Homeownership is a privilege, not a right

I need five certified checks for tomorrow’s closing. To get them, I’ve come to the Chase Bank nearest me with my checkbook, a pen, and a list of payees and dollar amounts I culled from a half-dozen of our lawyer’s e-mails.

(Names changed to protect the innocent: Dewey and Howe are the seller’s lawyers. Prescott is our lawyer. Lincoln is our mortgage broker.)

Dewey and Howe were supposed to send final figures well in advance of closing. Instead they’ve chosen not to correspond with us. As one of New York’s five oldest law firms, they only busy themselves when Tildens and Vanderbilts are involved.

Waiting in a long line gets me six pieces of paper to fill out. There’s an inch of free desk space by the front door, which is propped open to better circulate the December winds. The seventh time the December winds blow my paperwork across the lobby, I kick the doorstop across Park Avenue and pull the front door closed, not caring who sees me do it.

Now that the paperwork isn’t flying, I can find out what the bank needs from me before it will issue the certified checks.

One thing it needs is the addresses of the payees. Who knew? Not me, not our lawyer.

I call Prescott; he looks up the addresses on the internet while I scribble. (He can’t tell me the addresses by looking at paperwork, because Dewey and Howe haven’t sent any.)

I’m sweating and my writing hand is beginning to cramp.

Prescott, whose AOL e-mail account was having problems earlier in the day, is now receiving a flurry of messages from Lincoln the mortgage broker. In-between looking up payee addresses, Prescott tells me what’s in Lincoln’s e-mails.

What’s in Lincoln’s e-mails is an additional $5500 in fees that will be owed to various parties on top of the original cash motherload we paid at the beginning of this mess and the second two-ton payload we’re converting into certified checks at this moment. In the absurd economy of middle-class Manhattan home-buying, nearly overlooking an extra $5500 is like forgetting to mention the dollar charge for gift-wrap.

The throbbing Christmas music that has accompanied all action thus far seems inappropriately sedate as I cross the lobby perspiring like a bridegroom, bearing my newly filled-out forms.

Now I’m looking at two cashiers and praying I did the addition right. (Long story. Short version: you have to subtotal all the amounts yourself before this bank will issue you more than one certified check at once.)

Now I’m looking at three cashiers working on my certified check order. The one twenty years younger than me is the senior cashier in charge.

The third cashier working on my order says I have nice handwriting.

Now it’s just me and the littlest cashier.

Now I have my five certified checks.

Now I have to proofread them against the payee list I compiled earlier. Thousand thousand thousand thousand thousand and 44 cents.

Amused by my aura of suppressed hysteria, the littlest cashier says have a nice day.

Thank you, I say, meaning it.

[tags]sentfrommyiphone, homebuying, homeownership, NYC, apartment, home, bank, banking[/tags]

No heat at $5,000/month

Libertarians blame rent stabilization for the problems of tenants in cities like New York, but there are few rent stabilized apartments left in this town or this building. Most people in this building pay $4000 to $5000 a month for a “luxury rental” the size of a working-class Hoosier’s garage. Certainly the fee the landlord collects is luxurious. Nothing else about the place is. Particularly not luxurious is the lack of heat, now in its second day. Snow falls, arctic winds blow, but the $5000/month luxury building is as cold as a dead seal.

The building once employed a certified plumber capable of fixing the constant leaks and other woes that plague this building and are common to poorly maintained high-rise apartments thrown up in the go-go 1970s. But the managing agent was always six months late paying the plumber’s bill, and often argued about the charges months after they were incurred.

“I’ll pay for one guy,” the managing agent would tell the plumber six months after the plumber used three guys to fix an emergency in the building.

In cheating the licensed plumber, the managing agent did not act on the tenants’ behalf or with their knowledge or consent.

Eventually the competent licensed plumber grew tired of losing money every time he saved the building from disaster, and stopped accepting jobs here. The competent licensed plumber’s competent licensed colleagues did likewise. Thus the building placed its tenants at the mercies of the incompetent.

In the past 24 hours, four different low-cost plumbing companies have come to this luxury high-rise to fix its unconscionable heating problem. As a result of their efforts, the doctor’s office in the lobby has been flooded, and a pipe broke on the third floor, filling a tenant’s apartment with steam and pouring boiling water on her floor. Into this boiling water the tenant stepped when the steam she mistook for the smoke of a fire awoke her. I am grateful to hear that she is not seriously injured. Meanwhile, there is still no heat, and our daughter is sick with a hacking cough.

