How to Sell your NYC Co-op, Condo or Townhouse

A HOW-TO GUIDE
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Selling a co-op or condo in New York City is not the more straightforward exchange of money for property common elsewhere in the country. Multiple approvals are required: By lenders--which must approve the buyer, the apartment and the building before your buyer can get a mortgage--and by neighbors, in the form of co-op and condo board approvals.  Picking the wrong buyer—one who gets rejected by a co-op board or a lender, for instance—can turn your apartment into a pariah and cost you money. 

You’ll have fewer hoops to jump through if you’re selling a townhouse, brownstone or rowhouse, but time is still (your) money:  Stumbling out of the gate with an unrealistic price, for example, can cause your home to linger on the market and ultimately command a lower price than it might have.

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Hiring a real estate broker

Do you really need a real estate agent to sell an apartment or townhouse in New York City? The pros and cons of FSBOs

With real estate commissions in NYC hovering around 5 to 6 percent of the sale price, and the cost of a two-bedroom Manhattan apartment averaging well over $1 million, it’s tempting to try to sell a co-op, condo or brownstone without a broker.

Even so, for-sale-by-owner undertakings in NYC (also known as FSBOs) have historically not been for the faint of heart, the busy, or the ignorant. A close reading of The FSBO Diaries—an online account of an Upper West Side couple’s attempt to sell their co-op without an agent—gives an idea of some of the challenges. (Read it in chronological order.)  And somewhat famously in the local brokerage community, even the founder of ForSaleByOwner.com gave up and hired a broker after six months trying to sell his $2 million Chelsea condo on his own.

More recently, the emergence of smart alternatives to big-name conventional brokerages has vastly improved the ability (and desire) of sellers to save all or a significant chunk of the average 5-6 percent commission. For example, sellers who list their abode with Prevu (a Brick Underground partner based in NYC) pay a fair listing commission of only 1 percent. One of Prevu’s salaried agents will provide you with a detailed home valuation and listing strategy. Prevu handles showings, manages negotiations, and everything else you would expect from a full-service real estate broker.  Prevu’s “Smart Sellers” pay a 1 percent listing agent commission to Prevu upon closing, a savings of up to 5 percent of the sale price. Sellers offer a commission to buyers’ brokers to entice them to bring buyers to the apartment (highly recommended – see below), and if a buyer comes without a broker, sellers pay just the listing agent commission, a unique feature of Prevu versus traditional brokers.

If you do decide to fly solo, keep these things in mind:

  • There are actually two types of FSBOs: The kind where you pay no commission to brokers, and the kind where you offer a commission to a broker who brings you a buyer. That amount can be anything that you want, but 2.5 to 3 percent--the typical “co-broke” split that a buyer’s broker would receive if you had hired your own full-service broker at a 5 to 6 percent commission—will command the most exposure to buyers working with brokers.

  • If you offer no commission, you will be marketing only to buyers working without a broker. That wipes out a huge percentage of prospective buyers. 

  • Your apartment will not necessarily appear on the radar of many buyers’ brokers if you are a pure FSBO–meaning you aren’t working with a hybrid-model brokerage like Prevu, that can distribute your listing to the RLS, a local MLS in New York City.

  • Some brokers refuse to bring clients even to fee-paying FSBOs—in effect, blackballing your listing--because they do not want to encourage the success and proliferation of FSBOs.  

  • You will be responsible for preparing the buyer for the board package and board interview (if there is one) if your buyer doesn’t have a broker, and you are not working with a brokerage, . Also, because you will be speaking directly with the buyer, your level of liability regarding legal disclosures may be increased.

  • A buyer who recognizes that you are a FSBO will often expect to “share” in any cost savings that you might have.

Whichever route you try as a seller, so long as you have a realistic sense of what your apartment is worth, it’s certainly worthwhile to see whether one of your neighbors might be interested in buying it before you hire a broker. You may wind up saving the broker’s fee and pocketing a premium from a neighbor eager to combine apartments; in addition, co-op board approval is usually, though not always, a shoo-in when selling to a neighbor.

