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Thursday, 10-Dec-2009 09:02 Email | Share | | Bookmark
Going Deep for the Cheap in New York

For those of us who live here, the expense of New York City is something we’ve long since adjusted to. Designer tank tops for $140, truffled hamburgers for $150, studio apartments renting for upward of $3,000 — even in the midst of recession, these things seem somehow normal, the price of admission to the greatest city in the world.

For visitors, however, these can be seriously intimidating numbers. Even if you’re not aiming for high-end Manhattan indulgence, the basic costs of lodging, transportation, food, shopping and entertainment are the most expensive in the nation.

But there’s an easy way to bring the price of a New York vacation down to earth. It’s called research.

About six months ago, I put together a frugal traveler’s guide to trip planning, which involved lots of Googling and various Web sites like Craigslist and Oanda.com. Now I’ve created one specifically for New York City, offering what I hope is everything you’ll need to figure out how to have a good time without a Wall Street bonus.

Planes, Trains and Buses
DESCRIPTIONMark Lennihan/Associated Press Passengers wait to board Bolt, another discount bus.

Getting here is, of course, the first step. If you live anywhere between northern Virginia and Boston, you’re in luck: you can hop onto BusJunction.com and find a ride into the city for as little as $15 one way on one of several low-budget bus lines. Having ridden a few, I prefer MegaBus, which is clean, relatively comfortable and equipped with Wi-Fi.

If you’re flying, you’ll want to check the usual booking sites —Kayak.com being my first stop — but you’ll also want to set up a fare alert with AirfareWatchdog.com, which keeps an eye out for great bargains, many of them not even advertised by the airlines. As I write this, AirfareWatchdog is showing me round-trips to Kennedy Airport for $98 (from Pittsburgh), $148 (from Cleveland) and $194 (from Dallas).

And if you’re driving, well, maybe you’d be better off going elsewhere. Parking garages are universally expensive, and street parking is a byzantine subject that even the most obsessive New Yorkers struggle to master. But, if you insist on bringing your superfluous vehicle into my city, check out nyc.bestparking.com for rates and coupons. And search gasbuddy.com for the cheapest places to refuel.

Where to Crash
Unless you’re planning to camp out in Central Park — an illegal but potentially rewarding proposition — you will want to organize a place to stay. Ideally, you’ll check out CouchSurfing.org, the social-networking site for travelers, where members offer their couches, floors and even spare bedrooms to other like-minded people — free. In New York, there are at least 3,700 members — TV producers, graduate students, cheese-shop managers — who not cultured pearl jewelry only can give you a place to rest your head but can also provide expert advice on navigating the city. If you’re skeptical but curious, check out one of their regular weekly get-togethers at downtown bars; check www.couchsurfing.org/meetings.html for times and locations.
DESCRIPTIONMatt Gross for The New York Times Catalina and Anthony, a couple I stayed with in Williamsburg.

If you like the idea of staying in someone’s home but feel more secure paying for the privilege, check out AirBnB.com, which operates like a cross between CouchSurfing and the vacation-rentals section of CraigsList.org (itself a good resource). Apartments range from couches to spare bedrooms, with prices as low as $40 a night; I recently tested AirBnB in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn and had a wonderful time.

New York also has a surprising number of bed-and-breakfasts, many of them quite affordable. Back in 2007, Fred A. Bernstein surveyed many of these
B & Bs for the Times and found some to be “terrific.” More recently, the Brokelyn.com blog — motto: “Living big on small change” — rounded up the best Brooklyn bed-and-breakfasts for under $150. I particularly liked their selection of Lefferts Manor (80 Rutland Road; 347-351-9065; www.leffertsmanorbedandbreakfast.com) in Prospect-Lefferts Garden, one of those up-and-coming neighborhoods I’m always meaning to spend more time in.
DESCRIPTIONSara Krulwich/The New York Times A room at The Jane.

