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Deal or No Deal?

In this economy, a signed contract doesn’t mean the haggling is over.

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Illustration by Peter Arkle  

It is, most people would agree, a weird time to be closing on an apartment. The stock market is gyrating madly on news from Washington, Wall Street is laying off exactly the people whose bonuses drive the New York housing market, and it is just possible that the bank that approved you for a mortgage last week has gone out of business. So if you find yourself in that zone between signed contract and closing this week, what do you do?

It could be time to try playing hardball. Consider this story of a co-op that went into contract a few weeks back. There had already been some negotiation—asking price was $2.995 million, selling was $2.65 million. But after the financial markets went awry, the buyers returned with another request: that the sellers pay the $20,000 assessment to be levied by the building for replacing windows. A year ago, even six months ago, the owners would have refused. Not this time. “The contracts were out, the seller was ready to move forward,” says their listing broker, Prudential Douglas Elliman’s Carolyn Zweben. “In the scheme of things, [it was] take the money and run.”

Zweben’s tale may be par for the course. While buyers are reportedly still looking and making offers, perhaps aided by low inventory, many are driving hard bargains; those already in talks to purchase properties are revisiting their agreements. According to Streeteasy.com data, the number of canceled contracts has steadily risen since midsummer, with a spike in early September. “Buyer confidence has been shaken, and deals that were very close are getting renegotiated,” says broker Noah Rosenblatt, who blogs about the market on UrbanDigs.com. Elliman’s Jacky Teplitzky says she’s working with one buyer who’d gradually given ground in his price negotiation and is now ratcheting his offer back down to his original price. Corcoran’s Deanna Kory just had buyers “already at the point of signing” who decided a $10,000 capital assessment was a deal-breaker. (The seller agreed to eat the charge.) Others are demanding discounts to get prices under the mansion-tax-triggering $1 million mark, asking to share flip taxes, or revising closing times. Halstead’s Jill Sloane was able to nab six months of paid maintenance charges for one of her clients, and Janice Silver, who manages Bellmarc’s Upper East Side office, has had buyers already in contract come back to ask for—and getting—extras like new appliances or refinished floors. “They can’t get out [of the contract], so they want something, even if it’s small, like a dishwasher.”

A bird in hand and all that—but why threaten to scuttle a deal over a dishwasher? “It’s like a gift with purchase,” explains Silver. The concessions may seem petty, or, as in the case of the window-replacement assessment, tiny compared with the purchase price, but sellers are afraid to say no. “We’re in a different world now. If you have a fair offer, you should accept it,” advises Teplitzky. Not all buyers can reset terms, notes Silver. “They have to be mortgage-worthy, board-worthy, and problem-free,” she says. “It’s not Filene’s Basement. Yet.”


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