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New York Times

Now They're Cooking

By Joyce Cohen

FOR a decade, the need for a down payment was an obstacle for Doris and Terence Zahner. One or the other of them — usually Ms. Zahner — was in graduate school, so they were unable to save much, despite their wish to buy a one-bedroom apartment.“I would say, we are throwing money away and not building equity — the standard argument for why we should own, not rent,” Mr. Zahner said.

As for Ms. Zahner, “there was guilt on my part,” she said. “I felt we were not able to afford a place because I was in grad school.”

The couple, both 34, met as sophomores at Cornell University when they lived in the same dormitory. She needed to borrow a hammer to hang some pictures, so she knocked on a door propped open with a red recycling bin. He was inside.

Later, Ms. Zahner, who was born in Taiwan and grew up in Edison, N.J., attended graduate school at Columbia University. She now has a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology.

Initially, she and a roommate shared a one-bedroom in the Whitehall on West 100th Street and Broadway, while Mr. Zahner lived with his parents in his hometown, Glen Cove, on Long Island.

Later, he replaced her roommate. The Zahners married in 2000.

Their apartment, which felt like a glorified dorm, ended up costing $2,250 a month. They were glad, at least, for a separate kitchen.

Still, “we had pots and pans that we didn’t use because they were too big to fit on the stove and we couldn’t wash them in the sink,” Mr. Zahner said.

Both love to cook. (Her blog, Food Is Love, is at dzahner.blogspot.com.) “I am obsessed with food and think about it all the time,” Ms. Zahner said. “That’s how I know I’m sick, if I don’t have an appetite.”

Once she finished her graduate studies, the couple turned their attention to buying a home. Ms. Zahner now works for a company that creates standardized exams, while Mr. Zahner works at a direct-marketing firm.

It helped that prices were falling and that the $8,000 first-time home buyer tax credit was available. The Zahners hoped to keep their price in the $400,000s. But in their neighborhood, all they found were small, dark places that were “unlivable for a couple,” Mr. Zahner said.

The bathrooms — old, ugly, cheap — made him sad, as did the “bachelor-who-doesn’t-cook-style kitchens.” In one 96th Street co-op, where the kitchen had one burner, the Zahners were stunned when the agent pulled an additional burner from a cabinet. It was the kind “you see at a hotel at the omelet station, with a propane canister,” Mr. Zahner said.

And they always peeked in the refrigerator, to see whether the occupant cooked or ate only takeout food.

A good friend of Ms. Zahner’s lobbied for them to move to her neighborhood, Inwood. At one point, when Mr. Zahner dropped the friend off at home, they toured the area and hiked in Inwood Hill Park. “She was trying to sell me on Inwood, and it kind of worked,” he said. It was lovely and affordable.

The Zahners were impressed with a two-bedroom two-bathroom co-op at 25 Indian Road for $479,000, down from an earlier price of $549,000.

Inwood has “some really beautiful Art Deco prewar buildings,” said Mark D. Friedman, a vice president at Halstead Property, who was referred to them by a friend. But they decided Inwood was just too far.

Back on the Upper West Side, their new, more realistic price range — up to $550,000 — still wouldn’t suffice. Harlem was the logical place to hunt.

Seeing many pristine condominium units available there cemented their resolve to buy a new place. “If we were spending this kind of money, watching our budget creep up up up, I wanted it to be nice,” Mr. Zahner said. A new condo would mean not only a great kitchen, but their own washer and dryer.

They bid $482,000 for a sunny 835-square-foot one-bedroom at 50 West, an eight-story condominium building on West 127th Street. It was listed for $499,000.

But they made the mistake of taking too many people to see it — parents, siblings, in-laws, friends.

Someone pointed out the many abandoned brownstones on adjacent blocks. Someone else suggested they move to Brooklyn instead. Those from the suburbs were concerned about safety.

“I got sick of people telling me what I should and shouldn’t do,” Ms. Zahner said.

The unit sold to someone else, who had offered the same price.

The Zahners were also interested in the Lore on West 112th Street, which had a shared garden and roof deck, good for outdoor grilling. A one-bedroom, for around $575,000, had just over 600 square feet.

There was storage space, too, which they initially thought would make up for the small footprint. But they decided it wouldn’t.

So they considered a two-bedroom in the building, around 1,000 square feet, for $699,000. But they were ambivalent about certain design features, including insufficient closet space.

So they headed up to the Fitzgerald on West 117th Street, where some one-bedrooms included a home office and a second bathroom. They fell for one on the highest available floor that faced south. It had everything they wanted, including sunlight.

This one, with almost 1,100 square feet, was listed at $678,000. The two bought it for $625,000, much more than their initial price target. This time, they didn’t show the place to anybody.

The financing was reasonable, however. They needed to leave just 5 percent for a down payment, “which is unusual in this market,” Mr. Friedman said. “It was the building’s incentive to get sales going, and it worked.” Both sets of parents helped with the financing.

Their monthly outlay, including around $750 for the common charge, totals around $4,000.

Though they arrived in August, the place doesn’t yet feel like home. “It feels like we are living in a superfancy hotel,” Ms. Zahner said. “I feel like I am going to get a bill underneath my door. A lot of people have their starter home. We sort of skipped that step.”

They find homeownership a bit daunting. They worry about the state of the housing market, and about things breaking around the house. They care about keeping the floors and walls in good condition. They still refer to paying the rent, not the mortgage.

But their quality of life has never been better. They enjoy cooking even more now, because doing so is much easier. With so much counter space, the kitchen is “hard to keep messy,” Ms. Zahner marveled.

Their Thanksgiving contributions this year came out more delicious than ever, she said. She made, among other things, banoffee (banana and toffee) pie. She dreams of new countertop appliances, things “I never had before."

Friday, December 11, 2009