N.B. As a long-time tenant, I do not pay anything like $4,000 or $5,000 a month, but most people in the building do.

[tags]NYC, landlords, tenants, tenant rights, competence[/tags]

A date with Sandra Bernhard

Today was the day we were supposed to close on our new home. We were going to pack Sunday and move Monday. Then we were going to fill the Happy Cog New York office with furniture and computers. And then we were going to Boston to talk for 60 minutes, and to Washington, DC to listen for 90.

We’re still going to Boston and DC, but the rest of the schedule has called in sick. We can’t close today because we got a better mortgage from a nicer (but slower) bank, and the nicer (but slower) bank must produce a bowel movement in the shape of a swan before issuing our check.

The office move is connected to the house move. The house move is contingent on the closing date.

Chaos! We have furniture being hauled to the wrong buildings on the wrong days. We have deliveries to postpone and shipments to despair on. We have computers and tickets and widgets of all sizes being FedExed to doormen who will ring for us in vain, their lonely vigils mocked by blinking Christmas displays.

But it’s a wonderful life. For, no matter how nutty the next weeks may be, and no matter how many stay-at-home, can-of-bean meals we consume in the coming decades to compensate for the funds we have spent and those we are about to spend, at the end of this nerve-wracking knuckle-cracking tango with lawyers and brokers and bankers and movers, our family will have a home.

[tags]homebuying, homes, nyc, newyorkcity, happycog, moving[/tags]

Into the murky deep

Tucked away in a quiet corner of The New York Public Library at 42nd Street sits a small, clean, neatly appointed classroom. At 3:30, we commandeered it for an impromptu meeting with an attorney.

For half an hour, the secret, quiet room was a lawyer’s office. In it, after discussing various ways the deal could end tragically, we signed five copies of a contract to purchase an apartment. I wrote the biggest check I have ever written in my life. And then, like bats startled by light, we flew off in different directions.

The attorney headed to his next meeting. The wife hopped a bus downtown to hand our documents to a secretary at the seller’s lawyer’s office. And I ran here.

We do not own a home yet. A lot could still go horribly wrong. But after two weeks of frantic paddling, we have dived cleanly into the murky deep.

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[tags]homeownership, homebuying[/tags]

Don’t sleep here

Makeshift bed at construction site.

The area above Madison Square Park in Manhattan is in a condo- building frenzy. Of course all of Manhattan (and Brooklyn and Queens) is in a condo-building frenzy. But above Madison Square Park there is a particularly feverish keenness to the activity, as the glamor of the Flatiron District moves north to a zone that was formerly best known for its gaudy wig and cheap lingerie wholesalers.

The richie rich are buying, and who can blame them? Proximity to Madison Square Park and the chic shops south of 23rd Street makes for an elegance that is almost Parisian—or at least suggests the possibility of such a way of life.

Huge signs affixed to newly rising high-rises and condo converted prewar office buildings trumpet the glory of living here. But there are other signs, as well.

Barely noticed in the builders’ gold rush, the poorest poor, pushed off the benches of Madison Square Park, take shelter in the very construction sites that signify their doom. When this building is finished, the rich will sleep here. ‘Til then, it’s the poor who do so. And what do they dream?

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[tags]americandream, housing, homeless, homelessness, shelter, cities, urbanism, newyork, newyorkcity, NYC, boom, highrises, condos, condosandcoops, nest, citythatneversleeps[/tags]

Faster, pussycat

Have you ever bought clothes while traveling, and been unable to fit everything in your suitcase when it was time to go home? That suitcase is what my days are like now. For starters, The Wife and I are buying an apartment—or at least we are attending all the meetings, filling out all the paperwork, hiring all the attorneys and assessors and brokers and fixers, faxing and messengering and hand-delivering all the documents, auditing all the books, returning all the missed calls, sending all the e-mails, digging through spam traps for all the missed e-mails, rescheduling all the appointments, raising all the money, applying to borrow all the much more money, digging and refilling all the holes, and running up and down all the staircases that are supposed to lead to us owning a place.

Timing is the secret of comedy and an ungovernable variable in life. Our first-time homebuying marathon comes during one of The Wife’s busiest weeks at The Library, and amid a frenzy of new client activity at Happy Cog and the planning of next year’s An Event Apart conferences. In my idiocy, I agreed to speak at other people’s conferences, which means I need to create the content for those engagements. I am days behind in everything because completing the Findings From the Web Design Survey sucked nights, days, and dollars. It was our Apocalypse Now. The dog is sick and requires constant watching. The Girl must be taken to preschool and picked up and played with and loved and taught and put to bed.