Finally, if you really do like hotels, there are a number of affordable options. The Jane (113 Jane Street; 212-924-6700; www.thejanenyc.com), once a seedy single-room occupancy hotel, was reborn a little over a year ago as a hip, well-designed spot with “cozy” (i.e., 50 square feet) nautical-themed cabins going for as little as $99 a night for a single. The Hotel Chelsea (222 West 23rd Street; 212-243-3700; www.hotelchelsea.com), where my wife and I spent a couple of nights for the travel article “Frugal New York,” also has atmospheric rooms for the same starting rate. At both of these, you’ll have to pay more for private bathrooms.

But if you want to search wider, check out Quikbook.com, a booking site that finds rates as low as $99 and is very popular with my Twitter followers (@frugaltraveler).

Discount Dining
Once you’re settled, you may find yourself a bit hungry. In which case, you have more options than I can possibly summarize in one article. To begin, check out the Cheap Eats issues of both Time Out New York (under $10) and New York Magazine (under $25, mostly), not to mention the $25 and Under column in this newspaper’s Dining section. Then move on to blogs: to start with, SeriousEats.com’s list of $1 “tasty treats,” MidtownLunch.com’s “13 Cart Chicken/Lamb Over Rice Showdown” and WinedandDined.com’s “Ultimate Guide to Finding Free Food in NYC,” which I have to admit puts my guide to free bar snacks to shame.
DESCRIPTIONHiroko Masuike for The New York Times Noodles at a Chinese restaurant in Flushing.

In general, though, seek out so-called ethnic neighborhoods for affordably amazing cuisine: the Chinatowns in lower Manhattan, Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and Flushing, Queens; the Indian communities of Curry Hill (Lexington Avenue between about 26th and 30th Streets) and Jackson Heights; the Koreatown centered on 32nd Street in Manhattan; heavily Dominican Washington Heights; the fascinating mix of Italians and Arabs in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Check Chowhound.com’s message boards for on-the-ground intelligence about what to eat and where.

But frugal dining doesn’t have to take place solely at the low end of the food spectrum. During the twice-a-year NYC Restaurant Week (next one is Jan. 25 to Feb. 7, 2010), dozens of the city’s best kitchens (and, okay, some middling ones) offer discount prix-fixe menus, meaning you can have three courses at, say, Café Boulud for $24 (not including tax, tip or drinks). Definitely worth it, I’d say.

Even outside Restaurant Week, you can hit Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Perry St. (176 Perry Street; 212-352-1900; www.jean-georges.com) for what many say is the best three-course $24 lunch in town. And wherever you have your fancy-but-frugal meal, make the reservation via OpenTable.com — you’ll earn discount “dining cheques” through the site.

Drinks and Other Freebies
Here in New York, we take drinking as seriously as we do eating — and typically pay through the nose to do so. The current wave of ultra-high-end cocktails mean that artisanal martinis can top $20. Luckily, there’s myopenbar.com, the best friend of penniless tipplers since August 2005. Whether you check the Web site, subscribe to the newsletter or download the iPhone app, you’ll get access to dozens of events with discounted or no-cost drinks, like the daily open bar at M & R Bar (356 Bowery; 212-260-1890; www.mandrnyc.com) or Laid Off Mondays at the Delancey (168 Delancey Street;, 212-254-9920), where proof of your unemployment gets you a free shot of tequila.

Beyond eating and drinking, there are, of course, other things to do in New York. To figure out what’s going on, you could scan the event listings of New York magazine, The Village Voice or Time Out (which has a fantastic breakdown of “Free Things to Do in New York City”), but it’s much easier to turn to the Web, where several sites focus on activities for the frugal-minded.

FreeNYC.net is a good place to start, with about half a dozen events listed every day, from free tours of the Chelsea Brewery to “Buns and Puns,” a Sunday-morning comedy brunch in the East Village. But half a dozen really isn’t many. For more extensive info, check out NewYorkology.com, whose “Cheap Stuff” section details shopping deals, Circle Line discounts, Broadway specials and a superb guide to free and pay-what-you-wish museums.

The site I rely on to map out my leisure time (if only in my head, usually) is theskint.com. Less wordy than the other sites, theskint pares its listings down to just a line or two: As I write this, the site tells me, “nigella lawson’s still in town … enjoy free samples of her christmas rocky road and cranberry + white chocolate chip cookies while she signs her ‘nigella christmas’ @ williams-sonoma chelsea (7th ave @ 17th).” Meanwhile, “echo + the bunnymen’s ian mcculloch gives a rare acoustic show at other music, free.” Plus there are daily links to free mp3s (the Futureheads, Sinatra, RJD2) and hey, cool, a coupon for a $49 dental cleaning! Perfect if you’ve had too many cranberry + white chocolate chip cookies.