How to pick the best real estate broker to sell your NYC home

Let’s start with how NOT to select a real estate agent:  By the numbers.

Exaggerating your apartment's market value is literally the oldest trick in the book. Fall for a high-baller, and you are setting yourself up for months of price cuts and the attendant frustrations of keeping your place in showing condition and making yourself scarce at a moment’s notice.

One way to filter out these agents is to develop an accurate sense of what your apartment is worth. Research comparable sales in your building and neighborhood online to make sure your expectations (and a broker’s assessment) are reasonable.

When interviewing an agent, be sure to ask questions like:

How many listings do you currently have?

There is no magic answer, but make sure you understand what’s really going on in their business.  Lots of listings raises the question of whether the broker has the resources to service more clients.  No listings may mean the agent is not successful; or it may mean they just closed three deals the month before or tend to work mostly with buyers. Listings can also give you insight into the markets the agent is most familiar with.  For example, if they have four listings in the Bronx but no others, and you’re in the West Village, you might be concerned.

How long have you been working as an agent?

Be wary of hiring anyone with less than two years experience unless they are a junior member of a larger team with lots of experience.

Do you have any other listings in my building or any listings comparable to mine?

Similar listings are a positive, because the agent can easily push buyers your way.

What education do you have that prepared you for a career in real estate?

New York City is not Iowa.   A multi-million dollar property is likely to be best represented by a highly educated person. You should expect at least a college education; there are lots of brokers with law degrees, MBAs, masters in real estate development and more. These people not only tend to be highly competent agents, but they also tend to relate better to Manhattan and Brooklyn buyers.

Do you have an assistant or team?

You want to know whether the agent has the infrastructure to service your listing.  What if they’re busy? What if the agent has to work with a buyer on a Sunday and you need them to run your open house?  What if they have multiple listings to service?  A team, a partner, and/or an assistant is preferable because one agent can’t do it all if they’re actually a busy agent.

What happens if you’re unavailable and a buyer or their broker calls for a showing?

Do they have a call service or assistant?  What are your agent's showing hours (will they do before and/or after business hours, do they take Saturdays off)?  Again, there’s no magic answer but you should be aware of what your agent can and will accommodate in order to make informed decisions.

May I see your marketing plan for my apartment?

Some but not all agents will give you a marketing plan before the exclusive listing agreement is signed.  At a minimum, ask, “Assuming I sign with you will you provide me with a copy of your marketing plan so I can follow the plan as time goes on?”  If they say no, they may not really have a formal plan.

Negotiating the listing agreement

When you hire a broker, you will be asked to sign a listing agreement. Here's what it covers along with some areas of negotiability.

Duration

Since an agent doesn’t get paid or recoup expenses (on advertising, for instance) unless and until your apartment sells, most will insist on a six month commitment to feel confident the job will get done. In rare cases, if your apartment is obviously “special” enough to sell quickly, or for a very high price, this time period may be negotiable.

Commission

Antitrust laws dictate that there can be no “standard” or “required” commission—in other words, commissions are legally negotiable. That being said, agents are not required to accept less than what they ask for, which, in New York City has traditionally been 6% (split two ways if another broker brings in a buyer). In a seller’s market, some agents may agree to reduce their commission to 5% (or even 4% if the eventual buyer is not represented by a broker). Anything less is very rare in Manhattan except in higher price ranges (multi-million dollar properties).

Keep in mind that getting your agent to agree to a 5% commission is not necessarily a good thing, because it reduces the amount the buyer’s broker will receive in a “co-broked” transaction from 3% to 2.5%.  (That may not sound like a lot expressed as a percent, but on a $1 million sale, it’s $5,000.) If an agent is taking a buyer to see 10 properties that are offering a 3% co-broke, that agent might not even bother to show the one that only offers a 2.5% co-broke.

Exclusivity

You will be asked to sign an “Exclusive Right to Sell” agreement. That means the agent will get paid the commission agreed to no matter who finds the buyer. So even if you find a buyer yourself, you still owe that commission, unless you have negotiated some limited exceptions.

