It is that rare, historic moment when New York tenants, rather than landlords, have the upper hand. Encouraged by the wintry market, and despite rising purchase prices, rental brokers and leasing agents have been reduced to actual wooing of customers, offering gifts and incentives to sign leases. And—being a man who is hardly immune to the phrase “a little something extra”—I sensed a gravy train pulling into the station, and packed my bags in seconds. Even though I am not looking for an apartment, I needed to know just what these gifts and incentives are. Then I needed to know if I could get better gifts and incentives.
I started in the airy East Williamsburg storefront office of Select Real Estate. Having read that Select gives each new lease-signer a Huffy mountain bike, I was intrigued to see two Huffys mounted to the wall near the entryway. I met a waifish, sexy broker named Melissa, and said—as I did to all the brokers in this story—that I was looking for an apartment in the $2,600 range. I expressed Huffy-based excitement to Melissa, who asked me, “Does a bike make all the difference?” My mouth quivered with desire. I could taste the Huffy.
The following day, I looked at more apartments with two agents from other firms—a tiny, warm, Argentine broker from Dwelling Quest named Araceli, and a gorgeous, no-nonsense woman named Shira from Citi Habitats. I told both of them about the Huffy. I added that I often end up in apartments for slightly random reasons, adding that I think I chose my current home because the owner told me she would perform as a yoga clown at my niece’s birthday party. “Really? That’s amazing!” Shira said. I delivered the bombshell: “I’m always looking for the yoga clown in life.” Shira smiled.
She told me that if I rented through Citi Habitats, I might be eligible for two months of concierge service. “I love the gifties. I love the perky pies,” I enthused, suddenly sounding like some alcoholic, bottom-feeding Muppet. Araceli, on the other hand, told me that she would not be charging her broker’s fee if I rented through her and that Dwelling Quest “might” have a DVD player to give me.
I then visited eight buildings on my own, sometimes calling ahead, sometimes just walking in. Throughout, I tried to announce and celebrate my passion for swag. I told a leasing agent at the Aston, on the corner of 27th and Sixth, “Finding an apartment is like a romance. I want to be caressed,” whereupon she stared off into the middle ground, as if receiving instructions from outer space.
I also tried, during my building visits, to play up the Huffy. A smiley, Waspy broker at the Magellan on West 33rd Street told me, “In case a Huffy is not the brand of bike you’re looking for, we offer you a $500 American Express gift check,” and wrote “$500 gift cheque” on my floor plans. A stylishly dressed agent at 600 Washington quipped, “I usually give people a puppy.” (When I told him about the yoga clown, he asked gravely, “Are you asking me to do that for you?” and then offered me cheese and crackers. “Is this in lieu of the yoga clown?” I asked. “No,” he said. “It’s just what I was eating.”)
Back at home, I did more research online and discovered that Douglas Elliman will sometimes get your phone, cable, or electricity running before you move into an apartment you rent through them. Relishing this idea—but wanting, as ever, more—I called Elliman and asked if the service was “transferable,” as there was “another service I’d like done.” I specified, “I’d like to have a cleansing ritual performed.” The young man, confused, said to call back in a half-hour; when I did, I was rerouted and told, “I don’t think that’s a service we could provide.” This dismayed me. So I was all the more overjoyed when, at the Nicole, a beautiful building at 55th Street and Ninth Avenue, I was not only promised a $1,000 check if I signed a lease before March 1—I was also given a roll of LifeSavers whose wrapper read nicole and whose “ingredients” were things like “24-hour doorman” and “extraordinary city & river views.”
The LifeSavers thrilled me. A gifty, a perky pie. Indeed, I proceeded to wave this tiny treasure about at other buildings, pimping it for all it was worth. “I feel like I’m eating the brochure—I love it,” I told a vivacious broker in stiletto-heel boots at the Atlas on 38th Street and Sixth Avenue; surveying the wrapper, she sang out, “That is so cute! The amenities are all there!” Another agent, putting some floor plans into a plastic bag bearing the name and likeness of her building, said, “They have the candy. But we have the bag.”
Over the next few days, brokers and agents with whom I’d looked at apartments called me back to assess my interest, and I tried to induce heightened generosity. I told the Magellan agent, “I’m all about the booty. I’m a swagster, a plunder pig,” a statement that engendered only nervous laughter from him. I asked one agent, “Can you up your free months?” and another, “Can you sweeten your pot?” Alas, my appeals went unheeded.
My favorite agent was a deadpan Rosalind Russell type at the Metropolis on East 44th, who, having heard my gambits during our tour, said, “We’re not giving you LifeSavers today. We’re not giving bikes.” Just before I left her, she summed up, emphasizing, “We’re not doing bikes. We’re not doing LifeSavers. And I am not going to be a yoga clown at your niece’s birthday.”
I told the concierge I wanted to throw a birthday party for my niece: “Do you know a good yoga clown?” She sang out, “That is a great idea!”
There was more, I knew, to be made of the LifeSavers; the smallish, balding Broadway director inside my head was encouraging me to work them. And so, during my viewing of a 543-square-foot one-bedroom in the Anthem on East 34th Street, I decided to “accidentally” drop the candies on the floor. The agent retrieved them; I noted their provenance. “I can’t believe they’re giving out candy!” he said. Alas, he offered me only the usual free month’s rent on a one-year lease, or two free months’ on a two-year lease.
Undaunted, I called Araceli from Dwelling Quest and told her about the LifeSavers, hoping to parlay their fabulousness into the DVD player she’d said she might have. “Somehow, I feel like that building is inside me now,” I said of the Nicole LifeSaver experience. “I’m not only emotionally involved—I’m gastroenterologically involved.” Araceli reported that there was still no broker’s fee, and that a JVC DVD player could be mine.
I contemplated my options. the best seemed to be Dwelling Quest’s offer of no fee and a DVD player, the Nicole’s $1,000 rebate (and, presumably, more lozengelike perks), or Select’s Huffy. I still hadn’t firmed up Citi Habitats’ concierge service; additionally, having read online that Coldwell Banker Hunt Kennedy offers unlimited concierge service compared with Citi Habitats’ two months, I left a message for a Coldwell broker, but he did not call me back. I called Shira at Citi Habitats and dropped lots of hints about my swag. She said I would be eligible for two months’ free concierge service. I asked if I could talk to the concierge; Shira said yes.
A delightfully enthusiastic Austrian woman named Nina called me a few hours later and told me about the help with tickets and reservations she could offer. I said I had two unusual “situations” I needed help with. “One of my clients has a chinchilla,” I told her, “and some nights I come home covered with hair. So I’d like to have someone come over with a lint wand and ‘de-chinch’ me. I could do it myself, of course, but I can’t reach certain … areas.” Nina sallied forth with “That’s very unusual, but I’m sure I can find someone.” She asked if it wasn’t a job for a cleaning lady; I said, “I think it’s more personal assistant.” She concluded, “I’d love to find that person.”
Next, I told her that I wanted to throw a birthday party for my niece. “We did face-painting booths last year, but now I’m looking for something more chic. Do you know a good yoga clown?” Nina instantly sang out, “That is a great idea!” She’d never heard of a yoga clown before, but said, “I am a yoga instructor, so I know a lot of people who could do that.” I expressed excitement. She asked how old my niece is; I said, “Thirty.”
The next morning—even though I hadn’t even made an offer on a Citi Habitats apartment—Nina called back and said, “I found someone for the chinchilla. He’ll call you.” Twenty-three hours later, I picked up my phone and heard the raspy, New Yawky tones of a person identifying himself as “Sal from Paramount American Cleaning.”
Citi Habitats, take me away.