Q. What sort of things do co-op boards look for in reference letters? Are reference letters from out of state acceptable? I've only been in New York for six months and I don't know that many people here other than through work.
A. Relax: Out of state reference letters shouldn't be a problem in most buildings, according to our experts.
"While it’s great if you’ve been a New Yorker for awhile, already owned shares in a co-op, know someone in the building, or have some other bond that will create a comfort level with the board, being a recent transplant is not necessarily a negative," says real estate broker Gordon Roberts of Warburg Realty. "Your letters would reflect the transition and demonstrate some continuity."
If it is a typical NYC co-op board, agrees real estate broker Deanna Kory of Corcoran, they will understand if you are from out of town and have reference letters as such.
However, she notes, "If it is a Park Avenue or Fifth Ave co-op, the letters will have to be from a certain type of person who has a certain stature in the business, arts or other world."
As for what a reference letter should say?
"Boards are looking for indications that prospective purchasers are financially responsible, professionally secure and cooperative good neighbors," says asset manager and real estate broker Roberta Axelrod of Time Equities.
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Your broker or the seller's broker should be able to give you samples that you can also share with the people you ask to write your references.
Here are some specific do's and don'ts:
- "Reference letters should note the length of time that the person has known you, how they met you, what their experience is of you," says Kory. "Here is where anecdotes are good. 'She and I were roommates,' or 'He and I travelled together while working on the same project.' The anecdotes should illustrate your fine characteristics, and most importantly, that you are considerate andwould be a good neighbor."
- "One absolute rule for reference letters, whether personal or professional, is that they be grammatically correct and without spelling errors," says Roberts. "It is preferable that they be typed. They should reflect some effort on the part of the endorser– detailed and descriptive rather than one-liners with a phone number provided for additional information, something I recently saw."
- Ask for more letters than required so the best ones can be selected for a flattering overall portrait, says Roberts. Kory recommends mixing some longer letters of 1 to 1 ½ pages with other shorter ones of at least three paragraphs.
- "Although it rarely occurs that a potential purchaser will be eliminated from consideration solely on the basis of a recommendation, a lovely, well written, heartfelt personal or business reference can help set the stage for the interview and create a positive feeling towards the applicant both before and during the interview," says real estate attorney Steven Wagner of Wagner Berkow who also chairs the admissions committe of a 400-unit Manhattan co-op.
- Understand that board may scrutinize the people who write your references. As a board member himself, says Wagner, he wants to know, "Is the recommendation from someone who works for or is paid by the applicant? Is it someone we know or know of, such as someone who already lives in the building or someone of prominence/good reputation? Is the letter from a neighbor? I will often Google the people who write the recommendations."
- "Letter writers from homeowners in similar buildings are preferred—and if they’ve served on co-op boards themselves, that’s an added plus," says real estate broker Shirley Hackel of Warburg Realty, noting that it's better to present "letters from longstanding friends who know you well and can attest to specific relationships and personal characteristics than generic letters from a new friend, or worse, from a passing acquaintance who happens to have an impressive address."
- Choose someone who knows you well. The letter should not just describe you, but recommend you, and explain why, says Wagner. It should also confirm or support what is in the rest of your application, and, ideally from a board's perspective, provide insight into your personal life and habits that may not otherwise be apparent.
- While letters can "cite some humor, it is important not to talk about parties or anything that would make the co-op feel you would be noisy or difficult – even if it seems like an innocent and fun letter," says Kory. Your broker or the seller’s broker will read your letters and advise you if one has a potential red flag in it, she says.
- Make sure not to give the same set of sample letters to everyone you ask for a reference, "as you may get back the same exact format from all the people you ask…and that is not acceptable," says Kory.
- Boards often will verify the letters, warns Roberts, "so please, no fake letters."
- Don't overestimate the importance of reference letters: "Sparkling, charismatic personalities rarely make up for less-than-stellar financials–so always make sure your financial presentation is absolutely clear and accurate," says Roberts.
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