"Co-Exclusive” agreements--where you will hire two brokers to work together--most often occur in the ultra-luxury market, and can happen when the seller believes that for an eight-figure property, the broker may be more likely to find the buyer from their “network” rather than just through marketing.  Thus, having two broker “networks” might be better. 

“Open listings” surface once in awhile. An open listing is made available to all brokers on the same basis. These are not a very viable option for the average seller, but sponsors (building owners) sometimes use them.  Sponsors have deep relationships in the brokerage community and may be able to call 10 brokerages, be taken seriously, and say “if anyone in your office finds a buyer for my property on ABC Street, I’ll pay them a 3% commission, but it’s not going to be anyone’s exclusive.”  Realistically, a normal seller cannot do this.

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Pricing

Calculating closing costs and capital gains taxes for NYC sellers

How much money will you net from the sale of your New York City co-op, condo or brownstone?  In addition to paying off any outstanding balance on your mortgage, remember to deduct closing costs, flip tax (if your building has one), and capital gains taxes.  

Broker’s fee: Expect to pay 5 to 6 percent of the sale price to your broker (which will be split with the buyer’s broker if there is one).    On a $1 million sale, that’s $50,000 to $60,000.

City and State Transfer taxes: Sellers pay a state and city combined transfer tax of 1.825 percent if the sale is over $500,000, or 1.4 percent if it’s under $500,000.  On a $1 million sale, that’s $18,250.   If your home sells for $3 million or more, the tax increases by .25 percent.

Flip taxes: To support building reserves and capital improvements, many co-op and condo buildings also levy flip taxes paid by the seller ranging anywhere from 1% to 5% of the purchase price.   On a $1 million sale, that’s $10,000 - $50,000 in flip taxes.

Attorneys fees: Expect to pay around $2,500 - $3,500 for attorneys fees on a standard transaction.

Real estate capital gains taxes: The profit you make on selling your apartment or townhouse may be subject to federal capital gains tax of 0 to 20% depending on your income level.  Additionally, if you earn over $200,000 per year (or $250,000 for a married couple filing jointly), you may be subject to an additional Net Investment Income Tax of 3.8%.  You will also need to pay regular New York State and City income taxes on your profit.  The good news: If you are selling your primary residence and have lived there for at least two of the last five years, you won’t have to pay taxes on the first $250,000 of your profit if you’re single, and $500,000 if you’re married filing jointly. You can also lower the taxable amount by deducting closing costs (including broker fees) and capital improvements costs during the time you’ve owned the property (your own renovation or amounts assessed by your co-op or condo building).  Bottom line: Consult your tax adviser before assuming you can keep or re-invest all of the profit from your sale.

How much is your apartment or townhouse worth right now?

As brokers are fond of saying (at least, after the listing agreement is signed), your home is only worth what someone else is willing to pay for it.

Accordingly, the best way to estimate market value is to put your co-op, condo or townhouse on the market and see how much buyers offer for it, right? The problem with this approach is the almost universal tendency to overestimate the value of one's home...and then let it linger without appropriate, quick price cuts until it gets stale and ultimately fetches less than it would have if priced correctly.

To estimate the market value of your co-op or condo as accurately as you can before listing your place, find a recent sale in your building and line (look up your building's sales history on StreetEasy) and then adjust for variables like views, floor, condition, etc.    There are lots, and lots, and lots of approaches—and mountains of guesswork--when it comes to comparing sales. It may also be helpful to attend open houses of comparable properties in the neighborhood to see how yours stacks up, so you can make the appropriate price adjustments.

Similarly, if you own a townhouse, rowhouse or brownstone, research recent sales prices in your neighborhood and especially on your block.