Frugal Fashion
DESCRIPTIONRobert Wright for The New York Times The Brooklyn Flea.

With all the money you’ve saved so far, dancing pearl you can certainly afford to go shopping. The weekend flea markets in Hell’s Kitchen (39th Street between Ninth and 10th Avenues; 212-243-5343), Chelsea (112 West 25th Street; 212-243-5343) and Brooklyn (81 Front Street; www.brooklynflea.com) are excellent places to find bargains. At the Chelsea one 10 years ago, I bought a signed, numbered silkscreen by the Kwakiutl artist Calvin Hunt, possibly the best $20 I ever spent.

For clothing, head first to the thrift-store corridor on West 17th Street — Housing Works (No. 143), Angel Street (No. 118), 17@17 (No. 17) — then downtown to the East Village and Nolita, where consignment stores like Ina (www.inanyc.com) and Tokio 7 (64 East Seventh Street; 212-353-8443) dot the fashion landscape. If you want unworn clothes, check out The Market NYC (268 Mulberry Street; www.themarketnyc.com) for garments and accessories by young designers, and for slightly more established designers, there’s Inven.tory (237 Lafayette Street; 212-226-5292), which functions as a kind of permanent sample sale.
DESCRIPTIONDamon Winter/The New York Times The discount department store Century 21.

For the more ephemeral variety of sample sale, check out New York magazine’s year-round calendar of sales, and cultured pearl jewelry sign up for alerts from DailyCandy and Racked.com. Oh, and you may have heard of Century 21, the discount designer department store. By all means, go there — but be ready to battle the crowds.

Looking at all this information, all these possibilities, I have to admit I’m a little overwhelmed. There’s a ridiculous amount of fun to be had in this city, and just figuring out where to begin is a challenge. But challenges are why we come to New York — some of us permanently, some for only a weekend — and to emerge triumphant, psyche and wallet intact, is perhaps the greatest feeling in the greatest city in the world.

Note: This can’t possibly be complete. Readers, feel free to add your own NYC research strategies below.

Thursday, 10-Dec-2009 08:58 Email | Share | | Bookmark
Cheers and Catcalls for ‘Carmen’

MILAN — La Scala started its season Monday night with a new production of Bizet’s “Carmen,” an unknown mezzo-soprano singing the title role, a novice opera director and the usual brouhahas offstage.

Among those, autoworkers, knowing that Fiat’s deputy chairman was going to be in attendance, organized a small protest across the square from the theater, sending smoky fireworks into the evening drizzle.

The autoworkers were joined behind the barricades by protesters from some regional theaters, angry about government cutbacks by Italy’s culture minister, Sandro Bondi. Mr. Bondi, newspapers here declared the next day, had been too scared to show up. The Scala orchestra held a brief moment of silence before the opera began, in sympathy with their colleagues.

The atmosphere in general was kind of somber for the occasion, a barometer of straitened times perhaps. This meant fewer women sporting furs and brightly colored, elaborately cantilevered, spun-sugar gowns, although there were still plenty of aged pooh-bahs in their finery, who decamped before television cameras from an endless stream of limousines, this time including the president of the Italian Republic, Giorgio Napolitano, and the author Dan Brown, on whom the Italian media strangely doted, as if he held some pearl necklace great clue to the proceedings.

But there was no special mystery to it. If Old World Europe still has its great spectacle, it is this annual senior prom, at the end of which the so-called loggionisti, the diehard fans in the rafters who are opera’s original bloggers, rain ritual terror or roses down on the performers.

They split the difference Monday, cheering the singers, who deserved it, but eviscerating the director, Emma Dante, who didn’t, quite. For whatever reason, Franco Zeffirelli, of all people joined in, unburdening himself to Italian reporters of the view that she was “an irresponsible woman” who “knows nothing” about the 19th century and whose “Carmen” was a crime.

