Bright Lights, Big Rent Check

You can work here, but don’t expect a decent place to live

"Housing is very expensive," said 31-year-old Sally, an accountant in Boston who asked that her real name not be used. "It's usually half my monthly salary. I have to live in the city because I work for the city and that's a requirement. I can't even remotely start thinking of owning a home yet—I have too much debt right now. Maybe in two years." Fran (not her real name), a 27-year-old college faculty assistant and single mother, is moving from northern Massachussetts to a smaller, more expensive space in Boston. She will pay more than 50 percent of her income in rent in order to cut down on her commute and be closer to child care. "I imagined owning a home at my age, but with the high prices it's too hard," she said. "Plus, now that I have a baby I can't even afford to entertain such a dream."

But owning a home, even in New York City, is not impossible for all young people—just extremely difficult. Maya, 27, and her husband became owners soon after they got engaged, about two years ago. "We both knew we were going to live in New York for a long time," explained Maya (not her real name), "and we were done with throwing money away on rent."

The resolute young couple cashed out their 401(k)'s and sank all their savings into a 550-square-foot one-bedroom on the Upper West Side. The co-op was a bargain at $200,000 with only a $400 monthly fee for maintenance, but it needed a new kitchen. They scrimped on the renovations, buying their own materials at Home Depot and living for eight months under a fine layer of dust. "It was the most frustrating thing in the whole world," Maya said. "I seriously think it was harder than planning the wedding."

Maya, a freelance photographer, works from home; her husband, a business manager, owns an office nearby. They are now on the right side of the market; their apartment has at least doubled in value, and with the brand-new kitchen, it could probably fetch even more. But Maya wouldn't necessarily advise other twentysomething New Yorkers to follow in their footsteps. "I have a lot less space than my friends that rent. My neighbors are old farts who are grumpy or clinically insane. You also have to commit to a neighborhood and you can't live in a very centralized location. And it is hard to muster together all the money that you have saved up for a down payment. Especially if you have other debts, that's really tough."

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