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How I found the 350-square-foot studio apartment I didn’t know I wanted

With help and luck, a writer trades rental life for homeownership

Eighteen months ago, a random fire consumed my one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan’s West Village. Thankfully, I wasn’t home; a blogging side gig had taken me to upstate New York.

After an unexpected phone call, I rushed back to the city to witness the smoke and soot of the fire’s aftermath. I tried not to feel hopeless: I had supportive, loving friends, most of whom didn’t have renters insurance, either.

Afterwards, I felt the need to more concretely plot my next step. Though I had traveled the world alone, been bungee jumping, and crashed a wedding, I didn’t know that the next milestone of my journey toward real adulthood would feel like my most exhilarating move. It would involve house-hunting—and going from a temporary, two-bedroom duplex to buying a 350-square-foot studio in a co-op building in New York City. Here’s what I learned—and what I wish I’d known before I embarked on this adventure.

Even if you think you’re not ready for homeownership, there’s no harm in weighing your options.

After the fire, my mom asked if I’d ever considered buying an apartment. Buying? I hung up the phone, shocked—but intrigued. My self-made parents rented from the time they emigrated from Seoul until their building’s management company told them that they could no longer keep their rent-stabilized rate. To consider buying, I would need their financial support; I barely had any savings myself.

It hadn’t been an immediate life goal, but I warmed up to the idea of being a homeowner rather quickly when I faced the realities of staying in my current rental, which came with an overbearing landlord. I turned my attention to the real estate pages of the New York Times and to the home listing website Zillow. I trekked to open houses near Times Square, in the East Village, and elsewhere across Manhattan over cold weekends and early evenings. Wide eyed, I started to dream about what I could afford. A 30-year mortgage still felt daunting, but the idea felt worth exploring.

House-hunting is like dating: You may have to try a few options before committing.

Despite some lingering uncertainty, I charged forward and found a real estate broker through one of the open houses I signed up for online. My broker became a matchmaker of sorts. I shared my concerns, desires, and hesitations with him. One thing I knew for sure: I didn’t want or need to be the hipster millennial in a Brooklyn loft. I never lived in or desired a big house; I wanted a cozy, manageable space in a quiet neighborhood and a solid bathroom that didn’t need much fixing. Not only was it practical in terms of cost and cleaning, I liked the idea of my home being intimate and simple. I could still find ways to maximize my space.

My broker and I peered into apartments together; he reined in my ambition when I set my sights on a fancy building in Chelsea whose board would never have approved of my media salary. Instead, he steered me toward Manhattan’s east side, where there were studios and small one-bedrooms in my budget. My parents also chimed in from a world away: Windows should face east or south, the apartment should sit at least three floors up, etc. I, on the other hand, was looking for a feeling in my gut—love at first sight—yet tried to keep an open mind. Fatigued, I wondered if I’d have the stamina or interest to keep going. Luckily, my realtor explained things every step of the way and kept my spirits up.

The home buying process will teach even the most anxious, goal-oriented of city dwellers the value of patience.

I fell for a pied-à-terre in the Woodstock Tower, a late-1920s co-op building beside a church, which appealed to my spiritual side. The wide, 32-story structure, east of Grand Central Station, marks the beginning of this little known, charming mini-neighborhood. The lobby’s entryway sits between stained-glass windows, and inside, recently refurbished elevators welcome visitors. A ground-floor garden beckons them outside.

My parents and I mulled making an offer, but our decision to do so came in too late. Then, I lost a newly renovated one-bedroom in Murray Hill. I never had a chance: Foreign investors had swooped in, willing and able to pay up front, in cash. I was starting to think this whole ordeal was a bad idea when my realtor gave me a heads up about a similarly small studio apartment at the Woodstock Tower that had yet to hold an open house. I got a sneak peek at its vistas onto 42nd Street and into the Ford Foundation, another work of iconic architecture.

The bathroom had a nice white tub and marble floors; the large fridge was kept in one of several closets. There was a dishwasher under the sink and a breakfast bar with wall-mounted shelves that framed a two-pot burner. Dark wood floors played the perfect foil to the freshly painted white walls and ceiling. I could comfortably fit a dresser or wardrobe, and could envision squeezing in a giant bean bag and a few chairs to host a small book club.

I vowed not to make the same mistake again—and put my paperwork together as quickly as I could and made an offer. To my surprise, it was accepted. I was going to be a homeowner.

You’ll always wonder if you made the right decision. But don’t sweat it.

The closing itself was anticlimactic. I signed some paperwork, was handed keys, and I had a new permanent address into which I could move the next morning. My stubbornness—and luck—had paid off.

The first night, I lay on my Murphy bed, listening to the sounds of my standing air conditioner and my boyfriend’s light snores. An air of surreality enveloped my new home. The past six months of learning and waiting had been a blur. I had been motivated by my excitement to stop moving year after year, lugging bags and boxes from rental to rental.

As impulsive as I am analytical, I wondered several times if I got a good deal or made the right decision. I mean, how can one predict one’s future happiness in an apartment? But there’s no use worrying about whether value will go up or down; the markets will do what they will. And the neighbors I’ve met so far have been lovely. There seems to be an unspoken understanding among fellow homeowners, each of whom has gone through the same process. It’s as if we’re in a secret club called “Responsible Adults Who Put Down A Lot of Money For Something That Might Fall Apart.”

Bottom line: Becoming a homeowner is empowering.

Though it wasn’t without some tedium, I’m glad I’ve invested money into a home and, if luck has it, a form of future financial freedom. Now, what was once my rent money goes towards a relatively similarly priced mortgage. Friends in and beyond my age group were surprised that I’d crossed the threshold into homeownership. I hadn’t mentioned to most friends that I wanted to own a home (and, at one point, hadn’t been sure myself), or that I had been looking for one. Unlike other milestones in millennials’ lives, house-hunting isn’t a chore you boast about on Facebook—until you have a key to show-off.

My friends and family in New York gathered around in my new studio apartment to toast this big, unforeseen step. We talked about what “home” meant to us—a comfortable place to retreat and relax. Buying a home, of any size, could be the best decision I’ve made. I don’t know yet. So far, I’m not sure, but I am proud.

Ko Im is a New York-based editor and writer. She teaches yoga and meditation and is the author of Broke, not Broken.

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