They Had $350,000 and a Dream to Live Together. Could They Make It in Manhattan?

Elizabeth Denlinger and Joy Ladin met in 2010 and married in 2015, but until last year, they had never shared a place of their own.

For 30 years, Ms. Denlinger rented a sunny fifth-floor walk-up in Manhattan Valley. When she moved in, the rent was $550 a month. Over the years, it rose to $1,230.

“It was a tiny studio, but it wasn’t so small that my bed was in a loft,” she said. “It was a fantastic little apartment for one single person. I was a prisoner of low rent.”

Ms. Ladin, a poet and literary scholar, was living in Western Massachusetts, near her elderly mother. The couple nurtured their long-distance relationship, traveling back and forth to see each other, until the pandemic changed the script. For much of the shutdown, Ms. Denlinger, 58, a curator at the New York Public Library, stayed in Ms. Ladin’s two-bedroom apartment in Northampton, Mass.

But more changes were afoot. Ms. Ladin, 62 — the first openly transgender professor at Yeshiva University, where she taught English — suffers from myalgic encephalomyelitis, also known as chronic fatigue syndrome. In 2021, she became too ill to teach and began using a wheelchair much of the time. Then last summer, her mother died, leaving her a small inheritance.

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With Ms. Denlinger set to return to work in Midtown, and with no reason to remain in Massachusetts, the couple decided to find a bigger place in New York, expecting to rent.

They barely knew where to start. “I had not done any real estate hunting for 30 years,” Ms. Denlinger said. To find her Manhattan Valley apartment, “I got a Village Voice, looked in the ads, called up the landlord and made an appointment. It was very simple.”

With rents unpredictable and rising, the two decided that buying a co-op would make for a more stable monthly payment. They figured they could spend around $300,000 for a spacious, sunny one-bedroom with prewar charm in a wheelchair-accessible building.

Upper Manhattan was their best bet.

“We needed two rooms that could be really separate, where one was not a bathroom or a kitchen,” Ms. Ladin said. “I got lost in the wilderness of online prequalifications. The whole thing seemed crazy and scary.”

But the couple learned they qualified for a SONYMA mortgage for first-time homebuyers, which has caps on household income and purchase price. Their mortgage broker connected them with Jessica Renda, a real estate agent with Keller Williams NYC.

They thought about Harlem, but soon realized it was out of range. “In Harlem, they would be getting less space, and it was challenging to find something with light,” Ms. Renda said.

So they headed farther uptown. They also pushed their budget up, to about $350,000, which opened more doors. “Going up $50,000 made a world of difference,” Ms. Ladin said.

Among their options:

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