I Want This Apartment

by Susan Orlean
The New Yorker
February 22, 1999

Jill Meilus is a New York City real-estate broker. Like Superman, she can see through walls. Walking down a Manhattan street with her is a paranormal experience. "Nice building," you might remark as you pass a handsome but unrevealing prewar facade, to which she might respond that the J-line apartment on the third floor has a new kitchen, that the guy in 8-A is being transferred to Florida and will entertain any offers of more than two hundred thousand dollars, that the super is a chain-smoker, that there is a one-bedroom for sale because the owners are having money troubles or are having twins or made a new fortune or are splitting up. New York is the big showoff of American cities, yet its residential life is almost invisible to the ordinary passerby. Even so, you cannot hide from a real-estate broker. The other day, Jill took one of her customers to view a SoHo loft-a nice, six-hundred-and-fifty-thousand-dollar sort of place, with a lot of windows and chintz upholstery and silver gizmos artfully scattered around. Jill's customer, a television actress, whom I will call Vivian, liked the loft, so she paced off the dimensions and counted the closets, and eventually came upon a locked door beside the kitchen. She told Jill that she wanted to see what was behind it; after all, the price of the loft could be calculated per square inch, let alone square foot, and behind the door were a few of those high-priced inches. Jill considered the request and then sighed. "Vivian, I wish I could show it to you, but I can't," she said. "The owners of the loft are sadomasochists, and that is their dungeon." "Oh," Vivian said. She looked disappointed. After a moment, Jill brightened. "I know that it'd be a great space for a second bathroom," she added, "and the owners do promise to remove the dungeon fixtures as a condition of sale."

The total value of all privately owned apartments in Manhattan is estimated to be $102.7 billion, and about seven per cent of those apartments turn over every year. In 1998, for instance, the combined sales of all cooperative and condominium units came to $7.9 billion. Many of those units are one-bedroom starter apartments, but some are larger, and a few are a lot larger. Last year, the company that Jill works for, the Corcoran Group, sold a pretty big place on Central Park West to Ian Schrager for nine million dollars, and recently another brokerage had almost closed a deal for a twenty-two-million-dollar apartment that occupies the top three floors of the Pierre Hotel, and is being purchased by a Wall Street analyst with a rather pessimistic view of the stock market. The Corcoran Group handles twenty per cent of the sales of New York residential real estate. There are about four hundred Corcoran Group brokers, making it the second-largest brokerage in the city-smaller than Douglas Elliman and bigger than the three other major brokerages, Brown Harris Stevens, Halstead Property, and Bellmarc Realty. These are good days to be a real-estate broker in New York. Because prices are so high and the volume of sales is so large, brokers in New York are making more than their counterparts in other big, expensive cities, like Houston and Los Angeles. The top broker in New York earned close to two million dollars last year, and a typical broker is making sixty thousand and has no trouble finding people who want to sell and people who want to buy.

When I first met Jill, she had just got a new exclusive, a prewar 2br for $279k. gv/prime Charming home just steps off Fifth Avenue on best blk. View of brownstones and lots of sun! Seller relocating! It was actually a cheery but bantam two-bedroom co-op on West Eleventh Street, in Greenwich Village, which another Corcoran broker had sold to a young investment banker two years ago for a hundred and sixty thousand dollars. The banker was getting married and moving to Texas. As the apartment's exclusive agent, Jill was handling all the advertising and marketing. Although any broker from any company could show the apartment to customers, Jill had to be present at all showings, and she would split the commission with the eventual buyer's broker. In effect, she was the seller's representative. She would keep the entire commission if she happened to sell one of her exclusives to one of her own customers, because then she would be representing both the seller and the buyer. Everywhere else in the country, brokers typically share listings and can show a house at any time, by themselves, because keys are usually left in a lockbox outside the house which any broker can gain access to. The New York City system is very New York-like: complicated, arcane, and logistically nightmarish. Not only do brokers have to be available to show their exclusives to other brokers and their customers but they also have to be able to take customers to see apartments on the market which other brokers are handling, and this means they have to arrange with those other brokers to see their exclusives.

