Read The New York Diary Part I here.
Being the experiences and adventures of a young, single, appallingly poor, surprisingly clean, twenty-something magazine proprietor and philosopher in Gotham.
By Daniel Tippens
In Manhattan, renting an apartment involves three actors: the customer, the broker, and the landlord. Brokers have access to two types of properties: Exclusive and non-exclusive listings. The former is an apartment building that only one brokerage is contracted to rent out units in, and the latter is a property that is available to all broker firms in the city. Brokers vie for exclusive contracts, as they guarantee substantial amounts of income. It takes three things to land an exclusive contract with a landlord: an agreeable and accommodating attitude on the part of the broker; a demonstrated ability to rent out non-exclusive apartments quickly to tenants; and a talent for finding tenants who will never complain or otherwise make demands of the landlord.
June 2012 — The Real Estate, the Real Estate Agents and the Real Bullshit
My first day selling real estate, and Josh told me a story.
“In my first year as an agent, I had one appointment I’ll never forget, “ he said, pausing to chuckle as he thought back on the past, “I had a client with a nice budget, $3500 per month. There was one apartment in particular I knew I could sell them on, but there was one problem: the apartment was locked, and I didn’t have a key. I’ve faced this problem many times before – and you will too — and my strategy is to show up about twenty minutes before my clients. First, I try to pick the lock with my metro card — don’t worry, I’ll teach you — and if I can’t get that to work, I go to the roof, climb down the fire escape, and enter the apartment through the window. This time, the metro card strategy hadn’t worked, so I headed up toward the roof. When I reached the final staircase leading to the roof’s door, I saw a homeless man lying on the stairs, blocking my path. There was this kind of terrible, wide-eyed shock, when we saw each other. Then he slowly raised his finger to his lips and whispered, “Shhhhhhh!” — Josh made a shushing gesture, as an illustration — “I looked at him, looked around me, put my own fingers to my lips and said, “Shhhhhhhh!” back, after which I climbed over him and went up to the roof. You see? The real estate agent and the bum, stooping to the same level, just to make it through the day. Deep, right?”
Steven waved me over, and I sat next to him on the futon, fitting myself uncomfortably into an indentation formed through repeated use. As the only rookie in the room, I was assigned to train with an experienced agent who would turn me into a fellow piranha. Steven had a reputation for being the most slick-tongued bullshitter in the office. His annual paycheck from commissions would make jaws drop as quickly as he would spend it. The spending habits of most agents, it turns out, is prodigal, resembling those of a low to mid-tier Wall Street trader, the only difference is that the Wall Street guys usually don’t find themselves suddenly broke, after a week’s binging on drugs, alcohol, strip clubs, and gambling.
“Here’s the run-down, Kevin. Between 11:00 am and noon every day, seven days a week, we post apartment ads on Craigslist. That’s lunch time for most people, so we get the most hits. A flood of calls will start coming in from potential money bags … er … clients, who want to see something you’ve advertised. The key is to optimize efficiency. Answer your phone by stating who you are, before they even speak. It saves you the trouble of having to answer the question ‘Is this Steven from Craigslist?’” He said, mimicking a bimbo.
Sean interrupted. “You must ask them a series of questions. What do they do for a living? Do they have a guarantor? If so, what does their guarantor do for a living? Does their guarantor live in the United States? These questions are to make sure they are, uh, eligible clients. If they mention any occupation like journalist, policeman, private investigator — or God forbid, lawyer – they’re out. Tell them you’ll get back to them, hang up, and never call back. Landlords don’t want them as tenants, and I’ll get an earful if I send one into the building.”
Steven smiled mischievously, “The line ‘I’ll call you back,’ is going to be your best friend while you’re here.” The other agents in the room laughed in agreement, and I could feel what remained of my innocence draining away.
“First things first,” Steven continued, “Advertising. You have to upsell the shit out of the place. Any little feature that sounds even remotely like a good thing goes straight into the ad. And make sure to use a lot of positive-sounding adjectives — shining hardwood floors, antique exposed brick, just a few steps away from the A, C, E, F, M whatever the fuck subway lines, etc. — and put up the best looking pictures possible. You know how people say you shouldn’t flatter yourself in online dating profile pictures? Well, screw that. Sometimes, I even put up fake pictures, and when the client tells me the room doesn’t look like the photos, I explain that the landlord sends us stock photos of the units in the building, and they’re not always the same as the unit up for rent. Bait and switch, man, it works all the time.”
