Zygmunt Sledz looks nothing like a real-estate mogul. With his perma-pink cheeks and paint-stained shirt, Sledz—everyone calls him Ziggy—is more like the chatty retiree next door, or a Polish plumber come to unclog your sink, which in fact is how he makes a living. That is, if you don’t count the income from the house he bought in the Bronx last fall. Or the properties back home in Gdansk, where his relatives live. Or his rental in Florida. Or the Harlem townhouse where he lives. But Ziggy’s story is a remarkable one: that of a guy who surfed the past half-decade of price increases, catching each swell just right and leveraging what he’d bought within an inch of its life. Five years ago, he had nothing; today, he’s sitting on $2 million.
His story is all the more striking because Sledz had been left broke by a bad real-estate deal. When his corner of Harlem started to show signs of economic renewal in the late nineties, Sledz wanted in on the action but had no money, so he partnered with a small-time developer who promised him a stake in exchange for plumbing work. The partner bolted with millions and left Sledz with the bills. Ziggy filed for bankruptcy in November 1997, and spent the next few years fixing toilets and rebuilding his nest egg.
By 2002, he was ready, and the Harlem market was clearly on fire. Sledz was staying in a crummy floor-through when his broker, Willie Kathryn Suggs, tipped him off about a 1910 brick rowhouse on Hamilton Place that a tax-embattled absentee owner was trying to unload. Suggs says she had approached 50 potential buyers, but no one wanted a house in bad shape that wasn’t on one of those tidy Harlem streets like Convent Avenue or Hamilton Terrace. Potential buyer No. 51 got it for $242,500; Ziggy had socked away $40,000 for the down payment. “When I bought the house, people were standing on the corner selling drugs all day,” he recalls.
Immediately, he got to work carting piles of broken furniture out of the battered interior. The previous owner had lived in the basement, and the top three floors bore signs of deep neglect. Pipes had leaked, crusty pots and pans sat petrified in the kitchen sink, and rats had not only lived in the house but died there, too. Within months, Sledz knew the house had appreciated, and he refinanced, taking out $150,000 to buy a pair of properties back home in Poland. He’d do so twice more to acquire the Boynton Beach condo and the house on Davidson Avenue in the Bronx, altogether borrowing about $560,000. Luck, in the form of the continually rising townhouse market, was on his side. Ziggy’s push toward wealth depended not only on good deals but on catching the Harlem boom just at its tipping point—a moment that’s now firmly in the past. Last month, Sledz finally put his house, now rather polished-looking, on the market. He’s asking $1.395 million, and will likely get it. “It sort of makes up for him being screwed,” muses Suggs. “I do believe in divine retribution, and living well is the best revenge.”