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When my husband and I went house hunting this year, we visited over 50 properties. There was one particular Sunday when we had toured a single family home selling for over a million dollars. We left the open house with our heads bent deep in discussion. It was one of the nicest properties we’d seen, and the math might very well work for us. The garden was lovely. The exterior was handsome. We could AirBnB the lower level for income.
There was a moment of silence, and then my husband turned to me and said, “You know, if you took this house and put it anywhere else in the country, it would be considered one of the shitty houses.”
How very right he was. I’ve lived in NYC my entire adult life, and I didn’t realize how much stuff I’ve learned to ignore or put up with compared to people in other parts of the country.
For one, most of the buildings in Manhattan are over or close to a hundred years old. Look at the map below. See that sea of light blue-green and yellow? Those are buildings that were raised in 1895-1934. Every building I’ve lived in in Manhattan (with the exception of one) was easily over 100 years old.
Source: Morphology via CityLabs
This means several things for the housing stock in Manhattan.
Foundations Settle/Floors Dip
Over the years, the floors tend to slope inward. If you’re living in a nicer apartment building, they might decide to rectify this. But a renovation is expensive and leads to months of lost income, not to mention the cost of construction in the city itself plus the time and cost of permitting. Many landlords will simply keep renting the property out, particularly in the walk-up building segment. If you’re young and poor in NYC, you stick to walk-ups. An elevator building will easily cost you $1000-$2000 more in rent per month, depending on whether it comes with a doorman.
I lived in one particular unit for 5 years. The floors had easily a 4 inch slant from one side of the room to another. We couldn’t buy rolling office chairs because they would literally roll to the other side of the room if you weren’t sitting in them. We bought one chair that had casters, and one that was like a dining chair with no wheels. We bought a special, inexpensive frame for the bedroom so that we could sleep on a level mattress rather than have one of us rolling into the other because of the incline.
Once we got everything set up, living in the space was very comfortable. If you had asked me if I would be alright with living in a slanted house, I would have said it would significantly impact my happiness. Not so. I haven’t noticed the slant in years, thought guests have told me that they have.
The only other inconvenience of the dipping floors is that they continue to dip. About two or three years into our lease, the bedroom door wouldn’t full open anymore. The super had to come in and shave the door down, because the floor had apparently slanted so much that it affected the door’s path.
Most buildings do not offer dishwashers. In the case of the old buildings, the plumbing lines aren’t large enough to support extra bandwidth necessary for all the units to have dishwashers. My super told me that there used to be a very old tenant who bought herself a portable dishwasher. He looked the other way for her, but the lines would get back up occasionally because of it and he’d have to get in there and make it right. That means you hand wash every dish. A dishwasher is marvelous not only because it does the work for you, but because it also gives you a place to tuck dirty dishes out of sight until you’ve built up enough of a load to run the thing. Without a dishwasher, your dishes just stack up in the sink, which is kind of unsightly.
No Laundry Machine
Don’t even dream of owning an in-unit laundry machine. Sometimes if you live in a nice doorman building there will be machines in the basement, but most of us get by without laundry machines. There are laundromats where you can do your own laundry on the weekend, or you can sent your laundry out for about $1.25 per pound.
No Central A/C or Heat
The older buildings I’ve lived in have all used radiators for heat. Radiators are kind of annoying. It’s difficult to control the temperature. The first year I tried to turn the valve halfway because it was too hot. This caused the radiator to buck and start to crack through the wood of the floorboards. Apparently you are supposed to leave radiators completely open or completely closed. When the radiators are going, it leaches the air of moisture. During the winter, we run a humidifier every night.
When the summer hits, it’s time to turn on the window a/c units. These are modern marvels in themselves, and I’m grateful they exist otherwise I’d be sweltering in 90 degree days. Windows units can be noisy, and the distribution of cool air is uneven. We have situations where the kitchen where the a/c unit is located will be easily 8 degrees cooler than the living room, and this is only a 325 square foot apartment. What’s worse, there are regulations about which windows we can place a/c units in. Because of this, all our neighbors use the same window in their unit to place their units. When the a/c is on in the unit above ours their unit drips liquid onto ours, making a sharp pinging sound all throughout the day. It’s generally not a big deal until you’re trying to sleep. Or you just learn to play music and other sounds to drown out city noise.
