Owner no more: Brooklyn novelist Amy Sohn on the incredible lightness of renting

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Writer Amy Sohn has skewered Park Slope in two novels—2009’s “Prospect Park West,” a saucy look at the lives of four neighborhood mommies, and the 2012 follow up, “Motherland”—and chronicled the city's love lives for New York Magazine.

But last weekend, she recounted an altogether different tale of neighborhood intrigue, with a New York Times story on the ups and downs of selling her co-op without a broker. A Park Sloper for nine years, Sohn moved in January to a nearby-but-undisclosed locale and traded in her co-op for a rental—specifically a two-bedroom in a three-family brick house, which she shares with her husband, 8-year-old daughter and 4-month-old bull terrier.

Sohn, whose next novel, “The Actress,” comes out July 1, spoke to us about the benefits of being a renter, living with dog lovers, and why she’d never buy another co-op.

You decided to move after your co-op building wouldn’t let you get a dog. Why rent, rather than buy?

All the reasons that made it a good time to sell made it a bad time to buy. I was going to get something a tiny bit bigger that wouldn’t really address the fact that our apartment was too small and may or may not have allowed a dog. We didn’t have the pet yet, and we felt like we were going to get into a situation where [a new building would have] any leverage to reject our dog. Then we’d be right back to where we started.

You’ve been renting for a few months. What’s it like?

Everyone gets along. Our landlords are very conscientious, responsible people. There's a big front porch and as the weather has gotten warmer we all hang out on it sometimes with the dogs. My husband’s pretty good at reading when we need to scurry inside and give them their space, though--because we don't want to crowd them. With all neighbor-neighbor relationships, the key is to make sure they are friendly but not overly entwined. If you become too close to a neighbor, it can create problems down the line if someday there is a conflict.

Above: Sohn's fifth novel, The Actress, comes out this summer, though it's set in Berlin and elsewhere

When you own an apartment, you typically have more freedom to customize it. Do you miss that? 

Our rental is in mint condition so there are no improvements necessary. It's great fun to renovate a kitchen, but I trust we'll do that again when we own at some point in the future. This is a transitional home, it doesn't need to be perfect, but it is very close to perfect.

How did you find your rental?

We got to know [the landlords] over two years of walking in the neighborhood, and getting to know their dogs, who were often hanging out in the yard. When they said they had a unit available, my husband asked for a tour right away [and] the timing worked.

What convinced you that they’d be good landlords?

It’s just a feeling you get that they put care into their home, they have a sense of humor, they seem like conscientious people in other ways—but a lot of it is just instinct. When you’re going through a broker to find a rental, you know nothing about your landlord, and of course your broker says all the right things. But frequently it’s an off-site landlord who owns a lot of buildings. You just don’t know what it’s going to be like if you have a leak or a problem.

You finally bought a dog in March. How is it living with a pet in a rental?

Our landlords have three dogs, and our dog gets along with all of them. It’s very harmonious. It’s a lifestyle I hadn’t imagined, to be in a place with a lot of dogs.

What’s the biggest surprise about being a renter versus an owner?

How liberating it is. I don’t feel any attachment to being an owner. I don’t feel lesser [as a renter]. What often gets missed in some of these conversations [about the benefits of being a homeowner] is when you have a negative experience as an owner, which I came to have when my board literally had a rule about pets that forced us to vacate.

You said you’d never live in a small co-op building again. Why not?

One of the downsides of being in a small co-op was that it was the worst of both worlds. We were like landlords, but we didn’t have the benefit of rental income, and we were like tenants, but many times we didn’t feel like we had the protection of tenants. If things went wrong in the building, it was ordinary people trying to figure out, “Okay, our plumber isn’t a 24-hour plumber. Do we call a different plumber?” ... Everyone I know who lived in a small co-op or currently lives in one complains nonstop about their neighbors, the way everyone gets along, and the rules.

Any regrets about not hiring a broker?

I don’t have regrets. Presumably it would be easier the second time. I wouldn’t make the same mistakes—I guess I could make new mistakes. I feel like I made all the mistakes I could make! ... I feel very empowered by the experience. I didn’t want to put a $50,000 chunk of change into the pockets of a real estate agency. [A typical 6 percent commission] is a relatively small percentage of an incredibly large sum of money [but] every $1,000 they’re taking is money you can’t spend on your next home. That’s painful.

What else should people know about your for-sale-by-owner experience?

If I wasn’t on the co-op board, I might have felt more nervous about handling all of the documents over the course of completing a sale. ... You do come to learn things by serving on the co-op board, reading the records—something as simple as reading your own proprietary lease and the offering plan. How many people at the end of their closing read this 100-page document? ... One other thing. If we had been in contract on a purchase, and I had decided to sell on my own, it would have been such a nail-biting experience because I would have had this other contract with a 90-day clock ticking down.

Related posts:

F'ed in Park Slope blogger Erica Reitman on officially leaving Brooklyn and selling her place from afar

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