March 17th 2011
The New York Times
TEDDY PHILLIPS and Paul Morejon believe in the try-before-you-buy philosophy. They moved often and, each time, learned something about what was important to them in a home.
The couple met in 1997 in Los Angeles as volunteers for Project Angel Food, which delivers meals to the homebound, and moved to New York the following year. Mr. Phillips, who is from Sunnyvale, Calif., and Mr. Morejon, who grew up in a Harlem tenement, first lived in Manhattan sublets and then rented a small one-bedroom above a pizza place on First Avenue near Stuyvesant Town. They enjoyed the neighborhood but not the noise, so they moved to a two-bedroom garden duplex in a small Brooklyn Heights town house.
Mr. Phillips’s mother, Tonia Phillips, visited often from California, staying several weeks at a time.
When the couple lived in a doorman building, “she would make friends with the doormen and chat with them in the lobby,” Mr. Phillips said. She befriended the pizza guys, the bodega clerks, the people at the cleaners. “Sometimes I wouldn’t know them,” Mr. Phillips said, “but they would ask after my mom.”
Ms. Phillips especially enjoyed the front stoop of the town house. “She came to life,” Mr. Morejon said. “She was the neighborhood grandma.”
When that building was sold, the couple moved to Washington Heights. By now, they were thinking seriously about buying a place. But first, as was their policy, they had to try out the neighborhood, so they rented a big one-bedroom on Haven Avenue. Their apartment, for $1,725 a month, was five flights up.
Ms. Phillips, a retired pharmacy technician, rarely visited them there. When she did, she had to take a break from climbing on the third floor. She mostly stayed inside because there were few places to go — just one delicatessen.
About three years ago, the couple began hunting for a home. Their price range started in the mid $500,000s. They invited Ms. Phillips, who is awaiting a liver transplant, to live with them.
They also planned to adopt a child someday, so they needed a three-bedroom home with two bathrooms and a layout where “Mom had her space on one side of the apartment and we had ours on the other,” Mr. Phillips said.
So whenever they looked at a place, they would test the acoustics by splitting up, one going into a bedroom and calling the other’s name. That way, “we would know if it was private enough,” Mr. Morejon said. “We wanted to make sure the noise didn’t travel across the living room.”
Other requirements included few or no stairs, and a lobby attendant in case of an emergency.
Ms. Phillips requested that she be given the master bedroom, plus a bath with a whirlpool tub. She wanted a formal dining room, too. “I put my two cents in,” she said. “They ignored it.”
The only place in Washington Heights that interested the couple was a three-bedroom in a prewar co-op building near the George Washington Bridge. It had gone on the market at $438,000 and, after renovation, returned at $540,000. But ultimately, they decided against Washington Heights. The neighborhood was too residential, with few diversions for Ms. Phillips. It could have been cleaner: Some dog-walkers weren’t picking up after their pets. Their neighbor’s apartment was burglarized, and then so was theirs. That was the clincher. By now, their rent was $1,850 a month.
They decided to look in Jersey City, where Mr. Morejon was certain they would get more for their money. He was especially enticed by the oversize spaces at Canco Lofts. (The other day, a three-bedroom duplex with more than 1,500 square feet of space was priced at $545,000.)
But the location, near highways and industrial buildings, was remote. The PATH train was a shuttle ride away. “I like to be at work within 30 minutes,” said Mr. Phillips, a graduate of California State University, Northridge, who works in Midtown West for Coach, the leather goods company. “Otherwise, it changes my personality. I knew the commute would begin to grate for Paul.” Mr. Morejon, a graduate of the State University of New York at Binghamton, is a Web development manager for a pension provider; his office is in Midtown East.
Again, it occurred to them that the area would be less than ideal for Ms. Phillips. “It wasn’t a neighborhood,” Mr. Morejon said. “It was a compound approach to that all-amenities building.” A nice apartment wasn’t enough. “I had this image of my mom being Rapunzel locked in this tower while we were at work all day, and being somewhat lonely,” Mr. Phillips said.
They felt the same about Clermont Cove condominiums at 1 Greene Street, which had similar prices for “gloriously large” spaces, Mr. Morejon said. “My frugality was driving a lot of what we were looking at.”
Last year, they realized that three-bedrooms in Harlem were within reach. “I was so focused on Jersey City that I wasn’t doing searches in Manhattan,” said Mr. Morejon, who saw no need to test-drive his old neighborhood.
A three-bedroom duplex at Bradhurst Court on West 145th Street had a sufficiently private layout, plus a terrace. The co-op was listed at $599,000, with monthly maintenance around $1,370. (The building has an annual income restriction of $192,000 gross per household.) But the apartment was at the back of the building, beyond a courtyard. The lengthy walk to enter and exit was “far too much for my mom,” Mr. Phillips said.
One day, during his lunch hour, Mr. Phillips inspected the Ellington on the Park, a 133-unit co-op on Bradhurst Avenue and West 148th Street. He was squeezed for time. He raced through some three-bedrooms, noting that the bedrooms were next to one another. Still, Mr. Phillips was enthusiastic even though, by now, the couple “always expected to be unimpressed,” Mr. Morejon said.
When Mr. Morejon went to see the Ellington, he was drawn not to the three-bedrooms but to the two-bedroom model apartment, a 1,200-square-foot space with a den that could function as an extra bedroom.
The bedrooms were on opposite sides of the apartment, the kind of layout that would give them the privacy they sought. “It is like two apartments in one,” said Charlie Lewis of Warburg Realty, the building’s sales manager.
The two terraces were a bonus. And, in the building’s lobby or at Jackie Robinson Park across the street, Ms. Phillips would have plenty of places to sit down, read the paper, work the crossword and chat with neighbors. Some of the neighborhood stores are open round the clock.
“I asked, ‘Where am I going to get my hair done?’ ” Ms. Phillips said.
“You will have no problem,” Mr. Phillips told her.
The listing price was $677,000; the couple paid $602,000. Maintenance is around $1,200. The place was one of the building’s 23 market-rate apartments. The other units, with income restrictions governed by the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, were available on a first-come first-served basis. Of the market-rate units, 14 remain, Mr. Lewis said.
The couple arrived in the early fall. “I worked super hard to get out of Harlem and worked twice as hard to get back in,” Mr. Morejon said jokingly.
They are now awaiting Ms. Phillips and wondering about the merger of two households. “She likes tchotchkes,” Mr. Morejon said, “and we are in declutter-your-life mode.”
Ms. Phillips collects salt and pepper shakers. “We’ve been enablers,” Mr. Morejon said, explaining that many are souvenirs of their travels. Ms. Phillips is eager to find the perfect place for a curio stand — perhaps along a prominent wall in the living room?
That was an idea Mr. Phillips quickly deflected. If people wish to admire her collection, he told his mother, “I will direct people to your bedroom.”