Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, Nikki Lee, 26, was used to her two architect parents pointing out design details in homes and buildings in their neighborhood.
That appreciation for design was a blessing and curse when it was time for Lee to look for her own place in New York City with her husband, Dyllan. "I'm super picky, which is really bad for me," she tells CNBC Make It.
Lee knew she wanted a one-bedroom apartment on the second floor of a building, a preference she admits is "weirdly specific." ("I wanted to be on a floor where I could just walk up the stairs," she says.)
Other must-haves included a spacious, updated kitchen, natural light and hardwood floors, she says. In reality, "apartment hunting in New York is hard, because you don't really get that perfect apartment, you have to compromise," Lee says.
The couple used a broker from the real estate firm Loftey to find their 700-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment for $4,000 a month in Manhattan's Gramercy Park neighborhood. What the space lacked in natural light, it made up for in the recently renovated kitchen and bathroom, she says. "This kind of had the most good things for the best price," she says.
When Lee initially signed this lease in September 2019, the rent was listed for $4,000 a month. Coming from the Bay Area, which is one of the most expensive places to live in the country, she expected the high cost.
To put their rent in perspective, the median rent for a one-bedroom rental apartment in Manhattan is $2,800, according to Oct. 2020 data from StreetEasy. The median asking rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the Gramercy Park neighborhood is $3,290 a month, according to StreetEasy.
When the Covid-19 pandemic hit and it was time to re-sign the lease, Lee says they considered moving to a different apartment, one that was cheaper (and one didn't have a roach problem, which the Lees discovered after they moved in).
"We did our research on the market and we found that, on average, rent in New York at that time had decreased by 5%," she says.
The Lees brought that information to the owner of the apartment (who rents to them directly) and asked if the owner would be willing to cut the rent. "Honestly, we really like the place," Lee says she wrote. "But with Covid and everything, we know rent's been going down, so we were wondering if you'd be willing to negotiate?"
Their landlord was receptive and asked the price they had in mind. They were able to reduce the rent by 5%, down to $3,800 a month.
To Lee, the apartment is worth the steep rent because of the location. Gramercy Park is near quiet parks and a major subway hub, which, for commuting to work, was originally the most important factor.
However, during the pandemic, Lee, a data scientist and her husband, a lawyer, have been working from home. (She has a stand-up desk in the living room, and he has a standard desk in their bedroom. Lee even started an Instagram account amid the pandemic called @justahomey to share home décor tips for small spaces.)
"My husband and I always say, if we're going to be in New York, we want to be in the city, in the middle of Manhattan," she says. "We're here for the city, for the restaurants, the bars, the life, the museums."