread of COVID-19 was certainly in the news, but it had not yet taken over the city. Everyone was still going to work, people were still dining out, and everything was pretty much normal in the world of real estate. There was no concern around attending open houses, setting up showings, or making plans to move in a few months. But within a week, our carefree hunt suddenly became uncertain and nerve-racking.

Then the Virus Became Impossible to Ignore

By the end of that first week of March, people were already on edge — using their sleeves to open doors and washing their hands more often. I was nervous about touching anything and jumped every time I heard someone cough. But the subways were still at full capacity, and an open house on March 8 for a converted 3-bedroom in Tribeca was still a go.


The Tribeca apartment was 800 square feet, with a large kitchen and plenty of amenities.

The apartment, which featured a sizable entryway, an open kitchen, and city views, was filled with people coming and going. The scene was the exact opposite of social distancing. The number of people was overwhelming. I was slightly stressed at being in such close quarters with so many potentially infected strangers. But the fear wasn’t enough at that point to stop me from walking through the building to see the amenities, which included direct access to an Equinox gym, a children’s playroom, and a residents’ lounge. I even shared a computer with several other people to input my information, the thought of which now makes me shudder.

Coronavirus was clearly on the minds of many others, too. The current residents, who were present during the showing, were visibly uncomfortable with the number of people in their home. One man had a bottle of hand sanitizer attached to his belt. Later, the agent sent a walkthrough video of the apartment, and I noticed he was wearing latex gloves while showing off the space.

Sure enough, just days later, my husband was told to work from home after several people tested positive for coronavirus. The number of cases started to climb rapidly, and predictions were nothing short of catastrophic. Less than a week after that first open house, instead of signing a lease on a new home, we found ourselves taking refuge at my in-laws’ house in Pennsylvania.

Brooklyn Rentals Under $3,500 on StreetEasy Article continues below

Virtual Apartment Hunting From Afar

As we began to settle in with my in-laws, we decided to forge on with our apartment hunt. New listings were still coming up on StreetEasy, and we had until the end of May to move. The problem, of course, is that apartment searching during COVID-19 means not getting to see the apartments in person. (At least not immediately.)

My husband reminded me that I had moved into our first West Village studio without ever setting foot inside until moving day — and stayed for six years. But he’d seen it, and that made a big difference. Now, we have to make a decision just from watching a video, reading the listing carefully, and checking out the block on Google street view.

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More COVID-19-Related Content on StreetEasy

This move will be the most important in our 11-year history in the city together. We lived separately in Hell’s Kitchen before moving to our West Village apartment, ventured to a historic-hotel-turned-rental-building on the Upper West Side for a year, then went back downtown to West Chelsea. But now, our son is our top priority, and we’re determined to stay put for a while.

The weight of the decision is compounded by the what-if factor. What if there’s a construction site right out the window? What if the living room has some awful angle we couldn’t discern in the photos? What if there’s chipping paint that could create a hazard for our curious toddler? It’s daunting, especially at a time that’s already filled with so much uncertainty.

Who knows what the outcome will be? All I know is that I’ll keep writing about how we navigate the unique experience of apartment searching during COVID-19. Stay tuned.

Inspired to find your next place in New York? Whether you’re looking to rent or to buy, search NYC apartments on StreetEasy.