At the moment, Jill had two apartments that were her exclusives, and about a dozen customers who were actively looking to buy, with price limits ranging from around a hundred and sixty thousand dollars to just under two million. Jill is chestnut-haired, self-effacing, midsize, and fortyish. She specializes in downtown real estate and has a lot of artists and writers and architects as customers, which means she goes to work wearing big, hairy sweaters and stretch pants rather than an uptown broker's wardrobe of smart black trouser suits and moderate-height heels. She grew up in a suburb of New York and has lived in the city since she began college. She now lives in an insanely huge loft, for which she pays an insanely low rent-so low that she begged me not to print it, knowing how such a thing would make her the object of pure, embittered resentment. Not that having a great place to live wouldn't stir up envy anywhere in the world; it's just that in New York the span between crummy places and fantastic ones is wide. So is the span between the apartment that is an incredible bargain and the one that is wildly overpriced. Only in New York are you likely to find so many identical apartments with so many unidentical price tags.

The fact of Jill's living circumstances came to light when I asked her whether selling real estate was like working in a chocolate factory-that is, whether you were tempted to consume the best merchandise yourself. "Most brokers have some kind of good deal," she said sheepishly. "I mean, we get to see everything and we usually end up with something kind of strange and great." Even so, there have to be times when brokers must feel unrequited. One afternoon, I went with Iva Spitzer, a broker with Douglas Elliman, to see a prewar apartment on West Fifty-seventh Street that she was handling. It was quite nice: about fifty-five hundred square feet; eleven rooms or so; a terrace running around the entire apartment; north, south, east, and west views, including a dead-on view of Carnegie Hall; triple-height ceilings; a majestic living room, with cove lighting and a sky scene painted on the domed ceiling; a shuttered napping room; black-walnut flooring; a master bathroom bigger than an average bedroom, with the original sunken marble bath and a huge stall shower with sixteen brass shower spigots mounted on the walls and a dinner-plate-size brass showerhead with a few hundred pinpoint spray holes; and a yawningly large professional-quality kitchen with Sub-Zero everything and a stainless-steel fendered range. I could easily imagine living there, until Iva mentioned that it was a rental that happened to be priced at thirty-five thousand dollars a month. I asked if it frustrated her to handle such a place. "No, it's an incredible place, but I don't really see myself here," she said, sounding philosophical. "I see someone like Sean Penn here. Or Puff Daddy."

Real estate can be an aggravating profession. "It's a sort of manic-depressive business," Jill likes to say. "It's always either totally crazy or dead. Things fall through all the time. If you get devastated by stuff like that, you can't go on." Up until twenty years ago, residential real estate in New York City was usually handled by "social brokers"-older women who sold apartments now and then to their friends over afternoon tea or at the hairdresser's. In those years, very little property in Manhattan was actually bought or sold. What few hundred listings existed were handwritten on index cards, collated on knitting needles, and filed in leather binders. The cooperative and condominium conversions that began in the nineteen-seventies turned thousands of rental apartments into real estate that could be bought and sold. Suddenly, there was a lot more money to be made, and real-estate brokerages began attracting actresses and artists and teachers, people who liked the independence and mobility of the job and were used to a certain amount of unpredictability and rejection, and usually came to real estate after another career. Jill was a chef at a couple of popular New York restaurants before she got her broker's license, eleven years ago. She worked from home for a while after she had a baby, and had returned to her office, in the Flatiron district, a year before we met. Iva Spitzer had also been a chef-at a restaurant in Boston-before going into real estate. Barbara Corcoran, the owner and founder of the Corcoran Group, had held twenty-six short-term jobs before she started her business; her favorite was waitressing at a diner in New Jersey. She liked it because it was a people job.

