Diary of a First-Time Buyer

Diary of a First-Time Buyer: 13 lessons learned after 60+ apartments

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After two years of on-and-off again looking at 60+ apartments, two attorneys, three brokers, and two co-op board applications, what did I learn? Here are a few takeaways I am happy to share...

  1. I wish I had gone to a “first time buyer” seminar so I could manage my expectations, understand the lending opportunities available, and really get a handle on whether I wanted a coop or a condo. (Even if you don’t want to drill down to the fine detail, it’s good to understand the lingo.)
  2. Understand what you can live with and what you can’t. For me, living in a neighborhood with real street life turned out to be priority number one. I also learned that I was willing to sacrifice a little bit of space for a lot more light.
  3. If you're looking to buy on your own, it really, really helps to have a friend come with you. They will see the defects you don’t and they will point out the possibilities you don’t see. I still marvel that my friend, Chris, showed up for nearly every appointment. And helped me move, too.
  4. Find examples of what you like in your price range and find a broker who understands that. If a broker shows you more than three places that are not to your liking, either have a come-to-Jesus meeting or get a new broker. 
  5. My advice on open houses: Unless you enjoy blood sports, I recommend trying to see things by appointment-only when possible. It was too stressful seeing the same people on the circuit, putting a face on the “competition” and being hearded through the Sunday afternoon cycle. The minute I saw someone pull out a tape measure at an open house, I felt like I wanted to make an offer. 
  6. DO NOT, under any circumstances, use a friend, relative or a friend of a friend as you broker or attorney. It makes it hard to be “tough” with them when they’re not meeting expectations. It also allows them to feel like you can be on the back burner because as a friend or relative, “you’ll understand” when they’re too busy to respond. 
  7. Get a handle on what those extras really cost. I started out with $300K as the top of my range. In short time, for “only” $25K more, I could have an extra window or built-in closets. For $35K more, a renovated kitchen. By sticking to my price range and being willing to consider modest renovations, losing a closet or window, trading in a rooftop view for a street view, I ended up spending $240K for my apartment. And, when I add in another $30K for renovations, I’ll be right in the middle of my range and with an apartment pretty much to my specifications.
  8. Do not succumb to pressures to make offers beyond what you’re comfortable with—either financially or time-wise. Henri-Enrique lost me as a customer when he called at 10:30 on a Sunday night demanding I make an offer or lose the Washington Heights apartment (coincidentally, I ended up a block away!).
  9. Call the listing broker on defects you see during showings. That huge water stain or crack in the ceiling did not happen overnight. If you see issues like that, if the building looks shabby and the maintenance is high, get the reasons why. If the broker can’t (or won’t) find the answer, move on, because something’s probably shady.
  10. Understand all the deadlines and mark them on a calendar. No one was more shocked than me to have to prepare a co-op application overnight because my broker and attorney “forgot” to remind me…. After all, they both said, the date was in my contract. Yep.
  11. Have a real understanding of the commitment involved. For me, that meant knowing that I could not only afford my mortgage and current maintenance, but also having enough money left over after closing for insurance, repairs and renovations. Once you kiss your landlord goodbye, you’re on your own.
  12. The smallest, most friendly building might not be the one for you. As much as I loved the idea of getting to know all of my neighbors, I knew that major capital improvements to a small co-op meant few people to shoulder and share the costs of any improvements and special assessments. In the end, I opted for a larger, less charming building that had already done the major projects and that had 120 shareholders to shoulder future costs. 
  13. As soon as you are in serious looking mode, get the financial pre-commitment letter and if you are considering a co-op, start building your package. I did this by organizing folders for financial documents (more complicated for me as a freelancer with boatloads of documentation) and alerting potential references—even drafting letters for them.
  14. There’s lots of advice out there for succeeding in the coop board interview--stay upbeat, appear animated, be yourself, etc. I never worried about it because as a journalist, I was used to getting along with New Yorkers from all walks of life. And, even after 60+ apartments, I was still optimistic about finding my home. And, that showed. 

Elle Bee is a lifelong renter currently in the process of buying a Brooklyn apartment, recounted in her bi-weekly column, Diary of a First-Time Buyer.

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