The Beauty of a ‘No-Nothing’ Walk-Up

Posted November 8, 2018 7:46 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — JB Reefer was always on the lookout for a place to buy, even before he met Erica Romero, who would become Erica Reefer, three years ago.

“I’ve lived in a shocking number of apartments, and a lot of things that are bad about New York go away when you own your place,” he said, noting that rising rents constitute “a core human misery in New York.”

The couple, who were engaged a year after they met, later shared a two-bedroom rental for $2,500 a month on the ground floor of a house in Astoria, Queens.

“JB loves real estate,” Erica Reefer said. “He is always scoping it out and seeing what is on the market. I am along for the ride. We wanted to start putting our money toward our future.”

In Astoria, the couple, both 29, found few appealing options. So they turned their attention to Manhattan, as JB Reefer also wanted to improve his commute to the Financial District, where he works as a software engineer. Erica Reefer works in Times Square, in human resources.

For up to $800,000, they sought a two-bedroom — or at least something with space enough to create a second bedroom — in a co-op building.

“I am pro co-op because I want to live in a nice place with neighbors who also want a nice place,” Erica Reefer said. “It is such a big deal to be buying an apartment that I want to be surrounded by people who also care about where they live.”

One priority was a dishwasher. JB Reefer does all the cooking and Erica Reefer much of the cleaning up. In Astoria, they got by with a countertop dishwasher that attached to the kitchen sink.

They also wanted to avoid full-service buildings. JB Reefer’s two dads live in a Yorkville co-op, “with porters, doormen, gardeners and paint guys, and there is so much tipping and all those rules,” he said. “I am in my 20s. I can carry things upstairs. I wanted an old-school, tenement-style, no-elevator, no-nothing walk-up.”

They emailed about a listing in a beautiful Gramercy Park building, circa 1928, that they found on StreetEasy, and heard from Karen Kostiw, a licensed saleswoman at Warburg Realty. The price was $795,000 when they saw it, having dropped from $975,000. Maintenance was about $1,250 a month. The master bedroom was less than 100 square feet, and the Pullman kitchen was advertised as “smart, sleek and the perfect size for the city dweller.” That meant a dorm-size refrigerator and minimal counter space.

“It was less of a kitchen than in most hotels I’ve stayed in,” JBReefer said. “I think that apartment is for a pied-à-terre or for the kind of person, like my friends, who don’t cook but just order out.” The apartment later sold for $750,000.

In Greenwich Village, a two-bedroom in a charming walk-up was going for about $700,000, with maintenance of $1,000. It seemed “incredible for the price, and there was probably a reason for that,” Erica Reefer said. “We were blinded by the address and the cool neighborhood.”

As it turned out, a single investor owned most of the co-op shares in the building and was renting many of the units, making a mortgage difficult to obtain.

“The fantasy was we would find something really cheap by being smarter than everybody else, but it was never that realistic,” JB Reefer said. Still, they had fun frequenting open houses, lining up an itinerary for the day and stopping for brunch.

“A two-bedroom the size they were looking for at that price point is not an easy find,” Kostiw said. She suggested their luck would improve on the Upper East Side. It did.

One option was on a ground floor in Yorkville, listed at $765,000, with maintenance of about $1,150. It had a second bathroom, but was in rough shape. “You would need to be somebody like my little brother, who works in construction, to buy that place,” JB Reefer said.

The couple also wasn’t keen on the street-level location, having spent months smelling the smoke and listening to the conversations of people walking past their Astoria rental. And they were indifferent to the shared garden. The apartment remains on the market for $729,000.

“We were a little obsessive at this point,” Erica Reefer said. “We knew every apartment under $800,000 in Manhattan. We were either not interested, or we saw it in person.”

Then, one chilly day, a new Yorkville listing appeared on a high floor in just the kind of building they liked. In a downpour, they took a cab from Astoria and arrived to find an empty open house. By the end of it, they were still the only ones on the sign-in sheet.

They loved the long, narrow layout, which meant fresh air and a cross-breeze, as well as the modern kitchen, with a dishwasher and the bonus of a combination washer-dryer. Stepping inside “was like when I met Erica,” JB Reefer said. “It was a completely different thing.”

They offered $650,000 on an asking price of $725,000, settling at $690,000. Maintenance is just under $1,500.

After they moved in this past winter with their two cats, the couple, who were married in summer, made some minor repairs: adding window screens, changing light fixtures and removing old wires that prevented a door and a window from closing. They jettisoned much of their old furniture and gave the countertop dishwasher to their old upstairs neighbors.

“All the stuff we had that looked OK in a shabby apartment in Astoria looks terrible in here,” JB Reefer said.

He carries things upstairs; she puts them away. Most of all, they are pleased to be homeowners. “If somebody tracks garbage in the hallway, I will pick it up because I own the place,” JB Reefer said.

“It’s my first homeownership experience, and it’s very different from renting,” he said. “Kind of like how being married is different from dating.”