FOR three years, Shai Benhamou lived with a roommate in a walk-up rental on the Upper East Side. They spent just over $1,600 a month for the two-bedroom apartment, but the bedrooms were only nine feet square. The York Avenue location was far from downtown, where Mr. Benhamou spent most of his nonworking hours.
“I always had the notion that sooner or later I would be looking to buy,” he said. “I needed an adult apartment. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted, but it had to be a great deal.”
Two years ago Mr. Benhamou, a graduate of Bronx High School of Science and the University at Albany, started apartment-shopping. He was drawn to a sunny one-bedroom condominium in the financial district. It had nearly 800 square feet of space and was at the Downtown Club, the Art Deco building on West Street that once housed the Downtown Athletic Club. Because of the low price, $499,000, he was not the only person interested, said the listing agent, Edward E. Longley of City Connections Realty. Monthly fees were $870.
A short sale was pending, Mr. Longley said, but it had not been approved by the bank. Mr. Benhamou, 30, who worked in sales for a payroll processing company, gave up on that one. But he enlisted Mr. Longley in his search, telling him: “I am open to everything. I am looking for a steal.” He wanted a one-bedroom for $500,000 to $600,000.
Few places struck him as worth the price. He felt uncomfortable with high monthly charges. Layouts were often a problem. “I saw a lot of apartments with 700 square feet but a 150-foot foyer and the next thing you know, you are sitting in a 550-square-foot apartment,” Mr. Benhamou said. The places he liked were beyond his budget. “I had to stop stretching my dreams,” he said.
Mr. Benhamou then realized he didn’t want to live in the financial district, which was forlorn on weekends. “I am too active a person to be happy there,” he said. “I was, like: What am I doing? How did I get wrapped up in this?”
The Union Square area was more lively. At a postwar co-op building there, a 700-square-foot apartment with a large living room was listed at $625,000. Monthly charges were $1,050. Mr. Benhamou’s offer of $525,000 was declined. The place later sold for $610,000.
Having seen around 100 apartments, he felt drained. “I didn’t want to pull a trigger just to buy something,” he said. “I needed to see perfection to get comfortable to cut my first big check like that.”
As a first-time buyer, he found the hunt nerve-racking. “It’s not like you’re married and buying,” he said. “If you make a bad decision, it’s all you — you don’t have anybody to blame, to deal with the frustration. If the apartment goes down in value or you lose your job, there is a lot more stress. You don’t have the extra person to be in it with you.”
Mr. Longley told him he had to be more realistic. “Shai either loved the apartment or loved the area,” Mr. Longley said. “I said, if you want to put the two together you need to raise your price $150,000.”
Mr. Benhamou was unwilling to do that, but he did decide to focus on Greenwich Village and vicinity. Last summer, he visited a 680-square-foot one-bedroom apartment in a modest postwar co-op building on Bleecker Street. He liked the efficient layout, with two big rectangular rooms. The place was listed at $595,000.
Two other apartments also for sale there had identical footprints. One was listed at $550,000, the other at $515,000. The apartment number seemed to indicate that the less expensive one was on the ground floor. In midrise or high-rise buildings, “many buyers will simply not call on apartments that are listed as 1A or 1B,” Mr. Longley said. But this one was on the second floor. Those on the ground floor were labeled with an L, for “lobby.”
The price had already dropped from $599,000, and the seller had moved out West. Mr. Benhamou negotiated a price of $493,500. Maintenance is a little more than $900. “I think the seller got nervous that for a little more money, I would choose an apartment upstairs,” Mr. Benhamou said.
During negotiations, he wondered whether a better deal was just around the corner. “What if you are missing something else?” he remembered asking himself.
Sure enough, two and a half weeks before his closing, a mirror-image apartment hit the market for $470,000. It was in estate condition and needed a gut renovation. It sold in three weeks for $457,500. “Timing is everything,” Mr. Benhamou said resignedly.
The $595,000 apartment he had seen in the building sold for $545,000. The $550,000 one is in contract for its listing price.
At the walk-through, he was horrified to see how small his place looked unfurnished. “Is this really the same apartment I bought?” he wondered. “I thought, ‘Oh, no!’ ” After he closed, he gutted the place, partly to make it over to his liking and partly to ensure a high resale value. He redid the floors with Brazilian cherry, added recessed lighting, and sacrificed a closet to expand the kitchen, where he installed a granite countertop.
He knew he would never use the bathtub, so he created a shower stall. “I fought with my mom,” Mr. Benhamou said. “She said you have to have a bathtub.” But he figured that only a couple with a baby would require a tub, and few such families would want a Greenwich Village one-bedroom.
Renovation delay followed renovation delay. Mr. Benhamou lived at his family’s home in Riverdale, in the Bronx, for months. He was unable to move in until last winter, and is still decorating. But he was so inspired by his project that he plans to enter the real estate or construction field.
Even so, the search was a headache, he said, as was his renovation. He was too lax with deadlines, and he micromanaged the workers. “But when you’re done, you exhale,” he said. “You learn for the next time.”