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The Never-Ending Story


Alina Nikolaou speaks softly, with a Greek accent: “It's distressing. It's depressing.” She is 25, with long, silky brown hair, an oval, olive face, and piercing green eyes, "An average couple with our income, if they don't have a fairly large income. I don't see how they can afford a house, there is no way."

Alina is a young professional, who with her husband, Christos, has been looking for an apartment to buy on and off for over a year now. “It is a full-time job,” she says. The ups, the downs, the victories, the defeats have all been symptomatic of what many upper middle class couples have been experiencing in their own quests for the American Dream: a home of their own.

Alina and Christos have been married for a year. He works for IBM in Hawthorne, New York; she is employed by Greek Video, Records, and Tapes in Brooklyn. They are now living in a two-room apartment in the West 70s that Christos sublet before he married. It is cozy, but compact, sort of unit where the kitchen doubles as the dining room, the living room, the guest room, and the den. Both agree they need more space.

Their search has been complicated because they insist on finding a place on the Upper West Side – which they like – and for less than $200,000, which is what they feel they can afford.

"It appears there's a very limited set of apartments," notes Christos matter-of-factly. He is 30, with straight dark hair, gold wire-rim glasses, a prominent nose, and a thick Greek accent.

He knows a great deal about his field, computer research, but that has not been of much help in dealing with the search. He and Alina have had to start from scratch. "We perhaps could have been more systematic," he says. Yet it is hard to see how.

They began their quest reading an advertisement in the New York Times Magazine. It was for a one-bedroom in Chelsea and they strolled down to take a look. "We were not very serious then," she notes. "We didn't realize how aggressive the market is, that you should portray a certain image to a real estate broker. "

One broker took them to a "perfect" place on 114th Street – a two-bedroom on the seventh floor with views of the Hudson River. The asking price was $195,000; the Nikolaous offered $185,000. After four days, they called the broker-she breezily told them: "It's been sold for $205,000."

That made them both angry – and frustrated. They would have bid more, but didn't know they had to. Christos, however, has the calm of hindsight: “It was a funny situation. The owners of the building were a very well-known family who lived in the building. And they wanted really well-connected people to get in. The broker was very reluctant to show us the place. She said, ‘Even if you make an offer, you have to be very high to be considered.’ It was like she was saying, ‘I'm showing the apartment to you, but don't really bother; It’s not going to be for you.’”

That was among their first lessons: it's not how much you make, or even who you are, but how you appear. “I wouldn't go see a woman broker now in blue jeans,” remarks Alina. “I wear skirts now. It’s a whole image. They pay more attention to you if you look more professional and act more businesslike.”

“Yes,” adds Christos. “If you’re specific and to the point, you give the impression that you really mean it. Because if you just say, ‘Well, we're looking to buy an apartment,’ with no details and no knowledge, they get the idea that you're naive, or that you just don’t know what you're talking about.

Such wisdom came with more searching. One broker showed them an apartment in the West 60s that was too expensive and then advised them not to go much further uptown because it “became dangerous.” Another made an appointment to show the Nikolaous four apartments that she said would be ideal; it turned out that the couple had seen three of them already with a different broker and that the fourth was akin to a cave.

The Nikolaous are both amused and frustrated by the brokers. “They put you into their own stream of thinking,” notes Alina, who recalls one who thought he could get a $175,000 apartment down to $168,000. “I said, ‘My husband and I will have to talk about it. So I said, ‘Call me up tomorrow in the office.’”

“And we thought about it. And, except for a terrace, we didn’t get much more space and would have to move out as soon as we had a baby.” Then the broker called her. She explained their thinking and why they thought it wasn't for them. “He said, ‘What if I get the price down to $165,0007,’ I said, ‘We’re still not getting enough space.’ But he was insistent. He wanted me to call my husband and discuss it further. They insist. They want you to go along with them.

But not all of the broker stories were nightmares. Esther Kaplan, director of sales for the Corcoran Group, was, in Christos's words, “more intelligent in her aggressivity. She is motherly. I think she thinks, ‘These nice little kids over here, we have to find a house for them.’”

They found her the way they have found most brokers: they responded to an advertisement for an apartment that was gone. “Usually what you find is that these listings are bait,” says Christos. “You will call, and the broker will start talking to you and says, ‘Well, maybe we can find something else.”

