"Do you hear the crickets?," asked Ali Jafri, a broker for Prudential Douglas Elliman. We were standing on the ninth-floor balcony of a brand-new three-bedroom condominium for sale at 20 Bayard Street in Williamsburg. "That’s something you won’t get in Manhattan."
These days, Mr. Jafri might hear crickets more often than he’d like. It was the Sunday before the European markets began to tumble, during peak open house hours, and the buyer traffic through Brooklyn’s newer towers was slow. Just a few days earlier, The New York Times had declared that "the credit crisis and the turmoil on Wall Street are bringing New York’s real estate boom to an end."
About 20 people currently live at 20 Bayard, the concierge informed me, and four units are available for purchase: two one-bedrooms in the neighborhood of $600,000 and two larger two- and three-bedrooms for over $1 million each. Royale Concierge offers a variety of amenities for an additional price, including dog grooming, maid services, massage therapy and dry cleaning.
The building overlooks McCarren Park. And the spectacular views of Manhattan, Mr. Jafri assured me, would not disappear behind any new buildings that spring up along the waterfront, which is zoned for a mere six stories.
On my heels was a woman in her 50s, looking to downsize from her three-bedroom apartment nearby because her daughter would soon be off to college. She didn’t wince when Mr. Jafri gave her the price tags on the largest apartments, perhaps because she was looking to rent out her current three-bedroom to pay the mortgage on a new, smaller place.
Impressed by the crickets and the views, she stuck around weighing her options. Mr. Jafri seemed excited that he wasn’t twiddling his thumbs in an empty model apartment without even a real TV to keep him company.
"Today has been slow, I don’t know why," said Rawle Howard, a broker with the Corcoran Group, across town in the living room of a $749,000 three-bedroom at 647 Washington Avenue in Prospect Heights.
I was the only person there and we got to talking about the economy. The former Lehman Brothers employee seemed pretty happy to have made the leap into real estate, even if the boom has come to an end.
"I think that [the recession] is going to be longer than anyone expected and I think people will really start to focus on what they can actually afford," Mr. Howard told me.
At the Modern Post, a new typical glass tower just next door, a young couple were the only potential buyers for a cramped $789,000 duplex penthouse studio loft with an enormous terrace overlooking the surrounding three- and four-story buildings. The young woman quickly noticed the narrow staircase was not high-heel friendly, and her beau remarked that the second terrace, off the lofted bedroom with Manhattan views, was tiny. Even if they could afford it, they didn’t want it.
From the roof deck it was possible to feel like the ruler of an auto repair kingdom, with mechanic shops and junk yards dotting Washington and nearby Atlantic Avenue like plots of farm land. Soon after, we hopped in the elevator, leaving an almost desperate broker behind.
THIS IS BROOKLYN’S REAL estate dilemma. Extra special amenities played an integral role in luring buyers when neighborhood amenities were lacking, but with prices still sky high and memories of the borough’s boom fading fast, it seems the only reasonable options are to start cutting prices or to offer condos as rentals. Both of these things are already happening. A pretty kitchen backsplash and walk-in closets just won’t cut it anymore.
A young broker named Jonathan was sitting on a stack of concrete slabs beyond plywood walls at the Isabella, yet another location on Washington Avenue near the Fulton Street C train station. The building boasts 63 units–four of which are in contract–a concierge, gym and roof deck. The building is scheduled to be completed in February.
"Bad timing?" I asked him.
"If you have money, it’s not a bad time to buy," he responded, as I was signing a release form to tour the building, which is still far from completion. He had been chatting with two other brokers, looking bored, as I approached the building.
After walking through a concrete maze of stairs and hallways filled with construction materials and even a dust-covered wheel barrow, we entered a two-bedroom model apartment with two bathrooms on the second floor. Out of the large windows was a quintessential view of historic brownstone Brooklyn. The mortgage broker was comfy on the plush couch, surrounded with stock-footage-filled picture frames. She seemed surprised to see us walk in, and briefly looked up from her BlackBerry to chat until Jonathan informed her I wasn’t actually in the market for an apartment.
A map in the brochure for the Isabella had the popular Q/B train line on Dean Street and Sixth Avenue, rather than it’s actual location four blocks farther away on Flatbush and Seventh avenues. It’s safe to say that nobody living on Washington Avenue between Fulton Street and Atlantic Avenue is regularly going to walk all the way to the Q/B at Seventh. A lot of minor details factor into a buyer’s decision; and brokers are going to put the best face they can on any neighborhood by giving the impression that the distance to transportation and nightlife is less than it might be. Some buildings and neighborhoods just have more to sell than others.
BACK IN WILLIAMSBURG, BEYOND 20 Bayard’s view of the BQE, sits 22 Monitor Street, a four-story building closest to the Graham Avenue stop on the L line. On the corner was a handwritten sign announcing the open house where apartments start at $379,000.
Chester, an older kindly man and the owner of the building, nervously approached me down a long narrow hallway as I walked in the front door. He greeted me without making eye contact or saying much of anything besides his first name; and let me wander freely through the duplex ground-floor apartment in the front of the building.
The apartment was spacious, with two large common rooms on either floor, two bathrooms and a decently large bedroom with a glass door looking out onto a private outdoor area. It was clear, though, that the materials were cheap, and the only extra investment made on the property was the modern kitchen tiling and appliances.
Chester told me that traffic had been slow all day, and that he has yet to sell any of the building’s eight units. With fewer amenities and a location off the beaten track of Williamsburg’s heart, he seemed a bit worried that the apartments might not move, or at least not soon. But the duplex, at $499,000, was the most expensive unit in the building. The majority were smaller units, with balconies, for $399,000.
"They have been on the market for two months," Chester said nervously in a thick Spanish accent.
I asked him why he thinks they haven’t moved yet.
"People are afraid because of the market. I hope it goes back to normal soon."
But I’m not sure anyone knows what normal is anymore.
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