For the titans of American capitalism, it’s a bracing experience to be told you must conform to the requirements of a co-op board application. Yet this is what New York co-op protocol demands of all, from new money to Rockefeller.
The co-op board application process isn’t elegant or normal. It’s dehumanizing. It reduces people to numbers on a tax return. It can make a dear friend call into question your financial stability. But resistance is futile.
“You get rogue clients all the time,” says Brian Lewis, a Compass broker who lives in a co-op building. “Just the other day I had someone who literally didn't want to show his tax returns. I had reminded him at the beginning of the process that it was something he would be asked for, and I think he thought that he was higher and mightier than that. He thought, ‘If the president doesn't have to show it, I don’t.' But co-op applicants do.”
“With a co-op package, you are basically opening your kimono to the board. It’s your entire financial life laid bare on a piece paper,” says Toby Cohen, real estate attorney with the firm Holm & O’Hara.
That’s why a cover letter, also known as a personal letter, can sometimes work magic on a board.
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Why you need a cover letter
“The purpose of a cover letter is to humanize the board package,” Lewis says. “The board, by the very nature of the process, wants you to be a number. They want this to be all about your financials, because they are governed by law not to question you on specific things.”
It’s always worth recalling that the board members who review packages are volunteers and they don’t necessarily have the time or training to interpret complex financial statements. It’s often the building’s attorneys who review those documents, then give the board an opinion.
“What the board is really going to be reading is your cover letter,” Cohen says. “The cover letter allows you to give the board the bullet points. You are giving them you highlight reel. You are trying to make yourself look as good as possible and kiss up a little.”
But, like all concerns co-op related, there is etiquette to the cover letter that tops your board package.
Consult an expert
Cohen says that many of his clients hire consulting firms to help them put their best foot forward. Those firms will help you prepare the perfect letter for a fee. However, that’s really something that your broker ought to be doing for you, according to Lewis.
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“It's important that you run it by your broker, if you have representation,” Lewis says. “Even if you don't have representation, the seller's agent will help, because everybody has the same goal, which is to get you a set of keys. Listen to the agents, because we do this every day, and without good, successful board packages, we don't get paychecks.”
Presentation: Keep it simple
Letters of recommendation should be sent on personal letterhead and perhaps even scrawled out in longhand.
Cover letters, on the other hand, must be more to the point. Print yours out on normal copy paper and use Times New Roman for your typeface instead of something flashier.
“It's not the time to show identity through style,” Lewis says. “It’s about getting your message across. You don't want to stand out or be remembered for the wrong reason. Like, ‘Oh yeah, that lady had the perfumed paper.’”
'Quiet, boring, and rich': How to strike the right tone
All co-ops are looking for a shareholder who is three things, according to Lewis: “quiet, boring, and rich.” Your cover letter should reflect those beguiling attributes.
The cover letter is ultimately your place to shine. It should not be negative. However, it is also an appropriate place to gently broach sensitive subject matter that might be misunderstood if pulled out of context.
“If there is a nuance and a filter that you would like the board to visualize the package through, this is a nice way to introduce the concept,” Lewis says.
For instance, what if your parents gave you a large financial gift, or paid your security deposit? To the board, this could appear to be evidence that you cannot fully support yourself, and that you may someday be unable to afford maintenance. But in the cover letter you can explain: “Although I am receiving a large gift from my father, it was given as a vote of confidence in my future. As you can see, my liquidity supports this purchase, even without such a gift.”
“It’s the moment to put your spin on it,” Lewis says. “It's a gentle way to guide the board into a perception.”
Other common situations that be treated with a golden veneer in the cover letter include earning income as an independent contractor, and changing jobs. For example: “As you will see, I started my job at Mt. Sinai Hospital only a few months ago. However, I have been in this industry for the past 15 years and I have had consistent employment. My reference letters will reflect that as well.”
If you are a 1099 employee, whose incomes bobs with the economy, your approach should focus on your strengths, like this: “I am an independent contractor. I provided the past few years of my income, but I can also go deeper. I have been it the industry for many years and have consistently made money. The worst year I had was this. The best year I had was this. However, I average this.”
“Sometimes you have almost lead with your flaw and almost throw a spotlight on it,” Lewis says. “But only if it can be explained away or you can control the perception of it.”
Be brief and give praise
Brevity is a must. Do not exceed one page.
Within that page, it's reasonable to think that flattery will get your everywhere in life, including into some the city’s most exclusive buildings. But no one likes a toady.
“Everyone knows that this is an opportunity to kiss up a little, so just make sure that it’s a true compliment,” Cohen says. “If there is a specific architectural detail you love about the building, absolutely put that in. But don’t say something like, ‘This is the best-looking board I can remember.’”
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Other forms of endearment
Because your board package reduces you to a digit, you’ll want to spend a good portion of your letter on human color and sympathetic information.
“The board is legally restricted from asking you certain questions, so this is your opportunity to fill in the blanks,” Lewis says. “It’s as simple as saying, ‘My name is Brian Lewis. I am a proud graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia, where I serve on two alumni boards. I have two wonderful daughters. My husband and I work hard to live our New York dreams and have been co-op owners in the past. We look forward to meeting you and hopefully becoming part of your community. Thank you so much for your time and consideration. If there is any additional information that your require, we are happy to cooperate.’”
Lewis emphasizes that it is especially important to thank the board, as they review these applications in their spare time, after long days at work.
Know your frenemy
Co-ops are creature of habit. They are clubby. They typically accept their own kind. So it can really help to know the building and its board members. You can play to those eccentricities in your letter.
For instance, if the building is especially charitable, a mention of your own philanthropy is very meaningful. If it’s a building full of Harvard grads, your time at the Kennedy School should not to be withheld.
"Everything is about identity," Lewis says.
However, there’s no need to stalk the board. A good broker should have working knowledge of the building and its board.
Whatever you do, don’t be weird
“Everybody has peccadillos,” Cohen says. Just make sure you know what yours are and avoid talking about them as part of the application.
So talk about how you run the New York Marathon, and forget your Festivus pole.
“Lots of families have weird habits that they think are endearing, but they can come off as weird,” Cohen says. “This is a case where discretion is the better part of valor.”
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