Updated on 07.01.07

Defining Minimum Acceptable Housing – And How It Varies From Person To Person

Trent Hamm

My Friday post about how to afford an expensive housing market raised some interesting questions – the most intriguing of which is the idea of minimum acceptable housing. To me, this was epitomized by the following abrasive comment on the thread:

Sorry for this nonproductive comment, but I’m really dissappointed in your arrogance. I live in New York. I don’t think you get it. It’s damn near impossible to find an “over my dead body” place for a decent price, let alone a place you actually want to live in. Please check your ego at the keyboard.

It wasn’t ego, it was research. Online, in five minutes, I found a one bedroom apartment near a New York City subway entrance (the Tarrytown one) for $725 (here’s a peek at it, though it will likely disappear at some point in the near future) – all utilities included. You can use the subway to transport yourself into the city, so a car’s not an issue, and there are no utility bills, either. Considering where I live actually requires a car and also I have to pay for all of the utilities in my apartment, I actually have substantially higher monthly costs than this apartment will provide.

That’s not to say there aren’t drawbacks. You’ll have roommates, first of all. Second, it may be on the subway, but it’s out at the end, which means you’ll have a commute each day. It’s not incredibly large, either, but it reminds me quite a lot of the apartment I shared with two friends while I was in college – something perfectly acceptable for a young professional.

The real issue here is the differing views on “minimum acceptable housing.” Looking at the pictures of the apartment I linked to, it’s far better than my definition of minimally acceptable, but others perhaps would not be willing to live there – or could not, depending on their life situation.

So what’s my definition of minimally acceptable? I don’t really have one, to tell the truth. I was raised in a very tiny home with structural problems – during my childhood, a basement wall collapsed, as did the wall in the stairway to the second story. In college, I lived in a tiny dorm room with a roommate and exposed pipes; later, I lived in a two bedroom apartment with four other people that had a mice infestation problem that we were constantly battling. My standards might be higher right now solely because of my child, but not too much higher if it were necessary to have a chance at someday having a house of my own.

What’s your definition of minimally acceptable? It depends on a lot of factors: your socioeconomic status growing up, your current lifestyle (a single person will have far less need than a family of three, but a family of three can work in a one-room apartment if there is commitment), and your goals and plans are among the big ones. Are you willing to live in less than you have now in order to live somewhere nicer in the future? It’s a call each person needs to make.

One big thing you can do to help with future financial success is to expand the constraints of what you’re looking at. For example, if you live in New York City, look at options at the far end of the subway lines and also look at situations with roommates. Don’t be afraid of a tiny space, either; I lived in a corner of a tiny bedroom for a year and it helped me save a ton of money – I had less than $100 in living expenses then.

Also, never forget your long-term goals. A short-term living situation can be tolerated if you clearly specify and work towards a long term goal.

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  1. Ryan says:

    I know you’re going to get blasted by your NYC readers again for this. I’ll break it to you gently.

    Tarrytown is in Westchester, not in New York City. The town has a Metro-North train station, not a subway station. The commute on the Metro-North to Grand Central will cost at least $208 per month (a 30 day pass) and take 35-40 minutes on a non-local run.

    THEN you can transfer to the NYC Subway system for at least $76 per month (unlimited monthly pass) and depending on where you work in the 5 burroughs, maybe another 30 minutes to the office.

    In addition, Tarrytown is your standard town meaning it’s most likely you’ll need a car to do just about anything; shopping, movies, dinner, etc.

  2. guinness416 says:

    Just re your specific example, Trent: Tarrytown isn’t on the subway linet. It’s in Westchester County, a wealthy, “family oriented” suburb. Tarrytown is a completely different beast to NYC, a place where you MUST own a car and don’t get the social/cultural benefits of living in The City. It’s on the Metro North line, which is less frequent, more expensive, isn’t 24 hours, and has terrible service when it snows. You probably can’t get anything terribly feasible for $725 in the city – my last rental there (2+ years ago) was $1100 and a 20 minute hike from the nearest subway stop. On the plus side, there’s no city tax in most of Westchester (except for Yonkers).

    I still maintain, per my comments in that thread, that the best personal finance advantages of living in the city are the carless lifestyle, and the income opportunities (more part time jobs, more professional opportunities, bigger bonuses, active Craigslist for sale and etc sections). Or just rent like 90% of New Yorkers. Not everybody has to buy to be a grown-up.

  3. Mardee says:

    I agree that sometimes people give up on housing for lack of convenience or amenities. However, there are times that something that looks pretty good on paper can be a disaster when you view it. My best friend lived in Manhattan for 8 years and was looking for a new apartment. She found one that seemed like a great deal – nice pictures, etc. – and went to visit it. However, as she was walking through, she noticed a strange design on the painted walls. She looked closer and found that someone had painted over all the dead roaches smashed on the walls.

