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Finding Space, Sky and Sun in Manhattan

04/24/2005, By Joyce Cohen

MEDICAL residency lasts only three years. Surely, for that relatively short time, Bert Vargas and his wife, Lynn Gudhus, could endure a less-than-ideal living situation.

The two, natives of Arizona, moved to New York for Dr. Vargas's neurology residency at the New York University Medical Center. They dedicated a week to their hunt for a one-bedroom rental near his workplace, at First Avenue and 32nd Street. Seeing 5 to 10 apartments a day, they grew increasingly discouraged, certain they would have to settle.Every place seemed dark and depressing. "We would enter this dark lobby and go up in this dark elevator into a dark hallway to see a dark apartment," Dr. Vargas said. They craved what they'd had out west - space, sky and sun.

The couple met as students at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Dr. Vargas, now 31, continued at the medical school there, later serving for four years as a doctor at Travis Air Force Base near San Francisco.

 He and a roommate rented a three-bedroom house for $1,300.Ms. Gudhus, 28, worked in marketing for a book publisher in Phoenix, paying $700 for a one-bedroom apartment in a complex so big it had four swimming pools. "In Phoenix, there is so much availability they throw things at you, like three months' free rent or free air-conditioning," she said. "The real estate market was so good that a lot of people got out of renting and bought a home."Their Web research showed they could rent a nice Manhattan one-bedroom for $2,000 to $2,200. Ms. Gudhus hoped for a doorman, and maybe a pool or gym.Still, they had an inkling their hunt might not be easy.

While they hunted, the two, who were engaged, stayed with Ms. Gudhus's brother, Keith Gudhus. He lived in a newly renovated one-bedroom near Union Square. For $1,900, it had one closet, an alcove kitchen and an alley view. "It was too small for one person, let alone two," Ms. Gudhus said. "I knew we would have to pay attention, because we could end up with something really bad for a lot of money.

"They visited apartments with several brokers, seeing "cookie-cutter one-bedrooms with eight-foot ceilings, windows that might or might not face something nice, and a lot of narrow, dark hallways," Ms. Gudhus said. "The apartments were really small and I am on the claustrophobic side. What we were being shown was not working for me."They also found that different brokers were showing them the exact same apartments.

Dr. Vargas would have settled for a rental at Waterside Plaza. The rent was a relatively low $1,500. "I'm almost embarrassed to say it, but I was all for it and Lynn was dead set against it," he said.

"I was, like, 'We can make this work for a while; it's not that long.' "But Ms. Gudhus insisted they return at night, when they had to cross the Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive after dark. "It seemed removed from the city," she said. "If I were meeting a girlfriend for dinner and walking back home - it didn't feel safe." Growing increasingly nervous, she would have settled for a place they saw on East 24th Street. The building had a pool but the apartment was too small for Dr. Vargas. "It was offered as a one-bedroom but was easily a studio that was converted," he said.

They pressed on, still failing to find anything "worth the price, that seemed like a good place to come home to," Dr. Vargas said. "Lynn was comparing everything with Arizona, where everything is cheap and big and new.  "At New York Towers on East 39th Street, they decided to settle for a one-bedroom with a balcony for $2,300.

Pen in hand to sign the paperwork for the application, Dr. Vargas got a call from Sharon McGrail, a broker with Bond New York Real Estate whom he had spoken to late in the game.

Ms. McGrail thought their price range was low. She told them she was unable to show them anything better unless they spent a few hundred dollars more.

They were starting to suspect that themselves. A one-bedroom triplex for $2,500 had just become available in the Atrium East on East 32nd Street. Ms. McGrail urged them to meet her there immediately.

"We were kind of stuck," Dr. Vargas said. "Do we leave?  I was literally in the middle of signing. I am, like, 'This sounds really good,' and Lynn is, like, 'We are running out of time, just sign it and get it done.' "But they figured they could always return to New York Towers if need be.

"I wasn't worried someone was going to swoop down on it in the next hour," Dr. Vargas said. They headed to the Atrium East.  As soon as they entered the apartment there, Ms. Gudhus said: "This is our home. Let's go and sign."But the doorman warned them that another interested couple had just been by.

Sure enough, back at Ms. McGrail's office, they learned that the apartment already had been rented.  But there had also been some hopeful news: the doorman had told them someone was about to vacate an identical apartment two doors down.

But the couple couldn't submit an application until the apartment was officially placed on a list the management company sent via e-mail to agencies twice a day, Ms. McGrail said. The lease would go to the first qualified renter.

This apartment, with big windows and a small balcony, was so nice they figured someone would swoop down. They had their paperwork ready.  Walking past the building the next day, they saw a moving truck outside, just as the doorman had indicated.

The moment the apartment hit the list, Ms. McGrail had their application faxed over.  The rent was a bit higher than the rent on the neighboring apartment, but "we wanted this place pretty badly," Dr. Vargas said.  They requested a three-year lease.

Dr. Vargas started his residency while Ms. Gudhus remained in Phoenix to plan their wedding. She joined him last fall and found a marketing job, again for a book publisher.

They have become friends with the people on their floor - including the couple two doors down who landed the apartment they initially wanted.  Despite the identical layouts, they like their apartment better.

The wall of high-rises across the street is interrupted by one low-slung building.It happens to be directly across from them - so their apartment is the one that gets sky and sun.

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