Their budget was $2,500 to $3,500 a month for a dog-friendly one-bedroom with its own washer-dryer and parking spot, all of which turned out to be easy to find in Jersey City.
But moving from a house to an apartment raised concerns for Ms. Zhang, who had grown up in apartments and had bad memories of basement laundry rooms with broken machines.
“I have lived in apartments my whole life,” she said, and “I worked so hard to achieve that house.”
If she was going to return to apartment living, she had several requirements in addition to her own laundry facilities. Having a gym in the building would be nice — and maybe a small theater, too.
“I came in with a long list of nice-to-haves,” she said. “Some of it was not realistic.”
The couple also wanted to be in a building handled by a management company, as they feared an individual landlord might be nosy or slow at repairs.
During a weekend trip to Jersey City — which they found accessible and lively in person — they kept copious records of all the places they saw in a Moleskine notebook: monthly rents, incentives, fees, parking costs, amenities.
Their notes even included details on things like when the swimming pools were open. One, Mr. Beckett noted, closed at 7 p.m., which was far too early: “That’s like a children-only pool.”
Taking everything into account, “prices were all over the place,” he said. “We didn’t really care about the base rent, but we cared about how much we paid per month,” once all the extras were added in.
Some agents never returned their calls, and the buildings they represented were automatically eliminated. “If their management company is that bad at selling an apartment, they are probably going to be that bad at managing an apartment,” Mr. Beckett said.
In total, they toured seven buildings. Some were easy to cross off the list. At one building, residents had to stand in line to use the elevator. At another, there were no shades or drapes on large windows that would be expensive to cover.
And in other buildings, the apartments were large, but so awkwardly configured — with irregular corners and intrusive columns — that arranging furniture would have been nearly impossible.
They liked 70 Columbus, which was close to the PATH train. But it was surrounded by construction sites. And Columbus Towers, the complex it was part of, was so large they worried the common amenities would be too crowded to use.
The building did, however, have one thing they hadn’t seen before: a dog run.
And Butters, they knew, would like that a lot better than walking along slushy city sidewalks. Now the lack of a dog run became a quick way to eliminate buildings.
At The One, on First Street, there was a dog run, but it was outside. The building’s golf simulator did little to make up for that deficiency. “I’ve never played golf,” Ms. Zhang said. “I would never use it.”
Most amenities, they realized, were expendable; all they needed were the practical ones.
“Being honest with ourselves, we weren’t going to go to the gym that regularly or invite people to use a movie theater,” Ms. Zhang said. “But we have to take our dog out at least twice a day. What I thought was important didn’t end up being that important.”
At 18 Park, they saw a one-bedroom on a low floor that didn’t have much natural light. And the water pressure, they noticed after testing the shower, was weak. But they liked the layout, the closet space and the window coverings. And they especially liked the building’s dog run.
The next day, when they checked back, a unit on a higher floor had become available. This one was sunnier, and it had great water pressure. “It was better in the ways we wanted it to be better,” Mr. Beckett said.
The couple signed on, rented their Durham house and arrived in Jersey City in the fall. Their rent is $2,550; with pet, amenity and parking fees, their monthly payment comes to just under $2,900.
Mr. Beckett, who has since taken a new job in Newark, now rides the PATH train in the opposite direction. And they have used their car so infrequently that the battery has died.
“We’ve been surprisingly happy here,” Mr. Beckett said. “It is small compared to where we came from, so we had to be creative.”
Still, he added, “I don’t have to do yard work anymore. It’s nice to have weekends entirely open — not, like, I have to clean the gutters and mow the lawn.”