Finding a Place to Live (Answering My Son’s Questions – Part 3)
Michael Gollin (with help from Max Gollin)
First decide where you will study or work. Country, region, weather, proximity to family and friends, politics, natural resources, and recreation all play a role.
Once you know the city, you need to pick a neighborhood. This depends on safety, commute, mass transit, shopping, schools, neighbors, restaurants, culture, and cost of living. I like living on the east side of DC so I don’t commute into the sun both ways.
Then you calculate what you can afford. There are rules of thumb like 30% of gross income. You can rent, sublet, or buy a condo or house. Over 10 or 20 years buying can be a good investment, but for shorter periods you have to be prepared to just break even or lose money, so renting can be a fine deal. Uncle Albie spotted the truth that the legalities of occupancy are less important than if you like the roof over your head and how well you can afford it.
I was born in faculty housing but my parents bought a house at 14 Trafalgar near the University of Rochester a few months later. Schools were bad so we went to the private Harley school. By 1968, the neighborhood had gotten worse and more violent. They sold the house for about break even and moved to Brighton, more expensive but with fine public schools, a great place for 6 years after the trauma of changing schools.
In Zurich I had three places in three years. First, I moved quickly and joined a Rotary residence. After a couple of months I found the rules annoying so I found the Freiestrasse apartment nearby for a similar price with three roommates. That was a blast. But it was on the edge of town and my lab moved in the opposite direction, and my long-term buddy-to-be Alex Kunz graduated. My name came up for student housing downtown so I took it, for even less rent and a cool old building located near everything on the Leonardshalde.
In Boston, the same– three places, three years. First year I shared an apartment with a high school buddy, sublet from our third roommate, Donna, on Park St., on the Fenway, a ride or walk through the park to school. I bought my still current desk/door from the building owner. The next year, I moved to share the top two floors of a house on Naples Ave., where I had both a bedroom and a spare room for an office. When I came back after summer working in NY I got my own one bedroom apartment at 360 Riverway for privacy. Each place was about one mile from BU law school.
New York is complicated. A whole world of connections and racing around to beat the competition. My college roommate sublet his 7th floor walk-up loft for a couple of months while he and wife were away. There was an elevator but it rarely worked. Boxes, bike, and bags up a long way! Then they introduced me to another crazy loft situation on Chrystie St. in Chinatown where a painter had a lease on the building but there was a dispute with the owner under the new tenant-friendly loft law. I paid some money to the painter and moved in. We ended up replacing the furnace and doing a lot of work out-of-pocket, but we didn’t pay rent during the dispute. Six years later I settled and Jill and I moved out, turning the space over to a new Chinese owner.
Meanwhile, I heard about homes in the Catskills Park, and in about 1985 bought a cabin in Lanesville, near Hunter ski mountain. A good place to invest my money I thought. If it appreciated OR I could rent it I would break even and have good tax breaks. If both, I would make money. I figured it was a safe investment. I enjoyed many summer weekends there and brought lots of guests. But eventually when we were leaving New York it wasn’t renting and the brokers said it would sell just below $100k. They were way wrong all the way down to $45K. I had paid $61k and invested about $15k, so it was a $30k loss. I became even more cautious with real estate as a result of that lesson. I figure it evened out somehow with my loft.
Jill and I decided to move to DC area as I lined up a job. Elliot Eder introduced us to a superb broker, unlike the ones in the Catskills, and she showed us about 80 houses until we found Chestnut Ave. We wanted a half-acre a half hour from downtown within our price range. We got almost 7 acres for less than we expected and once in a while it is still a half hour drive downtown. The neighborhood has mostly modest homes so the house has not appreciated much but that’s okay. We were able to pay off the mortgage quickly. We invested more in renovations than the original purchase price. But Uncle Albie was right because we have had a great home for an affordable price and we never wanted to move.
Editor’s note: this is part of a series of advice letters my dad wrote for me in September 2014 when I asked him for some guidance on the big things in life –Max