Steve’s pride was evident as he went through this sordid litany. It was like every fucked up thing he did went on a mental CV; a list of depraved accomplishments to put up on his refrigerator. My stomach churned as I listened, but I managed to maintain a vaguely pleasant look on my face throughout. I needed to do well at this job or I’d be homeless myself.
Steven put up five ads on Craigslist and waited for calls. Within ten minutes, his phone started ringing, non-stop. When he answered, he spoke extremely quickly, with confidence and certainty, and he would either tell the person on the other line “I’ll call you back” or he would set up an appointment, within two minutes of picking up the phone.
“Kevin we have an appointment in thirty minutes. The client has a budget of $1800, for a one bedroom or studio. What I’m going to do is compile a list of apartments that range in price from $1600 – $2000. You can almost always push your clients over their maximum budget. They don’t realize that they can’t get what they want with what they think is the maximum they can spend, and once they do, they make it work.”
I didn’t know it at the time, but Steven was doing something that all agents do; assume that all clients are ignorant, and that we, the omniscient agents, know what’s best for them. It’s a convenient attitude. After all, if clients are hopelessly ignorant about the New York real estate market, then you’re actually doing them a favor, when you lie and manipulate them into renting an apartment.
“When I prepare for an appointment, I have one apartment in mind that I want to sell them on. But trust me, the worst idea is to show them that apartment first. Instead, I show them a bunch of gross, shitty places first, so that they think their budget is too low and that they’ll be forced into some godforsaken slum. Then, once their spirits are broken and ground into dust, I show them the place I originally had in mind and tell them it is just barely higher than they had budgeted. At this point, the place will look like a goddamned palace. They’ll offer to fuck you just to secure it.
Sean interrupted, “He’s not kidding. My previous boss had a client on the hook for an apartment that she had fallen in love with, after I used the strategy Steven was talking about. She couldn’t afford the slight increase in rent, and my boss said he would lower it slightly if she let him grab her tits. Her shirt came off immediately.”
My eyes widened in disbelief, “Jesus, man. Did he lower the rent?”
Sean leaned back in his chair and laughed, “Fuck no. He sent her packing. That apartment had been rented out two hours earlier.”
This was a whole new world to me. Lifestyles that I thought only existed in trashy movies and sleazy scandal magazines. Sean would later tell me he would sometimes get drinks with hot clients and then take them to a vacant unit for a quickie, or sometimes, if he really wanted an adrenaline rush, an apartment that was occupied, but for which he had keys.
Josh weighed in, “The strategy Steven employs actually benefits everyone. The apartment you show them at the end is the one that they should take, but their ignorance gets in the way. I’m the doctor and the client is the patient. Patients don’t know about biology or medicine. They may want something that’s not in their best interest or even contrary to their interests. The doctor’s job is to steer them in the right direction, even if it requires some … well … extreme persuasion techniques.” I found myself wondering if New York doctors offered treatments in return for a handful of tits and realized that I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out they did.
The next day I was on my own. My first appointment was at a non-exclusive building, and I met my clients cheerfully. Before the appointment could even get off the ground, a man came out of the building shouting at me, “Who the fuck are you?”
“Kevin, I’m an agent for True Realty, here to show apartment 5G.”
“I’m the landlord, and you’re trespassing. There is no apartment for rent here. Get the fuck off my property! And you two…” he pointed at my clients, “I’d ditch this scumbag if I were you. Whatever he’s doing, it’s clearly a scam. There’s no apartment available here!”
My clients looked at me with suspicion and not a small amount of anger and said they didn’t want to see anything else with me, as they were too put off by the situation.
Fuck! Did I just ruin Sean’s reputation with a landlord my first day on the job? Am I going to get fired? How will I pay my rent for the next year? I was panicking like a frightened rabbit, as I slowly made my way back to the office. I tried to think of what to tell Sean. Normally I would just make something up – something believable, but exculpatory — but I had told the landlord my name, and where I worked. I figured my best option was to get in front of it and come clean to Sean. After all, I didn’t know the apartment wasn’t for sale.
I opened the door to the office, and the sound of cell phones ringing and screening questions filled the air. “What’s your maximum budget? ….. Did you say you’re a lawyer? Cool! I’m getting another call, I need to call you back…”
I sat at Sean’s desk and told him about what happened. He looked suspicious, “That doesn’t make any sense. It says right here in our listings that that apartment is available. Let me call the landlord of that place and see what his fucking problem is.”