A Home In the 50’s
Perhaps you’ve read this post with an increasing sense of horror as the sacrifices pile on. But these modern conveniences are incredibly recent. If you were born just two generations earlier – growing up in the 1950’s – this would have been considered par for the course. I read an interesting account from one person who grew up in the 50’s.
In my own home, we didn’t have a Fridge or a Washing Machine. You’d have The Larder for cold storage. Usually a walk in cupboard with various shelves above a plain stoned floor. Meat and Fish would be stored under a felt umbrella on a cold tin plate until cooked. Milk would be placed in a bucket of cold water and butter etc would be covered. This was offset by the fact you didn’t do so much ‘the weekly shop’, but the daily shop – and shops were more plentiful then.
This makes me feel like veritable royalty. I do have a fridge. And I don’t have to go shopping every day. I can have cold milk whenever I want, and I can freeze specialty items like lemongrass for months on end so I don’t have to run out and try and find them on the day I need them.
The author continues to open our eyes with the following:
Children’s bedrooms then were completely different; no TV, no PC, no Games Console and no massive stacks of toys. All you had were a few books and some toys, all of which would be tidied up before you went to bed or went out.
The good thing was that beds in those days were of strong build and would adequately substitute a Trampolene. Many a boy or girl’s head would come a cropper on the ceiling.
I find it hard to believe that an entire generation of people lived unhappy and depressing because they had the misfortune to be born a hundred years ago. That suggests to me that these types of conveniences aren’t necessary to live a meaningful and happy life.
Surprise! You Live Better Than Some of the One Percent!
If you have even floors, central a/c, a dishwasher, a laundry machine, or a parking spot, congratulations. You live a more luxurious life than me, which means you are living a cushier life than at least a few multi-millionaires. You have more trappings of having “made it” than some of the (former) one percent. And if you have all of the items listed above? Well, get out of your chair and do a happy dance. You’ve won the lottery for life’s luxuries and didn’t even know it.
The reason I bring this up is because of how sneaky these expenses can be. I would venture to say that most folks who call the items I listed above necessities. Once upon a time, I might have said the same. But I have said that I’m living a version of dream life, and I’ve said it while living without all the items we discussed. So how important are they really?
We’re moving into our new home at the end of the month. It has central heat and a/c, a laundry machine, a dishwasher, level floors, and a parking spot. It even has an elevator so I don’t have to carry my 30 lb dog down the stairs (oh, did I mention that part? We currently live in a fifth floor walk-up). I’m honestly a little worried about the move and what it will mean for my lifestyle inflation. I was very happy without these things. In the future, will I be happier now that I have them? Or will I just be upset if the next move puts us in a place without these items?
The thing about lifestyle inflation is that it’s never just a one-time cost. Once that item becomes incorporated into your daily life, it’s easy to consider it a baseline need. So it will cost you an equal amount every year for the rest of your life. That’s fine if it’s actually one of the things that contributes strongly to your happiness. But it’s saddening to see so many people shackled to jobs they don’t like for extra decades, just to buy things that don’t really add meaning to their lives. The parking spot that came with our apartment can be rented out for $200 a month. Add to that the cost of a lease ($300) and insurance ($100). That’s $7,200 a year to own a car each year! I could go on a luxury vacation every year for that kind of money. I could fund all of my future kids’ expensive activities with that money, or eat at every Michelin star restaurant within a 40 mile radius. Twice. I could order takeout for every lunch and every dinner all year. It’s just insane to contemplate all the things that would be more meaningful to me – at least right now – than owning a car.
A brief survey of history and my own experiences suggest to me that modern conveniences are just that – conveniences, not necessities. It’s impossible that the entire generation of people living in the 49’s and 50’s lived miserable and unfulfilled lives because they didn’t have fridges, or dishwashers, or laundry machines. If they didn’t need them, you probably don’t need them. You can choose to have them as luxuries to adorn your life of plenty. And you should look at them that way, so they can fill you with the gratitude they deserve.
How much does it cost to rent a house in your neighborhood with all these conveniences vs. one without? How much would you save towards your dreams and more meaningful activities if you determined these things weren’t that important to you?
The problem with lifestyle inflation is that it’s hard to see, even when you’re looking for it. The Lifestyle Inflation series gives us the chance to examine items we take for granted as needs and reclassify them. You may not choose to make a drastic change with the information. However, you should at least walk away deliberately happier once you realize you are spending money on a want and not a need. See past entries in this series here and here.