I moved to New York City like most do — with six seasons of “Sex and the City” under my belt and a summer internship in Midtown that convinced me I knew what it was like to be a New Yorker. What was not advertised about Carrie Bradshaw’s understated pre-war walk-up was the plethora of issues that may come along with living in a 155-year-old apartment building.
After three months of personalizing my own charming third-floor unit of a Brooklyn brownstone, a reality check arrived at my doorstep. First came the roaches, then the bed bugs, and last but certainly not least, the mice. It was the holy trinity of pests. I was devastated and knew I had to get out.
What came next was two months of sleeping on my couch to avoid the bed bugs, and figuring out what to do with little money and no experience when it came to New York City tenants’ rights. A month later, I was able to walk away from my lease with a glowing reference letter from my landlady and my security deposit in hand. Here’s how I got out of my infested apartment, scot-free.
You might have to hit rock bottom.
The first step in getting out of a lease due to infestations is to truly hit rock bottom. Breaking a lease and finding a new apartment requires an immense amount of determination, which really, is often born out of desperation. For me, that moment was the first time I slept in my bed — a month after my apartment was fumigated — and woke up with bites. I was losing sleep and living in constant paranoia thanks to the mice and roaches nibbling at the contents of my pantry, and I knew these pests weren’t going anywhere. I spent sleepless nights budgeting what little money I had, asking family for help, and going through a million Reddit threads to figure out my plan of action.
Document, document, document.
From bites to bedbug eggs, roaches, and mice droppings, “document everything,” says landlord and tenant law attorney Samuel Goldberg. “Always take photographs of anything that’s wrong in your apartment. You want to have proof that it existed,” he says. You should also have proof, in the form of an email or certified letter, that you notified your landlord of the issues. This will definitely come into play if things get dragged into court. “One of the requirements is notice,” he says. “The landlord has to be put on notice that there is something wrong in your apartment.”
Let’s say the conversation with your landlord doesn’t go too well. As a tenant in New York, you’re still entitled to a habitable rental unit. “You can immediately call 3-1-1, which is [the Housing Preservation and Development department],” says Goldberg. “HPD would send an inspector and they would look around your apartment. HPD would issue a violation against the landlord if there are habitability issues. By having this violation issued by HPD, it’s prima facie evidence that there is an issue in your apartment.” At that point, if you refuse to pay your rent as a result of an unresolved habitability issue and your landlord takes you to court, you’re able to cite the documented violations.
Decide to leave and don’t be deterred.
Having to upend your life due to infestations is something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. It’s grueling, time-consuming, and tempting to give up on, but the alternative is far worse. If your landlord won’t compromise, you’re not stuck. Thanks to something called constructive eviction, tenants have the ability to break their lease without penalties due to unlivable circumstances. Worried that if you leave, it might create a hostile scenario with your landlord? “My response to that is if the landlord is refusing to make repairs of your apartment, they’ve created the hostile situation,” says Goldberg.
Avoid trouble in the first place.
When I was apartment hunting, I functioned in a Pinterest bubble. I wanted a warm, vintage aesthetic with a few coffee shops and a train nearby. I wasn’t looking into complaints against the landlord or the building’s inspection history. I didn’t look in the cabinets for mouse droppings or cracks and gaps in the structure, where roaches enter through. Don’t make the same mistakes I did. There are plenty of resources, like the HPD building look-up website, apps like Nextdoor and Igloo, and old-fashioned human interaction. After the real estate agent leaves, stick around and talk to people who live in the building. Get a feel for what you’ll be getting yourself into.
Make sure your landlord is a decent human being.
A huge factor in me walking away from my lease, security deposit and reference letter in hand, was my kind-hearted landlady. I came to her and asked if I could be let out of my lease. It wasn’t accusatory or stern — honestly, it was a little pathetic. I did cry. “I wouldn’t want this for my own daughter,” were her exact words to me. When viewing apartments, don’t just factor in location, natural light and whether or not there’s an elevator. While all important things, what’s equally (if not more) important is who owns the building. Make sure they are decent, responsive and involved. It makes a world of a difference.
Your mental health comes first.
