The Incredible Shrinking Co-Op: Stribling Accused of 500-Foot Fib

A court server delivered a stack of legal documents to the Madison Avenue real estate office of Stribling & Associates Ltd. last September. The company, two of its brokers and one of its clients were being sued by a couple who backed out of a deal to buy a $2.5 million Park Avenue apartment because they claimed to have discovered that the apartment was almost 500 square feet smaller than Stribling had told them. As news of the suit spreads, the city’s top brokerages have been instructing their staffs to replace square footage as the standard unit of measurement with the much less significant total room count.

“From now on, on the sheets that you give the customers, you should never put down square footage,” said Michele Kleier, president of the real estate brokerage and management firm Gumley Haft Kleier Inc., at a staff meeting on March 22. “Because if you say it’s 2,000 square feet and it turns out to be 1,500 square feet, [the buyer] can go after the seller for a reduction in price. The seller’s not gonna want to do that, and they could sue you for misrepresenting. It’s happened.”

At Douglas Elliman and the Halstead Property Company, similar warnings have been made at staff meetings, and the square-footage issue has surfaced at two recent meetings of the Real Estate Board of New York.

In the Stribling suit, filed in State Supreme Court on Sept. 11, Peter M. Kaplan and his wife, Andrea Karambelas, charged that after signing a contract for Apartment 6B at 983 Park Avenue in June, “[We] were advised … that the measurements of some of the rooms were substantially smaller than the measurements that appear on the floor plan provided to [us] by the Broker Defendants.” The complaint states that although the couple had been issued a listing sheet by Stribling that described the apartment as having an area of 3,300 square feet, City Building Department records reflect that the maximum gross floor area of the unit is only about 2,850 square feet.

Mr. Kaplan and Ms. Karambelas terminated their contract in mid-August and filed suit a month later against Stribling & Associates; Blanche Gutstein and Cindy Kurtin, two Stribling brokers involved with the deal; and Rita P. Wolfson, the seller of 6B, for at least $275,000–for their down payment of $250,000 and $25,000 in fees accrued in obtaining a home equity loan, and in architectural and legal costs.

What prompted the suit, according to court documents, was a refusal by Ms. Wolfson to honor the couple’s request for 10 preclosing visits to the apartment, during which the buyers wanted to take measurements with their architect. “Upon information and belief, [Ms. Wolfson] committed acts in breach of the contract in order to aid the broker defendants in their fraudulent misrepresentations regarding the square footage and value of the apartment by preventing plaintiffs from discovering those fraudulent misrepresentations, so that they would not terminate the contract,” the complaint reads.

Elizabeth Stribling, president of Stribling & Associates, said the square-footage dispute at 983 Park Avenue is an anomaly. “I’ve been in the business 30 years now, and this is the first time it’s come up,” she said. “We always give the approximate square footage. What we normally do is use the standard bible of the industry that’s called the Select Register.”

Stephen Rabinowitz, a real estate lawyer with Greenberg Traurig, said he has never had a case of underestimated apartment size. “Most people that we deal with think the best protection is a broker you trust,” he said. “Most people spend enough time looking at things that they get a sense of whether you’re getting a good value or not. I’ve rarely seen clients take a measuring tape to an apartment.”

But there have been other reports of buyers discovering discrepancies in square footage, which were attributed to extensive renovations or out-of-date recordkeeping or lazy approximations. In general, brokers do not measure apartments themselves when they are a party to a sale.

“I have seen, with people’s handout sheets, the square footage listed, but I don’t think they’re going to do that anymore,” said one high-end co-op broker who requested anonymity. “The word got around about the Stribling thing, and nobody wants to get caught.”

Upper West Side

Richardson-Neeson Clan Takes The Money And runs to Broadway. Natasha Richardson, who won a Tony award in 1998 for her role in Cabaret , and her husband, actor Liam Neeson, are not against making lots and lots of money very quickly.

Real estate sources said the couple recently sold their 14th-floor apartment at 91 Central Park West, near 69th Street, after a neighbor approached them with an offer they couldn’t refuse: $2.2 million, which is $800,000 more than the couple paid for the two-bedroom apartment in 1994. According to sources, the couple and their two children have relocated temporarily to a three-bedroom apartment in the Park Millennium condo building on 67th Street, where they are paying $12,000 per month.

“Somebody gave them an outrageous offer to buy their apartment, and they had to do something in a hurry,” said a source familiar with the couple’s move. The deal–which was negotiated directly between buyer and seller–was final in late January, and their lease at the Park Millennium commenced on Feb. 1, the source said.

Mr. Neeson and Ms. Richardson bought the Central Park West co-op in 1994 for about $1.4 million. At the time, the apartment, which contains two bedrooms, a library and three baths, needed some work. At 2,300 square feet, the apartment was not exactly extravagant in size for the couple and their two young children. Real estate sources said that Mr. Neeson and Ms. Richardson were tempted by the $2.2 million offer, which came from another resident of the building–whose neighbors include Giorgio Armani (in the $2.85 million penthouse) and former Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger–who was looking for more space. Adding $800,000 to the 1994 selling price, brokers said, would have more than offset the cost of renovating the six-room spread. The couple had no comment on the sale.

