Refinery29 is proud to partner with the National Association of REALTORS® (NAR) to share real women’s stories about finding, buying, flipping, and paying off their homes. Ahead, read one woman’s testament to homeownership, and discover the power of a REALTOR®.
Editor’s note: We recognize that every individual's financial journey to home ownership is unique -- there is no one-size-fits-all narrative. So, in place of prescriptive advice or guidance, we're providing transparency into the process by way of one real woman's authentic experience.
The day I closed on my Manhattan apartment, I sent a text to a friend that read, “My New York City checklist is now complete.”
Soon after, I shared the news with other friends and family. Everyone had the same reaction: “Good for you!” followed by, “How did you do it? A two-bedroom? In Manhattan?” If you’ve spent any time in the city, you’ll understand just how difficult it is to buy at all, let alone a two-bedroom as a single woman.
The whole process took several years of commitment. I dragged my real estate agent up, down, and across seemingly every street and avenue in Manhattan. True buyer’s agents can be difficult to come by in NYC and I was lucky to have one who was willing to guide me to what felt like every single apartment on the New York market.
In one apartment in particular, I assessed the view from the living-room windows: the exit ramp from the George Washington Bridge — a bridge that sees 280,000 cars a day. “There’s a view of the Hudson,” the seller said. If I leaned out the front window and craned my neck to the left just so, there was indeed a view of the Hudson.
This is what New York real estate is like: Everything is a bit of a stretch — but that doesn’t deter the masses. Over the years, I had put down offers on a few apartments; offers that were passed over for more desirable ones time and time again.
I work as a tailor and pattern maker for film and television, and fortunately, I was apartment hunting toward the end of a five-season series for a major distributor that I’d been working on. At the time, I’d amassed some fairly substantial savings from that job — enough for 20% on an apartment in the low $400,000s. My real-estate agent — a member of the National Association of REALTORS® — assured me I was in a good position to move forward. And so we did.
So together, we kept looking...and looking, and looking. We put in a few offers that were refused. Then, one February day, we found it. I remember biking frantically toward the apartment, having realized I was late to meet my agent. I arrived in front of the building we were visiting and carried my bike up four flights of stairs to the fifth floor. There were a few other people milling around the small, well-lit place.
There was nothing spectacular about the interior. The building was pre-war, but for the most part, the units had been updated sometime in the '80s — except for the original steam radiators, which sputtered and hissed in the corners (this was a sound I had come to like; it was a familiar New York tune). The striking thing about the space, though, was the enormous quantity of sunlight that streamed in through the living-room windows. Situated in the back corner of an L-shaped building, the apartment had both south- and north-facing windows. And miraculously enough, there were no taller buildings close enough to block out all the light. In a city as crowded (and as vertical) as New York, an unadulterated view of the sky is a precious and miraculous thing, indeed. Plus, listed at under $500,000 ($420,000, specifically) this place was a bit of a unicorn. I looked around and thought, I could live with this. And so I told my agent, and together, we began the process.
Buying a co-op apartment requires a different process than buying a house does. Most apartments for sale in the city maintain a specific list of banks that will provide mortgages for the property. This usually has to do with whether or not a particular bank thinks that a building is a good investment or not. As a freelancer, things can get even more difficult, as pay isn't always clear cut — freelance pay often fluctuates depending on the job. There can be high highs and low lows — and thus, it's often difficult to explain an independent contractor's income to banks.
That said, my income is neither that of a traditional freelancer nor that of a full-time employee. I've been in the film industry for over 30 years, so my pay no longer fluctuates at the rate it used to. I tend to make between $100,000 and $120,000 a year, and I have for the past 15 years. But all the same, my yearly income is the sum of between four and twelve W-2s and a stack of 1099s. For each show I work on during any given year, I receive a separate W-2. On first look, most banks find the whole "multiple jobs a year" thing concerning.
Thankfully, there’s just one primary payroll company that film and television production companies use, and it does have collected records of the endless number of shows I've worked on (along with records detailing my annual income going back over 25 years). These print-outs were likely the only reason my bank found reason to approve me.
Closings can take a long time to come together in co-op buildings, where a whole secondary level of application and approval is required. Just because the bank agrees to loan you money, that doesn’t mean the co-op board will want you. They can reject you simply because they don’t like you or because you’re “not a good fit.” In some ways, it’s like interviewing for a job.
Beyond that, a good real-estate lawyer, who can review the co-op’s offering plan (which includes all the purchasing restrictions and requirements), is essential. Offering plans are often novel length. My lawyer, an older man who believed in the necessity of traditional and old-fashioned things (like paper, rather than digital documents), insisted my agent provide him a physical copy of the offering documents. She did — and even delivered them herself.
Finally, after the inspection, the loan application, the co-op application, and the lawyer consultation, I found myself in an office in an old building uptown, seated at a cracked wood table, signing a pile of documents and shuffling through stacks of certified checks for thousands of dollars.
Then, finally, the co-op president carefully handed me the keys to my new apartment. Just like that, I had signed off on my very own small piece of New York City.