"Pre-marketing" your co-op, condo or brownstone can be a more accurate way to determine what your apartment is worth.  In this scenario, sometimes referred to as a "whisper" or "pocket" listing, a real estate agent quietly spreads the word among their network of buyers but stops short of publicly listing your apartment on websites.   If you price it too high, you can adjust it quietly, without the drop appearing on listing sites as numerical shark bait for lowball offers.  New York City real estate brokerage Triplemint (a Brick Underground partner) has built an entire data-driven pre-marketing platform that provides a way to test your asking price and your marketing strategy discreetly via feedback from actual qualified buyers. There's no charge to participate and no obligation to enter a traditional listing agreement at the end of the pre-marketing period if your place hasn't sold. (Click here for more information.)

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Prepping & showing your home

Cleaning, repairs, painting & staging

It's your agent's job to help you identify what you need to do to prepare your apartment for sale in order to command the highest price possible. For most sellers, this involves, at a minimum, a lot of purging to make apartment feel better and to depersonalize it so that buyers can envision themselves living there.  Strive to be as objective and dispassionate as you can, relying on the advice of your agent, who has no sentimental attachment to your belongings and, like you, wants to maximize sales price. (For more, see  11 tips from top designers on staging your apartment for sale and 10 staging mistakes that can cost you a sale)

Depending on the condition and appearance of your home, you may need to do some repainting, regrouting, and even minor renovations (such as replacing a bathroom sink or kitchen countertops, refinishing floors, or upgrading appliances).  Your agent may do some restaging themselves (think throws, pillows and faux plants) or may recommend that you hire a stager to rearrange your possessions and fill them in with borrowed items to maximize the aesthetic appeal of your space.  Expect to spend around $10,000 to stage a one-bedroom apartment using a professional stager.

Painting your interiors in a fresh, neutral tone is a low-cost, high-impact way to freshen and update your space for sale.  It will make your place feel newer, cleaner and better maintained.  (See What shade of white should paint your apartment if  you’re trying to sell? 

Townhouse owner should make sure outdoor spaces are fresh and appealing too, and remember to keep the stoop broomswept at all showings.

Photos, videos and virtual tours

When it comes to photos, as many as 90 percent of buyers find their apartment online, so do not compromise: Insist on high-quality professionally shot photos, and invest in the time, effort, and minimal expense necessary to primp your apartment beforehand.  Many brokers swear by the marketing power of a great video as well. 

With Covid restricting the ability of buyers to visit homes, high-quality 3D virtual tours became, at least temporarily, another must-have.  Note that the zooming feature of these virtual tours subject every inch of a home to scrutiny, including what buyers might miss in a real-life walk through, like scuffed paint and crumbling grout.

Showings & open houses

Some people believe open houses are a complete waste of time and mainly serve as a way for agents to meet potential clients. Others think they’re important and should occur once or twice a month.  For a description of what should occur (and what should not) at your open house, see BrickUnderground’s three-part series on open houses.

During the Covid era, the traditional open house has been replaced by appointment-only showings.   It’s your responsibility to keep your apartment in “showing” condition and to accommodate showings.  Making showings difficult will make selling your property difficult.  

Among the things that can sabotage showings:

  • Pets and children and their respective belongings
  • Tenants who don’t care and may even be antagonistic.
  • Vacant unfurnished apartments are harder to sell and usually sell for less (they need to be staged).

Your broker needs to be as accommodating to buyers as you are—ready and willing to show your apartment when requested.  An agent that has a team of two or more agents or is more likely to accommodate all showing requests than a single agent.

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Getting the offer and making a deal

12 reasons you’re not getting the offer you want

It’s been months and your apartment or townhouse still hasn’t generated the offer you want. Here are some possible explanations and suggested approaches:

It’s overpriced.

If your apartment has been on the market for 30 days without an offer, you will need to reevaluate your pricing and determine if the asking price that’s turning buyers off. You or your broker should also be periodically checking on your competition.  If they adjust their pricing, you should be prepared to as well. This question should be asked again every few weeks if your property continues to remain on the market.

Price reductions are typically small but substantial.  You can lower it by as little as a half of percent or as much as a few percent.  Large price drops occurring all at once should not be required if the listing was properly priced to begin with.  However, if you decided to “test the market” with a high price at the outset, consider getting back on track with your first price adjustment.