Early one Tuesday morning last month, I went with Jill to the West Eleventh Street two-bedroom. It was the first day she was showing the apartment. She had advertised it in the Times over the weekend and had also posted a description of it on the Corcoran Group Web site, and already she had got a dozen queries. The apartment house was an elegant eight-story brick box built at the turn of the century, with a curlicued bannister running up the stairs and tiny Juliet balconies on each landing, but the interior had been gutted and rebuilt in the early eighties, and the apartments were now stripped-down and undetailed, with chalky-white drywall walls and hollow-core doors. The seven hundred square feet of the apartment were diced up into a galley kitchen, one full bath, a rectangular living room, one average-sized bedroom, and one dwarfish one. Most normal people living in normal cities would probably consider it far too small to live in for the price, but by New York standards it was a sunny, snug, well-located apartment, which would probably sell quickly. In New York, "quickly" means "quickly" and sometimes even "viciously." When the market in New York is heated up, war breaks out. Real estate gets most people agitated, but in New York it seems to provoke a special fervor. Brokers start accepting only sealed bids, and bids offering more than the asking price are taken for granted. So is offering all cash, proposing to forgo the mortgage-contingency clause in the contract, begging to sign a contract on the spot, and tendering press releases and family portraits to plead one's case. One of Jill's colleagues had a customer who bartered for an apartment with rare French movie posters, which he guaranteed would appreciate in value.

The owner of the apartment had already gone to work when we arrived, but she had obviously tidied up before she left. A few fresh magazines were fanned out on her coffee table like a deck of cards, and all the wastebaskets were empty. Her cat was on the sofa, chewing on a piece of wire and daydreaming. It was a chilly but brilliant day and the apartment was filled with light. Right after we settled in, a broker named Jackie called from the lobby, and a moment later she stepped through the door with her customer, a pale young man with a shaved head. The customer surveyed the little living room and then walked to the window and gazed out onto the street.
"Boy, it's really sunny," Jackie said.
"All day," Jill said.
"Such a pretty block," Jackie added.
"Quintessential Village," Jill said. She turned to the young man and told him, "By the way, none of the walls in here are structural, so you can move them all around if you want to."
The customer wandered out of the living room, into the bigger bedroom, and then into the bathroom. "I'm not in a rush to buy," he called over his shoulder. "I've only been looking for about a year." Jackie shot Jill a look. After a minute, the customer said, "You know, I just realized that I forgot my glasses, so I'm going to have to come back and look another time." He wandered out the front door. Jackie trailed behind, mouthing "I'll call you" to Jill.

"She'll never call," Jill said, closing the door behind them. A few minutes later, another broker -- Bill from Douglas Elliman -- appeared at the door, accompanied by another pale young man. This one was carrying a briefcase, which he dropped in the kitchen doorway.
When he was out of earshot, his broker whispered to Jill, "Look! That's good! When people put their bags down, it means they plan to stay for a while." The young man came back into earshot. "Wow, there's a lot of light in here," he said.
"None of the walls are structural, so you can move anything," Jill said. "I mean, if you want to." "The light is really beautiful," the customer said.
"It's a historic block," his broker added.
"It's beautiful light," the customer said, "and I like the exposed brick." He took another turn around the living room and said, "I love this building! This feels so good!"
"You could take down the wall between the bedrooms," Jill said. "Or between the kitchen and the little bedroom."
The customer wasn't listening. "That's my deal, see. I need light. And this has light. It's awesome. Beautiful. I really like it."

A broker named Edna arrived, leading her customer, a poker-faced young woman who said she worked as a recipe tester for a gourmet magazine. Edna dawdled by the door while the woman scanned the apartment. Then they huddled in the living room and waited for the young man and the Douglas Elliman broker to leave. Once they had gone, Jill turned to Edna and her customer.

