Real State

How the Monotony of Sunny California Made New York Shine

For Mehek Khera and Rohit Khilnani, New York was a dream destination. When the couple moved to the United States in 2014 from New Delhi, where they both grew up, they visited the city frequently.

“New York is where we’d take vacations. We would end up spending like $2,000 or $3,000 for just a two-day stay,” said Ms. Khera, 32.

Living in New York, however, seemed out of reach and it wasn’t until the pandemic struck that they decided to make it their home. “We told ourselves that we wouldn’t take a vacation for two years because this is where we usually took a vacation,” Ms. Khera said. “That’s how, in my mind, we were justifying the huge move and the cost associated with it.”

Trying to move to New York, though — filled with hurdles and setbacks — was nothing like a vacation.

The couple had called Silicon Valley home for seven years. Mr. Khilnani, 33, worked in the tech industry and Ms. Khera worked in e-commerce for a large retailer, but the pandemic brought what they saw as the Bay Area’s monotony to the forefront.

They grew tired of their two-hour daily commutes to their home in Santa Clara, Calif., and even the weather began to bore them. “I think staying home for two years, we realized nothing really changes much in the Bay Area when it comes to weather,” Ms. Khera said. “We both wanted to enjoy four seasons.”

New York’s siren call was amplified after Ms. Khera founded her company, Niramaya Foods, which sells Indian-inspired dips, in early 2021. In the beginning, she sold her products online and visited retailers using Uber. “While starting the food company, I had to go from store to store to merchandise my items to give buyers new samples and to schedule in-person meetings,” Ms. Khera said, because she doesn’t drive.

But she anticipated that New York would provide more networking opportunities, and that the subway and a more walkable city would make it easier for her to market her products.

Once Ms. Khera took the plunge into planning a cross-country move, it didn’t take long for the process to become overwhelming. The apartment hunt started in October 2021, when Ms. Khera reached out to a broker suggested by Mr. Khilnani’s colleagues. She acquainted herself with StreetEasy.

“We were not getting the actual feel of things,” Ms. Khera said. “Like, this apartment looks great, but when we do a video tour, it looks different, and then we don’t get to see what the street is like, what the people are like.”

There was also the realization that she and Mr. Khilnani didn’t have a good grasp on New York’s varying neighborhoods.

They knew a visit to New York was the only way to learn its nuances. In December, they booked an Airbnb in New Jersey and trekked over to New York daily, viewing listings and exploring. “We came here in the worst possible weather, but it was Christmas. It was a good way to make sure it was what we really wanted,” Ms. Khera said.

If StreetEasy was frustrating, nothing could have prepared Ms. Khera for the actual apartment hunt itself, chock-full of letdowns, usually in the form of misrepresented listings. In Midtown, they looked at high-rise buildings. “What you can’t see is the smell of the building,” she said. “So sometimes the walkways of the building had this moldy smell.”

$4,950 | Upper West Side

Occupations: Ms. Khera is the founder and chief executive of Niramaya Foods; Mr. Khilnani is a software engineer at Google.

Culture shock: When the couple first moved to the city they were surprised and overwhelmed by how constantly busy the streets were. “If we don’t see that, that’s when we feel like something is really wrong,” Ms. Khera said. “Now we’re used to it. We feel nice and comfortable.”

Finding entrepreneurial support: Ms. Khera found support for her fledgling business through her neighborhood association. The group organizes weekly coffee chats and the neighbors were especially supportive. “They let me sample my dips at their annual Halloween event,” Ms. Khera said. The neighbors were quick to buy her products and spread the word. “It provided validation and was really valuable at a time I didn’t have marketing dollars,” she added.

When Ms. Khera and Mr. Khilnani went back to Silicon Valley after two weeks, they didn’t have a lease in hand, but they had a better perspective on the city. They knew they wanted to live in one of the more residential neighborhoods, close to Central Park if possible. Chelsea, where Mr. Khilnani works, was an option, too.

The days dragged on and Ms. Khera began to wonder if they’d ever actually move to New York. Ms. Khera was committed to heading east, and Mr. Khilnani accepted a job offer, but New York seemed less certain.

By May, their lease was up in Santa Clara, and Mr. Khilnani suggested taking a leap of faith. “He’s like, let’s go to New York and live in a hotel,” Ms. Khera said. Turns out, the leap was unnecessary. As they were packing up their apartment, Ms. Khera got a phone call from a broker in New York. “He said an apartment became available, but you have to sign the lease today,” she recalled.

It was a listing that Mr. Khilnani had saved on StreetEasy during their initial search.: a one-bedroom, two-bath on the Upper West Side. The apartment was over their budget, and it was taken quickly, but the broker gave them a virtual tour at the time to give them a sense of the apartment, and they stayed in communication.

A change in the current renters’ lives provided Ms. Khera and Mr. Khilnani with an opening.

They signed the lease but faced another stumbling block not visible in the virtual tour. When they arrived in New York and walked into the apartment, there were piles of dirt everywhere, and a stickiness from unknown sources. When Ms. Khera opened the built-in microwave, she discovered layers of a black substance and more dirt.

“I still don’t use that microwave oven at all, even though it’s clean now,” she said. The shower looked like it had never been cleaned at all, and a muck-like sheen covered the outside of the windows, which they had to get special permission to clean. In total, the cleaning bill was $1,600, which the landlord covered.

And there was yet another quirk of the apartment that surprised the couple. A safe was built into the floor of the bedroom and covered by a wooden box. “It’s a funny detail,” Ms. Khera said. “They didn’t tell us about it so we just saw this wooden box on the floor when we moved in. It doesn’t bother us at all, though.”

They also don’t have the code for the safe, and have never opened it. The wooden box serves as a stand for their laundry hamper. “It works perfectly for that,” Ms. Khera said.

Renter’s remorse settled in for Ms. Khera. The mess was one thing, but the electrical kitchen appliances, which Ms. Khera relies on for work and enjoyment, also weren’t working. Feeling defeated, she went to the neighborhood taco shop and called her husband. “I was like, ‘Can you come back home? The oven is beyond what you can ever imagine. And I think we made the biggest mistake of our lives,’” Ms. Khera said.

Her husband remained optimistic. “I did see some of the challenges, like the kitchen, but from my perspective there was a lot to look forward to,” Mr. Khilnani said. “Specifically, there was so much to explore around the city.”

After a few months passed, however, they settled in. All cleaned up, a well-appointed apartment revealed itself to Ms. Khera. There’s enough space in the bedroom for Ms. Khera’s desk, the primary bathroom has marble counters, exposed brick walls in the hallway and kitchen and bay windows in the living room — all adding character to the apartment.

The city still gives them a sense of being on vacation. “On the weekends, we’re able to walk to Central Park or to go to SoHo for shopping or eat at the best restaurants in the world,” she said. “I think it does feel like a vacation.”

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