Brokers I Have Known
by Kimberly Lew
Prior to living in New York, I thought that finding an apartment would involve circling ads in the newspaper, meeting landlords, and hoping that building owners would like me enough to let me give them money to live in their residences. Little did I know that the ads in the paper, or more accurately for the Times, listings on Craigslist, and listings on housing websites almost always came with a third wheel: a broker whose fees could range anywhere from an extra month of rent to a percentage of the annual rent.
I still have fantasies of a no-fee apartment or being able to deal exclusively with the management company. Even if you do all the homework yourself, though, sometimes a broker is ultimately the gatekeeper to the apartment of your dreams, or at least not one of your nightmares. Having seen my share of apartments and dealt with my share of brokers, I thought I would share a smattering of some of the types of brokers I have encountered.
We knew the Upper West Side was a little out of our price range, but it was our first time looking for apartments out of college, and we figured we might as well see what we could get. We met our broker at a leasing office and he rode the subway with us up to the apartment, bent over his phone the whole way. He wore big diamond earrings, and when we asked him how he liked showing apartments, he explained it was easy, just a lot of walking/traveling.
The apartment was awful: cramped, not a real two-bedroom like we requested, and dirty. When we told him this was not what we wanted, all he did was shrug and say that was the best we were going to find for our budget.
We met with another broker whose office was actually on the Upper West Side and who claimed he had a great building for us. The asking price was above what we wanted to spend, but he assured us that he could get it for our budgeted ceiling price. We saw the place and fell in love with it. We ran around the city gathering all the materials to apply and dropped them off with our non-refundable application fee. Then: nothing.
Radio silence until a week later, after several attempts at getting a response. It turned out that our broker had assumed that we wouldn’t get the apartment, but once the management company saw our guarantor’s bank statements (my roommate’s father was quite wealthy), we were moved to the top of the list. The broker, however, refused to negotiate the price of the rent, and though it pains me a lot to say it, I insisted we turn down the place on principle.
The Extremely Late
We saw a listing for an apartment that seemed too good to be true: a huge real two-bedroom with brand new kitchen. It was far out in Brooklyn, but the pictures were gorgeous, so we made the trek.
We sat on the stoop for about 10 minutes before my roommate got a text from the broker saying he would be late. We proceeded to wait, with the sun beating down on us, for over an hour. We found out where the closest laundromat was because after waiting half an hour, my roommate had to pee so badly that we went in a frantic search of the closest public restroom. When he finally showed, we looked at the place, which was nice but not terribly impressive, and we felt so burned — both from the sun and experience — that we decided to look elsewhere.
When we got to the apartment he was about to show us, the broker had already been attempting to access the building by dialing up random tenants and asking them to buzz him in. “Can you try buzzing someone?” he asked my roommate, raising one of countless red flags. “This one guy already yelled at me, and they might be kinder to a female voice.”
After someone buzzed my roommate in, we entered a strongly pot-scented hallway and turned towards the stairwell. Then the broker realized that we had already passed the apartment in question. We doubled back, only to realize the door was locked and, surprise!, our broker didn’t have the keys to that either.
“Should we call that?” my roommate asked, indicating a sign with a phone number taped to the door. “Sure,” the broker shrugged.
While my roommate was on the phone, a door opened down the hall and a stout man came barreling down the hallway. “You’re not supposed to just call random people and have them let you into the building,” he thundered. “That’s how we got robbed a couple of months back.”
He yelled at our broker, calling him scum and telling us not to move in. “Why don’t you go smoke some more pot?” our broker yelled back. Kate was terrified, and I was in awe at how low our apartment hunt had sunk. Eventually, the boys traded enough barbs to get the tenant to go back into his apartment, and Kate got through to the number on the door … only to find that the apartment in question had already been rented.
As we left the building, the broker turned to us. “So what are you guys up to? Want to grab a drink?”
We ended up getting a no-fee apartment in Murray Hill, which was owned by the uncle of the deli workers downstairs.
