12 tough co-op board interview questions—and how to answer them
- These days you can expect more questions about your job stability and income
- Potential pitfalls include whether you plan on renovating or how often you socialize
- Having an airtight board package can help pre-empt surprises during the interview
The scrutiny of a co-op board interview can ratchet up the tension when you’re buying in New York City. Facing questions about your finances and personal habits can be daunting—particularly because boards can reject a potential buyer without giving a reason (although some state legislators would like to change this).
Your best bet is to thoroughly prepare for this important part of the co-op buying process by anticipating what you will be asked.
That's true no matter the format of the interview. One upshot of the pandemic is that boards and buyers discovered that being able to schedule a video conference, rather than trying to find a suitable date and time to convene in person, is much more convenient. "Some boards have returned to in-person but some have vowed to never do in-person again," says Dean Roberts, an attorney at real estate firm Norris McLaughlin.
Just don't assume you can request a Zoom meeting because it's more convenient for you.
"As a buyer, you want to meet the board where they are at," says Molly Franklin, an agent at Corcoran. (That includes driving in from the Hamptons or flying in from abroad.)
[Editor’s Note: This article was updated with new information in May 2023. We are presenting it again as part of our summer edition of Best of Brick Week.]
If your interview is virtual, don't skimp on your homework—and mind your online manners. Roberts says he’s amazed at how many unpleasant things he’s seen or heard in the background. “You do not want to have someone flushing the toilet or two kids screaming at one another during the interview process,” he says.
He also recommends using a real background that’s visually appealing. “In general, I think boards are put off by fake backgrounds and wonder what's really going on behind the green screen,” he says. So don’t set up your interview with a faux Caribbean island. On the other hand, make sure your background doesn’t offer a view of clutter or dirty laundry.
"Co-ops are generally 10% less expensive than condos. Their rules are designed to protect the value of your apartment and ensure your neighbors are financially sound," says Matthew Steer of SteerKelly Team< at Keller Williams. "As your broker, it's our job to make sure you qualify for the building you're interested in. We have a 99.9% success rate of getting buyers board-approved." Get in touch with us >>
Virtual or not, the questions you will be asked are going the be the same. Keep in mind that for all the anxiety the co-op board interview can generate, the vast majority of rejections are based on application packages, with the bad news delivered well before a co-op board interview would even be scheduled. The board just wants to see you are who you say you are and there are no bad vibes.
Still, it's an important introduction—you don't want to spoil your chances by being ill-prepared. Brick asked real estate brokers and lawyers—former board members among them—for questions that might arise and tips on how to answer these curveballs.
For starters, Franklin advises preempting many such questions by working closely with your broker to review your package to the nth degree before submitting it.
"I always explain that boards treat packages forensically because that's literally what's happening—they aren't looking for a crime but any issues are going to throw it off. That's why your broker is hounding you," she says. (BTW, the same goes for if you are a seller—your broker will want to review the buyer's package for any red flags and have those fixed to ensure the deal goes through.)
The ultimate takeaway: Keep answers simple and short. Less is more. Read on and remain calm.
1. How secure is your job?
Board members will most likely be trying to get a sense of your overall financial stability—especially if you are just getting established or have recently changed jobs.
"Rejections almost always come down to money," Franklin says. "Yes, they want to know you are a good neighbor but mostly they want to know you are a steady business partner with a really good umbrella to weather any storms, such as a roof that needs to be replaced or paying volatile utility and inflation costs." She notes that many buildings have exhausted their reserves over the past few years and might be facing more maintenance increases, so boards are being more vigilant about debt-to-income ratios. (Her current advice is to avoid going over the 20 debt-to-income ratio.)
Hence, a buyer's job security will be an increased focus for most boards these days," says Therese Bateman, a broker at Level Group. "So now is not the time to discuss any existential crisis about your work or to cause unnecessary alarm with throwaway lines.” Instead, she recommends being upbeat about your role and not giving away too many details.
