Polly Go-Lightly: Buying a New York City Apartment at the Tender Age of 22

After much apartment hunting misery.

The author’s very own apartment.

I am 22 and I own a modest apartment in the Village. I am not an Ecclestone sister, fertilizer heiress or start up sell out. I am a normal 20-something. I don’t own a matching set of dishes, and I’m not entirely sure how to do laundry without ruining something.

Before the purchase, I was shelling out over $2,000 a month for a four flight walk-up, a glorified attic in the not-yet-chic part of Alphabet City. The building was home exclusively to 20-somethings who assumed this is how we should be living. For us, that’s what Manhattan housing is: terrible walk-up apartments in trendy neighborhoods or luxury apartments with three or more roommates.

These starkly different properties are advertised constantly, consistently and identically: Craigslist, telephone poles, public transportation, Facebook, and deceiving red “NO FEE APARTMENTS” signs dangling from fire escapes. Even bars boast ads for a $2,100 6th-floor walk-up holes and luxury, albeit tiny, studios in the Mercedes Building, the Continental and 45 Wall. Apartments in MiMA or FiDi make frequent appearances—studies show 20-somethings love abbrevs.

The bedroom.

The bedroom.

After calculating my purchase price based on a monthly payment of $2,000, I realized a small purchase was feasible and a sound investment. With some $50,000 in the bank—a nest egg from my family augmented by savings that I’d stashed away by working in retail since the age of 14—I settled on a budget of approximately $250,000 and began searching listings and seeking real estate agencies and brokers. Walking by a real estate agency in an older, wealthier or family-oriented neighborhood, their window listings read: Park Avenue townhouse for sale, Chelsea apartment for sale, luxury condo in contract. Peek into Douglas Elliman on 8th and Broadway—for rent, for short term rent, for lease. While one might assume that this is area-specific marketing, reverse ageism is prevalent in New York real estate.

The first real estate agent I emailed was from Key Realty. She noticed that my email signature stated my university and year of graduation, replying, “You’re basically still in school, try a two-year lease for commitment.” I had already graduated, but the broker clearly stopped reading before she hit the graduation year. At an open house, a realtor from Bond announced to the room that absolutely no one “of student age” would be considered. A secretary at Mark David told me that it would be nearly impossible to find a co-op board willing to “deal with [me], without parents.” Most agents asked if I could get a co-applicant, and prodded me to disclose my age. Legally, brokers cannot ask age, relationship status, education, etc. In actuality, they will ask and will assume you are hiding something if you do not answer. At 22, I decided it was time to start lying about my age. By the next open house, I had turned 26.

After eight months of dealing with broker runaround, no-shows at appointments, and the “student age” line, I had an accepted offer—just over a quarter million—and it was time to get a mortgage. Initially, the mortgage broker was thrilled to deal with me. Until they found out how much, or in their eyes how little, money I needed. In Manhattan, a mortgage of $150,000 or less is shockingly small. Chase recommended I “seek personal resources” for the amount. Instead, I sought Citi Bank. Approved and awaiting my commitment letter, Citi booted me to the end of the line, forcing me to wait 8-12 weeks (as opposed to the usual 30 days) for a commitment letter because of my “little mortgage.” My mortgage and I were constantly being accused of adolescence.

While dealing with mortgage madness, I realized I would need a personal loan to reach the amount I needed. Though high interest loans are not ideal, they can be incredibly helpful for young buyers, especially those with limited credit history. I was set to close quickly, until the seller’s broker saw my application—which revealed my age, income, and occupation. Suddenly, the broker decided I needed to show $50,000 in cash after the purchase to make me a more appealing candidate during the board interview. I ignored her request; honestly, I just didn’t have that much money or anywhere to get it from, and my application was approved quickly, much to the broker’s surprise.

The kitchen.

The kitchen.

The board interview, however was non-negotiable—if you want to purchase in a cooperative building, you have to meet with the board. Some boards are very harsh, grilling you on every rule; others just want to say hello before the purchase is finalized. Fortunately, the board was very nice and coincidentally, incredibly young—the president was also 20-something.

They wore jeans, one even wore a snapback, and they offered me Kombucha as I sat awkwardly in my suit, trying to understand why I spent eight months hiding my age from my peers. We spoke briefly about the building, they congratulated me on the purchase, and told me they were thrilled to see another 20-something property owner. In fact, they were making it a point to bring more young people into the building, as renters, owners and employees. In other words, the board and management company were seeking young buyers even as the real estate agencies shooed them away.

Generally, those younger than 32, the median age of property purchase, look at the cheapest property available. Banks reserve up to 12 weeks to confirm commitment on first-time mortgages. Brokers make less money and spend more time on the average 20-something purchase. They also run the risk of putting in months of work for a tenant who is more likely to be denied by a strict board. This risk, for brokers, seems greater than the reward of unlocking a new demographic of consumers who view property ownership as a viable option, an alternative to calling the number on the NO FEE sign. While management companies scramble to attract young buyers, realtor-created stigma and lender fear in New York perpetuates a city of renters, too afraid, unwanted and unfamiliar to attempt a property purchase.

My apartment in Greenwich Village is a delight, every one of its 418 square feet triumphantly announcing, “I’m building equity!” While writing maintenance fee checks always burns, the sting is far less than throwing $2,000 in rent at an anonymous management company. My monthly payment, including maintenance, is about $2,100 right now. Investing in Manhattan real estate is painful, time consuming and designed to exclude young people. But it isn’t stopping all of us. Be on the lookout for 20-somethings flooding Sunday open houses, exhausted from their night before, yet far more prepared than many may realize to purchase a New York City pad.

UPDATE: Many readers have inquired about the exact details surrounding the author’s purchase of her co-op apartment. The purchase price listed in city records is higher than the amount budgeted by the author because the city records do not reflect the value of the refund that is common when buying a co-op that sits on leased land. Furthermore, the buyer had the benefit of a co-signer — a relative who agreed to be on the deed.