Sean picked up his phone, dialed, and waited a few seconds. “Hi, Jim?” Sean maintained a respectful but firm tone, “My agent Kevin was just at your property on 9th street, and he said you told him to — and I quote — ‘get the fuck off the property, there are no apartments for sale here.’ I just want to know why this happened, since my listings say you have an available unit in that building?”” There was a pause as Sean listened to Jim on the other end of the phone, “Oh, wow, I see. Some of these guys are just the scum of the earth. Thanks, Jim. Bye.”
Sean shook his head and quietly muttered, “fucking animals,” as he put his phone on the desk.
“What did he say? Is everything alright?”
“Jim said he hasn’t been to that property in several weeks.” Sean replied.
“Wait, I don’t understand. The guy at the property told me…”
“That was an agent for some other real estate firm who didn’t want you to show the apartment to your clients. He wanted to have a better chance of renting it himself. He posed as the landlord to get you to fuck off. Looks like he did even more than that, since he got your clients to part ways with you, too. Some of these agents are real pieces of shit.”
The real estate industry was a madhouse; a seller’s market, run by a network of depraved middle-men, and it looked as though in order to survive in it, you would have to become depraved yourself. If everyone in Major League baseball is taking steroids, you can either stand on your principles and fail or join the ranks and juice up.
I decided to use Steven’s tactic and showed a pair of new clients some low-quality places, after which I brought them to the place I had originally intended them to take. While this place was great compared with what I had shown them, it was hardly the best of all that New York City had to offer, in their price range. They smiled widely when I opened the door and showed them the place, and asked if they could get started on the paperwork. I beamed, visualizing putting my first $500.00 commission into the bank. Things were going perfectly, and I began to feel like my rough start had just been a bit of bad luck.
But then, as I walked my clients back to the office, a man stopped in front of us, blocking our path. His clothes were in tatters, and he reeked of urine and feces, his hands filthy to the point that they looked like a cadaver’s — gray and stiff — and he had a decidedly wild-eyed look about him. I tried darting to the left and then to the right, in order to get around him, but he mirrored my movements, strafing to continue blocking my path, all the while staring at me with those crazy eyes.
Without saying a word, he lunged and grabbed me up into such a strong bear hug, I thought that my eyes would pop out of my head. “You know!!!” he shouted, his saliva splattering my cheek with each syllable. His grip became harder and harder and I wondered if he was going to kill me. Fortunately, several people passing by rushed in to help. It took three men to pry his arms open, and as they dragged him back he pointed at me, eyes blazing, snarling through his teeth, saliva hanging from his lips.
My clients were in a complete panic. “Who was that?! Why did he do that?! Is this a safe area?! I think we need to take more time to decide on this apartment! We’ll get back to you!” I could hear Steven’s voice … I’ll call you back! … and knew I was never going to hear from them again.
I wondered whether this whole real estate thing was going to work out for me. I really didn’t want to turn into the kind of scum that populated my office, and I didn’t know how to compensate for not being a total bastard in this competitive market. But then I had something of a Nietzschean moment. Grotesque immorality notwithstanding, I found myself respecting what hustlers these guys were. They saw what they wanted and took it, by whatever means necessary, and you could tell it gave them a tremendous sense of personal confidence. They knew they had the verbal skill to get just about anyone to do just about anything they wanted, and it was a tantalizing idea to have that power.
Why are there so many scumbags in real estate? Is it a selection effect? Is Situationalism true, and there really are no character traits, like being a manipulative or deceitful person, just situations that significantly determine how a person will behave? As I thought about trying to pay rent for the next year so that I could go to school, I flirted with the idea of dropping morality entirely for a summer and becoming a full-blown real estate hustler. I could just chalk this period of time up to being in a bad situation.
Just then, my phone rang, and an unknown number was displayed on the screen. Another potential client. I let it ring a few times, took a deep breath and answered. They passed the initial screen, and I set up an appointment to meet them thirty minutes later.
Conforming again to Steve’s protocol, I showed them apartments in order of ascending quality. They were unimpressed by most of them, and when I showed them the clincher, they were interested, but not sold. We came out of the apartment and entered the elevator. It was an old machine, the paint peeling off, revealing the rusted and gray walls beneath it, and it groaned as it delivered us to the ground floor.
“What’s the deal with this elevator? Is it safe?”
At this point I had a choice. I could tell the truth or join my co-workers in Hell.
“The building is pre-war, and the landlords wanted to retain a level of authenticity at the request of other tenants, so they left some of the features that display a sense of age and history, like an elevator with a dilapidated appearance. It’s fully safe.”
I closed my first deal with them, and that summer I walked away from real estate with twenty grand.