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Bad House-Keeping

The Bartha disaster is one more story of a New Yorker who couldn’t let go of his apartment.


The explosion at 34 East 62nd Street last week wasn’t just a suicide attempt gone awry. It could well be one of the most dramatic ways a homeowner has tried to hold onto his property. News reports said that right before the blast, Nicholas Bartha, a doctor forced to sell his beloved home because of a divorce, sent an e-mail saying he would “leave the house only if I am dead.”

In this real-estate-obsessed city, buying property is almost an Olympic sport, and our athletes play to win. Corcoran broker Sharon E. Baum will never forget the man, also facing a divorce, who released handfuls of cockroaches in his apartment to deter its sale. (Never mind, she adds, that he still had to live in it.) Another disgruntled client literally put a damper on showings by running his poorly vented washer and dryer, bathing the house in a linty fog. Then there was the closing where an owner—one who hated relinquishing his brownstone to pay creditors—peeled off his shirt and sat there in the conference room, half-naked, making a bitter point. Judith Thorn of Warburg Realty says another soon-to-be-ex-husband, resentful of having to sell and divide his assets, “took all the doorknobs off” after the final walk-through. Another broker, at Sloane Square Realty, tells of recent clients who tried to see a three-bedroom on the market on the Upper East Side, but were refused because the angry ex-wife had purportedly “trashed the apartment.” And broker Reba Miller shudders at the memory of the owner who, facing bankruptcy, attempted to delay the inevitable sale by allowing his cats and dogs to defecate all over the apartment. He also wouldn’t let her replace burnt-out lightbulbs, so showings took place amid gloom.

Renters also go to extremes to hold onto sweet deals. Appraiser Jonathan Miller (no relation to Reba) cites the huge East 60th Street tower, across from Bloomingdale’s, that has one elderly townhouse stuck to it like a barnacle; the brownstone couldn’t be demolished because the woman who’d been living there refused to budge. A tenant at another building who’d finally accepted a buyout from the co-op sponsor couldn’t resist getting in one last dig before he left; on move-out day, he called the broker and asked how much he’d be compensated for the frescoed ceiling he’d assembled. When his shakedown failed, he made off with the ceiling, moldings and all.

Not that these antics actually prevent a sale. Thorn’s buyer didn’t walk away from the table after the doorknob fiasco. He, too, was separating from his spouse and could “empathize with the man’s frustration.” The cockroachy co-op sold as well. And despite the stinky pet mess, Miller found someone who loved her client’s apartment. “It had great bones,” she explains, “and the buyer was going to gut it anyway.”

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