How a Real Estate Disaster Brought Me Closer to My Sister


Step aside, Manhattan: Boston’s rental market is scorching. Not only are rents at an all-time high, vacancy is at its lowest in history, which spells fierce competition for available units. I’ve waited in line to apply to an available apartment; have gotten into death-stare matches with other prospective tenants while waiting in those lines; and have been on the receiving end of many a phone call where I find out that the new-to-market place I’m about to see was literally rented within minutes of its opening. And don’t get me started on the bad landlords who are all but gleeful to take advantage of their status as big fish in an increasingly small pond.

Still, I’m a warrior, and despite seeing my rent practically triple from when I first moved here eight years ago, I’ve been able to manage, thanks to a combination of Craigslist savvy, apartment hopping and, in some cases, luck. 

When my last lease ended in June, I entered into a summer sublet for a shared space, not quite sure of where I’d want to semi-permanently wind up next. But when an affordable studio became available in Monument Square, a highly-coveted neighborhood marked by pristine brownstones and gas-lantern-lit sidewalks, I knew I had to jump on it — and fast. 

Thanks to having great credit and a great agent, I nabbed it, even negotiating a lower rent, and signed the papers (and the biggest check of my adult life) two days before I left for a long-awaited trip to Paris. To boot, the apartment was being renovated from the ground up, so I’d have a sparkling, like-new place to call my own for at least the next 12 months. I wasn’t just ecstatic: I’d struck real estate gold

At least that’s how it was supposed to work. 

When I returned post-trip to pick up the keys, most of the promised work wasn’t done. Or, more accurately, the place was uninhabitable: I didn’t have a shower to use, much less hot water. I gave the landlord two more weeks to finish repairs before I moved in while I alternated between packing and having panic attacks that the whole thing would fall apart. 

But when I showed up on October 1, movers in tow, the repairs still weren’t done. After a week of showering at friends’ apartments and pleading with the landlord to finish the work, I called it quits and broke the lease. I got my money back, but I had nowhere to go. September 1 is Boston’s holy grail — the bulk of our leases start and end then — and there was simply nothing available within my budget.

I resorted to a humbling Plan B: I called my sister, who owns a home with her husband north of the city, to see if I could move in with her. While we’re close, we weren’t “besties” by any means and usually describe each other as polar opposites — she’s a planner, I’m a procrastinator; she’s an early bird, I’m a night owl; she knew from a young age that she wanted to be a nurse, while I stumbled into my career as a writer in my late twenties — and so I didn’t anticipate an open-armed response. Despite living just 25 miles apart, we see each other mostly on holidays and special occasions. It’s not that we don’t love, or even like each other; we’re just acutely aware of our marked differences and respect them as such. 

I held my breath while waiting for her answer, which was yes — with restrictions. (The first being that I was not, under any circumstances, to talk badly about the suburban living on social media.) I cried, this time out of gratitude and relief, while feeling ashamed of the fact that, at 31, I’d come to rely on my younger sibling’s charity.

Our first few days together were admittedly awkward and a bit tense: We hadn’t lived together in over a decade, and even then, it was under our parents’ rule. We agreed upon our own rules — like that aforementioned social media request, and that my tenure there would be short, no longer than six or eight weeks — and coordinated schedules to ensure we’d never step on each other’s toes when it came to things like using her kitchen (gleaming and full of high-end appliances) or washing machine (which plays a song to alert you to a finished cycle, unlike having my darks dumped atop a folding table by a stranger at the neighborhood laundromat). 

I set up shop in one of her spare rooms, with most of my belongings in storage for my anticipated return to the city, and resolved to stay as invisible as possible to avoid further inconveniencing the life my sister and brother-in-law — my new landlords — had created for themselves.

Except, our lives began to integrate. In small ways at first — I’d tag along for trips to Costco, or schedule my dinner to coincide with theirs. My sister would knock on my bedroom door to run an outfit by me, and I’d join the pair, briefly, in the living room to watch an inning of the World Series. I raked their leaves; they dried my dishes.

Then, we made time for coffee — mine black, my sister’s with almond milk and Splenda — after going for a morning walk. I folded her laundry, and she left me a stack of magazines she’d finished and knew I’d want to read. We went grocery shopping and made dinner together, delightfully annoying my brother-in-law with early-onset Christmas music as we chopped and giggled. We began to talk again — really talk, opening up about our private lives not just as sisters, but as friends — and when it came time for me to move seven weeks later, we cried, creating small puddles of salty tears on her shiny kitchen floor.  

Call it fate, or everything happening for a reason: Unintended consequences are born from things not working out. A dream job that turns into a nightmare and ultimately creates the space needed to forge a new career. A partner who cheats, and in turn nudges that “click” to purchase plane tickets for a trip halfway around the world. A movie selling out, and falling in love with a second-choice film instead. Or, in my case, dealing with the aftermath of a real estate deal gone sour, and gaining a close relationship with my sister in return, something I always wanted, but was never quite sure how to grasp. 

In the midst of it all, another thing happened: I began to question what it truly means to be successful. Is it a great apartment and the other ever-growing laundry list of “things” that polished, proper adults should have by their early thirties? Living in a bustling metropolitan city? Or is it relationships, which require time and patience — not money and a contract — to cultivate? 

For now, I’m subletting; and to be honest, I’m not sure where I’ll be living in another six months. September 1 rentals are already on the market, and I’m starting to feel like my time in Boston is starting to expire. But that’s OK. I’ve got dinner plans with my sister this weekend.

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