My husband and I had been renting together for over ten years. Two kids (and a dog) later, we decided it was time to try to make our first home purchase.
We began looking with a wonderful broker in the summer of 2011 hoping to stay in the same neighborhood—Washington Heights—and secure a three-bedroom, two-bath apartment for about $800K.
We finally found our dream home, a co-op listed as a three-bed, two-bath duplex. We marveled at the 1,600-square-feet of space, including a backyard.
We made a bid but then, oddly, the apartment was taken off the market and put back on, listed this time as a two-bedroom. Turns out the listing broker made a mistake: Because the third, biggest bedroom was in the lower level of the duplex it couldn’t be legally considered a bedroom even though it was large, had fire exit access, two walk-in closets and a big window.
We were informed that the room could be considered a den or library but not a bedroom because it had a recessed window.
We didn’t care and placed a bid for about $40K under asking. A bidding war ensued and we finally offered asking.
It took six months to get a co-op board interview, because the seller was overseas and getting all the necessary paperwork took time.
Still, we weren’t worried because our broker had placed people in the building before and the seller was friends with the board president. Both said the board had a reputation for being lenient.
Even so, my broker was honest and said there are no guarantees. We finally handed in our board package and the management reviewer went on vacation.
We didn’t know if the board had those two weeks to review it or not but the day she came back she left us a message saying the interview would be the next day.
It was a mad rush to prepare. Our broker sat us down and briefed us on the interview process. My husband and I are both talkative and outgoing so the biggest piece of advice we were given was to be polite and truthful but to not answer questions that weren’t being asked. Less is more in these sorts of things.
We started getting nerves. We wanted to be sure the board knew we loved the building, but were on-guard against potential verbal diarrhea.
The following day my husband and I met in the board president’s apartment in the building for an hour-long meeting. She was there along with five men, all older than us. We are in our 30s; the board consisted of those in their mid-40s-60s.
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As we sat in the small living room we were jittery, realizing that our apartment was one of the biggest in the building and we were some of the youngest buyers there.
The men of the group seemed to harp on the fact that I am a freelancer. As my children are growing I’ve been taking on bigger projects and they all seemed concerned, asking when I would be going back to work outside the home.
Thankfully the board president, a woman, seemed to push back and curtail this line of questioning. She said she was supportive of freelancing and of working moms who do so in the home environment.
We were relieved that no questions seemed to center around our 50-pound mutt or the fact that my husband is a musician. They didn’t ask about noise or focus on our children’s activities in the home either.
We had presented them with a letter of reference from our landlord which said there were never any complaints about us for over ten years so I guess that was enough for them in that regard.
One of the male interviewers had casually chatted with us when we walked in and when asked if he had any questions said he didn’t. The president was very cordial and was more concerned with telling us about the building and seeing if we had any questions of her.
She asked if we had questions about renovations and we said no, wanting to put them at ease knowing that we would not cause any waves by making changes to the unit. The next man spoke to us about financial matters and said he was very impressed with how knowledgeable we were.
Things seemed to be going well until….
The oldest man asked us how we were going to set up the apartment. We knew the downstairs was legally not a bedroom, but also knew the owner had used that room as the master suite.
I explained I was aware of the legal definition, but that my husband and I had hoped to sleep in it and have the two kids upstairs in the rooms there.
No one on the board seemed concerned except that one man. He said he was worried because there could be asbestos issues and fire marshal concerns.
The other members tried to defend my point, but he seemed really bothered by this one thing. I calmly told him we loved the apartment so much and knew we’d never get that much space elsewhere, so my kids—who share a bedroom now—could share the upstairs bedroom and we could use the second upstairs bedroom as ours.
I said, “You could never have too much space in NYC so I would not worry about what to do with an extra room and full bath downstairs. We’ll find a use for it!” Everyone except that one man laughed and it seemed to assuage the situation.
Even though he seemed perturbed, he spoke to us next as if the unit was ours saying that our backyard was unkempt and that when we moved in we should speak to the building next door as it seems someone there throws debris in the yard. This seemed like a good sign.
We ended it all with financial questions. Our debt-to-income ratio was good and we were putting down a large down payment. Then that same man, who'd been so concerned about the extra room, asked what we had left over above and beyond our maintenance.
I didn’t understand so I asked if he meant savings. He began to explain what an assessment was (we fully knew that already). We explained we were fully aware that there is no assessment on the building; our lawyer had checked. If one happens we have savings and showed them so. Another member of the board interjected and said that was the best possible answer to the question and everyone seemed satisfied.
We closed with the president saying they typically answer within 24 hours but the worst-case scenario would be a max of three days.
Twenty four hours passed and no word. The second day passed. We began to get nervous. Had I messed up by offering too much information when I was asked what school my daughter goes to?
I didn’t have to divulge she was in a private pre-school. I could have explained she stayed home with me…
My gut told me it was about the third bedroom but my husband, mother and broker disagreed. I knew it wasn’t financial as we even offered to put maintenance in escrow so our chances would be ironclad.
The third day was a Friday and I was nearly brokenhearted. Finally the management contacted us and said the make-up of board members was changing and they would get to us on Monday.
Obviously we had a stressful weekend. Would we have to go through another interview? Monday came and went and we began harassing our broker who remained calm and ensured us that usually a “no” comes quickly.
Tuesday I had an appointment scheduled to see the apartment but canceled because if we weren’t getting approved I didn’t want to see it. Finally by the end of that day the management emailed saying we were approved but with a stipulation and that the president would call us to explain in an hour. The call didn’t come.
We wondered what the stipulation could be but were willing to do almost anything. Finally Wednesday we found out: They didn’t know if it was legal but wanted us to sign a document saying that we understand the apartment is a two-bedroom, not a three-bedroom. We were fine with that.
We had had an inspector come who said there was no asbestos, mold or potential for flooding. We knew the area was totally safe.
Within 10 days we were ready to close but they weren’t. So we had to wait another two and a half weeks, which was painful because we were desperate to get out of our rental.
Once we moved in we found out everything that had transpired behind the scenes. The president was gracious and told us that the one man was a stickler, and would not approve us without the stipulation. However, in the end, three days before closing, they realized there was no legal way to require it, so they took the contingency off the table.
While certainly a stressful experience, I’m not soured on co-ops. I never wanted a co-op but they seem to be in better areas and better buildings.
You can’t control what you fall in love with and we were madly in love with this one.