A Real-Estate Newbie Reports Back From the Front

DIARY OF A REAL ESTATE ROOKIE: MY YEAR OF FLIPPING, SELLING, AND REBUILDING—AND WHAT I LEARNED (THE HARD WAY.)
By Alison Rogers
Kaplan Publishing, 215 pages, $14.95

Alison Rogers is a very likable person.

It’s a good thing, because her new book, Diary of a Real Estate Rookie, is only loosely about real estate. That is, it’s about real estate the way the NPR program Car Talk is about cars. While full of potentially useful information, what the book really comes down to is personality, and Ms. Rogers, like Click and Clack, is a winner. She’s a plucky Harvard grad (minus the obnoxious sense of entitlement that sometimes engenders), with a sharp wit, a lot of heart and a clear-eyed perspective on everything from luxury condos to class disparities to her own mood swings.

In 2005, Ms. Rogers, who formerly launched and edited the New York Post’s real-estate section, quit her safe corporate journalism job to strike out on her own in the world of real estate. Her initial plan was to flip houses in New Jersey. When that didn’t work out, she got her New York realtor’s license and became a real-estate agent in the city. Along the way, she wrote about her adventures in a weekly column for Inman News. This book is an expansion of her columns.

If the material sounds less than mouth-watering, it’s because you don’t yet know Ms. Rogers. She has turned a book about becoming a broker into a beach-read fun account of risking everything to change one’s life, a story with something valuable to say about the lofty topic of how we live now, especially in New York.

“As I write this, I’m eating dinner at my desk, which is also my coffee table; there’s no desk in this apartment, and I wrote most of this book sitting on my living room floor,” she tells us of the cramped $500,000 studio she shares with her husband.

Unfortunately, the mortgage on the apartment is about $2,000 a month, which at times presents a problem. Ms. Rogers borrowed $16,000 to finance her business ventures, and at one point in her first year she provides a detailed account of her finances. Her monthly income: $3,500; monthly expenses (not including taxes): $8,100. Naturally, the shortfall was a bit worrisome. “Woo hoo, I’m losing $60,000 a year!” she writes.

This is after she realized her first plan—to find and renovate underpriced houses in Newark, N.J., to create decent and affordable middle-class housing—was fatally flawed. “[Your partners] didn’t tell you it’s impossible in the first place,” an experienced agent tells her. “They’re just trying to pimp you out. If you get lucky, they make money, and it doesn’t hurt them if you fail.”

When it sinks in that the idea on which she has quit her job and borrowed as much money as she could get her hands on is never going to work, Ms. Rogers cries the whole train ride back to the city. “I was so upset that I called my mother, who isn’t the right person to call when you’ve just fucked up a career, not because she doesn’t have sympathy but because she’s a Southern judge, and her tolerance for stupidity is small,” Ms. Rogers writes.

Why did Ms. Rogers do this to herself?

Well, for classic American reasons: “I wanted what so many people want: a better income, a better life, room to raise my family near great schools, a job where I didn’t get ass-draggy just thinking about starting my day,” she writes. “I felt I had little to show for my 18 years of corporate work; if I had been a cop, at least I would be nearing retirement by now.”

And, O.K., quitting a safe job doesn’t rank up there with the most heroic acts of all time (I don’t recall any such tales recounted in The Iliad or The Epic of Gilgamesh), but for most of us regular people, who aren’t destined to lay siege to enemy cities or slay monsters—but who do, however, have interest piling up on our credit cards—it’s one of the scariest things imaginable.

And it’s pretty hard to imagine anyone who could read this book and not sigh with relief when Ms. Rogers makes her first sale. That, along the way, we learn a few things about buying, selling, renting and renovating real estate (“my first piece of advice is … marry a plumber”) is nice, too.

Adelle Waldman is a writer living in Manhattan.