Happy Birthday! I Bought You Something That Costs $5K A Month

up houseWhat is with getting your special friend real estate for their birthday? Sure, it’s a nice gesture, but residences are, by definition, expensive and non-refundable. How can you be sure what you pick out will be to your significant other’s taste?

This popped up recently in the New York Times Real Estate section, which is like my “US Weekly.” On behalf of himself and his wife, whom he intended to surprise for her birthday, a man signed papers to rent a second home in Manhattan:

He first considered buying an apartment. He immersed himself in hunting online for one-bedrooms for $700,000 to $1 million, between 96th and Canal Streets.

He discovered that sum wouldn’t go far. It would buy a one-bedroom co-op or condo with no view, far from the subway. “Most could have been in any large, unidentified American city,” Mr. Moyer said. “I simply couldn’t find anything nice. It’s just not out there for that money.”

He glanced at rental listings. For $5,000 or so a month, he could rent something newer and nicer than he could buy for even $1.3 million

FIVE-THOUSAND DOLLARS A MONTH to live in a glass box on the far West Side, away from all the trains. And he didn’t even ask her first! That is hubris.

Don’t buy someone a present that costs them money. It’s like saying, “Happy birthday! Here’s a huge horse! I know you always wanted one. Sure, we’ll have to pay to board it and feed it and maintain it for the next twenty years, but that’s worth it to you, right?” Maybe your sig fig wanted a horse for real, or maybe s/he merely enjoyed the fantasy. The only way to find out is to have a real adult conversation about it, to ask. 

Would it have been so hard for Mr. Hunt to bring his wife into the decision-making process? To give her a card on her birthday that said, “I love you so much, my paprikash, my snow-globe, my dearest darling sugar puss, that I have bought us these train tickets and made an appointment with a broker to go shopping for real estate together. <3” That’s a grand romantic gesture. This is a kind of power play. Maybe a well-intentioned, good-hearted one, but still.

The same mistake popped up again today in Carolyn Hax’s advice column.

Dear Carolyn:

I recently found out my sister-in-law has purchased a vacation home in Florida . . . without telling my brother. She wants it to be a surprise for his birthday, but I think he should be aware that she made a large financial decision without him. I also do not want to mess up my relationship with my sister-in-law. Would it be bad to inform my brother even though she told me this in confidence?


Yes, it would be pretty terrible. The time to break a confidence is when doing so would prevent a harm greater than the betrayal itself.

The house is bought, so you can’t prevent the purchase, so your brother is getting surprised no matter what — so all you’d accomplish by meddling is to make yourself the messenger instead of your sister-in-law. I can’t think of any way that would help, but I can envision a bunch of ways it would cause havoc.

CAROLYN. Never change.



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