“Money comes and goes.” That’s what someone told me when I was deciding whether or not to move. At the time, I was broke and angry at her for saying it, but in hindsight, she was right. Having a safe, habitable home is non-negotiable. I cleaned out my bank account and borrowed money from family members in order to move, and it was the best decision I could’ve made. Being eaten alive by bugs every night, having mice scurrying through the kitchen, and roaches climbing your bed posts is not a way for anyone to live. Talk to your landlord. Call 311. And if all else fails, just leave. You’ll figure out the rest.
Thirty percent: It’s the number you hear the moment you fill out your first rental application. Don’t spend more than 30 percent of your income on rent. No, you can’t rent this apartment if your income isn’t three times the monthly rate.
However, if you live in a high cost of living area, or anywhere for that matter, you’ve probably wondered whether this rule still makes sense. As housing costs continue to soar, is it even reasonable to expect to pay less than 30 percent to keep a roof over your head?
Some city dwellers who understand the reality of renting (and buying) these days are considering a new benchmark: Never live somewhere you can’t cover with one paycheck.
To see if this rule of thumb is financially feasible in the eyes of the experts, I asked personal finance and real estate professionals for their two cents. Here’s what they had to say.
“It depends on your phase of life.”
Catherine Alford, author of Mom’s Got Money, says it’s not a black and white answer — there are many areas of gray. “It depends on your phase of life and your current level of responsibility,” she explains.
For her target audience of millennial women, the 25 to 30 percent rule still holds strong, primarily because of the bevy of other financial responsibilities on their plate, including student loans, investing for retirement, paying for daycare, and saving for a rainy day. “For them, spending an entire paycheck on rent doesn’t leave much room for other needs and wants in life,” she says.
On the other hand, she notes that an urban young professional without a car or family has more flexibility in whether they allocate an entire paycheck towards rent.
In either situation, looking at the long term should come into play. “Personal finance is about looking at your life as a whole and deciding where to prioritize funds based on what you value most,” Alford says. “For some people, that will be where they live and, for others, they might live in a more affordable location to better reach other financial goals, like traveling, investing in retirement, and paying off high-interest loans.”
“Put 50 percent of earnings towards basic needs” with the 50/30/20 rule.
Johannes Larsson, the CEO of Financer.com, acknowledges the 30 percent rule is outdated, but says it was put into place with good intentions. It was designed to help balance living expenses with other financial goals like paying down debt and saving for retirement, as well as enjoying life.
Instead of designating an entire paycheck for housing costs, however, he advises others to put the 50/30/20 rule into place, with 50 percent going to necessities. Larsson says, “Put 50 percent of earnings to the basic needs, including food and rent, 30 perccent to your wants, and 20 percent to your savings and debt repayments.”
“I paid off my student loans early by keeping housing costs to less than 15 percent.”
Eryn Schultz, founder of Her Personal Finance, a financial education platform for high-earning women, was able to pay off $184,000 in student loans thanks to below-average housing costs.
“Many millennials are putting 10 percent or more each month to student loans. If you’re also spending more than 30 percent of your income on housing, it’s tough to make ends meet,” she says. “I paid off my student loans early by keeping housing costs to less than 15 percent of my pre-tax income. Sometimes that meant living in a group house to pay $750 per month, but it was worth it!”
“It boils down to your lifestyle and what you prioritize.”
While rules are great for setting a framework, Justine Olson, senior communications manager at Credit Karma, adds, “How much you put aside monthly for rent boils down to your lifestyle and what you prioritize. Determine the lifestyle you want to lead, calculate your budget, and set your savings goals to get an accurate picture of how much rent you can afford each month.”
She says the key is to be honest about what you spend and where you spend it. You may be able to spend an entire paycheck on rent — but that will come with cutting other areas, like travel, dining, or entertainment.
In high cost of living areas, “Rent is incredibly expensive, but incomes also tend to be a little higher.”
Jonas Bordo, the CEO and co-founder of rental site Dwellsy, talks to renters across the country daily, so he hears plenty of on-the-ground input on housing cost rules.
He notes that it usually boils down to the state of the market. “In New York or San Francisco, it might be completely rational to spend 50 percent of income on rent,” he says. “In those markets, rent is incredibly expensive, but incomes also tend to be higher, so many renters can make this work.”
