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Real Estate
Buyers Are From Mars, Brokers Are From Venus

Looking for the perfect apartment means having to say you're sorry — to your broker. How to manage one of the most important relationships you'll ever have.

 
BY SARAH BERNARD
 

When one 30-year-old museum curator first met her broker, she seemed like the answer to a prayer. The $3,000 one-bedroom the curator was renting on the Upper East Side had been a nightmare to find, and even though she wanted to buy a place, she was wary of getting involved with another overbearing real-estate professional. Then a co-worker referred her to an agent who seemed to know exactly what the curator and her husband were looking for. She was friendly, efficient, and sophisticated to boot. "We went into one place that wasn't really right, and she said, 'Absolutely not! We're getting out of here!' and walked out right away. I felt like 'Okay, she really gets it,' " the curator says, meaning "she really gets me." "I met all her broker friends at the open houses she took me to. They all shopped at Scoop." (The curator shops almost exclusively at Scoop.) All through the fall, her new companion squired her around the city, and together they critiqued lobby décor, inspected closets, and admired roof gardens. And then suddenly, inexplicably, the romance was over. "After Christmas," says the curator, "she just didn't call. Basically, I got dumped."

The curator seems to have made the most common mistake in her broker relationship: She believed her broker liked her for her. Now, the curator is a perfectly nice person -- but nothing could be further from the truth.

It's easy to see how the curator could be deceived, however. A client's relationship with a broker can be as thrilling as romance -- what, in New York, is more exciting than real estate? -- and it follows a similar set of rules. Relationships often begin at open houses or through matchmaking friends who set you up. "He kept saying 'You're funny' and touching my shoulder," says an entertainment lawyer of the Bellmarc broker who followed him out onto the balcony at an open house in Murray Hill. "Now he keeps calling me up, telling me how much he likes me. He leaves messages like 'I think we could work well together.' "

The courtship is highly stylized, rife with posturing and euphemism and tactical white lies. Just as in real romance, both client and broker learn things they don't want to know about the other, wise up to their tricks, grow bored -- or find true real-estate happiness in the apartment of their dreams. Just remember: Love has got nothing to do with it -- although when you successfully close on an apartment, you may actually want to kiss your broker.

What Is Your Partner Really Thinking?
"Sometimes you get involved in a long-term relationship that is going nowhere because it's not a real buyer," says Bruce Rabbino, a broker with Greenthal. "One person I was with for quite some time would always find something wrong at the very last second. If it was supposed to be a five-bedroom condo in a new high-rise, no more than ten years old, at such-and-such dollars and with a nice view, I'd find the exact property and he'd say, 'Well, I think the dining room is a little small.' " He sighs. "I was much younger, so I was anxious to show anything. But I must tell you, I think I was being used as weekend entertainment for a woman he was dating. These apartment viewings were no more important than the lunches at Petrossian," he says. "It just took a while for it to sink in that he was just being a user."

Brokers, meanwhile, are not exactly free of ulterior motives. One newly married writer and her husband fell in love with a two-bedroom apartment in the Ice House, a conversion on North Moore Street. As they understood it, their bid was the highest, but the seller's broker seemed to be passive-aggressively edging them out of the deal. "She'd say, 'You asked about the lawsuit' " -- condo owners had instigated a lawsuit to get the developer to finish the building -- " 'but if you're not 100 percent sure, my client is nervous that it means you aren't interested,' " the writer explains.

"Finally, we realized what was happening: She didn't want to accept our bid even though it was the highest because she had her own candidate and didn't want to have to split her commission with our broker."

Eventually, they found a new place through an open house and dealt only with the seller's broker, who happened to be -- to their great delight -- a virgin. "It was her first time selling and she didn't reek of sleaziness. She said, 'Hey, if you want to hang out for a few hours, pull up a chair.' It felt comfortable and not stressful."

Don't Let Your True Feelings Show
When there isn't much inventory -- almost all the time, in other words -- it's important to make sure that when a listing comes up, your broker will show it to you first. One way to do that is not to do what a TV producer in the market for an East Village two-bedroom found himself doing at each showing: looking visibly upset. Pretty soon, he realized that with each apartment he bitched about he was reducing his chances of ultimate success. "I decided my reaction had to be enthusiastic even if I didn't like the place to keep my broker's energy up. I was afraid he'd think I wasn't serious. So I'd force myself to say something nice about each one -- 'Oh, yeah, I could put my desk here! I think we're definitely getting closer' -- just so he would stay interested in me. I even let him show me five apartments in this building I knew I didn't want to live in because he'd already made the appointments."

Cheating Isn't Wrong -- Unless You Get Caught
One weekend, a gallerist decided to check out a two-bedroom on her own. When her broker called to show her the exact same place a few days later, she agreed to see it again rather than admit her indiscretion. "I felt completely guilty," she confesses.