My life is like everybody’s. I’m too busy and I’m grateful for everything, but I worry that I will miss some detail, forget some essential, give less than everything to some e-mail or document review or design.

I intended to write about the Findings From the Web Design Survey on the night we finally published them, but there was nothing left inside. I intended to write about them this morning, but instead I have written this excuse for not writing about them. During my next break between brokers, I will clear up one area of confusion as to the motivation behind the survey’s undertaking.

Meantime, Eric Meyer, the survey’s co-author and co-sponsor, has written nice pieces about practical problems overcome in the survey’s creation, and how to keep probing the data for new answers and new questions.

[tags]aneventapart, alistapart, webdesignsurvey, design, survey, happycog, homeownership, NYC, newyorkcity, newyork[/tags]

We live as we dream

My cold is in its second week; I slept less than four hours last night. Yesterday we decided to check out the housing market in our neighborhood and ended up making a bid. Anxiety woke me at 1:00 a.m. and kept me eyeballing the dark ceiling for hours.

Tomorrow, if all goes to plan, we will publish the findings of the web design survey. The findings document alone will weigh in at more than 80 pages. It has been less work than building the pyramids, but I may revise that opinion by the end of the day.

Lots happening. Watch this space.

[tags]alistapart, survey, careers, webdesign, webdesignsurvey, NYC, apartments[/tags]

God Knocks

“It’s becoming a bedroom community for people who work on Wall Street,” the Wife says of our beloved Manhattan. While the housing market everywhere else incurs gangrene, prices here are sky-high and climbing. A new condo goes up every three seconds and an angel does not get his wings.

When I moved to New York City in 1988, it was possible to find a rent-stabilized apartment in the East Village, Kips Bay, and plenty of other places—to live an artist’s life, or a drunkard’s, while securing a semblance of middle class security and stability. People moved here to pursue music careers, acting careers, writing careers, anything that didn’t pay. Some even painted. They could live here indefinitely while the market ignored their talent.

Today the city is cleaner and safer, but a small one-bedroom in an indifferent neighborhood costs over a million dollars. It’s not just the poor and the old who are getting priced out. Not just the working class. Not even just the middle class. New York is still a melting pot, but its ingredients are changing as the city squeezes out all but the richest rich.

Brooklyn is where many families have moved and many creative people with or without families are moving, but Brooklyn’s prices are no better. You get a little more space for the same obscene truckload of cash, and you pay for it in subway mileage.

Any reasonable person who does not already own a place and is not fabulously wealthy would catch the first bus out of town and not look back. But if Osama bin Laden could not chase us off this island, neither will the lesser abomination of insanely high and continuously escalating housing prices.

Throwing our first stake in the ground, we have enrolled our daughter in a fine preschool. And when the newly-out-of-rent-stabilization but still-below-market rental lease I have ridden since 1990 finally ends next year, we intend to buy. Don’t ask me how we’ll do it. I only know that we will.

Which brings me to God and the knocking sound.

I awoke this morning to a quiet, insistent, knocking, high-pitched and hollowly wooden—as if a tiny woodpecker were signaling from the back of our bedroom’s bookshelves.

(I actually awoke to our little dog’s barking, something he never does. He also peed twice on the floor, something else he never does. And threw up all over our gorgeous white Flokati rug. But that isn’t part of the God story.)

When a person who has not been particularly spiritual enters a spiritual program, odd things begin happening. Atheists call these things coincidences. For instance, an addict in a big city fearfully attends his first Narcotics Anonymous meeting. Chairing the meeting is the guy with whom he first bought dope. Programs like NA and AA are rife with such incidents.

The Wife is in a very different sort of program, but it is spiritual, and it concerns really living your life. Yesterday in that program, she and a friend focused on the notion of our owning a home, even though it seems impossible here. Before bed last night, she said we could start the process of finding a home by taking an action as simple as reading Home Buying For Dummies.

So this morning, there is this knocking sound. It’s not coming from the bureau. It’s not coming from the desk. It’s not electrical. There’s no big truck out on the street causing the windowpanes to rattle. The sound is insistent. We cannot localize its source or account for it logically.

Doors cover part of a bookshelf. Searching for the source of the sound, the Wife opens the doors. Out falls a book: Home Buying For Dummies.