In a country where the prime minister may soon be facing actual criminal charges, that remark, like many of Mr. Zeffirelli’s own extravagant opera productions, was over the top, although Ms. Dante did lay it on too thick with the Roman Catholic symbolism. Religious processions and mourners roamed the stage as if having wandered in from the cathedral a block away, and a priest wearing a big, black Father Guido Sarducci hat held Mass and followed around the chaste Micaëla like a lawyer with his client. This was all interjected to drive home some already obvious point about the opera’s pitting conformity versus liberty.

But by the loopy standards of Europe, where directors seem to feel almost obliged to rewrite classic operas from cultured pearl jewelry scratch, Ms. Dante wasn’t particularly far out. She defended herself afterward, saying “maybe there are ideas that have not been understood, because they are not to be found in the libretto, but I have not forced things,” which was half true. Her direction didn’t undermine or contradict the score, and it often helped propel the music forward. Meanwhile the staging gave the drama an unusual, concentrated focus, a fresh gravity, in which women were notably strong figures.

Who knows? Maybe some of the complainers felt uneasy about seeing men so clearly cast as the weaker sex. Or perhaps this is just an opera that can’t ever quite live up to anyone’s expectations. It inhabits our imagination too completely by now. Even as we await the Habanera and Seguidilla, we’re wondering whether our dreams will surpass what we’re about to experience. We’re girding for disappointment. That’s Bizet’s genius, ultimately, and also an analogue to the plot itself, which is about thwarted love.

Aside from Ms. Dante, La Scala’s other big gamble was on the 25-year-old Georgian-born mezzo, Anita Rachvelishvili, in the title role. She triumphed. A product of the company’s own vocal academy, she turns out to have a big, remarkably even voice, high to low. It’s velvety and agile. She sounded totally at home as opera’s female Don Giovanni, cocky and reckless, taking her independence all the way to the grave. This wasn’t an introspective or animal Carmen exactly, but a seductive one with a natural, easy lyricism — and great hair nugget pearl too. Whenever Ms. Rachvelishvili tossed her long dark locks, which she did often, smitten Spanish soldiers fell onstage like dominoes.

Jonas Kaufmann was her helpless Don José. A singer of exquisite taste and complete control, he lived up to his billing. His mounting despair gave the opera its central dramatic arc. His delicacy in the “Flower Song” stuck in the throat. He was superb, heartbreaking.

Erwin Schrott, the young Uruguayan star, shone too. He showed off his dusky bass as the strutting Escamillo, a cocky counterpoint to Mr. Kaufmann’s tortured suitor. Daniel Barenboim conducted and drew glorious sounds from the Scala orchestra and later defended Ms. Dante as a groundbreaker. Clearly they had developed a theatrical rapport that came through in the music.

As for the rest, Adriana Damata made the most of her time onstage as Micaëla, and so did Michèle Losier as Fraquita and Adriana Kucerova as Mercédès.

But the evening belonged to Ms. Rachvelishvili, whom the loggionisti showered with applause and flowers, one of which bonked her in the face. Briefly flustered, she paused, brushed herself off, picked up the flower, then laughed, soaking in the adulation.

Just what a good Carmen does.

Correction: An earlier of this version of this article contained a picture caption that incorrectly identified the singer and roll. The photograph shows Erwinn Schrott as Escamillo, not Jonas Kaufmann as Don José.

Thursday, 10-Dec-2009 08:49 Email | Share | | Bookmark

JOAQUIN AND VIRGINIA FOLCH have skied virgin powder through the fjordlands of remote eastern Greenland and forged trails at altitudes of over 13,000 feet in the Rohtang Pass in the Indian Himalayas. Heli-skiing with a group of experts, Mr. Folch opened a route on Mount Elbrus in Russia near the Georgian border, where they heard the sounds of guns and explosives in the distance. “And we were going into the helicopter each morning surrounded by Army people,” Mr. Folch said. “It was a little scary.”

You might assume that the Folches are stunt professionals or accomplished members of the Explorers Club. But Mr. Folch is a 56-year-old businessman, chief executive of a Spanish paint manufacturer, and Mrs. Folch, 50, is an interior designer — albeit a very athletic one.