"So?" she said.
"I love it," the young woman said. "I want it."
Jill raised her eyebrows.
"I really, really love it," the young woman went on. "By the way, are dogs O.K.?"
Jill lowered her eyebrows. "No dogs," she said. "Sorry."
Edna clutched at her throat and gasped. "Oh God. No dogs? No dogs? You have got to be kidding. Well, there goes my deal. She wants to buy the apartment right now. However, she has a dog."
The young woman started to tremble. "My dog is like...adorable! She looks like Benji! She's totally quiet! Look, I want this apartment! I really want it!" Jill asked her if the dog was bigger than a cat. The young woman chewed on her lip for a minute and then said, "Well, I don't know how she would compare to a cat, but if you cut a wheaten terrier in half that's what she looks like. Her name is Hunni, and she licks everybody, and everybody loves her. I can pay all cash for the apartment. I'll pay the asking price. I mean, I really love this place."
"Let me think," Jill said, jiggling her foot. "O.K., maybe I should present it to the co-op board as...as a cat-like dog named Hunni. Why don't you write a letter to the board and describe her and talk about what she does during the day and what she does during vacations, and then we can present it from there." The young woman looked buoyed, said she would write the letter that day, and offered to bring Hunni over to meet people in the building.
"That might be premature," Jill said. "I'd go with the letter." The next day, a letter supporting Hunni's residency application arrived by fax at the Corcoran Group offices. Jill passed it along to the co-op board president, who said that Hunni sounded very likable but the answer was still no.

Because of the idiosyncrasies of the market, New York brokers come to know more about their clients than brokers elsewhere ordinarily do. If you are buying a house in the suburbs, your broker might never know the exact details of your economic circumstances. In New York, most privately held apartments are part of either a co-op or a condominium association. Anybody with enough money can purchase a condominium, but a prospective buyer of a co-op must submit supporting material to the building's board of directors, including letters of reference, a complete statement of net worth, and, often, tax returns going back several years, and then must sit for an interview with the board's admissions committee. Even with a mortgage in hand, a buyer isn't guaranteed a deal until he or she gets the committee's approval. A good broker will help a buyer prepare the board package, which means that he or she will see your letters of reference, figures on your net worth, and your tax returns-details many people consider rather personal. Because New Yorkers move so much-more than other Americans do-they often work with a broker repeatedly. Several of Jill's customers were people who had bought or sold through her before. And, whether it's because prices are so high in the city or because New Yorkers are peculiarly indecisive, it seems to take some people a long, long time to buy a place to live, and they therefore spend a long, long time with their brokers. Two of Jill's active customers had been looking for two years, and a few more had been looking almost as long. In the meantime, their lives had changed, their jobs had evolved, they'd got more money, they'd had kids, they'd colored their hair, their marital status had wavered. Some had come to regard Jill as a friend. She worried over them and kept an eye on their psychic real estate as well as on their real real estate. A few of her customers have asked her to play matchmaker if she ever had a customer she thought they'd like. Jill was fretting that day over Lucy, a customer of hers who worked in film production. Lucy had been looking for an apartment for two years. Jill wanted her to buy the Eleventh Street apartment but despaired that she couldn't commit.

"Lucy really needs to get focussed," she said, sighing. "She's backed out of a few deals already and she just puts herself through agony every time. We had a talk one day about whether we should keep working together, and whether our relationship was getting to be too much of a burden, but I think we worked it out." Bertram, an architect who'd been looking with Jill for a year, was "a perfectionist, and very apprehensive," Jill told me. "He thinks he wants to live downtown, but I think he should really be looking in Chelsea, considering what he can pay, so we're working on that." Bertram had an accepted offer on a place in Chelsea, but Jill knew him well enough not to consider it a done deal. While she was waiting for another broker to show up at West Eleventh, she checked her voice mail. There was a message from Bertram saying he'd decided to withdraw his offer on the Chelsea place, because he'd heard from a resident of the building that another apartment there had just sold for less than he was offering.

