New Yorkers’ Hairy Palms

Bevin Strand’s boss had caught her at it again. “And it wasn’t the first time,” admits the 23-year old, who works making plaster casts at the American Museum of Natural History. “It was probably the third time this month he’d caught me surfing Craigslist.”

Ms. Strand wasn’t searching job listings or “Casual Encounters”—rather, hers is a particularly New York vice: looking at real estate listings in other cities.

“I mean, Savannah!” said Ms. Strand, who lives in a small Red Hook one-bedroom with her boyfriend, and has no plans to leave New York. “The footage is just unbelievable—and the kind of original detailing you’d never find here—moldings, stained glass, oak floors!” she recited dreamily.

“It’s not even aspirational, it’s more voyeuristic,” said Dan Herbert, a 27-year-old head-hunter who lives with three roommates. “I almost do it to torture myself, really.” Mr. Herbert’s particular weakness is “yards—proper yards with trees,” which would allow for a “genuine dog.”

As the economy trembles and the Big Apple’s real estate bubble stays, for the short term, smugly solid, this sort of voyeurism appeals to many New Yorkers as the ultimate escapism. Lower rents, bigger places and higher-quality real estate calls to them like an anonymous liaison to a disaffected married man.

“I started doing it idly, when a friend in Montreal kept bragging about how cheap and amazing her apartment was,” Lindsay Sullivan, a 29-year-old yoga instructor, said. “I was looking for a studio in Brooklyn at the same time, and I decided to compare. … The contrast was painful, but now I’m hooked on doing it. I mean, for what I pay in Fort Greene, I could totally have a three-bedroom there!”

This sort of self-flagellation is a recurring theme among real estate voyeurs, who seem to almost revel in the New Yorker’s paradox: They know they’re being ripped off, but they won’t go anywhere else, and wear their exorbitant rents and crummy apartments like a badge of honor. A few, however, surf other-city listings as a means of self-motivation.

“I’ve been saying for a while now that I’m going to move to Portland,” says Farrin Jacobs, 37, a children’s book editor. “And then I’m still here. Looking at the listings there is good push—realizing that for what I pay in rent here, I could have a house! And a decent house!”

The nature of the voyeurism is personal (“I’m fickle—I started with Charleston, then switched to Indianapolis,” Mr. Herbert said.) Some cite rents or square footage as the primary attraction in choosing a real estate mistress; others mention claw-foot tubs, 19th-century brick work, large kitchens or gardens.

“I like that there’s no credit check in these other places,” said Ben Cecil, a 25-year-old drug counselor with a weakness for the real estate of Asheville, N.C. “You just show up, and they give you an apartment!” he marveled. “No notarized anything or guarantors or red tape for the privilege of overpaying.”

Of course, as in other forms of Craigslist surfing, the practice can merely breed an unproductive discontent.

“My girlfriend complained, because I was spending all night looking at houses in other cities,” admitted Michael Van Reusel, a 30-year-old architect who’s looking to buy, “and then I was getting really angry when we looked at these tiny, undistinguished places in Manhattan. I had to cut myself off, cold turkey, ’cause what was the point of making myself crazy? This is where my life is.”

For some, there’s quite enough entertainment in their own backyards. “What I’ll sometimes do,” said Ms. Sullivan, the yoga instructor, “is search in New York, but with no price ceiling! I’ll just type in ‘fireplace’ or ‘window seat’ or something, and look at these multimillion-dollar brownstones. … That’s just pure fantasy, so it’s actually less painful.” This practice is not uncommon: “Sometimes after looking at all these other cities, it’s necessary to remind yourself there are beautiful places in New York. … We just can’t afford them,” explained Mr. Herbert.

And at the end of the day, the fun works both ways. Says Ms. Strand, the plaster cast maker: “When I was home [in eastern Massachusetts] I went to Craigslist to prove to my friends how much we pay here—and they couldn’t believe it!

“We spent all afternoon laughing at what a rip-off it is,” she said proudly. “Obviously, I’m not going anywhere else.”

sstein@observer.com

New Yorkers’ Hairy Palms