Confessions of a Small-Time Co-Op Seller

Recently, partly by accident, I sold my apartment for way too much money. For the past few years, I’ve sporadically shopped for a new home, driven by the eternal New York longing for more square-footage. Though I was eager for a place where my “home office” wasn’t three feet from my “dining room,” spiraling costs foiled me: Twice I looked at apartments that had been for sale six months earlier and had been marked up about 40 percent in the interim. Wall Street fluctuations only exacerbated this fear-who wants to risk buying the co-op equivalent of CDNow stock?

So I wasn’t exactly serious about the bid I tendered for a terraced one-bedroom in the West Village. I made a low-ball offer, $35,000 below the asking price, which I expected would be about as effective as offering a Barneys salesman $80 cash for a Prada suit. But the seller was anxious to close, and when my offer was accepted, I suddenly had to put my apartment on the market.

Ten years ago, I paid $125,000 for my pedestrian 500-square-foot alcove studio. On the plus side, it’s blissfully quiet, in a good, central-Flatiron doorman building. On the minus side, there’s a galley kitchen with yellowing tiles and crusty countertops, direct sunlight only during the vernal equinox and the kind of view indigenous to Rikers Island. The same apartment on a higher floor had recently sold for $221,000, so a real estate broker offered to list mine at $239,000, with a target price of $225,000.

I hesitated. Brokers are part of an artificial economy; if they didn’t exist, we wouldn’t need them. The real estate boom has spoiled them and turned a few into minor celebrities, even though most are one Wall Street correction away from wearing “Lose Weight Now, Ask Me How” buttons. The brokers I met were evidently used to peddling decayed shacks to the first desperate rubes who viewed them: One chanted “You’re crazy” each time I declined to bid, and another yelled insults when I said I’d already seen an apartment he was taking me to, then followed me menacingly up Fifth Avenue when I walked away. Brokers, I came to understand, are just used-car salesmen with more expensive inventory. So I decided to sell my place on my own and save on the 6 percent commission, to say nothing of the psychodrama.

In August, a front-page New York Times story declared a cool-down in the city’s feverish real estate market. Granted, sellers attempting to trade an Avenue B railroad flat for a Mustique bungalow may have to lower their expectations. But selling my unexceptional apartment for a reasonable price made me feel as popular as the only hooker in a port town. On Saturday night. In spring .

To prepare, I cleaned and vacuumed more thoroughly than any time since last spring’s date with a Canadian actress, and placed a five-line ad in The Times ‘ Real Estate section ($24.90 per line) announcing a Sunday open house. I’d heard that the smell of baking can help sell an apartment, because it triggers associations with childhood and comfort. Not being much of a cook, I bought an apple cinnamon muffin from Taylor’s and left it on low heat in the toaster oven.

I gave each arrival a full tour, showing off the excellent closets and windowed kitchen, joking that the breakfast bar qualified it as an “eat-in kitchen.” I quickly learned to distinguish buyers from window-shoppers: the former linger and ask lots of questions. An Israeli lawyer declared, “I’m going to buy this apartment” and curtly chased off another woman inquiring about basement storage. Within two hours, 40 people passed through my apartment-by that night I had three offers, which quickly rose to $230,000.

As the bidding escalated, the lawyer deployed a strange negotiating tactic: She’d call and insult my apartment-the light was bad, it was too small-then ask how much I wanted for it. “Look, I wouldn’t sell to a lawyer,” my own attorney admitted. “They’re pains in the ass.” A female doctor from St. Vincents dropped out at $232,000, and the third bidder, polite young marrieds, asked to visit again. The lawyer stopped calling-oddly, I missed her solo “good cop, bad cop” routine.

My ad read “no brokers”-language so clear you’d think even a broker could understand it-but still I received daily cold calls from brokers asking to show my place. Because I don’t believe unwanted solicitations merit politeness, each was quickly answered by a disconnect signal.

The next Sunday, I had a second open house: Despite a chilly rainstorm, another 40 people came. Eager to close the deal, I kept a pot of apple cider spiced with cinnamon simmering on low heat, and put flowers in the living room and by the bed. These tricks worked like perfume. A grave, middle-aged surgeon pulled me aside and declared his intention to buy-by now, I was skeptical. I mentioned other bids and suggested he call me later to make an offer. Insistently, he offered to pay the full asking price “in cash.” This would minimize my tax bill, he added with a suggestive smile.

“Do you mean you don’t need a mortgage? Or that you’ve got a briefcase full of thousand-dollar bills?” I asked. “Well, I don’t have the briefcase now ,” he answered, “but I could get it Monday morning.” His overture wasn’t very tempting, owing to my lack of interest in tax fraud.

A serious buyer needs the reflexes of a snake. Are you cautious? Indecisive? Better get comfortable, because you won’t be moving any time soon. While you’re ordering an engineer’s inspection or taking the kitchen measurements to Ikea for an estimate, someone else is ponying up her Wall Street bonus or handing over his pre-approved mortgage-commitment letter. People commit fortunes without even kicking the proverbial tires on an apartment because buyers have no negotiating leverage. I had two bidders at identical prices and chose the one more willing to accept my terms: apartment sold “as is,” and closing delayed for several months to accommodate my renovation. I dictated the terms; they happily agreed. When they move in and-no longer distracted by the smell of warm spices-notice the yellowing linoleum or the loose tile in the kitchen, maybe they’ll wish they’d spent more than 15 minutes there before making an offer. You can’t return a co-op apartment.

Eleven days after the first open house, I sold my homely alcove studio for $240,000. That’s way too much money, I’m happy to say. Best of all, I pocketed almost the entire sum. Instead of handing $14,400 to a broker for a few days’ work, I paid $249 to The New York Times , $20 for flowers and another $5 on cider and a muffin. Yes, I sacrificed a few hours on consecutive Sunday afternoons. But I also had the pleasure of meeting a fascinating cross-section of freaks. Most of whom are still shopping for a new apartment.

I claim no special skills as a negotiator-the apartment sold itself, I merely answered the phone. In this market, every chump is a Donald Trump, as long as he holds a proprietary lease and some co-op shares.

Six years ago, the value of my apartment had sunk to about $89,000-this was disconcerting, but only in a theoretical manner. In real estate, as in stocks, fluctuating values matter only if you need to sell. And like the Dow Jones, Manhattan apartments may slip in value from time to time, but over the long run, they’re going nowhere but up. At least I hope so. Because I just spent way too much money on a terraced one-bedroom that needs a lot of fixing up.