First-Time Home Buyers Who Did It on Their Own

So Ms. Switzer attended a workshop for first-time home buyers hosted by Bridget Harvey, an agent with Douglas Elliman. A mortgage lender and broker sat on a panel and walked the attendees through the process. For Ms. Switzer, it was eye-opening. “Why would we spend $600 more a month when we could just go find a place that could be our home, where we could start our family?” she said. “Honestly, I think it was just numbers.”

Numbers can have the reverse effect, too, as they did on another couple who attended one of Ms. Harvey’s workshops. After listening to the speakers, “They were like, ‘Oh no, we’re not going to buy in New York,’” said Ms. Harvey, whose next workshop is scheduled for May 4. That couple bought a condo in Connecticut instead.

Ms. Switzer and Mr. Smith, however, were in a good position to buy in New York. Ms. Switzer had built up a $40,000 nest egg over the past four years. (She did this after paying off $30,000 in student loans and credit card debt, all while earning $35,000 a year.) Mr. Smith, who works in internet security, also had been putting away money for years, after putting himself through college, and had substantial savings.

Finding Your Corner of the City

New York is 304 square miles spread out over five boroughs. But you can’t exactly throw a dart at the map and hope for the best. Usually price, space and distance from your job determine where you look.

Ms. Switzer and Mr. Smith plugged their wish list — a two- or three-bedroom, within an hour of Manhattan, for under $600,000 — into StreetEasy. Their criteria led them to Jackson Heights, Queens, a neighborhood they did not know. They spent weekends visiting the area, and warmed to it.


Nikki Switzer and Sean Smith in the living room of their two-bedroom apartment in Jackson Heights, Queens.

Yeong-Ung Yang for The New York Times

As for Ms. Wyler of the Upper East Side, it was Manhattan or bust. She had no desire to move back to Brooklyn, where she grew up, and where prices had soared. “On principal, I wasn’t going to pay that kind of money to move back to Brooklyn,” she said.

So she focused on Harlem and Washington Heights. One afternoon, while out with her broker, Kirstin Allen of Douglas Elliman, she came upon Bennett Avenue near Fort Tryon Park. “I heard birds chirping,” Ms. Wyler said. “I loved that there was nature. It wasn’t all just concrete streets and skyscrapers.”

She honed in on the street, eying a co-op on the corner of Broadway. After she passed on two units in the building, a two-bedroom on the sixth floor came on the market in the spring. In July, she bought it for $570,000 and now pays about $3,000 a month in maintenance and mortgage costs.

Brace for Heartbreak

Shopping for an apartment in New York is a…

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