Trickle-down economics may not be a smashing success for everyone, but once a year, in select buildings across Manhattan, the taps runs hot and that trickle becomes a waterfall of cash. Fueled by an incongruous cocktail of guilt, peer pressure, and actual generosity, the once semi-optional practice of tipping building staff a few bucks at the end of the year has become de facto four- and even five-figure bonuses for the men and women who make life in a luxury building so luxurious.
If you're new to renting or owning in one of the more gilded buildings in New York County, or just feeling unclear about the norms, here is a primer on what's expected when the winter holidays come around.
How much to tip
That depends. As you might expect, in luxury rentals staff receive less than in pricey condos and co-ops. This is consistent with less high-end buildings, where renters tend to be younger, more transient, and less affluent than their apartment-owning counterparts.
Nora Ariffin, a Halstead broker who lives in a large luxury rental tower on the West Side, says that there are roughly 35 building staff to tip in her building and that she gives them between $30 and $100 each, to the tune of about $2,000 a year total. She says that while that is pretty standard, there are politics as to who receives what.
“There is the handyman, the morning concierge, the afternoon concierge, the morning doorman, the afternoon doorman, the weekend doorman. We really have a lot of people,” Ariffin says. “But I don’t give everyone the same. For instance, the front desk guy and the doorman get more than the handyman or the porter, because I don’t deal with them on a daily basis.”
Ariffin says she also tips certain staff members less during the holidays, because she tips them $20 regularly for their services throughout the year. She says she has also increased her tips as she has lived in the building longer, a common practice.
If that sounds like a lot, it’s nothing compared to what goes on in luxury co-op and condo buildings. Ariffin notes that one of her clients living at 15 Central Park West—arguably the premier condo building on the West Side—tips about 20 building staff well over $20,000 altogether.
Another resident of a prestigious address who asked to remain anonymous says that the $1,000 per staff member tip is, in fact, becoming somewhat status quo. And building supers at some prime addresses on Park and Fifth avenues are used to seeing multiples of that.
Who to tip
The short answer is everyone.
That may be a cakewalk for those who have just one super and one porter to worry about, but in very heavily staffed buildings, this can be a particularly burdensome expectation. Many super-tower residents have never even laid eyes on most of the staff that keeps their building running. It’s a problem that has led many buildings to print off holiday tipping cheat sheets for befuddled residents.
“Right before the holidays we get a sheet with photos of each staff person in the building, because a lot of these staff members work behind the scenes,” Ariffin says.
If your building hands out a sheet, use it. If not, ask the concierge for a list of names. Along with some less-high-end counterparts, some luxury buildings have attempted to solve the problem by creating a fund that is pooled for the staff. But many residents find this system too impersonal and/or believe it won't earn them special treatment from the staff members they rely on the most. The workaround: Giving select individual tips on top of a donation to the tipping pool.
(For more on the ins and outs of tipping in general, not just in high-end buildings, see our annual guide here. For more on alternatives to cash tips, see here. And to take our annual holiday tipping poll.)
When to tip
Tip at least two weeks before Christmas.
Burt Savitsky, a Brown Harris Stevens broker and longtime resident of an Upper East Side co-op, says that giving in person goes almost as far as the dollar amount within your card. Savitsky suggests handing out cards at your building’s holiday party–if your building has one–but not all at once. (More on that in a second.)
And never have your assistant dish out the cash. During the holidays, even masters of the universe must humble themselves before staff.
What to say when a neighbor asks how much to tip
Savitsky says newcomers often ask their established neighbors for advice on how much to tip. He says it's fine to keep it general, and if pressed, provide a range, but not an exact amount.
Caginess can be a symptom of one-upmanship: Some residents view tipping as almost a competitive sport and want to be at the top of pyramid and, in theory at least, earn VIP status among the staff.
How to tip
In cash, always. Not only are checks rapidly becoming obsolete, they are inconvenient for both writer and receiver. Doormen we've consulted tend to favor cash-stuffed envelopes with cards, and personalized notes.
How not to tip
Never hand a worker a wad of cash. Worse still, is counting the bills out in front of them, or handing two workers cash in front of one another. Nevertheless, it is a common faux pas.
“I’ve seen it happen. People will hand out actual cash to someone without an envelope and then have them count it,” Savitsky says. “That is so uncomfortable.”
Savitsky says it is just as bad to hand out two envelopes at the same time because staffers happen to be standing next to each other.
“They will open them up in front of each other. Then whoever got less feels bad and the tipper becomes persona non grata,” he says.
What to expect when you can’t or won’t tip
Obviously not everyone–even those who live in multi-million dollar apartments–can always afford to be so generous. Ariffin says that in her building, it is assumed that a bad tip during the holidays will equal a year of bad service. Savitsky agrees.
“Building staff have their favorites and I am a firm believer that you get what you give. And if you are nice and you are generous, you get it back in spades,” he says. (See also: "What happens to bad tippers?")
Scrooges can get worse than bad service.
One famous example is billionaire David Koch, who lives at 740 Park Ave., and is a notoriously bad tipper. For his lack of generosity, Koch received a very public rebuke by a disgruntled doorman at the building who spoke out anonymously to a PBS documentary team for the 2012 film Park Avenue: Money, Power, and The American Dream.
“We would load up his trucks—two vans, usually—every weekend, for the Hamptons... multiple trips, multiple guys, in and out, in and out, heavy bags," the doorman says in the film. "We would never get a tip from Mr. Koch. We would never get a smile from Mr. Koch. Fifty-dollar check for Christmas."
According to the Washington Post, the film “essentially caused Koch, a recent mega-patron and board member of New York City’s PBS affiliate WNET, to resign from WNET’s board and to cease his donations.” Ouch.
Ariffin says that if you are truly short on cash or having a very bad year, making an effort counts for something. Even a tin of cookies is better than nothing. But last we checked, not many places are letting people pay their bills in cookies.
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