Diary of a First-Time Buyer

Navigating the (rocky) relationship between broker and buyer

By Elle Bee  | October 31, 2012 - 10:44AM

Week 4 of the apartment search. Sidney, the first realtor I contacted about four weeks ago, offered to show me around Inwood, a neighborhood in the furthest northern reaches of Manhattan, popular with musicians and actors.

Knowing that I was a freelance writer, he thought co-op boards there were more friendly towards “creative types” such as myself. And, having lived there for eight years, he could recommend the neighborhood first hand.

My friend Chris and I rode the A train to the end -- an hour-long trek from our meeting point at Grand Central.

We met Sidney at 60 Cooper St., to see a 900-square-foot unit whose floor plan allowed for a home office. The layout on Apartment 1K ($284,000) was generous: a gracious entry way into a proper dining area, a simply but nicely renovated kitchen (they restored the original wooden cabinetry), and beyond the kitchen was a room large enough for a small office, with corner windows offering a pleasant shrubbery view.

But the living room faced the back of the neighboring building, and the only real light came from the bedroom—a place I wouldn’t spend my waking hours.

Sidney had an appointment with another client, but encouraged Chris and me to walk around the neighborhood to get a feel for it. 

The housing stock was impressive: intact blocks of Art Deco-style buildings. I liked the low-rise scale of the neighborhood and the sense of open space. But it also had a haunted isolation: empty streets with little activity, even on Broadway. Retail there consisted of some homey Spanish diners (we scored a delicious plate of chicken and rice for $5), a few furniture stores smelling strongly of synthetic material, and a huge wine supermarket. 

We left Inwood, acknowledging it would be a “neat” place to live (or for Chris to visit), but somehow not convinced. 

Back home, I thought about last week's light-filled one bedroom on 179th Street down under the George Washington Bridge with river views. Its $329,000 price was too high for me, but I still couldn't get it out of my mind.

Chris and I had seen it by appointment with Enrique-Henri, a local agent. But this week, I wanted to see it again without the pressures of an agent watching my every reaction. I saw the apartment was listed for an open house on Sunday, and asked my friend, Tina, to come with me. 

It’s not her design aesthetic I valued, but her intuition.  A few years back, Tina, an energy healer, had visited an apartment I was moving into. She climbed up to the mezzanine bedroom, hung her legs over the side, looked around and declared the apartment had bad feng shui. She was right. I moved out 14 months later, leaving my newlywed husband behind. This time, I was going to listen to her. And, I thought a second opinion would help me decide how to approach an offer if I made one.

We arrived at the open house, where I signed in under a fake name. A few other people were milling about. Tina approved of the bathroom and kitchen. And the windows.

Then her eyes caught sight of the bridge-filled window. She pursed her lips and shook her head. 

“You’ll breathe car fumes all day and night,” she declared. “And what about the noise?”

With the windows sealed shut, the traffic outside was indiscernible. I asked the agent to open a window for us, but she didn't know how. I made a note to call E-H for a return visit. 

Two days later, on Friday, Chris and I met E-H with a tape measure and notebook. I tried not to notice him rubbing his hands together in anticipation (OK, maybe he was chilled in the spring air). I was determined the third visit would be a charm. 

We measured the small bedroom (one of my two dressers would have to go) and a natural nook in the living room I thought would work for a home office (too small for my current set up, but large enough for a streamlined IKEA system). We opened the windows and hung our heads out sniffing fumes and listening to traffic.

It was mid-afternoon, and though it was a steady stream of traffic, the noise, surprisingly, wasn’t a distraction--more like a hum. The air just smelled like, well, city air to me—that intangible mix of heat, exhaust, concrete, food and people that comes with urban living. 

“It’s not stop and go, it’s more like white noise,” Chris observed. E-H added “No one is honking the horn.” The river sparkled at us.  Damn. $329,000.

I thanked E-H and told him I would think about what I could offer. 

On Sunday night he called and suggested I immediately make an offer of $325,000 as another potential buyer had come onto the scene just moments before. Hmmm. Just last week he suggested I offer $275,000. 

And what about Sidney? Had I signed up with him and E-H was only a drive-by? I decided to send him an email and ask him to handle. I would respond to E-H in the morning after a good night’s sleep.

The next morning Sidney responded and advised me to involve him ASAP. His friendly note to E-H resulted in an explosive email to me from E-H, who accused me of not being forthcoming with him. In short: he was not willing to work with another broker. 

A hot wave of confusion washed over me, and I instantly regretted not doing my homework on agent-buyer relationships, and not bringing Sidney into it soon enough.

I planned to involve him when I thought I was serious enough to make an offer, but was sideswiped by E-H's sudden insistence to do so. I called Sidney, who asked if E-H was representing me or the seller. Suddenly, I didn’t know. His agency listed the apartment, so did that mean he represented the seller, or me or both?

As I later learned, if E-H was the listing broker on the apartment, he would earn a commission whether I brought my own broker or not: If I brought my own broker, he would have to split the commission, and if I didn't, he would keep the whole thing.

If the listing wasn't his -- if it belonged to another agent at his brokerage, as appeared to be the case here -- then as the broker who introduced me to the apartment, E-H could rightfully expect to split the commission with the listing broker.  By bringing in Sidney, I could deprive him of any commission at all; even worse (for me), the whole thing could wind up in court. 

In other words, he was right to be upset.

But I didn't know that yet.

E-H shot me an email: if I wanted the apartment, he advised making the offer that day. I felt conflicted, as if I had unceremoniously dumped gentle and kind Sidney. 

I called a realtor friend. Her advice: “Don’t let your emotions get in the way of getting a good apartment.”

I saw another email from E-H pop up. “This is the apartment for you, all you have to do is make the offer but I cannot hold off the other client. Need an answer now.”

All this happened in the span of 30 minutes, before I had finished my second cup of coffee. I was paralyzed with guilt and panic. Then slowly typed:

Dear Enrique:

I am sorry if you feel that I wasted your time or was not forthcoming with you. I was unaware of the agent protocol and did not understand at what point I needed to involve my agent until it was too late. Sidney does represent me and if you are unable to work with him, I will regretfully have to withdraw my interest in the apartment.

With thanks and regards,

I hit send. My heart sank, but my mind cleared. 

Next up: Lessons learned -- 50 apartments later

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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