    Let’s face it, if finding housing in NYC was as easy as spending 5 minutes online, everyone would be able to do it. And I don’t think New Yorkers in general are overly optimistic about space – most of them know that it’s available at a premium, and if you don’t have the money, you are going to live in smaller spaces. They also know that the farther you get out from the city, the cheaper rents are going to be. Let’s face it, you could commute from Scranton, PA if you wanted to spend 2.5 hours each way doing so. But who would want to? (although I think people actually do – go figure).

    I guess my point is that I see your point – but I’m curious as to what you think the cutoff point is between living frugally and having your quality of life suffer. I’ll be honest – if I had to commute more than 30 minutes a day, I’d go crazy! I would cut back expenses someplace else and go with the place closer to where I work.

  4. Emily says:

    Look, the fact is, if you are trying to find cheaper housing and that is your priority Trent has the right idea. If you are trying to find cheaper housing, it means moving to a different city, moving farther from the center of the city, subletting or taking on roommates, and practicing some serious saving techniques to work towards the down payment.

    Those that are refuting the posts are not the people whose priority is cheaper housing. If you are saying “The 30 minute commute will drive me crazy,” “This apartment is gross, I don’t want to clean it up” (I’ve myself have done worse than scraping roaches off the walls and repainting), “I can’t deal with roommates”, “I like being in the center of NYC, I love the culture”, then your priority is not cheaper housing. Recognize that you are sacrificing cheaper housing for other things. And that is fine, but you can’t complain about the lack of cheaper housing if you’re not going to make the sacrifices it takes to find cheaper housing.

  5. y says:

    I had some non-negotiables….I’ve lived in some crappy apts. when I could afford more, but always alone. So I knew I did NOT want to share a bathroom. I didn’t really share one growing up so I guess that’s the brat in me. I have a studio, which is plenty of space for me. I have a car, but I think I could do without one, so I’m trying to see if I can transition into that. (I live in the DC area.) I have a washer/dryer, but I think I could go without one if it came to that….but laundry would have to be onsite if I didn’t have a car…hey I grew up in the south where everyone had a driveway and a washer/dryer. Laundrymats are not for the weak or the busy. I do think that people have to seriously think about what they are willing to go without when trying to save money. I consider my studio temporary and would never consider purchasing one.

  6. Meera says:

    people need a place to stay that is not damp or unsafe. other than that it is a question of culture or living standards which make you feel poor or comfortable.

    growing up in mumbai, i lived with my parents and brother in a 2 room house, one living, one bedroom. we were from a comfortable family and there were other families who lived in far smaller places. but they dont feel poor. this is what they have always known. the concept of privacy is a also different. now in the uk, i lived with my husband in a similar 2 room flat initially. my parents came to visit and there were four of us. it suddenly felt quite cramped for all of us, my parents felt cramped because they felt my husband and i needed privacy and vice versa.

    it is all a matter of perception.if you perceive that you are living in a cramped area, you will feel that regardless of the size on the other hand even if you are not living in a very spacious accommodation, you might still feel very comfortable if you consider yourself privileged enough to have that space.

  7. a2k says:

    Tarrytown is not a part of NYC and is part of Westchester. This goes way further north than the Bronx, where the subway line stops. Anything after that uses the train system which means you don’t enjoy the “luxury” of paying 2 dollars per ride. I live in Long Island, which is east of NYC, and thousands of people commute from there. The commute for the average Long Islander into NYC is about 45min to an hour and costs an average of 200 dollars per month just to get into the city. You will end up paying 70 dollars a month extra (for the subway) to get from Penn Station to your office if you don’t happen to be walking distance from the railway hub. Oh yeah, and theres the average of 25 dollars/mo for parking at the train station to get into NYC. So as you can see, the costs start adding up as you live further and further away from the NYC.

  8. cv says:

    There’s also the issue of the surrounding neighborhood, which is much more important in an urban area than a rural one. As a relatively small female in my mid-twenties, there are many places I wouldn’t live simply because I wouldn’t feel safe walking home from the subway after dark (which is before 5pm in the dead of winter). Even if I don’t care what the apartment looks like or how much space I have, there are other considerations that leave me looking in more expensive locations. I guess not getting mugged on my way to work is part of my minimum acceptability standards.

  9. Nick says:

    This article really appeals to me, because it talks about temporary sacrifice in living conditions for a greater gain, something most people here are familiar with. Most people are getting bogged down in the details, but Trent’s point is valid- do everything you can to sacrifice for the future.

