My First Real Estate Deal
The grid of Manhattan atomizes in this corner of Chinatown.
Its alleys and lanes squeeze up against the Bowery and the Manhattan Bridge approach like the crush of bodies against the stage at a sold out rock concert. I had only a vague idea where I was going- but put on my determined face. It wasn’t hard to conjure up a thousand-yard stare: The wind was whipping off the East River, my ears were starting to feel the frosty February chill, and my toes were already slightly numb. With my client in tow, I walked past roasted chickens hanging by their necks in windows, open sacks of dried shrimp and iced seafood splayed out, even in the winter. On top of this cold layer, a row of red snappers stared back in terror with their upfacing eyes, reflecting my own fright.
I was transfixed, and distracted, by the colorful kaleidoscope of dim sum shops, soup dumpling kiosks, bubble tea vendors, and counterfeit bag sellers on the sidewalk. We missed a tiny street sign and doubled back to take the correct turn west to our destination. For the first time, I had to consider that people lived here, right above this disconcertingly alien streetscape, where they unlocked their front doors and took off their shoes. Not six months later, I would move into a sparkling new building that trumpeted its TriBeCa bonafides- but was really Chinatown, too.
For three weeks, I had a piece of paper that said I was a licensed real estate agent, a professional. All I really had was determination to find this big-eared, wide-eyed kid Levi* and his roommate a suitable apartment, and pay my own rent. Levi’s first job after college, starting in a few days, would be working as an intern for the New York Mets. The Mets were a little more than two years past their best season since 1986, losing in the “Subway Series” to the New York Yankees, to whom they had nearly always played second fiddle. New York City, too, was still reeling from one of its worst losses. While 9/11 intimidated many from returning to a city in mourning and recovery, the prospect of working for his favorite team inspired Levi to take the job.
He and his friend’s requirements were clear: They needed a two-bedroom rental, right away, for less than $1500 per month in downtown Manhattan. I had suggested another area- the Upper East Side, where there were still reasonable spots in Yorkville, in the East 80’s. He quickly shot that recommendation down. He knew his alternative was to move to the outer boroughs, but as he put it, “If I’m moving to New York, I’m moving to New York.” I used that line for years.
His stubbornness was bad and good; his demands limited him to a very short list of available properties, but also made things a lot easier for me. Either we would find something that day, or I would be out of luck. What I had scrounged up for us to see were these options: (1) An oddball unit on East 10th Street, the vestige of a long-ago tenement, with a bathtub in the kitchen; (2) A converted two-bedroom across from the Hell’s Angels Chapter on East Third Street, where the “living room” was windowless- really, just a kitchen large enough to hold a two-seat couch; (3) A mysterious available unit on Bayard Street, that I was, at the moment, struggling to actually locate. The first week of my job was filled with previewing properties in the immediate surrounds of my office, on Third Avenue and 9th Street. “Start with what you know,” was how my manager, Eric McCarthy, put it. Where was I to start, then, when I knew nothing?
This was the last stop. The landlord’s representative was waiting inside the building’s red entrance, and we walked up to the third floor. The apartment building’s dilapidated hallways, its walls inch-thick with latex paint, over-lit with the kind of fluorescents that make your skin look green and sickly, were directly out of “Law and Order.” This was either the opening scene that zooms in on the dead body, or where the investigators knock on the door of the suspect who we find out ultimately was the killer. My head was spinning.
The apartment door looked blessedly intact, without police tape or any evidence of having been pried open or banged down. The insides weren’t bad, either: No dishwasher, no views, and no updates since Sandy Koufax had pitched for the Brooklyn Dodgers, but it was clean, had an actual living room and proper bathroom, and was asking $1250/month. Levi smiled and said, “We’ll take it.”
What could I say to him? Was I going to dissuade him from making this his home, and scotch my first real estate deal? All I could think to say was, “Welcome to New York!”
Lest you think that I should have warned against this move for Levi, he was very happy there. I sold him an apartment years later, and still stay in touch with him. He continues to live Downtown, though he moved on from working for the Lovable Losers long ago.
*Levi isn’t his real name, by the way. Wherever necessary, I will change names to protect the wonderful people who have gone through their real estate journeys with me over the past two decades.
Read more of Scott’s writing about New York City Real Estate – and much more- here