“We were in a completely unexplored area,” said Mr. Folch, describing his adventures in Russia. “One day the conditions were magnificent: bluebird-colored skies and 30 centimeters fresh powder snow. There wasn’t one person for miles around, and as we skied down we had Mount Elbrus — the highest peak in Europe — always in front of us.”

Until recently it was generally only hard-core professionals and guides who would dare to go on exploratory trail-breaking trips in locations like Greenland; daring skiers like the Folches would have been limited to heli-skiing in Canada or off-piste skiing in the Alps. But recently, thanks to the efforts of some intrepid entrepreneurs, extreme ski touring has hit the mainstream.

“The market for big mountain skiing in remote locations is growing in a big way,” said Chris Owens, one of the owners of EpicQuest (888-983-3742; www.epicquest.com), an adventure tour company focusing on heli-skiing trips that began last year, the result of a merger of two existent outfits.

“People are just starting to realize that you don’t have to be a professional athlete to do it,” Mr. Owens said.

Mr. Owen stressed that most experienced skiers would qualify for one of EpicQuest’s trips. “If you can ski the blues and blacks at your resorts, you can ski remote backcountry,” he said. “We can serve everyone from an advanced intermediate to a super-duper expert.”

For a price (around $9,500 a person for a weeklong trip) EpicQuest can fly a small group up into the isolated Tordrillo Mountains in Alaska — with the two-time Olympic medalist Tommy Moe as one of the guides.

The cost of such trips are steep, but skiers willing to embark on trips like this aren’t just taking some physical risks, they are willing to pay a premium to do it. (Meals and rental equipment are usually included in the package prices.)

John Falkiner (41-27-776-1307; johnfalkiner.com), a professional ski and mountain guide from Australia who has lived in Verbier, Switzerland, since the late ’70s, has developed a growing reputation on the so-called “ski safari” circuit. Nicknamed the Powder Hunter, Mr. Falkiner, 54, has performed in James Bond films, skied off cliffs with only the light of the full moon to guide him and starred in extreme-skiing documentaries. A few years ago he realized that some of his clients wanted to join him on his wilder ski adventures — and would pay for the privilege. “What’s happening is that people are being introduced to ski touring and then discover that they like getting away from the crowds at the ski resorts,” he said.

Most winters you can find him guiding regular clients on custom backcountry trips through the Alps. The trips use a combination of lifts, skins (strips of nylon strapped to the bottom of skis to aid climbing steep hills), and sometimes helicopters to get skiers to the top of isolated peaks. Then the group cuts fresh tracks into valleys of untouched powder, taking breaks in mountain huts or tiny secluded villages.

But what Mr. Falkiner really loves to do is take a few of his most venturesome clients to places like Lebanon or freshwater pearl necklace Kashmir. “The North America experience is too slick and smooth,” he said. “Skilled skiers are beginning to look for something a little bit different, something outside the normal ski holiday box. I’ll take them ski touring from central Lebanon all the way to the Syrian border. Sometimes we sleep in a five-star hotel and sometimes a snow cave. You ski into isolated villages where they rarely see Westerners. There is a great sense of exoticness.”

Beyond this remoteness, part of the appeal of these trips is spontaneity. As Hans Solmssen (41-79-446-2289; www.swissguides.com), another Verbier-based ski safari guide, described it: “The final details of where we are going are frequently not decided upon until the last minute, which allows us to chase the best possible conditions. This is what my clients enjoy the most: that I take them to places I myself have not been and that we are flexible enough to change the itinerary at the last minute.”

Over the last few years, technological advances in both remote communication and ski equipment have made these cultured pearl kinds of trips safer and easier.

Beat Steiner, a founder of Bella Coola Heli Sports (604-932-3000; www.bellacoolahelisports.com), which offers ski safaris in the far-flung Bella Coola Valley in British Columbia, said: “ multi-strands pearl necklac
You’ve got satellite phones, so there’s more security even if you are in really remote areas. All our helicopters are tracked by satellite, and our dispatcher tracks helicopters on Google Earth.” (Mr. Steiner’s company has exclusive access to an area that is 2.64 million acres, with descents up to 5,500 feet — more than 300 times the size of Whistler-Blackcomb and about one and a half times the height of Vail.)