    Mardee- I was woken up by a mortar round going off about 100 yards away from me this morning, because I chose a temporary decrease in living standards (Iraq) for longterm gain. I also share showers and latrines with 40 other guys. Even the worst housing in New York can’t be as bad as that! Just go into it with the mindest that it’s not forever. Just make sure it really isn’t forever!

  10. Amanda says:

    I live in New York City. My room costs $850, is rather spacious (by NYC standards – it’s about 12×14), and I only have one roommate. It’s the best I could find under my circumstances. The drawbacks:

    1. It’s an hour commute to work
    2. I live down the street from the projects (literally) and the area is pretty damned dodgy at night. Believe me, I’ve heard gunshots, and the police are regularly called to investigate crimes that occur less than 500 yards from my front door.
    3. I get habitually woken up by my neighbors who throw loud parties and play awful music at 3am most nights.
    4. It’s infested with ants and there is a mouse or two that cohabitate with us.
    5. It’s situated on the L train, which is the least reliable train in the entire city.

    Etc etc. So yes, you can find affordable housing in NYC, but it’s not anywhere you would want to live. (You can find studio apartments for $500 at the Canarsie end of the L, but those are – at best – an hour and a half commute to Manhattan.)

    I just live there right now because I can’t afford anything better, no matter HOW many roommates I live with. (I’m a student at Columbia, so moving out of the city is not an option.) And forget about buying a house. A friend of mine has a $500,000 mortgage for a house in Ozone Park (i.e. a very dodgy section of Queens). This isn’t even for a very nice house! It’s really impossible.

    Oh, by the way, it took me 2 months to find this place. I looked at over 50 apartments, and this was the best option out of those 50.

    I don’t think that anyone who has never lived in New York can comment on the housing situation here with any accuracy. And while I’ll admit that getting woken up by gunshots and loud music/drunken arguments is better than getting woken up by mortars, but not much better. :)

  11. Amanda says:

    Oh, and an addendum. I used to live in Texas, in an absolutely beautiful 750 square ft. 1 br apartment in a safe, family-friendly suburb of Dallas. It would cost at least $2k/month here. I had no roommates. I paid $561 a month. I could really cry when I think about what I’m paying now.

  12. beth says:

    My takeaway from the previous post about urban housing came from Mossysf’s comment, where he said we could be super-savers or super-earners. I don’t expect to ever be a super-earner (though I do all right), and as a single person I don’t have a partner’s income to help out. However I *am* getting started on the path of being a super-saver.

    I was disheartened when I realized it would take me 8 years to save up a 20% downpayment on a 350k home, but then I realized that 8 years are going to pass no matter what: when those 8 years have gone by, would I rather have 70k in the bank, or not?

    too bad I didn’t think of this 8 years ago ;)

  13. As the first commenter pointed out, that apartment is in a very different housing market than NYC.

    My apartment is a two-bedroom in a so-so neighborhood (I think it’s lovely, but people do ask me if it’s safe when I tell them where I live). It costs $1,871. Luckily, it’s affordable for me because I split the master bedroom with my boyfriend and we have a roommate. I consider what I pay pretty much the bare minimum, and I know that it would be impossible to rent anything by myself for under $1,000–probably $1,200.

    The New York housing market is really one of a kind, and a real pain. Not that living in New York isn’t worth it in many ways, but still. It’s just not like the rest of the country in this respect. Even the Bay Area can sprawl.

  14. Epicurus says:

    I just moved from NYC to Tokyo and my apartment here in Tokyo is actually cheaper than the one I had in NYC, with about the same amount of space. Finding cheap rent in NYC is possible, you just have to move to Staten Island or New Jersey. Manhattan is pretty much out of the picture. I don’t understand the whining though: if you can’t afford it, leave. There’s nothing more frightening than geting old in NYC and not being able to afford to get out of the crappy neighborhoods. Saving for retirement is more important than continuing to live your rock n roll lifestyle into your mid-40s.

  15. brent says:

    my favorite thing about the comment was that the original post was basically “If you can’t afford to live in [some city] then you can’t afford to live there.”

    this guys complaint was: “You don’t get it! The reason I can’t afford to live there is that I can’t afford to live there!!!”

    I don’t know how many times I’ve told my wife that, no matter how desperately she desires [Product X], not matter how much she whines or bullies me, no matter how much trouble she goes to in life because she doesn’t have [Product X] – no matter what she does it doesn’t get any cheaper.

    People who live in NYC but can’t afford to really need to look at whether they HAVE to live there or WANT to live there – and then stop bitching about the expense. If they HAVE to live there then they’ll be adequately reimbursed by their high-paying job, if they WANT to live there then they need to take the good with the bad and stop whining to the rest of us.

  16. js says:

    You guys make me happy I live in a nice affordable housing and rental market like Southern California!! It could be worse …

  17. Amanda says:

    “If they HAVE to live there then they’ll be adequately reimbursed by their high-paying job…”

    Brent, you do not know how arrogant you sound or how untrue that is. Please comment again when you have a clue. Thanks.