It was Kaplan who gave them some serious advice about how to negotiate, and Kaplan who recommended they learn how bank financing works. "She said we should get a more concrete idea about mortgages. We will know what we are up against," notes Christos. Talking about variable rates, caps, and quarterly payments, he begins to sound like a professional mortgage broker himself.

"Alina is less technical. "Usually we calculate that the bank will give us a mortgage that is double our income." Then they have to figure maintenance costs and gauge how much they can afford after taxes. "We will have to come up with a very big down payment," she says. "About $100,000. That would come from my grandmother because we don't have that much in the bank."

The frustrations are many: the lending restrictions of banks, the demands of the brokers for quick down payments , and the uncertainty of whether they can afford to move at all. "It can be distressing," sighs Christos. "I like to see apartments. But making the decisions – whether you should go up, how much you can really afford and making computations every time to see what that would mean for monthly expenses, how we can cover them, what the tax deduction is going to be – that's very tiresome. We've had very lively arguments about it."

That they can argue about such things, however, indicates how much they have learned in their 14-month odyssey. And the lessons continue. In one apartment, for instance, the owner offered: "The thing about our co-op is that there is no flip tax."

The Nikolaous were silent. "What'?" said Christos finally.

"No flip tax."

"Ah ... what's a flip tax?" he asked. He is amused by the story and remembers how the seller good-naturedly explained, adding that because of J-5l, "the real estate taxes will faze in after ten years. So that's a consideration that we didn't have in mind before. And then they told us that they had a very good money reserve and that the maintenance would not be increased for the next five years."

Questions in that building led to more questions in other buildingsabout installing laundry machines, about subletting when they visited Greece, about security, "about," says Alina, "rewiring, plumbing. About the tax deductions. What kind of people live in the building'? What's the feeling of the board? What kind of people do they want? And questions like that. If you don't ask them, they won't bother to tell you. They just let it go."

Sometimes, the Nikolaous found they knew more about a subject than the seller did or the broker. One couple had been in their apartment for two years and had been trying to sell it for four months when the Nikolaous came by. "We asked them what the maintenance was, and what the tax deductions were, and they didn't know. And they even got the papers out," remarks Alina, "and they were the wrong papers. They didn't know what they were looking for. Then I asked the broker. I have asked her five or six times, 'What is the tax deduction'?' and she never gave me a firm answer. "

In other areas, however, the broker's insight has proved helpful. Observes Christos: "Now we usually ask the broker, 'Do you think the seller is negotiable?' If they say, 'No,' and we can't afford the price, we forget it. If they say, 'Yes,' we ask, 'What do you think is a reasonable offer? An offer that won't offend them and yet will start them thinking and negotiating'?'"

As a case in point, the Nikolaous cite an apartment they are interested in on 103rd Street. The asking price was $245,000. The couple offered $210,000. "The owners went down to 230. and we said, 'No, 210.' They went down to 220, we said '212.' They said, 'No, 220.' So we're in a deadlock."

In more ways than one, however. Like most young couples, they do not always agree. "It's an apartment that is feasible for us," notes Christos with energy. "The size is right. The building is right. The view is right. I would be willing to go higher. "

But, says Alina, "it's been on the market since November and everybody told us that. And everybody at the broker's told the owner that our offer was the best offer they got. I'm suspicious. Why hasn't it been sold?"

They asked the broker, who didn't know. She even wrote a letter to the owners, making an offer. There was no reply. The Nikolaous became frustrated and began to feel the broker wasn't doing enough in other areas-that she was spending too much time on this one apartment.

Meanwhile, the search continues: they rushed to an apartment on ll0th Street with an aggressive sales lady who wanted a downpayment "right away, this second or the place is gone"; they saw a unit with nice space but a ghastly paint scheme and layout that would have cost thousands of dollars to refurbish; and then they found a good apartment on ll0th Street.

"We made an offer for that one and it was accepted," recalls Alina. "But then the owner died suddenly, so it had to be taken off the market because whoever inherited it had to decide what they wanted to do with it. "

It has become part of their routine – almost like having a relationship, with good memories, bad memories, and a treasure chest of experiences that has taught them more than any book ever could.

They remember another unit. "It was nice," she says, "but it was still at the beginning. It was a walkup. There was no security. We couldn't decide."

"And then things came up, and we said, 'Forget it, we are going to Greece.' So we stopped looking."

"And then we resumed looking."

"So. And we are still looking. I don't know how typical a young couple we are. "

Really, very.

Habitat, July/August 1985