  1. The maintenance or common charges are too high

    Reduce your asking price and/or consider offering to pay 6-12 months of these costs as an incentive.

     

  2. There is a construction site next door

    There is a construction site next door

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    Drop your price and/or install soundproof windows, or take your apartment off until the construction is done.
     

  3. Your co-op has a land lease that’s about to expire or an underlying mortgage about to come due

    Cut the price, or take the apartment off the market until the new lease or mortgage is in place.

     

  4. You have lot-line windows that will be permanently bricked up soon due to construction next door

    Cut the price, or take the apartment off the market until the windows, and possibly the construction, are done.

     

  5. There are pending lawsuits in your building

    There’s no easy solution.  You can only control the price, which may have to be adjusted to compensate for the perceived risk. Consider disclosing these early on to a serious purchaser.  There’s no point in having it come out for the first time when contracts are out with the attorneys.

     

  6. Many apartment owners are delinquent on their maintenance or common charge payments

    Again, you will have to compensate for the perceived risk by making the purchase price all the more attractive.

     

  7. There are too many apartments for sale in your building

    There are too many apartments for sale in your building

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    You will need to really stand out.  Consider non-price options such as staging, catered open houses, etc.  However, you will need to be priced more attractively than the rest of the pack to elicit offers; see also #9 below.
     

  8. There's nothing special about your apartment

    There is one surefire way to get more buyers to at least consider your apartment: Make it stand out to their brokers. Offer to pay the buyer's broker a higher commission--say, 4% instead of the standard 3% co-broke. Add a deadline to spur even more interest.

     

  9. Your co-op board has a reputation for turning down buyers

    It will be very important that you work with a broker that has experience selling your building.  They will be the first line of defense in ensuring that unqualified purchasers are weeded out before going into contract. 

     

  10. The board turned down your buyer because the price was too low 

    This is more common than you think, as boards--whose members also own apartments in the building--engage in a possibly misguided effort to preserve property values.   Courts have ruled that boards can turn buyers down for any reason except illegal discrimination.  However, your attorney may be able to restructure your deal in a way that pleases you, your buyer, and the board.

     

  11. It's all your broker's fault

    There’s nothing like a wallflower apartment to put stress on your relationship with your agent.  If things have deteriorated, first talk to your agent.  If that doesn’t fix the problem, speak to the branch manager (often referred to as a Managing Director) at your agent’s brokerage. If there are irreconcilable differences, most brokerages will recognize there’s no point in trying to enforce a listing agreement when the seller can simply be uncooperative going forward, and will agree to terminate the agreement or switch you to another agent in the firm.

Negotiating with a buyer

One of the advantages of working with an experienced real estate agent is that they are also experienced negotiators.  When the offers come rolling in, here are a few things to keep in mind to keep in mind:

  • Don't accept the first offer as is. You may be leaving money on the table. 
  • Always counter an offer. Some people think it’s a waste of their time, but the reality is that the time necessary to make a counter-offer (even just restating your original asking price) is minimal.  Some buyers are just “testing the waters” and may immediately come up even if your counter is just below your original asking price.  If the buyer continues to make unrealistic offers, it’s not necessary to continue engaging with them.
  • If you're serious, don't make your counteroffer too small. A reduction of 1% of the asking price can be perceived as an insult, whereas 1-3% shows you're willing to play ball.
  • Insist that prospective buyers provide a mortgage pre-approval, or proof of funds if they intend to pay cash. This should be done at the time the first offer is submitted. Most brokers these days require buyers to submit a REBNY financial disclosure form with their offer.
  • Understand that negotiating for the purchase of a home is often an emotional experience for both you and the buyer.  Always take a step back and put the transaction in perspective.  Try relying on the two year rule: Ask yourself if the point being negotiated will matter to you in two years. If the answer is no, give in on it.
  • Don't focus exclusively on price If you're deadlocked, consider whether to bring other issues into play like closing costs, the purchasing timeline, and adding or dropping contingencies.
  • If you receive multiple bids, compare the offers closely Are they all relying on financing or is one planning to pay cash? (In the current credit environment, all-cash is king, all other things being mostly equal.)  Do they already have their financing lined up?  Are they at or near their maximum loan amount?  If you’re selling a co-op you will also need to scrutinize the prospective purchasers to determine which is most likely to pass the board.  You will need to request a financial statement at the very least.
  • Don't blab about personal information Your broker should not be sharing your reasons for selling (pregnant with twins? getting a divorce? job transfer?), because a well-prepared buyer's broker will use all such information against you when negotiating a deal.