  18. kim says:

    But Amanda, you are choosing to live there. You do not HAVE to go to Columbia.

  19. Amanda says:

    Actually yes I do. It was the only school that would take me. (Odd situation.) You want me to give up an Ivy League education in order to save a few bucks? That is not a _real_ choice.

  20. Josh says:

    Amanda, YOU sound pretty arrogant. As if Ivy league schools are the only thing good enough for you. Get over yourself.

  21. kim says:

    I’m not saying that at all. I am saying that you do have a choice and you are accepting high housing costs as part of your education. You are in fact gambling that an ivy league school will give you the exact financial edge that Brent was speaking of in his comment- your just placing those gains in the future instead of current time. If you didn’t think it would be of greater benefit to go to Columbia and live in such an expensive place, then why on earth would you take on that expense?

  22. Russ says:

    Look, I don’t live in NY (though I work in London, which is more expensive by far), and I didn’t go to Columbia, but I think you’re being harsh on Amanda. ‘Greater benefits’ aside, I think it’s entirely justified to take on significant expenses to get a first-class education. Even if that education does not necessarily lead to a high-paying job, it is a reward in and of itself. Trust me, I have 2 degrees and am working on another, at significant expense, and it’s worth every penny. There are lots of things you can skimp on to save money in this life, but I don’t think education is one of them.

  23. Amanda says:

    Josh obviously didn’t read what I actually wrote. It seems like that’s true of the majority of the people here. (One begins to wonder if this includes oneself.)

    Kim – what would my choice be? My choice is to either not go to college at all or go to Columbia for at least the next 2 years. Again, that is not a valid choice. Living in New York is of no benefit to me. (What do people live in NY for? The culture? I never go out. The shopping? I don’t shop. The trendiness/bragging rights? Utterly absurd to me.)

    I live here because I do not, in fact, have a legitimate option not to. I’ll remember what Brent said about the economic advantage when I’m standing up to my hips in mud in a god-forsaken hellhole when I’m 40 in order to attempt to justify my pitiful salary. Maybe my Ivy diploma will keep me warm. :)

  24. Leigh says:

    I don’t know if anyone has mentioned this before but in Florida if your income is below a certain amount the state will provide a down payment so you can obtain a home of your own. I know this probably wouldn’t help people that live in New York but it is definetly a viable option for others tryiing to get a home.

  25. Emily says:

    Amanda, I don’t think commentators are so much disagreeing with your choice as they are saying that it is, in fact, a choice. You could just not go to college, get a job, and get your degree later. Or move to a cheaper state and take classes from a university or community college. Or live on a co-op. You don’t have to go to Columbia. It is not like breathing.

    Now I personally would sure as heck pick going to Columbia over a community college, a state university in another state, living on a co-op, delaying my degree, or the other million choices you have available. I think your choice is a good one. But Amanda, it is a choice. And expensive housing is a result of that choice.

  26. Andy says:

    But don’t other Ivys take transfer students from Columbia? Uh, anyway, I usually respect what’s written here, but this post was way off the mark. I left NYC and moved to Minneapolis precisely for this reason: my quality of life as a graduate student is much, much better here. Based on what I value, at least.

  27. Wayne says:

    If the Ivy League is that important to you, then maybe living the cheap life isn’t really what you want. I could have gone that route, but instead I’m going to Iowa State in the fall. Why? It’s cheaper.

    That’s like saying, “You think I would give up a BMW or a Lexus just to save a few bucks? That’s not really a choice.”

    Yes, Yes it is a choice. Everything is a choice.

  28. Louise says:

    This is a great discussion. While I prefer the informative posts to the comment-discussion ones, I do love when people point out that much of life is choice. I gave up a $200/month house, $2300/year college, an essentially free car, depression, a lot of anger, small-mindedness, angry baptists, racism, stupidity, and a joke of an education all for higher rent, $27000/year college, debt, sanity, an actual education, happiness… I hope you get the picture. I do not HAVE to go into debt, but I choose to because I feel this particular expensive college and city are where I want to be.

    This kind of debate reminds me of an old obese friend who mentioned how she has a glandular disorder that prevents her from losing weight. And she says this while eating french fries and a burger that she asked a friend to pick up for her.

    Even though there are downsides to debt (or eating too much and not exercising), recognize that in nearly every case, you are choosing to live this way.

    And regarding Amanda, I think Emily summed up things nicely.

  29. San Francisco’s just as expensive as New York and I could live in the suburbs or with my parents and commute almost an hour into the city but I choose not to. The commute would cost me $300 a month minimum, if I decided to come to the city on the weekends, that would add another $100.