Still, many renters in other cities can find great places for less than 30 percent of their income — and should do so to keep other financial priorities in balance.
“Rule or not, it’s already happening.”
To end with a reality check, Adam Garcia, founder of The Stock Dork, says, “Rule or not, it’s already happening: reports are showing that many, in fact far too many Americans are spending over half of their income on rent. But, keep in mind, ‘is’ and ‘should’ are two different things.”
You and your other housemates have finally reached a breaking point: It’s time for your loud/dirty/disrespectful/destructive/insert-other-frustrating-adjective-here roommate to go. Whether it’s because they refuse to chip in for utilities or they haven’t cleaned their bathroom in months, you all agree that they need to move out — now.
But can you actually “evict” a roommate? And is there any possible way to do so graciously, so as not to burn the bridge forever?
According to Andrew Chen, an attorney who’s also a landlord and real estate investor, you can’t technically evict your roommate — only the landlord can do this, and only for certain reasons as defined by local laws. But there are some steps you can take to help gently (and respectfully) nudge your roommate out the door.
If the roommate is on the lease …
If your unruly roommate is on the lease and you can prove that they’ve violated some of the lease’s provisions, you may have luck taking this information to your landlord. But, in addition to royally infuriating your roommate, this approach could also backfire on you, Chen says.
“Bear in mind that your landlord in this scenario is also entitled to evict you as well, since you are most likely jointly and severally liable for the lease,” he says.
If your roommate hasn’t actually violated any of the lease terms, try sitting them with them for an open, honest conversation about their behavior, concluding with the fact that you’d like them to find somewhere else to live.
“The best you can do is to politely but firmly convey that living together is no longer tenable and you’re requesting the other person to move out,” says Chen, who also runs the personal finance site Hack Your Wealth.
If that doesn’t work, you may have to be the one who moves out, which may mean finding a subletter, breaking the lease, or talking to your landlord about other options. It won’t be easy, but if your roommate’s behavior is making you pull your hair out, it may be worth all the hassle.
If the roommate is NOT on the lease …
If the roommate is not on the lease, you may both be in trouble if you try to involve the landlord, says Chen. If you tried to sneak in an extra roommate without telling the landlord, they may kick all of you out for breaking the lease’s terms, depending on what your specific contract says.
“Landlords can typically evict such occupants without cause,” Chen says. “But depending on the circumstances, the landlord may also be able to evict you if you invited an unauthorized roommate to live in the unit.”
Similarly, when there’s no lease, the landlord can evict you and your roommate at basically any time. But you both may have some recourse in court if you claim that an implied lease exists, especially if your landlord has been cashing your rent checks all along.
“Local landlord-tenant laws will govern the eviction process in such cases,” Chen says.
Whether there’s a lease or not, and whether your roommate is on said lease or not, it’s always a good idea to have a candid discussion about your expectations before moving in together, Chen says. Take photographs of the rental unit before you move in and write down your agreed-upon “rules of engagement” for living together (e.g. who will take out the garbage, and how often? How will the bathrooms get cleaned? What about the music volume or having people over?).
That way, you have documentation to call upon when your roommate starts behaving badly. And if that gentle reminder doesn’t sway your roommate to change, you may just have to cross your fingers that she agrees to move out.
“I suggest just having a frank discussion that their behavior is impacting your ability to live in the unit peaceably and, if things don’t change after that, saying that things are not working out and you’d like to ask your roommate to leave,” he says.
Months and months spent at home might mean you’ve gotten to know the habits of your neighbors pretty well. Maybe you’ve seen them heading out for an errand or taking their dog on a walk and wondered: What kind of place do they come home to?
If you live in an apartment building, it’s very possible your upstairs or downstairs neighbor walks into a space that looks almost exactly like yours, just with different furniture and art hanging on the walls, right? How does someone with the exact same layout, the exact same square footage, and the exact same landlord off-white paint style their space?
Kate Huneke and Brittany Manning are two apartment dwellers living in similar units in a new build on New York City’s Lower East Side. Their two-bedroom apartments share most of the same features: large windows, light oak floors, and large cylindrical columns in the living rooms and bedrooms.
Huneke, along with a roommate, and Manning, with her husband, started with near-identical blank canvases, but they’ve come up with different ways to work with the amenities and quirks of their rentals.