A year later, some friends suggested I try to find a place with their current roommate. My roommate set up an appointment with a no-fee broker, and I was surprised at how easy the process was. The broker met us there on time and showed us a beautiful but small apartment on top of one of my roommate’s favorite restaurants. He also showed us some more eclectic places, like a cheaper one-bedroom that was big enough to make into two — obviously not ideal, but the price tag was one that I’m sure is impossible to find now.
The broker was older and didn’t put any pressure on us in our decision-making process. I was impressed by how hands-off he was, and the hunt was overall a very enjoyable experience. In the end, I moved into my roommate’s current (and friends’ former) apartment, but the experience was enough to give me some relief that not all brokers are terrible.
The Home Girl
A few more years later, I decided to find my own place and saw a listing by a broker who was also from Hawaii. This seems like a weird bias, but I tend to share a kinship with Hawaii transplants I find on the mainland, and this broker turned out to be no exception. Though the actual first apartment I saw with her was terrible, a studio so small you could open the oven from the bed, she took me under her wing and continued to hunt for places that fit my requirements for the next month.
She herself was very calm and laid back but had bosses that were veteran brokers with strong connections. She was very responsive but never overbearing; when I started to get a little desperate, she even talked me out of making an offer on a place I wasn’t happy with. She put up with my dad, who was very difficult about handing over documentation to be a possible guarantor, without blinking an eye. She even reduced her side of the broker’s fee, though it still ended up being a lot of money. The cash was painful to part with but at least somewhat worth it for the amount of work I know she did on my behalf.
Another few years later, my boyfriend and I were looking for apartments together. We went to see one building last minute after work, joined by a broker who was half an hour late. We noticed a lot of older couples going in and out of the building before he arrived, so we asked if he knew what the demographic was like there. “I’ve been showing this building exclusively for about a year now,” he said. “Let’s see … there was a young ASIAN couple … an older ASIAN couple …” He looked at me the entire time.
“Yeah, good thing we’re an old Asian couple,” my boyfriend said pointedly. He is not Asian.
We had already seen an apartment earlier that day that we were sure we wanted to make an offer on, but we already had been in talks with this broker to see one more place, so we decided to meet him. When we got to the apartment building, however, there was a slightly awkward moment as the last person who saw the place was clearly on her way out. “Get that paperwork in to me as soon as you can,” the broker yelled to her as he let her out and us in to the lobby.
He proceeded to take us up to the apartment without so much as a glance up from his phone. “Thanks for being available to show us this place,” I said, trying to get his attention for a minute. “Yeah, thanks for coming out,” he said, before turning back to his phone.
When we got to the place, he stood by the door. The most he interacted with us as we looked around was switching a hallway light on as we looked in one of the closets. We theorized he really wanted the other possible applicant to get the place, but one thing was clear: he certainly didn’t want our business.
A lot of brokers never showed up at all. Some had the super show us places; others had the super leave the door unlocked and we were left to our own devices to get in.
The Disappearing Act
We found an apartment we loved and, having seen quite a few by then, we immediately asked what we should do to apply. The broker said she would send us the paperwork. The next day she said that, because we weren’t married, the building wouldn’t consider our incomes combined. She asked if we could get a guarantor, which, after some creative thinking, we found, only to be met with — again — radio silence.
We followed up, only to be told repeatedly that her boss was at a funeral and she would send the paperwork soon. A week passed and still no paperwork, and while she told us no one else in the office was showing the apartment, they were not the exclusive brokers for the building. When she finally resurfaced, she still didn’t send the paperwork, only more questions about our financials. While we still wanted the apartment, in our hearts we knew we had to start to let the place go.
We ended up finding an apartment with a broker we had met previously, and are already on the move. We will hopefully stay in the new place forever, never to have to endure this process again.
Kimberly Lew is the proud writer of plays, blogs, and the monthly check when the rent is due. Check her out at www.kimberlylew.com.
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