    For me minimally acceptable is safety. I live with two male roommates, both slobs and completely inconsiderate of being neat. But I put up with it because I live in a wonderful neighborhood close to work and to the grocery stores. Two of the major bus lines run pretty often and I live in a neighborhood that’s close to a lot of things. And I pay about $550. So I’m willing to accept the shoddy conditions and the filthy apartment with bad roommates if it means I won’t have to worry about gunshots or violence late at night when I come home.

    I’m willing to also sacrifice the freedom of my own place, sharing a bathroom and kitchen with two other males because the money I save by paying the bare minimum in rent means I can spend more on groceries and save for my vacation.

    Safety first above all else is what I value. I’ll tolerate everything else until I can’t.

  30. !wanda says:

    I agree with the people who prioritize safety. Living in an unsafe neighborhood has many indirect costs. Your insurance is higher. Your car gets broken into more. If you live in a high-crime area and crime happens to you, the police won’t care as much. My friends attended a party in the Mission district of SF, and there happened to be some other people shooting outside, and stray bullets entered the apartment. The police claimed that they wouldn’t investigate unless someone was hurt! You can’t work as late if you don’t want to come home after dark. Stress hurts your health in the long run. These things are worth paying to avoid.

  31. MossySF says:

    If I was looking for a place in NYC, I’d target the secondary Chinatown area in Brooklyn (not the main Chinatown in Manhattan). Lotsa immigrant homeowners looking to rent out part of their homes to help pay the mortgage. Possible to find not just rooms but also entire floors. (Houses in Brooklyn are 2 stories + basement — owner might choose to stay in 1st+2nd or basement+1st or some similar combo.) And often discount in rents since the landlords there prefer cash to avoid reporting income to the IRS. Subway lines available, street bus lines, unofficial buses available, plenty of cheap grocery stores and restaurants (Asian & Italian). My wife live in that area for about 3 years and it seemed both cheap and safe. Not new condo living but certainly not rundown slums.

    BTW, if you ever see a bunch of Asians waiting on the corner and getting on a non-descript shuttle bus, that’s a private bus line. As the shuttle bus crosses over the bridge to Manhattan Chinatown, people simply pass $2 up to the driver. Same cost as regular bus fare but more convenient and timely for those who want to go from Brooklyn Chinatown to Manhattan Chinatown. They even have a number you can call to get the status of the buses so you know when to be at pickup locations.

  32. Laurel says:

    I don’t have specific criteria for housing… for me, the quality of housing is a function of quality of life. If our overall quality of life is not-so-great (crummy jobs, college life, etc.) a nicer place is more important to me. Mind you, nice doesn’t necessarily mean big or expensive – just clean, nice neighborhood, etc. However, if I had to sacrifice size or location for a boost in other quality-of-life areas – like a better job, better city, whatever – I’d certainly consider it. Hope that makes sense.

  33. Jeanne says:

    Lived near Tarrytown, worked in the city. Others have pointed out that Tarrytown is in the suburbs of Manhattan, and indeed the monthly train pass is over $200 a month. And absolutely you would need a car. The other kicker is if you have to drive to the train station you’ll need to pay to park, that is if you can get a spot there. Some stations in Westchester have waiting lists.

  34. Mardee says:

    I think most of you are forgetting the point here – this originally began because a claim was made that all you have to do is go online for 5 minutes and you can instantly find affordable housing in NY. Most of the posters here from NY are pointing out that it’s not quite that simple – if you live in the city and are looking for cheap rent, you face generally face potential violence and unhealthy living situations.

    Also, Trent obviously is not familiar with NY so he automatically assumed that someone living outside the 5 boroughs can use the NY subway line to get into the city. This is not true as several people pointed out. And what’s more, as others noted, the potential commute from there could cost upwards of $300/month. I think that’s a valid concern.

    So in NY you have a choice – live in the city and pay astronomical housing rates but have a shorter and cheaper commute, or live outside and spend up to an hour commuting with all the additional expenses.

    And for those who told Amanda that she had a choice, consider this… Columbia is a great school and no doubt later in life she will reap the benefit of *choosing* to live in NYC. That’s a smart economic decision. All she was saying now is that she is paying a price for that economic decision that she probably wouldn’t have to pay in any other city.

  35. Jennifer says:

    Trent, I do enjoy The Simple Dollar, but you missed it on this one. The NYC housing market is brutal, and I wish you had steered clear of doling out advice on finding affordable housing. Unless you’ve lived there, you have absolutely no idea what it takes to secure a place. The subway is not the same as the Metro-North (as others have pointed out), and for many of us who work in jobs that require us to stay late at night, long commutes aren’t an option. New York is a world away from Iowa every way. Please just stick with what you know.