155 West 70th Street

Three-bed, 2.5-bath, 1,880-square-foot condo.

Asking: $1.105 million. Selling: $1.195 million.

Charges: $841. Taxes: $917.

Time on the market: 10 weeks.

THEY’LL ALWAYS HAVE PFIZER. A Pfizer executive and his wife left Westport, Conn., for this condominium near Broadway in 1995. When a transfer to Morocco came along four years later, they were ready to move again. They put the condo on the market for $1.105 million–they had paid only $770,000–and shipped off to Casablanca, where they found a house and sent for their furniture. Just about this time, when the condo was supposed to be ready to show to interested buyers, the building’s service elevator broke. The building’s staff could only offer explanations about a special part having to be ordered, but brokers were pulling their hair out. The hapless boxed-up furniture was trapped in the condo, making the place too cluttered to possibly attract the right buyer. By the time the elevator was fixed, the owners were even considering just renting the place for now. Keanu Reeves and George Michael passed through, but didn’t take it. Finally, the apartment sold to a couple in their 30′s–the husband works on Wall Street–who signed a contract for $90,000 over the asking price within 24 hours of seeing the place. Broker: Douglas Elliman (Louise Phillips); Halstead Property Company (Vasco Da Silva).

Upper East Side

505 East 79th Street

Two-bed, two-bath, 1,400-square-foot postwar co-op.

Asking: $379,000. Selling: $362,000.

Charges: $1,334; 57 percent tax-deductible.

Time on the market: six weeks.

PAINT THE TOWN PINK. The earnest parents of a 4-year-old boy and a newborn girl decided that their kids each deserved their own bedroom on the Upper East Side. They had been renting for the last several years on East 74th Street near Second Avenue. “We started searching from Second Avenue and east, between 72nd and 86th,” recalled the husband. “We saw horrible stuff. Some of them were wrecks, or they faced the wall … just nothing nice.” Still, the couple were stalwart in their search, venturing even farther east. At last, they hit on this two-bedroom apartment on East 79th Street near York Avenue, with a dining room that said “little girl’s room” to them. Because it was on a low floor, the price was more negotiable; they got it for $362,000. They’ll do a fast renovation of the kitchen while painting the dining room pink and be in by the end of March. Broker: Harrison Properties Inc. (Harry Frank).

215 East 73rd Street

One-bed, one-bath, 900-square-foot prewar co-op.

Asking: $295,000. Selling: $295,000.

Charges: $1,170; 45 percent tax-deductible.

Time on the market: one day.

PROOF OF LIFE EAST OF THIRD AVENUE. Manhattan’s co-op oligarchy isn’t exactly democratic. Broker Meris Blumstein had this Bing & Bing-developed apartment near Third Avenue on the market only one day before an interested buyer came along. The seller gave him the nod, but the board didn’t–prompting an appeal process that ended badly. With the aborted deal behind her, however, Ms. Blumstein forged ahead with a second open house that brought yet another interested buyer–this time, a couple in their mid-20′s. They loved what the seller, a single man who was moving downtown, had done to the place: faux moldings that captured the building’s original 1928 style and elaborate stereo and telephone wiring through the walls. Luckily, the couple–who got hitched on March 19–blushed all the way to board approval. Broker: Corcoran Group (Meris Blumstein).

480 Park Avenue

Two-bed, two-bath, 1,600-square-foot prewar co-op.

Asking: $995,000. Selling: $960,000.

Charges: $1,639; 37 percent tax-deductible.

Time on the market: 10 weeks.

SHE WON’T TAKE MANHATTAN. The single woman who bought this apartment, a co-op built in 1929 at the corner of 58th Street and Park Avenue, also has a home in Bergen County, N.J., and a winter place in Florida. Last year, she decided she needed a city pied-à-terre , too. But after repainting and furnishing the two-bedroom apartment–the previous owner had thoroughly renovated the place–she was not sufficiently charmed by Manhattan, so she put the co-op back on the market. The apartment’s enormous foyer and views of the Four Seasons hotel attracted a single guy from Boston. He, too, will stick some new paint on the walls. Broker: Corcoran Group (Grace Williams and Heather Johnson Sargent).

Tribeca

160 Chambers Street

1,700-square-foot prewar loft co-op.

Asking: $595,000. Selling: $565,000.

Charges: $1,250; 69 percent tax-deductible.

Time on the market: 14 weeks.

FEAR OF LOFTS. Apparently, not everyone wants 1,700 square feet of raw TriBeCa loft space. The writer who recently purchased this loft on Chambers Street between Greenwich Street and West Broadway carried the contract around with her for a month before signing it. Even the fact that this 1862 converted co-op was a firehouse in a previous incarnation couldn’t persuade her to act more quickly. There are four residential units, one per floor, and the penthouse owner rents out the ground floor to an Internet-based wine merchant. This apartment is totally unrenovated except for a bathroom, kitchen and one closet. The seller negotiated a deal for another TriBeCa loft that’s twice the size, and the reluctant buyer won’t be comfortable–and won’t move in, in fact–until there are some walls up. Broker: Susan Penzner Real Estate (Steven Hauser); Douglas Elliman (Michael Chapman).