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Sunday Signal

Get your checkbooks out — it’s bargain time. The average price of a Manhattan apartment has dropped from $1.2 million to $1.1 million.

And at those prices, we’re talking about real luxury: a 500-square-foot studio on the fifth floor, with a view of the service entrance of the 30-story building next door, which blocks out all the sunlight except between 11:50 a.m. and noon. It’s in a so-so neighborhood that Uber drivers charge you extra to go to, and has a laundry room in the basement. It has an eat-in kitchen, if you eat standing up, and a bedroom with room for a queen-sized bed and absolutely nothing else.

The good news is, you’re making tons of money working for one of the world-famous companies headquartered in New York. Like Uber or Lyft. I don’t know what kind of money you have to make to live in one of these expensive hives, but that’s OK — once you make it on Broadway or Wall Street, you’ll be able to trade up to a $2.2 million one-bedroom in Chelsea with a view of an air shaft!

It’s not just Manhattan. Bloomberg just reported that someone living alone in Brooklyn would need to make at least $115,000 a year to keep their rent at “only” 40% of their paycheck.

You wonder how anyone who’s just starting out can afford to live there. Well, some people have been living there a long time, and property values have gone up over the years. A married couple I know had a row house on the Upper East Side of Manhattan that they’ve been living in for some 50 years. They were well-off, but they rented out the top two floors to help pay the bills. The entire building burned to the ground a couple of years ago; thankfully, everyone escaped unhurt, but it was an absolute tragedy. A lifetime of memories gone in a couple of hours. Then, some months later, a developer paid them $6 million for the empty lot. With that and the insurance money, they now live in a “luxury” apartment. It has a doorman and a view of the East River, and the last time we spoke, they seemed to be coping quite well.

Still, that’s not really a useful example of how to score an affordable Manhattan apartment.

I looked up my old Manhattan ZIP code on Zillow to see how much it would cost me to live in the old neighborhood. The first building that came up was listed at $30 million. And here’s the description of a one-bedroom apartment in my old building: “426 sq ft. $1,043,706.”

They tell me it’s worse in San Francisco and parts of L.A.

How are young people who want to go live in a big city with lots of career opportunities going to be able to do it? It was hard when I was young, but doable. All we had to do was split the rent with nine other people, work three jobs apiece and live in a neighborhood that our parents would beg us to be “careful” in. Now, even well-off people can’t afford it. So who is buying and renting all these expensive properties?

There are stories of entire 20- and 30-story apartment buildings in New York that no one lives in. Oh, the owners, usually from another country, come for a week or two each year, but it is their second or third (or fourth) home. It’s a great place to park their money. If you’re a rich person in an unstable country (or even a stable one), buying a $10 million apartment in the U.S. makes a lot of sense. What’s the worst that can happen? The market crashes and suddenly it’s only worth $9.5 million? Poor dear. But in their own country, a rule change or inflation could make them lose everything overnight.

That’s the funny thing about money. The rich worry about losing it, while the rest of us worry about getting it.

Contact Jim Mullen at [email protected].

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