    I’ve lived in dinky apartments and spacious apartments, but my first temporary home in NYC was a tiny one-bedroom near Times Square, and I shared it with five other women. Two of us slept on the queen-size bed, two on the pullout couch, and two on the floor. The rent (back in 1992) was $1500/month, so it came to $250 each, and it was a great way to get started in the city. A couple of weeks ago, I saw a similar apartment in that building listed on Craigslist for $3700/month. Yikes.

  36. Shawn says:

    Trent, I enjoy your blog and will keep reading but you really need to get your arrogance in check. You’re a guy who lives in Iowa and is only 1 year removed from a self-professed financial meltdown. It’s not as if you chose to move from NYC, or even Chicago, to Iowa because you were willing to sacrifice. You were already in Iowa. It’s not as if you’re sitting on some vast fortune and have all the answers. You’re just a guy who is working his way through life’s financial challenges. Share your stories and what you’re doing and remember that you’re not even close to having all the answers.

  37. Kathleen says:

    Trent, I didn’t get the impression that you thought you had all the answers. After reading the posts thus far, it seems to me that a lot of people don’t understand the difference between “need” and “want,” or, for that matter, between “choice” and “necessity.” I have lived in a very big city and some very small towns. I choose to live in a small town. I chose to give up some of the very real benefits of living in or near a big city for the benefits (to me and my family) of living in a small town. It was solely a choice, not a necessity. Others might make a different choice, but it still will be a choice..

  38. tough broad says:

    I think we’re being a bit harsh on Trent, don’t you? I know New York is expensive. But it’s not impossible. I have friends in Brooklyn, living 1 to 4 blocks away from the A,C, and L lines, who are sharing nasty studio apartments for $850 total. Get some roommates, sleep on a couch like Jennifer, and save some money. It seems like there are alot of you on here just complaining. Why don’t you start talking to EACH OTHER and start finding ways to cut costs, or maybe even become each other’s roommates in a nasty studio in Brooklyn?

  39. Ryan says:

    “What’s your definition of minimally acceptable?”

    As Trent said in the article, this definition varies for everyone. I am a guy that grew up in rural Illinois, lived in a crappy efficiency apartment in China for a year, and currently lives in an old communist-style bloc apartment in Bulgaria, so, obviously my definition of minimally acceptable is going to differ greatly from everyone else on this board! While I could probably be perfectly happy living in a total dump in NYC, most people probably couldn’t. And while many people can deal with an hour commute to work or more in the morning, I can’t! It truly does come down to what is “minimally acceptable” to each of us individually.

    All Trent is saying is put your minimal standards down on paper and live in the place that meets these minimal standards while at the same time keeps your living costs down to the absolute minimum that they can be. Sounds like pretty solid advice to me.

  40. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    The reason I wrote this post is because I knew many of my vocal readers would lay it all out there like this – the comments illustrate my point. Everyone has biases, everyone has different minimal needs. When such issues are touched on, though, people can get really irate and defensive – talking about money in a serious fashion, when you’re exposing your own biases (as I do here all the time) requires that you have a thick skin and are seriously willing to look at your situation and consider change.

  41. Lacy says:

    I think what some people are annoyed by – beyond the fact that different people have different needs and minimal standards of what is acceptable – is the fact that Trent acted like it was the easiest thing in the world to find affordable NYC housing if you’re willing to – five minutes of research or googling and viola! there is your affordable housing.

    Only, that apartment isn’t in New York City, and it isn’t on a subway line, and it’s in a place where you basically have to have a car – all of which I think should be noted in the original post. It’s disingenuous, IMO to act as though those things don’t matter, and that living in Tarrytown is equivalent to living in Manhatten proper, or even something like Brooklyn or the Bronx. Yeah, you can make the choice to live outside of the five boroughs but that wasn’t what I originally thought the post was going to deal with.

    As for myself, I definitely have things that I’m not willing to compromise about my housing situation, and I too live in a ver expensive market (DC). But, some things can be trade offs, in a sense – I prefer to live near a metro station for ease of getting to work, and that shows in my rent price. However, it also means that I can survive not having a car.

  42. The commenter quoted at the top of this post obviously has his/her own problems that has manifested into a mean-spirited comment here on your site, Trent.

    I’ve lived in a few places that were under my acceptable standards, because that was what I needed to do, financially speaking, at the time. Now I’ve gone through higher education and am in a much more comfortable position. It definitely pays off later, to sacrifice earlier.

  43. Tyler K says:

    The thing I find funny about this discussion is that nobody seems to be considering the differences in minimal acceptable housing based on area and family situation, etc. Especially where in some areas, you are putting your physical well-being at risk by living too far below your means. I don’t think most people would realistically say that the tradeoff there is worth it. Double that if you’ve got young children. I want to afford retirement someday, but if it’s a choice between that and walking my kids past crackheads outside every day, I’ll just have to work at Walmart when I’m 65. Anybody disagree?

