When Terese Lawry and Jacob Falkovich suddenly found out they had to move in August — a miscommunication between Lawry, a doctoral student in biology at Columbia University, and the housing office resulted in their New York apartment being assigned to someone else — Falkovich suggested they turn to a time-honored method for making hard choices: a decision matrix.
“You start with, ‘What do I like about apartments — why do I even have one?’ Once you’ve written out some of those things, what else?” said Falkovich, 32, who works for a financial software company and described himself as a “generalized math nerd.”
“We have a lot of the scientific approach in our lives,” Lawry, 30, said.
The couple identified 22 factors to consider in selecting an apartment and, after much discussion and a few compromises, assigned each one a different weight.
“Without weighting criteria, people just start being like, ‘I refuse to live without a dishwasher.’ How much is it worth for you — $100 a month, $200 a month?” Falkovich said.
Their matrix featured basics, like cost — they considered only apartments available for $3,500 or less — as well as size and layout. It also included subletting and pet policies, lease duration and renewal terms, physical elements like windows, lighting, water pressure, outdoor space, air-conditioning and whether the building had an elevator or amenities like a doorman or a gym.
Sometimes they disagreed. Falkovich didn’t mind walking up three flights of stairs, but Lawry pressed him: What about when they had children? They agreed to assign an elevator a weight of 4; the size of the apartment, by comparison, was weighted as a 10, while laundry was given a 1.
For location, they calculated the score based on the mean duration of 10 weekly work commutes. They also included neighborhood features like proximity to grocery stores and parks, as well as aesthetics — what were the buildings and trees like? Was it pleasant to walk around?
After they set their parameters, they created a spreadsheet and plugged in information from the online rental guide StreetEasy, updating it with additional details after they saw each apartment, to calculate an overall score. On the matrix, the 600-square-foot apartment they were leaving scored 209.
Given their tight deadline, they sometimes split up for showings so they could cover more ground, ultimately seeing more than 20 apartments. “With the matrix, we could trust each other more,” Falkovich said. “Rather than one of us seeing an apartment and saying, ‘It was pretty nice,’ we could see what the other person rated each of the factors.”
It also helped them move quickly and decisively. When an open house overrun with “hip yuppies” stirred their competitive spirit — if all those people wanted the place, shouldn’t they try to snag it? — they plugged the numbers into the matrix and felt confident walking away.
And when they toured their current apartment, a two-bedroom, two-bathroom duplex in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, that rents for $3,300 a month, it scored so high that they begged the broker to cancel the next showing she had scheduled while the landlord reviewed their application.
“We knew we had to act fast. It scored a 238 — that’s two deviations up” from the other listings, which ranged from 180 to 215, Falkovich said. “If we took the math seriously, we knew we might not see another place like this.”
Among the apartment’s attractions: It was in a building with a doorman and an elevator. Also, they were told, it was 1,400 square feet. They have come to suspect, however, that the square footage they were given includes a rickety outdoor terrace they’re barred from using unless they pay to have it fixed.
But they do have an extra bedroom, which makes it easy to entertain out-of-town guests.
“It’s a huge service to people we know, friends or friends of friends coming through New York, who would otherwise have to pay $200 a night for an Airbnb,” Falkovich said. “And we get to hang out with cool people.”
They arrived in September, offloading the majority of their old Ikea furniture to incoming students, who were happy to take it off their hands. To furnish the new apartment, they divvied up items to research, then brought each other lists with the top contenders and the pros and cons for each.
The apartment does have a few drawbacks. It scored low on lighting, because some rooms don’t have ceiling lights. And there is a no-pet policy, but they make do with a stuffed octopus and animal-themed art.
Overall, however, they are convinced that using a decision matrix served them well, allowing them to see the best option clearly, without getting hung up on minor details.
“It was really much nicer than the other places we saw,” Lawry said of their new apartment.
“When I tell people about the matrix, their intuition is that I’m outsourcing my heart,” Falkovich said. “But my heart is confused. I need to put my desires in a more organized structure. Goal factoring and decision matrices help you realize what’s missing and what you care about.”