Lessons from a Recovering Movaholic

Nov 01, 2012 at 1am

I'm what you might call a “recovering movaholic.”

In the past year and a half, I’ve had 10 different living arrangements – three in Amsterdam, one in New York, and six in San Francisco. (I use the term “living arrangements” to include alternative forms of semipermanent inhabitance, including monthlong sublets and multi-weeklong couch surfing episodes.) From this transient lifestyle, which has been both a result of deliberate choice and some god-awful bad luck, I feel uniquely positioned to share some lessons learned, in hopes that they might be of help for others.

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In January of 2011, I took a leap and moved to Amsterdam after being offered (what I thought was) my dream job at an ad agency. The transition was a bit jarring, but after a month of sterile corporate housing, I found a dreamy apartment in De Pijp, a hip up-and-coming district. The place was super affordable and I felt pretty smug in having avoided the realtor fees that all my colleagues were suckered into in the interest of having an official “on the books” apartment. This smugness started to fade, however, as the landlord began pressuring me to go along with wildly fabricated stories in case “the authorities” came knocking. In one instance, he asked me to accompany him to the town hall and pose as his boyfriend! I refused these outlandish requests, stood up for myself, and ultimately agreed to move out for compensation, but it was a traumatic experience nonetheless.

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Lesson #1

Don’t be a cheap-o like me! It’s often best to do things by the books, even if it requires paying a bit more up front.

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Common knowledge dictates that having home, job, and relational stability is key to being stress-free. In July of 2011, I found myself without any of these: I was dumped by my long-distance girlfriend, quit the ad job in pursuit of a freelance career, and moved out of my third Dutch apartment and back to the U.S. I crashed with family in New York and San Francisco during a rocky monthlong stretch and got a tattoo that reads, “All is Impermanent.”

Within this time frame, I also managed to create and oversee a worldwide, collaborative art project called Snail Mail My Email, where a group of volunteers and I handwrote and artistically interpreted other people’s emails and sent these physical letters to the intended recipients. After the project’s 30 days were up, over 10,000 letters were sent to 70 countries around the world, and the project now lives on in book form.

Lesson #2

Lesson #2

Crappy experiences serve as great motivation for getting stuff done. When shit hits the fan – and it will – take that doo-doo and start a handcrafted, sustainable manure company! Who would’ve known you look so good in overalls?

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Exhausted, I sought out stability in the form of a more permanent living solution. A heap of Craigslist open houses and follow-up emails later, I found a wonderful shared apartment in the Mission. Despite having four other roommates and just a kitchen to call communal space, it was a pleasant situation. That is, until one windy night three months later when the building next door caught fire and spread to our unit! Running out of a flaming apartment at 4:30 in the morning – and seeing my roommates’ and neighbors’ defeated silhouettes momentarily illuminated by the flashing fire truck lights – was a disturbing and surreal experience. Thankfully, everyone survived the fire. However, all 30 residents from the two buildings were displaced. To this day, many of us are jolted by the sound of sirens at night.

I was fortunate enough to recover many of my belongings, but my roommates weren’t as lucky. Being exposed to such intense vulnerability led to my becoming a fierce advocate of protecting one’s stuff.

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Lesson #3

For less than $200 a year, do yourself a favor and get renter’s insurance. Backing up your computer data via a cloud server is also strongly recommended. These services are worth their price through gained peace of mind – and they’re guaranteed to cut down phone time with your mom by five minutes.

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I felt so defeated after the fire that moving forward, I promised myself nothing less than a super awesome, long-term place to call home.

I spent two months subletting, couch surfing, and militantly viewing apartments before my efforts finally paid off in finding a dare-I-say perfect new home. If I could drop a pin on a map of San Francisco with my ideal living location, this new place, in the heart of the Mission, would be it. With a spacious bedroom, an enormous common area, and two working professional roommates, I couldn’t have dreamt up a more ideal situation! And so began my recovery period from “movaholism.”

Lesson #4

Lesson #4

Checking Craigslist every six minutes, sending an email for each remotely relevant listing, and attending daily interviews and open houses may sound insane. But the reality behind San Francisco’s Olympic-level apartment hunting competition is that anything goes (except juicing – we all saw how that worked out for Lance) to get an extra edge.

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Five months later, serious drama arose from a startling email sent by one of my roommates. After returning from months of travel, Paul, the master tenant, unexpectedly asked my roommate Megan and me to move out so that his friend could live with him in the apartment. This electronic message came totally out of the blue and I immediately spoke to Paul, reminding him of an explicit verbal agreement we'd had about my long-term stay in the apartment. His response was a cold mumbling about how circumstances change and the unfortunate nature of my not being on the lease. When pressed further, he also admitted to not feeling basic human emotions like empathy! Aaahhhh! 

With all of my emotional housing baggage, the thought of uprooting caused substantial distress. Thankfully, Megan and I (we’d become good pals) kept our composure and did a ton of research to find out our legal rights. This included paying a visit to the SF Tenants Union, where we learned that we were legally entitled to live in the apartment, despite what Paul wanted. We held our ground and Paul soon realized that his only option was to move out himself.

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Lesson #5

Don’t live with sociopaths! Also, for added security, it’s important to get on the lease. And if you don’t own your home, visit the very accommodating SF Tenants Union at 558 Capp St. to learn your rights.

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If there’s one thing I’ve learned from all of this moving around, it’s that life continually throws curveballs, be they career changes, breakups, house fires, non-empathetic roommates, or deceitful landlords. So if these shitty experiences happen to all of us, what can we do to make life more tolerable? I believe that our well-being lies in how we prepare, react, and push forward in these situations. It’s also helpful to remember that our best teachers are often masterfully disguised as turds.

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