  44. Michelle says:

    I can’t see why anyone would choose to live in an expensive city and then complain about it. Just live somewhere else, there are other job opportunites. I live in Phoenix where you can get a beautiful spacious 2 bedroom apartment for under $700 per month. You will need a car, but for that price you can afford one. It is definately a choice you are making, so be comforatble with your choice and don’t complain about it.

  45. Michele says:

    I agree with some of the comments posted from other people. You can’t really complain about the rent that you are paying if YOU choose to live in that area. I’m from Brooklyn and moved to Albany NY around 10 years ago. My rent was $1000 back in the 90’s for a 2 bedroom apartment in a nice area of Bushwick. My current rent in Albany is $700 for a 2 bedroom apartment, newly remodeled kitchen (including a dishwasher)and the place has a pool. I chose to move out of NYC because I knew My kids and I could live a better life. Yes, I do miss the shopping. But the Woodbury outlets are and hour and a half away and Manhattan is only 2 and a half hours away by car.

  46. Caroline says:

    Michelle – I live in Hoboken, NJ (just across the river from NYC), and am PAINFULLY aware of how expensive it is to live here. In fact, my husband and I chose to move out to NJ from Manhattan to save some money, but we are finding that it’s not that much cheaper once you factor in transportation into the city, etc. The rents in Hoboken are not that far behind Manhattan rents.

    While you are correct that it is “definately” a choice that someone makes to live in an expensive area, other factors (i.e.: family obligations, job situations, etc.) may make it impossible to just pick up and move across the country. I don’t think the New Yorkers on this board are complaining about their cost of living, but please understand that people often have obligations that tie them to a particular area, and it can often be frustrating to keep up with the expenses there.

  47. Tyler K says:

    “You can’t complain” is really missing the point. People who are reading and commenting on this blog are here to improve the financial well-being of themselves and their families, not to complain. Those of us who live in more expensive areas and aren’t planning to leave have made a conscious choice for non-financial reasons, whatever those may be. We’ve decided that those reasons outweigh the potential cost savings of leaving. It’s not helpful at that point to criticize that choice. with this constraint in mind, we would still like to find a way to continue to improve our financial lives. It’s not a matter of complaining, it’s a matter of making our finances work when we’ve decided that moving away is not going to be part of our strategy.

  48. Imelda says:

    I think people are being unduly harsh on Trent, especially Shawn, and I was going to make a post defending him (despite his mistake).

    But I am getting so annoyed with everyone who says “it’s your choice to live there, so don’t complain.” How dare you presume to know something like that about a person? Would you say that to people living in projects in the Bronx? Yes, just pick up and get another job, and leave. It’s really quite easy–it’s your choice not to.

    Or my parents, who have lived here on rent control and couldn’t afford to move out. They also make the choice to stay in NYC, instead of putting my sister in an institution, because the she gets good social services here. I guess you’re right– they’re just prioritizing, choosing what they *want* and not what they *need.*

    These are just examples. Plenty of people are stuck, for different reasons, and it’s not necessarily a “choice” that they are making. I am shocked by the callousness of posters here who imply that we are all equally free to find a new job, find new housing, and change our lives. How dare you?

    I won’t even get into how blacks and immigrants in a place like NYC make the “choice” to stay in this expensive place, instead of moving South or Midwest.

  49. Sarah says:

    Geez, Trent, you really dropped the ball on this one. It’s one thing to say “well, maybe your financial situation requires that you move out of an expensive city” (might be presumptuous, but in some circumstances might also be accurate), it’s another to make lazy misstatements about the facts about the NYC housing market.

    I live in a sub-300-sq-ft fourth-floor walkup studio. The bathroom is literally too small to put a litter box in. It looks out on a wall maybe fifteen feet away and gets sunlight for about two hours in the afternoon. It’s got a budding mouse problem and the occasional water bug (four-inch-long GIANT ROACH-LIKE THING that apparently lives in the walls and likes to hang out in the shower). I pay $1850/mo. for this and consider myself lucky, because it’s on the fringes of a solid neighborhood with good subway access. My job has me in the office upwards of 70 hours a week sometimes (no exaggeration) and very frequently has me coming home past ten at night–I cannot spend an hour each way commuting and I cannot be in a neighborhood that is not lively (and thus safe) at night. I don’t have to own a car, and I can shop locally in my very limited free time instead of driving out to the area WhateverMart.

    It took me three weeks of panicked searching to find this place. But, what the heck, you understand so much about the NYC market, next time I’ll just ask you to find me a place that costs half as much but doesn’t compromise my safety, require car ownership, or keep me hours from work! Should be no problem!