Accepting an offer & going to contract

The buyer’s agent will submit a signed offer letter, a mortgage preapproval letter (or proof of funds if planning to pay all cash) and a REBNY financial disclosure form.  Even after you accept this offer, nothing legally prevents either of you from walking away. 

Next, the brokers prepare a Deal Sheet summarizing the agreed-upon terms of the transaction.  Deal sheet in hand, your attorney will prepare a sales contract. It typically takes around 7-10 business days to prepare, negotiate and sign a sales contract.  Also during this period, the buyer’s attorney will conduct due diligence including inspecting a co-op or condo buildings minutes and records.  A property inspection, if there is one, will occur during this time.

Among other things, the contract will contain:

  • Deal terms
  • Contingencies 
  • Price
  • Closing date

Next, the buyer signs the contract and wires a contract deposit of 10% to your attorney’s escrow account. Once you’ve countersigned the contract, it’s your broker’s job to assist the buyer in preparing the board package required by your co-op or condo building.

How to make sure your apartment is appraised correctly

Nothing throws a deal into last-minute free fall than an appraisal that comes in too low. A low number spooks buyers and potentially upsets the loan-to-value ratio required by your buyer's mortgage lender -- meaning that either the buyer has to pony up more cash or you need to cut your price.

It's very difficult to challenge an appraisal once it's been reported to the lender, so you and your broker should be there doing everything you can to help the appraiser get it right:

  • Prepare a dossier of comparable sales in the building and neighborhood, which also details the condition of each apartment and compares it to yours. Don't expect the appraiser to know the neighborhood either; explain the benefits of your building's location and how your building is similar or different to others especially those with comparable sales.
  • Your information packet should also document any improvements to the apartment, building and neighborhood.
  • Fix small defects (loose or missing tiles, stained grout) beforehand. Freshly painted walls and ceilings give the impression that the apartment is well maintained.
  • Tidy up your apartment--make the beds, wash the windows, clear the counters. A mess indicates the apartment may not be maintained properly.
  • Don't hover. It betrays anxiety and may give the impression that something is wrong.
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The final walkthrough and closing

What to expect at the final walkthrough and on closing day

Sometime in the few days before your scheduling closing date, your buyer will do a final walkthrough of your home. They will want to confirm that: 

  • Nothing has changed since they last saw the property, including potential damage from movers
  • Any inclusions in the contract (such as window treatments and light fixtures that you agreed to leave behind) are actually there
  • Any agreed upon repairs have been made
  • Appliances are in working order
  • All of the electrical outlets work (bring something to plug into each)
  • Toilets and faucets (hot and cold) work

Next comes closing day, which typically happens 60-90 days after the contract is signed.  A few days before, you will receive an estimated closing statement from your attorney. This spreadsheet will show you, among other things, exactly what your closing costs will be. 

Pre-Covid, closings were typically attended by attorneys for the buyer and the seller, a title company representative, a managing agent if it’s a co-op and probably the brokers for both sides, who have no official function but come to network and pick up their commission checks. 

While buyers and sellers usually attended, they could elect to skip it and hand power of attorney to their lawyer. 

During the pandemic, many aspects of the closing were moved online, with authorization of virtual notaries by the governor aiding this process, so it is possible you will be spared the two to three hours of windowless conference room time before handing over your keys and pocketing the proceeds of your sale.