Franklin suggests pre-empting this question from coming up by answering it head-on in your board package. "I have a lot of clients in tech, which has had a huge round of layoffs," she says. "So having one of your professional letters be from a direct supervisor who says you are indispensable could quell that as much as anything." You might also build confidence by showing (for example) you just got a raise and a title—anything to address "last-on, first-off" concerns.
2. Do you work from home?
One byproduct of the pandemic is that the concept of working from home is now expected at least a few days a week. “Rather than being an issue, board members and applicants are often exchanging stories about it,” Roberts says.
What they are really asking is how much noise you are going to generate day in and day out.
This is especially true if you are a musician or performer who practices or teaches at home, in which case "you should have clear lines about how you are going to soundproof your apartment so no one will hear anything," Franklin says. "No one wants to hear someone else's six-year-old learning the piano."
(True story: My downstairs neighbor was an opera singer who taught students in her home and yet she would constantly complain about my two-year-old "stomping" in the bedroom before 8 a.m. The board demanded I cover 90 percent of the hardwood floors with rugs while she didn't have to do anything to muffle the sound of vocal scales hours each day.)
3. Why are you downsizing?
This is a common question, though not one that applicants necessarily expect. (And, of course, it only applies if you are actually downsizing). You may have fewer family members living at home, or maybe you are trying to trim expenses. If it’s the latter, keep it to yourself. Focus on space, not money.
Brokers say co-op board members don’t want to hear that you are moving to save money. It's better to say that you’re empty nesters.
4. Are you planning a renovation?
Hearing about any renovation plans can be a concern to board members—even "simple" projects can spiral out of control. Board members will typically want to understand the scope of the work and whether you can afford to carry a second place while the work is being done.
“It is best to omit details of your proposed renovation until after closing,” Bateman says. For one thing, you never know who may live adjacent to your apartment and might dread the disturbance of a renovation.
While you want to be truthful—obviously an estate purchase will require upgrading—it is best to instead say, "We are taking one step at a time and have no immediate renovation plans," she says.
Franklin agrees. "I tell clients to keep any talk about renovations quiet until after closing, so it's not like you are lying."
5. Are you interested in serving on the board?
Again, neutrality is your best approach on this issue, brokers say. Your answer will ideally be along the lines of: “If the board or the building thought that I could make an important contribution, I would certainly be open to discussing it.” It is best not to give the impression you are aiming for a position on the board.
That said, especially in a self-managed building, you would be wise to show you are willing to step up—without saying you would do everything so much better. "No one wants to hear that," Franklin says. Instead, as a potential business partner, they want to know you are a collaborator. "You want to take the stance of 'I'm here to listen, learn, and give my energies."
On that note, some application packages might ask you directly if you have any background or skills that may be useful to the board, in which case it's fine to list expertise that might not be readily apparent from other parts of your board package.
6. Do you have parties or entertain often?
This question is common—and it's not a popularity test. The board wants to gauge whether your socializing will be disruptive. Your best answer might be to say you enjoy having occasional dinners with close friends and leave it at that.
Franklin says to beware that letters from your friends—avoid funny stories from college or about how you used to get black-out drunk. One reference letter for a buyer who worked in publishing said something like "he's so crazy, he almost makes me want to live in a co-op again." (Bad idea.)
"Boards like the idea of having people with good taste join the building, so having small dinner parties and being a helpful neighbor should be your messaging," she says.
7. How often do you host houseguests?
According to Jeremy Kamm, an agent at Coldwell Banker Warburg, "some co-ops are interested in knowing how frequently you may have guests staying with you who are not shareholders or occupants."
He has also heard boards ask buyers if they intend to sublet their units and how often (for co-ops that permit subletting). Weigh your answer carefully. "Even when subleases are allowed, boards are typically not thrilled with them," he says.