Temptation to cheat is everywhere. There are Internet sites to peruse, friends in the market who saw something you might like. Jessica Ushan, a broker with Greenthal, even found herself cheating on her own broker when she was looking for a Westhampton summer house. "I think buyers want to stay faithful," she says. "But there's that one thing in the newspaper and they just have to call. It's like an alcoholic trying to stop."

Most brokers insist -- and why wouldn't they? -- that they are looking for a long-term relationship with you. "The average turnaround time in New York City is about six years," says Michael Sheinfield from Douglas Elliman, "so if I'm going to build a business, I'm going to make sure this isn't a one-transaction thing."

Some clients break into hives at the first signs of attachment. "There's that moment when they start paying for the taxis," says a journalist, shuddering at the thought. "It's a level jump. It's like you have to put out, and I don't want that kind of pressure."

Playing the field can take the pressure off. "We got involved with a broker who told me the only way she'd work with us is if we would sign her name in open houses that we'd found on the Internet," says a cosmetics executive. "She wanted a reverse exclusive! That's chutzpa I've never seen before. Just because I'm using her for something else doesn't mean I'm married to her."

Speak The Truth -- But Gently
Since representing sellers is how brokers get most of their commissions, giving a seller a presale critique is a fraught conversation. It might be something as minor as suggesting "staging" the place with votive candles or adding a fresh coat of paint. In many cases, it's even more than that. Joy Weiner at Corcoran has a client with a lizard: "It has to be fed live crickets! So he has boxes of crickets in the kitchen. It's so repulsive you can't even imagine."

Estate sellers, according to Rabbino, are the worst. "You have to tread lightly. They don't want to invest a penny to replace cracked curtains, to fix the ripped sofa. If you have the deceased's clothing hanging in the closets, this is not good. Certainly get rid of the hospital bed."

Sheinfield recently found himself in an East Side one-bedroom where the sellers "did something so horrendous it will be on the market for a year," ripping out the old kitchen and adding a new one with a metal, fuchsia, and teal color scheme. Sellers in midtown clogged their three-bedroom with oversize furniture. "I said to them as nicely as I could, 'Your stuff is great. It has nothing to do with your stuff. But you'll need to get some of the stuff out of here.' The owner took offense. They thought I was insulting their taste, and basically I was shown the door for it."

Achieving Financial Intimacy
Don't even start to look for an apartment if you're not ready to get down and dirty with your finances. "You'd sooner tell someone what your age was than what you made for a living," says Sheinfield. "It's sort of a third-rail issue. But it's the one situation where you've got to come clean."

The talking cure seems to be appropriate here. Use your broker to sound out your fears, since no one else will want to listen to you. Louise Phillips from Halstead has no problem with late-night phone calls. When clients' nerves are about to shatter, she likes to tell them about applying for her five-room co-op on West End Avenue nine years ago. "I had sold three of the board members their apartments!" she says in her exuberant Southern drawl. "So it was like, 'Okay, here you go, you're looking up my skirt now!' "

It is embarrassing to have potential neighbors judge you, but the process of financial disclosure also blows your cover in the eyes of the broker. "You want them to think that you're a good candidate, so you've been trying to make it look like you maybe have a little more money than you do, or better credit," says a handbag designer shopping for a downtown one-bedroom. "It's like you've been wearing a Miracle bra or control-top panty hose -- and then you're revealed."

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do
When the excitement of the transaction is over and the moving vans have been called, is the relationship over, too? "You've had such an intense relationship," says Weiner. "You're thinking about this person all the time, even if there isn't a property listed; I'm thinking what kind of building I feel would be right for them. When the contract is signed, I always feel a real separation. I just called this customer today and said, 'Oh, my God! I miss you!' "

Louise Phillips becomes such good friends with her clients, she's had four sets of them move into her apartment until their new places were ready, prompting her neighbors to dub her home "Hotel Weesy." "Two of them already had children," she notes. "One conceived their first child here."

Real Estate: a Love Story
Broker-client romance, of course, is only a metaphor. The real-life drama is about real estate. Still, in the best situations, it can be hard to tell the difference. "I had an exclusive on Central Park West a year ago," says Terri Stone from Greenthal in a hushed voice. "I got a call, I was having an open house, this man wanted to come. I said sure. He walked in, he was a lovely man, and he seemed to be interested. We left each other, then a few days later he called and said, 'Terri, gee, I'd really love to meet you!' I said, 'I'm so glad you called! I had a feeling you were going to make an offer.' He said, 'That's not exactly what I had in mind, but I'd love to get together.'

"He gave me an address right off Central Park West, facing the planetarium, around the corner from the apartment I was showing. I went to his house, and he said, 'You know, I came to watch you work and I loved what I saw,' " she says breathlessly. " 'So, I want you to sell this apartment.' " It was fast and furious, she notes -- "sealed bids and over the ask."

From the March 11, 2002 issue of New York magazine.

 
 
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