The Market

I bought an apartment without a's what I learned

By Mayra David  | November 20, 2012 - 8:56AM

A teachable moment is defined as a point in time when learning becomes possible and easiest. My husband and I had a teachable moment in real estate that lasted about seven months from the time we put in our offer till we finally closed on the purchase of our first apartment--a junior-4 Hamilton Heights one-bedroom--sans broker.

Between the holidays, the banking crisis, and a mortgage officer who checked out (as in, mentally) in the middle of it all I’m not sure there was anything we — or a broker — could have done differently. 

Besides, I’m a control freak who sets her own working hours -- I had the time and disposition for the job -- and I also have a great loathing of unnecessary papers cluttering my life (which turned out to be a good thing to have in light of the avalanche of paper transactions involved in buying real estate).

There were other factors too that disposed us toward moving ahead without a broker.  

Though it wasn't our foremost consideration, we thought we might  be more attractive as buyers to sellers and their brokers (no split broker fee!), and we knew there would be plenty other free-agent (agent-free?) buyers out there.

Also, we wanted to stay in Harlem where we had been living for the past few years, either a few blocks south in Morningside Heights, or north towards the Hamilton Heights area, and we were confident we could find a two-bedroom apartment or a generously sized one bedroom within our price range and with cash to spare for renovations on our own.

In retrospect, it wouldn’t have been the worst thing in the world to have had the benefit of a good broker’s experience, advice, and assurance on our journey to the $196,000 fixer-upper we eventually bought.

On the other hand, we actually had a lot of fun “self-agent-ing” our way up the learning curve.

Here are 10 things I learned while going it alone:

1. Know the market. Be the market. All that time I spent pretend-buying wasn’t a waste of time after all. The open houses I attended “just for fun,” the property searches online -- these, it turned out, were research and practice.  I felt confident I could find us an apartment as well as any broker out there because I knew really well what the market in our chosen neighborhoods had to offer.

By game time, we knew enough to make a quick decision (as in, we walked into the space in and knew there was nothing better for us out there).

2. Pushiness is key. I learned to be pushy. Okay, even more pushy. A broker is worth their pushiness in gold, so push away.

Push for appointments to see the apartment, push for answers from sellers and lenders. Push your deal through. It’s exhausting, all that pushing, but good for toning those muscles you’ll need when you’re dealing with contractors for your remodel.

3. Be true to yourself and not to the Joneses. You know what I mean. Parents will want a room for a nursery, friends will want you closer to them. Go check out any renovation thread on Streeteasy, and see if you don’t come away a Pre-war Purist, thinking anything less than 9 ½ foot ceilings is totally gauche.  

Then there’s the hype around certain neighborhoods, and the prejudice against others, the horror of income restrictions, etc. At some point I learned to tune it all out and focus on what we needed and could afford.

4. Learn to let go. I almost bankrupted us by nearly jumping on a 4th floor walk-up co-op with less than stellar financials. It was the perfect location, glorious light and views and it barely needed a ton of work.

It was a great apartment, but it needed a cash buyer — which it got after we lost in the bidding war. Thank god. And don’t let anybody tell you a walk-up saves you a gym membership. That’s just bull.

5. You can’t compete with cash. Unless you, too, have it. See above.

6. Go for organic, locally grown lenders.  There’s nothing quite like being asked by a banker in Cleveland if the unit you’re buying is wired for electricity.

Us: "Sir, I think that question is meant for a new-build, pseudo-loft space in Ohio?"

Banker: “Still, the box must be ticked off.”

I’ll tell you who was ticked off: the appraiser who had to go back in with his camera and Ikea desk lamp. The bank asked for one picture of a lightbulb lit by the apartment’s very own electric wiring. That afternoon, our appraiser sent us 20 photos of a lit lamp from various angles and locations within the apartment.

7. Get the best lawyer you can barely afford.  A recommendation from somebody you trust is priceless, of course. But we didn’t have any of those, so I got a-Googling.

I spoke with a lawyers but only one was willing to give a first-time buyer the time of day. He anticipated my questions and corrected some of my expectations. He gave me his fee structure ($1,200: $250 at contract signing, the rest at closing) and told me not to be scared of what was coming. He knew the drill. And that’s all it was: a drill.

He did only the thing I was paying him for: he got involved when necessary, and he saw the deal through. He was not my broker, nor my friend, nor punching bag. I wanted a war- time consigliere, but that kind of service costs extra.  On the other hand, find the cheapest lawyer in New York City and you may just have found a waste of money.

8. Study up and it’ll come easily. 

I did a ton of studying online, and surprisingly, by the time the paperwork really started, I had become so familiar with all aspects of the transaction, that I found things easy to organize, mentally and actually.

9. Be patient and let people do their jobs.

I learned my limits and that “tear my hair out” is, and should remain, only an expression. I’ve never experienced a wait as frustrating and as long as it took to finish the appraisal, approval, and finally get a closing date.

I’m not saying it took that long (after the five months leading up to it, it only took two months with all the holidays smack in the middle). I’m saying that’s how I experienced it. At some point, I had to let people do their jobs and trust I had done all I could.

10. Let the Internet be your guide

When it comes to real estate, New Yorkers are savvy and sincere and online. And many of them are real estate brokers. You can Google anything from police blotters to the apartment’s previous owners, from What Does “Pre-War” Mean Anyway, to How to Fix Plaster Walls, to Questions Asked at a Co-op Board Interview. 


Diary of a First-time Buyer column

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A single guy reveals why he took the co-op plunge -- and how he basically lives for free

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