“Recent ski technology makes it easier to ski powder,” Mr. Steiner continued. “The latest are the reverse camber or rocker skis Shane McConkey invented, which are the complete opposite of traditional skis. They are narrow at the tip and wider under the foot and they work absolutely fantastically in power snow. You can ski longer and not get tired.”

Stephen Drake, author of “The Powder Road,” a memoir of [url=http://www.wholesale-pearls.com/Freshwater-pearl-strands/c9/index.html
] deep-powder skiing in Alaska and elsewhere, and a founder of DPS Skis (www.dpsskis.com), a small four-year-old company that manufactures custom-made skis for deep powder and big mountain skiing, said that while ski sales in general were flat, “the market for free-ride and powder skis has been growing every year.”

The last six or seven years have shown dramatic growth,” he continued.

Mr. Drake described the exhilaration of skiing an area no one has ever been on: “You look out 360 degrees over a landscape where there are no tracks and nothing made by man. It could be a million years ago.” He paused and added, “Those are the moments that give you a sense of complete freedom.”

Thursday, 10-Dec-2009 08:42 Email | Share | | Bookmark
Married (Happily) With Issues

I have a pretty good marriage. It could be better. There are things about my husband that drive me crazy. Last spring he cut apart a frozen pig’s head with his compound miter saw in our basement. He needed the head to fit into a pot so that he could make pork stock. I’m no saint of a spouse, either. I hate French kissing, compulsively disagree and fake sleep when Dan vomits in the middle of the night pearl earrings . Dan also once threatened to punch my brother at a family reunion at a lodge in Maine. But in general we do O.K.

The idea of trying to improve our union came to me one night in bed. I’ve never really believed that you just marry one day at the altar or before a justice of the peace. I believe that you become married — truly married — slowly, over time, through all the road-rage incidents and precolonoscopy enemas, all the small and large moments that you never expected to happen and certainly didn’t plan to endure. But then you do: you endure. And as I lay there, I started wondering why I wasn’t applying myself to the project of being a spouse. My marriage was good, utterly central to my existence, yet in no other important aspect of my life was I so laissez-faire. Like most of my peers, I applied myself to school, friendship, work, health and, ad nauseam, raising my children. But in this critical area, marriage, we had all turned away. I wanted to understand why. I wanted not to accept this. Dan, too, had worked tirelessly — some might say obsessively — at skill acquisition. Over the nine years of our marriage, he taught himself to be a master carpenter and a master chef. He was now reading Soviet-era weight-training manuals in order to transform his 41-year-old body into that of a Marine. Yet he shared the seemingly widespread aversion to the very idea of marriage improvement. Why such passivity? What did we all fear?

That night, the image that came to mind, which I shared with Dan, was that I had been viewing our marriage like the waves on the ocean, a fact of life, determined by the sandbars below, shaped by fate and the universe, not by me. And this, suddenly, seemed ridiculous. I am not a fatalistic person. In my 20s I even believed that people made their own luck. Part of the luck I believed I made arrived in the form of Dan himself, a charming, handsome surfer and writer I met three days after I moved to San Francisco. Eleven years later we had two kids, two jobs, a house, a tenant, a huge extended family — what Nikos Kazantzakis described in “Zorba the Greek” as “the full catastrophe.” We were going to freshwater pearl jewelry be careless about how our union worked out?

So I decided to apply myself to my marriage, to work at improving ours now, while it felt strong. Our children, two cultured freshwater pearl girls who are now 4 and 7, were no longer desperately needy; our careers had stabilized; we had survived gutting our own house. Viewed darkly, you could say that I feared stasis; more positively, that I had energy for Dan once again. From the myriad psychology books that quickly stacked up on my desk, I learned that my concept was sound, if a bit unusual. The average couple is unhappy six years before first attending therapy, at which point, according to “The Science of Clinical Psychology,” the marital therapist’s job is “less like an emergency-room physician who is called upon to set a fracture that happened a few hours ago and more like a general practitioner who is asked to treat a patient who

urquoise necklace broke his or her leg several months ago and then continued to hobble around on it; we have to attend not only to the broken bone but also to the swelling and bruising, the sore hip and foot and the infection that ensued.”