And as she picks up the book, we both notice that the sound has stopped.

September 12

A gloomy, rainy September 11th in New York City. An eye doctor visit in the morning left my eyes dilated. For hours, I was overly sensitive to light. It was a perfect way to experience this city on that day.

In my apartment building, a woman boarded the elevator going down. About 60 years old, carrying someone else’s clothes to the laundry room. We were the only two passengers.

“Wet Tuesday,” she said. “Hot day, six years ago. Six years ago, my daughter was on TV, running for her life.”

In the doctor’s office, with dilated eyes, I siphoned bandwidth from an unsecured wireless network and read The New York Times on my iPhone, holding the handset close to my face. An article about Gen. David H. Petraeus’s testimony generated hundreds of comments. At least four of them were rational.

At 1:00 I braved a sudden monsoon in Curry Hill to meet a friend who was traveling in from Brooklyn. He told me he’d been somewhat concerned about coming into Manhattan on September 11.

At 3:30 I was home, hanging wet clothes from the shower rod and thinking about Iraq. I cannot stop thinking about it.

At 2:00 am I woke up. In my dream I had been trying to bring the soldiers home.

Comments off.

[tags]9/11, september11, nyc[/tags]

Bang!

Had I known that there was an explosion in midtown Manhattan near where my wife works, and that my wife and daughter were out in the ensuing chaos, I would have been far more anxious during my train ride home from Philadelphia last night.

I had gone to the city of brotherly love on business. One of our party misplaced her iPhone, discovering the loss as we were about to board the train back to New York. The odds against her recovering it would kill a game in Vegas. But it is her only phone and she is about to leave the country, so she stayed behind in hopes of locating it. Anxiety on her account, and some guilt at having boarded the train without her, kept me plenty busy on the ride home.

Like The New York Public Library, the old Pennsylvania Station was a Beaux-Arts masterpiece (photos: concourse and entrance in 1962, two years prior to demolition). An abomination replaced it. Outrage over this desecration gave us laws supporting historic preservation and preventing future desecrations, making the old Pennsylvania Station the Jesus of buildings.

One emerges from the current Penn Station as from a none-too-clean public bathroom.

On emerging from Penn Station as from a none-too-clean public bathroom, I overheard people discussing 9/11. That seemed odd. New Yorkers don’t talk about 9/11; we leave that to politicians. When I reached home, fifteen minutes’ humid walk later, my doorman was also muttering about 9/11. Odder still.

I expected to find my daughter asleep. Not so.

“Can you tell something happened?” my wife asked.

She had seen the explosion while standing about a mile north of it (just as, on September 11th, 2001, she had seen the twin towers on fire from a position on Fifth Avenue about two miles north of the disaster) and asked two firefighters who were also gazing in its direction if the intersection where it had occurred was known. 41st Street, they said. Reassured that our home had not blown up, she went on to the rendezvous where she was to pick up our daughter from her baby-sitter. Our daughter and her baby-sitter were not there. I can imagine my wife’s reaction to that absence. (I knew nothing about it, sitting in a crowded Amtrak car, discussing a client project, and worrying about a missing iPhone.)

Finally our daughter arrived; her baby-sitter was put in a cab; and my wife and daughter attended a birthday party for one of our daughter’s friends—a younger girl who had just turned two. Pizza and cupcakes were served.

At seven, the party ended, and, as at all children’s parties in New York, the guests were shooed out.

Philadelphia is 100 miles from New York. I made it in an hour. It took my wife and daughter two hours to traverse the single mile home. The subways were out, two avenues were closed, the whole world was taking buses or walking north, away from the disaster. Just below the cutoff and oblivious to it, I walked home knowing nothing except that I had had a good meeting in Philadelphia, and had perhaps overdone it on the huevos rancheros at Honey’s Sit ‘n Eat Restaurant.

Here’s how it looks in a newspaper:

A steam pipe installed in 1924 ruptured in a thunderous explosion shortly before 6 p.m. today, sending steam, water and debris shooting outward and sending clouds of smoke and dust billowing through Midtown Manhattan at the height of the evening rush. One person died of cardiac arrest, and more than 20 others were injured. The authorities ruled out any criminal activity, saying the explosion was apparently caused by a failure of antiquated infrastructure.

How was it for you?

[tags]steampipe, explosion, nyc, newyork, newyorkcity, myglamorouslife[/tags]