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Just because decent, affordable apartments are few and far between doesn't mean New York buyers are willing to throw all their standards out the window to land a place. If the building has "too many Republicans"? That could still be a dealbreaker.
Particularly when it comes to buying, plenty of apartment hunters in the city want the skinny on their potential new neighbors just as much as they do the building, writes the New York Times, and it makes sense—a neighbor who throws loud parties (or who throws around loud, unsolicited political commentary) can affect your life in a building just as much, if not more than, say, the state of its underlying mortgage.
There's just one glitch: it's illegal—and rightfully so—for brokers to tell you about the demographics in a given building. What you might see as a low-key question about how many other kids live there could turn into a violation of the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits brokers from answering questions about things like age, religious or political affiliation, sexual orientation, race or family status. As one broker explained to the Times, "'You certainly can’t steer people away from a building, but you can tell a client something like, ‘I don’t think you’d be very comfortable here because it’s a very snooty building and the people aren’t very friendly.'"
If you're still hoping to do a little recon, there's the tried and true trick of chatting up the doorman, not to mention a good old-fashioned stake-out. Just as you might visit a prospective new apartment at night to get a sense for the area's safety (or nightlife), William Raveis broker Kathy Braddock told the paper, "Prospective buyers who turn up before 8 a.m. will see who, if anyone, is leaving for school." Hanging around at different times of day will also give you a sense of how residents treat the doorman, which can speak volumes. One intrepid buyer even looked up a building's address online, found a couple of "random" residents' numbers, and cold-called them to chat about the building.
A few other telltale signs? While a playroom can denote a family-friendly building, game rooms or lounges tend to be geared toward a younger (and possibly more raucous) crowd. Brokers also told the Times that if the phrase "summer work rules" appears in the proprietary lease, the population's likely older and more staid. You can also check the building's history on eLaw to see if there's been litigation, and what kinds of disputes the board gets involved in. Perhaps more than anything, though, try chatting up the seller, who presumably knows the lay of the land better than anyone. But then, they're still trying to make a sale, so if the guy next door has a habit of blasting music, or complaining every time a neighbor has friends over? You might have to find that one out on your own.