Walls of glass dictate the apartments’ layouts.
Both apartments are graced with impressive floor-to-ceiling windows that sold the tenants on their spaces, but definitely impacted flow and furniture placement.
“I think the windows were probably the deciding factor for where most things go,” Huneke says. “I think it looks unnatural to have furniture up against floor-to-ceiling windows… so, with bigger pieces of furniture, I try to have them up against the wall so they’re not getting in the way of things.”
To maximize views, each couch was placed facing the windows, with a mounted TV on the opposing wall.
Without using paint, Huneke successfully splashed her apartment’s bright white walls with art and color. She chose a green chinoiserie diptych, a hand-me-down from her mom, to hang over the couch (and cover up built-in electrical panels on the wall).
Manning settled on a more minimal, traditional look with infusions of warmth in the form of gold accents, plants, and cut flowers.
Structural columns added a design challenge.
The living rooms and bedrooms in both apartments feature large structural columns. Along with the natural light let in from the windows, Manning was attracted to the look of the pillars when she first saw the space.
“The light is gorgeous in the building… and we absolutely fell in love with the layout,” she says. Like plenty of others during the pandemic, she opted to stick a Peloton in a conspicuous place in her home. “We’ve just kind of accepted it into our decor at this point,” Manning says of the bike, which sits next to the pillar in her living room.
Huneke, meanwhile, recognizes that the cylindrical features hindered her furniture placement slightly. “They just kind of get in the way a little bit,” she says. “It doesn’t look exactly how I would like it, but I figured it out.” To remedy this, she placed a shag statement chair next to the column in the living room and a glass nightstand beside the one in the bedroom to keep the views out the window uninterrupted.
Dining tables anchor the main living spaces.
The renters placed their dining tables in the same spots, which created a zone that divided the open-concept kitchen from the living area. Huneke says her table, a burl wood piece, is one of her favorite design elements of the whole rental, and she uses it as a WFH spot. “Burl wood with leather always looks nice,” Huneke says. “Textiles are important to me; I think they add a lot to the space.”
Manning, too, says she wanted to add texture to the all-white apartment. “[The unit] definitely has a modern element to it, which is kind of the polar opposite of what I would say is what my preferred aesthetic would be, so immediately I wanted to bring things into the unit that would kind of warm them up, make them feel softer,” she says. She hung a golden pendant light above her dining table for added glow, literally and figuratively.
The primary bedrooms come with a twist.
Like the living rooms, each main bedroom has floor-to-ceiling windows, as well as a pillar. The bedrooms also have a funky cutout in the wall, which each tenant decided to approach differently. The Mannings’ opted to position their bed within the alcove facing the windows so they could look out to the trees.
“Same reason with my desk — having nature’s beautiful backdrop feels special living in a metropolitan area,” Manning says. To make the bed work within the alcove, they placed ultra-skinny nightstands on each side to fit in the small space.
Huneke’s bed faces inward. “Having the bed against the wall would be the natural choice, but I tried to make it work with things I already owned,” Huneke says. She wanted to squeeze a set of drawers into that small alcove on the left side of the room “to fit the dresser into a space that wouldn’t look wonky, as it’s tall rather than low and wide.”
Freestanding shelving and storage completes each space.
If Manning could change one thing about the apartment, it’d be fixing the lack of shelves. “There are a couple of nooks and crannies in the apartment where maybe it would be nice to add in a little bit of shelving,” she says.
Although the apartments have five closets apiece, they’re lacking in built-in storage. As a solve, Manning and her husband have an etagere in the hallway where they display books and travel finds, while Huneke stores books on the windowsill and on a vertical book tower in her bedroom. Both renters pulled together each space with punchy decor and one-of-a-kind furnishings.
“Of course it’d be awesome to, you know, take down a wall or paint a wall, or just make structural and real aesthetic changes that can change the feeling of a place,” Huneke admits. But that’s not in a renter’s playbook — and that’s OK. Art, accessories, and smart layout choices can go a long way.
“If you’re looking to personalize your space, I mean, there’s no greater teacher than COVID,” Manning says. “You want to surround yourself with things you enjoy looking at — because who knows when you’re going to be stuck inside for a little while.”