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I Know What You Paid Last Summer

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Now sellers are like Carrie Bradshaw, angling for an advantage, the clock ticking. "You can negotiate to a greater degree now than six months ago or even four months ago," says town-house broker Leslie Garfield, who's been doing this for 40 years. "Sellers are more determined; they're just letting go."

"We don't see bidding wars," says Benjamin James Realty director James Ferrari. "Banks are under pressure" not to overlend. Bonuses were bigger than ever this year, too, but Barbara Corcoran says that "They all thought that this is the last one. So they're not spending it."

"I've stopped coaching people on bidding wars," says Corcoran's Wendy Sarasohn. "Giving them the speech that they've got to be willing to pay full asking." And people are waiting. "I have a partner in a major investment bank who's worth, I'd say, $500 million," says Lenz. "He's been looking at the same apartment for two and a half months. We keep coming back with the decorator. The last time he bought, six years ago, he came in and offered full-ask. He just did it, boom. It's not a money issue, it's the issue of not being a fool."

Which could be the real issue on both sides: "People who bought in the East Village two years ago, business people who you don't know why they moved there in the first place, they seem urgent," says Alyssa Quart, a writer who's been in the market. "But there's this chauvinism. They don't want to sell it for less than they bought it for."

There's also a sense of missed opportunity. The Lycée Français, for instance, recently discounted prices on its "collection" of six Upper East Side robber-baron mansions almost 20 percent -- to $87 million.

"This market doesn't want to do renovations," explains Kirk Henckels, director of Stribling Private Brokerage. People want to know what they're getting up-front. Nobody wants to take the risk, or suffer from the delayed gratification. Handyman's specials aren't selling anyway, much less a restoration project like the Lycée: "Ooh, that's not for the faint of heart," he says.

Besides, the Lycée "wanted people to pay cash and close now; then the school would pay no rent for two years" while it built its new campus, says a broker. "It isn't that market anymore. No matter how much things sold for last year."

Brokers have no problem admitting that things have slowed a bit -- off-the-record. "If there's any market that might crumble, it's TriBeCa," says one broker with twenty years experience. "Because SoHo dipped the most last time."

"I have to go do some work," says another. He had a fantastic year in 2000, but, he says, "I'm not going to have any to do come April. I think starting in May it's going to be rough, with a lot of layoffs. Psychologically, it's going to be a mess."

But most manage to stay on message, and the message is: Look at the long term. "I say, Is there any reason to sell in three to five years?" says Fox Residential president Barbara Fox. "And they say, No, we're going to stay until our kids grow up. In that case, no, you have no problems."

In the meantime, they don't want anyone to spook the market. "Historically, the press drove the market," says Sarasohn. "If the press says the market's going down, then nobody wants to be the last person to buy before the bust."

So when the Times ran an A-1 story on January 16 that said that Manhattan rents were starting to drop, "That translated into people coming into my office and saying, I want a doorman studio for $1600," says a brokerage head. "And you can't. Maybe in Astoria."

Which sounds pretty much like business as usual.


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