"I knew it. He got stressed out," Jill said. "He was so nervous anyway." She also got a message from a customer telling her he'd decided he could spend more, so she could expand the price range as she searched for him; a message from a customer who was preparing his board package and had forgotten to get letters of reference and was in a panic; and a message from an art dealer who had read about Jill on the Corcoran Web site and was interested in the Eleventh Street place. The Corcoran Group is now selling an apartment a day through its Web site. Barbara Corcoran believes that the Internet will eventually replace much of the work now being done by brokers. A typical person buying an apartment in New York City calls in response to a newspaper ad and then sees an average of fourteen apartments before buying; someone real-estate shopping on a computer sees floor plans, photographs, long descriptions, and a biography of the broker before making a call, and then seems to need to see only four apartments before buying. Instead of making brokers obsolete, Internet real-estate shopping will make the marketing part of their job more critical, and waste less of their time dragging customers around town. In the meantime, though, being a broker remains a full time-even a day-and-nighttime-job.

As the next broker was heading up to see West Eleventh Street, Jill mentioned that she'd had a terrible dream the night before. She dreamed that she had run into a friend whom she'd been showing apartments to-a real person, whom she really is showing apartments to-and the friend told her that she'd just bought an apartment from another broker. The apartment was in the West Fifties. "It was just awful!" Jill said. "I've been showing her apartments forever. I said, 'Lil! You told me you would never live in the West Fifties!' I couldn't believe it. I think that when I see her I'm going to feel really upset, even though it was just a dream."

There were two big stories in New York real estate that week. One was that a four-bedroom duplex loft that had been on the market for seven years-an unofficial record for longevity-and had been handled at one time or another by every broker in town (including Jill) had finally been sold. The other was that at a recent closing the attorney had threatened to withhold twenty-five thousand dollars of the broker's commission, so the broker grabbed the contract away from the attorney, which compelled the attorney to smash the broker's arm onto the table, bruising it severely and breaking her watch. A few brokers who had heard this tale suggested that in the future all closings be moderated by a therapist. Iva once remarked that she became the center of attention at any gathering as soon as she mentioned she was a broker; everyone had a horror story or a happy story to recount, and wanted to know whether the market was going up or down and whether a person had got a good deal or had been ripped off and whether she knew about Building X or Apartment Y. The experience, she said, was sort of like telling people at a dinner party that you're a doctor, and finding yourself besieged with moles to examine and surgery stories to hear.

"Shopping for apartments, I think, is horrible for most people," Jill said. "They get very emotional."We had taken a break from West Eleventh Street and were walking back to her office. The air was fresh and sweet and cold, and the sky was as blue as a swimming pool, and all the buildings on the block glowed a little in the afternoon sun. We passed a brownstone with wide stairs and a handkerchief-size garden. "Really nice inside," Jill said, nodding toward it. "I showed it to some people last year, and they almost bid on it, but they were thinking of starting a family, and it would have been too small." This made her think of Vivian, who is currently single but wants a two-bedroom. "She's so lovely," Jill said. "And I guess she's optimistic, even though she complains to me how impossible it is to meet men." That made her think of Greg, who is also single, and whose loft she had just got as an exclusive, because his next-door neighbor's daughter went to school with Jill's daughter. And that made her think of an apartment for sale on the Upper East Side that Greg might like to buy after she sold his loft. And that made her think of Lucy, for no particular reason except that she thought about her often, and decided she would take her back to see something at London Terrace, a large prewar complex in Chelsea, because, even though Lucy had bid and backed out on something there before, Jill thought she might have finally reached the point where she would just buy something halfway decent, so she could stop looking. Around every corner we turned was another building that Jill knew or had sold something in or had handled in some way. It was as if to her the city's buildings all quivered with change and movement: her view was like time-lapse photography that reveals commotion in something that otherwise, in quick glances, appears to be entirely still.

A few days later, Jill sent me a message saying that she'd sold the West Eleventh Street apartment to a couple-a film editor and a network-news employee-for two hundred and seventy thousand dollars; that Vivian had decided not to bid on the loft with the dungeon; that Lucy had agreed to look at London Terrace again; that the art dealer who came to her through the Web site hadn't bid on West Eleventh but wanted Jill to take her around. She had got a number of new customers who had answered the ad for West Eleventh, and would lose a few old ones, at least temporarily, once they'd found a place, bought it, and moved. It was business as usual.

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