Lessons in NY Real Estate: Ten Tips

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As promised, here are my top ten tips for naive home buyers in NYC:

1. Don’t bump into a broker. Research a neighborhood online and in person, then go to a few open houses alone. New Yorkers may be restless, but they’re savvy about subtleties in neighborhoods. We newcomers, not so much. If you are coming from afar, risk looking stupid. Take a full-on double decker bus tour, ride up top, take pictures and notes. You can pick up the initial vibe of a ‘hood and get a great view of the architecture without getting a sore neck, sore feet or a sore ego from being repeatedly jostled as if you are cheap lawn art mistakenly left on the sidewalk.

When you walk around your prospective neighbohood be on the lookout for little real estate offices. Step inside and ask a question or two. These smaller offices are often your best bet to find an agent who knows the area. Resist the urge to sign up with the first broker from your very first office visit or open house. You can be really picky. Every third person in Manhattan sells real estate, and half of them are vice presidents. Some vice presidents are presidents of vice. These are known as ‘seller’s agents’, and they will tell you blithely, “Yes! That wall can certainly be moved!” or “Don’t worry about that noise, it’s temporary.”

After you’ve spoken to a few agents and licensed realtors (not the same thing, but you know that) and maybe you’ve talked with a referral or two from some friends, you are ready to commit. Once you ask, “Will you be, will you be my agent?” the other agents will not return your calls–they’ll speak only with the other agent. It’s like junior high. I’m not kidding. Do not embarrass yourself by trying (I did).

2. Decipher the code. Eight pictures in the online listing, all of the lobby and exterior: it’s going to be bad. If the words ‘estate sale’ are in the listing, it’s bad AND dusty. But maybe it’s worth a look. A little more subtle is the reflected window or closed curtain. Photos of people often add five pounds, photos of Manhattan apartments can make them look five times larger. It’s like computer dating. On the computer, oh, Baby! When you meet up, you wish you had stayed home and washed your hair.

Pay close attention to buildings that sound too good to be true. They are. They might come with a ‘tenant in place’ (like, what’s behind buying one of those???) or perhaps they are offered only to people below a specific income range. Understand the acronyms used in listings. Don’t glaze over if you see LIHTC, HPD,RFTP DK MEIK. Decipher or die. If you are considering a part-time residence, be sure a pied-à-terre is allowed before wasting your time.

3. Insist on advice. My first agent didn’t know downtown well enough to offer insight into specific buildings and co-op boards, etc. She claimed it was improper to help me come up with a number for an initial offer. The broker I wound up with, Robyn Frank-Pederson from the Corcoran Group, cocked her head at certain buildings and boards. She didn’t have to say anything. She looked at the way our financials were structured and was not surprised about the mystery rejection on the Upper West Side. “Look,” she explained, “the way you have your business assets listed they do not appear liquid.” Even though my numbers didn’t lie, they may have been misread.

4. Understand that Manhattan real estate is like real estate on Mars. When I asked if major appliances were included, one showing agent about busted a gut (they are). If you are concerned about little things like missing doors, sloping floors, vermin, mold, water damage, it’s not their problem. It’s yours. All the places I looked at were sold ‘as is’. Keep in mind I was looking at apartments the size of a Montana horse stall. I watch Selling New York on HGTV, and I understand that swanky places might come with a game show hostess making a sweeping gesture while saying the words, “your choice of finishes.” I was sweeping my finger over the radiator to be sure it put out some heat.

Please have your agent explain ‘maintenance’ or ‘common charges’ in advance so you don’t require oxygen in the middle of a showing. The little studio I saw on West 72nd had no lobby, no doorman, a weird entry and a basement worthy of Steven King . The maintenance was still almost $1000/mo. That’s silly or scary, depending on the thickness of your billfold.

Beware the scaffold, the white glazed brick. On top of normal monthly charges, special projects–like tearing off all the brick on the building and replacing it–are called assessments, something you get to take in the first three letters of that word. Co-op boards? Basically Martians with probes. I will spare you for now, just be sure all your fiscal orifices are clean and that when you do eliminate, you shit green.

5. Accost residents. Be brave. Be a good scout, camp out near the doorstep and don’t take more than a moment or two. Explain that you’re interested in making an offer on an apartment in their building. Ask two quick questions: What’s the best thing about living in this building? What’s the worst thing about living here? Their answers may surprise and enlighten you.

6. Think PAYMENT as well as COST. Think of this early in your search. You may be limiting your options. Obviously if you pay lower maintenance you can spend more on a mortgage. We mortgaged our Montana home to pay a whopping down payment, which worked to reduce our monthly expenses. You may be able to afford more than you think, but you’ll have to flash your fiscal weaponry to a mortgage broker, bank and co-op board.

7. Take Public Transportation to the apartment. Arrive early and walk around with a mental checklist. Grocery store, gym, coffee shop, jazz club, methadone house, library? Walking provides a context that can’t be obtained online, and if you are new to the City, it can mean the difference between living in Chelsea (next to the Railyard across the street from the tunnel) or living in Chelsea (across from a row of galleries and a health food store). If you have a demanding subway commute, please do a round trip in rush hour before you rush to sign the contract. This is your ‘fast forward button’. If you don’t want to push it, please rewind.

8. Even if you don’t plan to use it, visit the laundry room/basement. And take the stairs, please. Stairwells, your mother will tell you, are the underwear of your new building. My friend and longtime New Yorker Danny Choriki suggested that the trash/recycle room are also important stops in your systems inspection. In Danny’s words, “Fresh paint in the entry way and a filthy trash area means someone is pulling a fast one.”

9. Prioritize. After constructing a mental image of the ideal apartment, this is tough. As you become more realistic, sigh and cross off ‘exposed brick’ and ’ten foot ceilings’. Remember the incredible backyard that comes with every apartment: New York City. On Thursday, as the final part of this three-part series, I’ll lay out my winnowed list on wedgeblog. Swallow hard and write down your own.

10. Know your way out before getting in. This sounds cynical, but it’s just the opposite. If you’re thinking you’ll trade up $100K in a few years, you might decide it’s smarter to spend more now instead of losing all that equity to resale costs. Informed agents told me to estimate about 10% in selling expenses when the time comes; if you trade up and add buying fees, you might decide to hunt bigger game at the outset.

I had been looking for places under $350K, hoping to trade up in a few years. Ten percent of a selling cost of $400K is $40K, and probably 6% of buying cost of a new place in the $500 K range would be $30K. That’s $70K in trading cost! We upped our ante, and as women often do, I pointed out to my bewildered husband “Look at all the money we saved!” I had to whap him upside the head after saying that just to get both his eyeballs to aim forward again. Before I found my place in the City, I went back to Montana to clean out and reload my real-estate rifle three times.

Once I had an accepted offer, I thought the tough part was over. Boy howdy, was I wrong. Once you stick your finger in the gears of the buying process, you have to let them have your hand, then your arm, and before you know it, your entire body is squeezed, extruded and pummeled in a system of angled gears that hurt like hell when you attempt to resist. And just to torture buyers and sellers, these gears run extra s-l-o-w.

It took nearly four months for me to get these keys, dammit. For my husband, an intensely private person, it was nearly unbearable. He’d sooner have pole danced in a glitter thong. When I see people clutching show sheets on the streets of the City on Thursday evenings or Sunday afternoons, I smile in sympathy. I wish I could help you, but at least I will git out of your way. I’ve been there. I can smell the hunt.