  50. Alex says:

    If you avoid the waterfront and first few blocks of downtown (more expensive,) you can easily get a decent, clean two bedroom apartment in one of several safe and family-friendly neighborhoods of Jersey City for less than $1000. You have a less-than-15-minute ride on the PATH(24 hours a day) to anywhere in Manhattan from the WTC site upto Midtown for about $50 a month ($1.20 a ride if you buy 20- or 40-ride cards.) And you can transfer to the subway if you need to get anywhere else.

  51. david says:

    hi. i have just started reading your blog. i live in seattle now, where for instance the house i used to rent doubled in value in four years, and i was in ohio previously. it sounds like you understand the midwest real estate market, but this post is not correct at all. i’m sure it’s apparent by now that living in westchester isn’t a sacrifice that you make to live in new york. that’s not your readers’ “biases”, that’s geography.

    also, like someone else said, not all sacrifices made to live in nyc are about being close to more shoe stores. maybe people’s lives are more complex than yours. i know you don’t write the blog to apply to everyone but as someone who doesn’t know your blog very well this mary-poppins real estate fix sounds flippant to me.

    i understand the point you’re trying to make – we have no picture of what’s really necessary vs desired. you do fine at explaining it as it relates to your life. but, next time if you have a theory about someone else’s life you should do better research or barring that ask your readers if you’re correct so it doesn’t hurt your credibility.

  52. Sarah says:

    Oh, the great “fifteen minutes to Midtown” fib. I can’t believe anyone still trots that out who isn’t a broker. (I doubt you’ve ever been a woman waiting alone at a PATH station at night, Alex; not fun.)

  53. Time is of the essence says:

    I think Trent has lost all validity in my eyes with this simple-minded post and his response in the midst of the comments. I’m dropping this site from my RSS feed.

  54. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    I fail to see how this post – or the discussion it’s raised – is “simple-minded” at all. This is an excellent discussion of housing biases.

  55. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    Also, I did do my research. On the NYC line, this map clearly shows that there is a line directly from Tarrytown to Grand Central Station. I was also able to see that there were trains running from 6 AM to 2 PM between Grand Central Station and Tarrytown using qwiket. The price for a month pass on this track is $200, easily verifiable from a Metro site. Tarrytown is a rather safe area, as people mentioned, so you could walk from the station to the apartment in the link above, which I’d estimate to be about a twenty minute walk depending on where exactly it is.

    The point is that you can make it work if you want to, but it is inconvenient. Weighing those inconveniences reveals your housing biases.

  56. Time is of the essence says:

    I just want to say that I didn’t mean to be so mean and harsh–please forgive me.

    But, NYC is a very intense housing market and population and anything you put out there about housing is going to be pummeled. And I still think you didn’t do enough research. The first research point lacking: the subway does not go to Tarrytown. Repeat: no subway to Tarrytown. Tarrytown is not in NYC. I don’t even live there and I can tell you that. There are many “what’s wrong with this picture” problems with the analysis you presented, but that one’s a showstopper.

  57. xshanex says:

    why would you “make it work” for what would be a minimal savings of a few hundred a month if that? Wouldn’t that drastically increased commute time be better spent working a part time job you like or investing in yourself through school or putting in overtime or any number of things which put you in a similar financial situation as the “make it work” scenario while sucking up less of your time and quality of life

    the commute from a cheaper place to save $ thing simply doesn’t work in many high cost areas and is not a blanket fix

  58. Flounder says:

    I am super excited to be moving to a better market. I have been living in Los Angeles, in a half ethnic half gentrified neighborhood that is quite often dodgy. I don’t feel unsafe but many people would as we hear gunshots and ghetto birds often. I live with my fiance in a two bedroom one bath apartment (tiny 2nd bedroom as an office) and really no other amenities. We have a storage garage that we split with a neighbor. We pay $1632 (would be $70 less if the neighbor ever paid us).

    We are moving to Indianapolis where the place we are hoping to get is a 2 bed 1 bath HOUSE with basement, garage, washer dryer dishwasher central air yard and NO connecting walls with neighbors for $900 in a good neighborhood. It was still more than I wanted to pay but 10% goes towards down-payment if we decide to buy it (for 137k).

    We will be making approximately the same salary as we are now but it will go MUCH farther and we can pay off all this LA credit card debt. A salary comparison shows LA as 1.87 times more expensive than Indianapolis. It is still a nice metropolitan area with plenty of culture to go around.

    So moving from NYC/LA/etc doesn’t mean you have to go rural to live a lot cheaper/better.

  59. CBus says:


    The four people you lived with in the 2bdrm apartment were *also* infested with mice? Glad to see that your situation has improved.


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