8. What do you do in your spare time?
While it seems innocent enough, this question can trip buyers up. Bateman has three easy suggestions when fielding this one: “Keep it clean, keep it simple, and keep it quiet,” meaning now is not the time to tell the board about your plans for learning the clarinet or your passion for carpentry.
Kimberly Jay, a broker at Compass, says boards may ask about a hobby mentioned in your application/reference letters (i.e., tennis, charity work, travel, etc.) "This is an easy, neutral conversion starter," she says.
9. Why did you choose this apartment/neighborhood?
“This is an opportunity to be complimentary,” Bateman says. “Don’t bog down your response with a blow-by-blow description of the 30 apartments that you saw before this one, or that it is the only one you could afford.”
This also isn’t an invitation to overshare. There are times when boards don’t phrase a question as a question, and that can catch people off guard. Brokers advise clients to be cordial and not chatty.
By all means, however, show that you are aware of the building's storied history or architectural heritage—whatever makes the property unique (as long as it is true and you don't come across as brown-nosing).
10. What was your last interaction with an attorney?
"The best answer is, of course, 'My lawyer brother-in-law and I had Thanksgiving dinner together,' but if you do have something behind you, be honest," Roberts says. He suggests you temper your answer, though. "Go with something like, 'I was unjustly sued by someone, we were able to resolve it quickly and cleanly, and fortunately I've never had any legal involvement since."
You want to give a clean, simple explanation that proves you are reasonable and weren't the source of the problem. But remember, "Litigation is not a scarlet letter, especially for certain businesses," Roberts says.
It’s worth doing an online search of your name before an interview to see what information comes up. Be prepared to answer questions related to the results.
11. Why are there inconsistencies in your application?
In some cases, buyers will have an assistant fill out their application for them, which can lead to discrepancies or outright errors—and questions from the board about any inconsistencies in your financial record.
"It's important to work with your broker to interrogate your application so these kinds of questions don't come up during the interview," Franklin says. "Your broker might ask you 15 times but the goal is to already explain everything and delineate where the money is coming from and going to so it all matches up."
On the bright side, you will likely have advance notice of any issues. "If there are inconsistencies in your application, a need for a guarantor, or substance questions, you would hear from the board via the managing agent prior to being called for an interview," Jay says.
But there are exceptions to every rule and not all boards behave the same way.
If you don't know the answer to a question, try not to seem flustered. Just say you don't know the answer, and that you'll get back to them as soon as you've spoken to your accountant.
That said, do not be reserved at this moment. "You are proving yourself as a business partner and nobody wants to go into business with someone who won't reveal their finances honestly," Franklin says, adding that the people who get rejected without recourse are usually unwilling to share information about themselves. "No one is coming after your money; they just want to know that you are safe for them."
12. Do you have any questions?
While in other forums it is often useful to have questions at the ready as a demonstration of your interest, you really shouldn’t raise them during a co-op interview—at least that's the opinion of some brokers.
Boring is good. A co-op interview is not a job interview—people do not have to fall in love with you. For instance, when the board asks you if you have any questions, say, “None that I can think of right now, but I’ll be sure to get back to you if any should occur.” It is never about keeping the conversation going, as it might be at a job interview.
Other brokers take a different stance. Svetlana Choi, a broker at Coldwell Banker Warburg, suggests turning the question around. "If you noticed something particularly interesting in the building’s architecture or some other positive feature, say how intrigued you were and ask about the story behind it. Board members will be most flattered and want to share their knowledge with you." (She also warns that some boards require children to accompany you to the interview. Also: "Do NOT bring gifts or flowers!")
And Karen Kostiw, another broker at Coldwell Banker Warburg, says that often board members want to get to know the applicant(s) and share building policies and rules. "The board uses the interview to answer the applicant's questions about the building"
One thing's for sure: Never ask about the board’s decision at the time of your interview. Instead, say something like, "We look forward to hearing from you."
Earlier versions of this article contained reporting and writing by Joann Jovinelly and Lucy Cohen Blatter.
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