Still, Dan was not 100 percent enthusiastic, at least at first. He feared — not mistakenly, it turns out — that marriage is not great terrain for overachievers. He met my ocean analogy with the veiled threat of California ranch-hand wisdom: if you’re going to poke around the bushes, you’d best be prepared to scare out some snakes.

Thursday, 10-Dec-2009 08:35 Email | Share | | Bookmark
Renovating a Rental as if It Were Their Own

THE first time Todd and Marlene Capron saw their two-bedroom rental apartment in Brooklyn, they were horrified.

“The floorboards were cracked, the kitchen was awful, paint was peeling, the ceiling was a mess and there was a lot of damage to the brick wall,” said Mr. Capron, 31.

And then there was the bathroom.

“The faucets were leaky, the tile was terrible, the tub was old and marred and the vanity was rotting away,” he said. “Even the main water lines were exposed and leaking.”

In fact, said Ms. Capron, 36, it “was so bad, I wouldn’t even set foot in it.”

Today, the apartment is almost unrecognizable: there is a modern, sunny kitchen with new cabinets and appliances; refinished pale wood floors; a bedroom with a restored marble fireplace; and a newly tiled bathroom with polished fixtures and teak accents. And the Caprons did it all themselves, with the assistance of a few friends.

It helped, of course, that they had the knowledge to pull it off: Mr. Capron runs a furniture-making company called Build Fabrication, and Ms. Capron is an account manager who represents designers at the public relations firm BDE.

But even for renters with the necessary skill and design savvy, such a major renovation would normally be the stuff of dreams. By striking a deal with inflatable slides their landlord, though, the Caprons not only got permission to renovate according to their taste, but also negotiated a long-term lease and a significant rent reduction.

In the summer of 2007, they were living in a cramped studio in the West Village when they received notice that their landlord was planning to raise their rent from $2,000 to $2,500 a month. Around the same time, a much larger apartment directly above the one Mr. Capron’s brother was renting in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, became available — a two-bedroom 700-square-foot space for $1,900 a month.

They liked the size of the space and the location near Prospect Park, so they made a somewhat unconventional proposal: rather than asking the landlord to make repairs, they offered to do what they estimated would be about $19,000 worth of work themselves (a figure that included materials and labor costs), in return for a four-year lease with a $400 monthly discount, so they could recoup their investment over the life of the agreement.

The building’s owner, Liz Thompson, a former executive director of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, instantly saw the
pearl beads advantage of having someone else handle a much-needed renovation.

“I’m not the typical landlord type — I’m a not-for-profit person who bought a little building as my retirement, for income,” Ms. Thompson said. “Renovating is not always a smooth operation, and I wouldn’t have to worry about getting the contractor or the plumber.

“Todd and Marlene were willing to do extensive work. I was very happy to come to an agreement with them,” since the work involved “was related to Todd’s business, and I trusted that they would do a good job.”

Ms. Thompson trusted them so much, in fact, that she let them gut the bathroom down to bare floor joists and knock down walls to reconfigure the floor plan, Ms. Capron said. “We were living here for over a year before she even came to see what we had done. At this point, there’s not a square inch that we haven’t touched.”

As often happens in a renovation, the Caprons ended up doing more than they planned — and spending more as well (an additional $20,000 in labor and materials, they estimate, that they were not compensated for) — to realize their vision. In the bathroom, where they finished the walls and floor with blue
cultured freshwater pearl penny tiles, extras included a teak cabinet, a recessed mirrored teak niche in the shower and a teak vanity with a cast resin top that Mr. Capron had helped develop with Clodagh Design for the W hotel in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

To keep costs down in the kitchen, they used Ikea products, but modified most of them. The cabinets are from Ikea, as is the L-shaped countertop, which they cut from a slab of the store’s butcher block, glued together, lightened with a white stain and sealed with a clear coat of Polycrylic. They used the pearl strand store’s Lack shelves, but cut them to conform to the shape of the countertop and added tongue-and-groove connectors for strength.

Ms. Thompson agreed to pay for new appliances, which were installed according to the Caprons’ floor plan so that the refrigerator no longer blocks the fire escape.


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