I was considering going back to bartending when the three young Wall Street traders called looking for a three-bedroom downtown for $3,500. They were a year out of college and in their words making “some pretty good coin.” Like every other finance guy or girl under 30, they had outgrown the Upper East Side and were looking for a “cooler” neighborhood, which meant below 14th Street and above the financial district. I had only one that even remotely matched their criteria, and I was pretty sure it was already rented.
True three bedrooms are rare, and they go for a lot more than $3,500. It would have been a waste of time, but they sounded anxious to see it, almost a little nervous. That’s a good sign. My guess was that they had just missed a good one and were scrambling. That makes them good clients, and for the moment they’d be my only clients. I was flat-rents-a-month-late broke. I had to show them something, even if they’d never get it.
It was a pre-war elevator building on East 10th and Second Avenue that was being slowly renovated. The place was still in shambles with pieces of the bathroom in the kitchen, half painted, half plastered, with saw dust everywhere. Even in this condition, someone had already rented it. The market was getting nasty again.
I met them on the corner during their lunch break. The three of them looking like corporate triplets in their dress pants and collared shirts, greeted me with blank expressions and firm handshakes. It was their way of saying they wouldn’t be taken advantage of.
I pointed out the building.
“This is it?” the tallest one asked as if it were missing windows and made of silly putty. I started thinking I should have gone to that bartending interview.
With no front door key, I had to wait for someone to leave the building and then rush in before the door closed. I told them to wait while I got in, but they all ran in with me—almost trampling the woman who was leaving the building. With the four of us sprinting from one door to the next, I was beginning to grasp just how desperate they were. The elevator was just big enough to fit us all, and the standard question came up. “How do we get our furniture in?” My pat reply was, “Somehow everyone manages.” It was the same pat reply to the question of how does anyone afford to live in Manhattan.
They didn’t look completely disgusted and no one, at least outwardly, accused me of wasting their time. At one point they huddled in one of the bedrooms for a private conversation. Even though the bedroom had no door and wasn’t quite large enough to fit them all.
They’d take it. They couldn’t afford to keep leaving the office with such precious, entry-level positions to look after. I won’t mention what they said about me personally. Maybe it was me, but it never occurred to me that they would actually take the first one. No one takes the first one. It would be a bearable job if they did. Now I had to figure out a way to break it to them. We ran into the super on the way out, and he saved me the trouble. They couldn’t believe their bad luck. I acted shocked.
They were understandably deflated. We were walking to Astor place having the usual, “call us if anything exceptional or perfect comes up” conversation, when I noticed a strange and peculiar look come over them.
I had heard about this before: rental dementia. Tired, beaten and finally worn out by the process, they had seen enough and were willing to accept how little they would get for their money. During this “phase” you could rent them almost anything.
I had to think quickly: The shock can apparently wear off, and this is how most people come to live in Jersey City, or on Roosevelt Island.
I mentioned a spot I knew of on Lexington and 26th. It wasn’t even a three bedroom, but rather a really big two bedroom that they could convert. Originally, they were adamant about living below 14th and having three bedrooms. We were already on the 6 train headed to 23rd when it started to wear off—like drunks who had passed out in the bathroom and then belligerently demanded to know how they got there.
“Does it get good light?” they asked. I’d say, “It has a few windows.” “How many bathrooms?” “Yes,” I’d say, and then shake my head in confusion. “Can we put a wall up?” “It already has some walls, why not?”
The door to the questionable apartment opened. I let them go in first. It’s the moment you wait for in this business. You see the crazy look in their eye almost immediately, and you know they want it. It makes all the wasted and frustrated time worth it. More than just liking it, they were worried that somehow they wouldn’t get it. When they were this excited and nervous, you knew there would be no stalling or negotiating with the fee. I’d whack them for 15 percent without even a discussion.
It took them less than two minutes to decide they’d take it, and another 20 to decide where the wall would go and who would get what bedroom. They faxed applications that afternoon and signed leases less than a week later. I had to split the commission with the listing broker, which really hurt because he never even showed up (the doorman had let us in).
One split with the listing broker, another split with my broker, and I walked away with $1,400. I’d get to keep my apartment for yet another month. I’d also bought myself another month in the real estate game.