I Bought That Piece of the Brooklyn Bridge
My Condo Nightmare
It’s funny how one bad decision you made years ago and still have a negative effect on nearly everything thereafter for years. I was struggling this morning to wrench one particular scarf out the crammed coat closet in our crackerbox apartment and remembered again the biggest reason for still living in a place I curse every day.
I bought a condo in 2006.
It was right after my divorce, and the real estate market was nuts. Even though I loved my quirky little apartment with dirt cheap rent, I was convinced I had to buy real estate while I could still afford it. Not wanting the hassle of yard work or exterior maintenance, I figured buying a condo would be a good idea.
I didn’t look at too many places before making an offer on the unit I eventually settled on. There wasn’t much in my price range in the part of town I was set upon. It was a third-floor unit with one bedroom and one bath, and was part of two six-unit early 1900s walk-up buildings that were supposedly totally gutted and rehabbed.
Even though the place was cute and sunny and in what I considered a prime location, I had a bad feeling in my gut when I got ready to put in an offer. It was aesthetically pleasing, and yet something in the back of my mind said to keep looking – this one ain’t it. The investor/manager (let’s call him E) of the condo association seemed shady and evasive, and took a lot of strong-arming to address even the most basic issues discovered during the inspection (tiles and fixtures hadn’t been caulked or sealed, and several electrical outlets were malfunctioning). I bought it anyway.
I was the first one to move into that particular building, and was the only resident there for a few months. It didn’t really bother me, as I was preoccupied with work and getting settled in. I think I first heard the ominous music when after my first night there, I tried to take a shower and there was no hot water. E and his wife were on the property (in retrospect, probably bilking some other fool by showing them a lovely unit), and came over right away to investigate. They had never lit the water heaters in the basement, and I had to show them how to do it. Not kidding. Then I had to leave town for a few days during a terrible cold snap. I foolishly assumed the E and the HOA, especially as they were still in the process of rehabbing some other units, would have had the smarts to let the faucets drip in the empty units and/or run a space heater in front of the pipes when the temperature had not risen about 14 degrees Fahrenheit in over a week. I get home to no water. I called E and his wife repeatedly, and it took 2 days for them to get back with me. They just gave me a distracted “Oh, uh, sorry – we’ll take care of it. Don’t worry.”
Then came the leaking roof. Granted, that year we had some unbelievable rainstorms that went on non-stop for days, but they’d assured me before I signed the offer that the roof was all new and perfect. Yeah, well, I had rainwater coming down through my new plaster and paint job onto my pretty hardwood floors. I called, and they said they’d fix it. A large family of squirrels found their way through that fixed roof, and I got serenaded to sleep each night by the sound of skittering and chattering rodents in my ceiling and walls. About another half dozen complaints about the roof and another half dozen promises that it had been fixed, I had the pleasure of listening to a bird dying in the wall between the bedroom and bathroom.
Then the light fixtures in the kitchen kept going out. I kept replacing the bulbs every week or so, thinking maybe I was just imagining things (i.e., denial). Then the next time I went to change a light bulb in the chic track lighting, I had a hard time because the light fixture had melted from an apparent electrical surge. This was about the same time I had smoke coming out the outlet behind the fridge. And at about the same time the north and east walls developed huge cracks and began crumbling. I’d wake up dusted in plaster and have to clean every surface in the kitchen because that’s where my walls kept landing. It also took nearly 6 months to get a postbox installed in the building’s entryway, as E had never bothered to take care of that little detail. I think the only reason the post office decided to finally install a box in there was because they were sick of holding and dispensing my mail. Following a succession of roughly seven different gates and locks, the front security gates still never worked. Pretty soon it became apparent that no one was shoveling the walks or maintaining the grounds, something we each paid $90 a month in HOA dues to take care of. E and his wife became evermore MIA.
It would take another 100 pages and much better access to my memory to recount how it all finally came down and all the players involved. I mean, you can’t make this sh*t up. Here’s the Reader’s Digest version: E and his wife were investors in this condo conversion with a developer named G. This G-man had been convicted of numerous real estate fraud schemes and was headed to 20 years in the pokey. G decided to commit suicide before becoming some guy named Bubba’s wife in the clink. So this left E and his wife holding the bag, and E and his wife knew nothing about rehabbing property, and were crooked to boot. This condo association was a Limited Liability Corporation (LLC), meaning they could basically just fold up shop and skip off into the sunset when something went wrong. And they did, although last I heard that sunset was back in Israel. Anyway, the buildings had big problems, and the money in the HOA coffers was supposed to take care of that. It would have appeared that E and company had other ideas for that money. Through various consultations with lawyers, property management companies, and accountants, it was decided that each unit would need to pay $600 a month in HOA dues or cough up a one-time assessment fee of $15K in order to fix the crumbling foundation, plumbing and electrical emergencies, and decaying building exteriors. After a few probable minor strokes, tears, and copious amounts of alcohol, I swam out of the River of Denial and faced the fact that I had to fold.
Some other goodies were uncovered. The buildings, while spit shined quite nicely, didn’t even have a Certificate of Occupancy at the time I’d purchased my unit. My cute little pad was technically just a nicely varnished part of a still-officially condemned building. The buildings weren’t even insured. E and company hadn’t been paying the property insurance. It just kept getting better. Keep in mind that all of us had different inspectors, realtors, title companies, and appraisers. To this day we can’t figure out how all of this managed to fly under the radar of no less than probably two dozen paid professionals.
As the months wore on, some other units realized their furnaces had been installed backwards when they went in to change the filter. That’s right – they had to dismantle and slide out the furnace to access the filter. Another unit had water pouring into the furnace closet from the top floor’s condenser unit, and had to empty two 5-gallon buckets every day out of there. Another unit, due to the decaying exterior mortar and tuck pointing, had his dining room wall nearly rot out with mold and then acquired a beehive in there as an added bonus. He would have only had give the window on that wall a good shove and the whole thing would have dropped two floors onto the sidewalk below. The buildings kept tipping on their crumbling foundations, and the people on the east side of my building had to shave off the bottoms of their back doors in order to open them.
Then came the crash of 2007 and we were all even more screwed. We couldn’t have given our blighted condos away in a good market, much less this one. A fairly dramatic uptick in crime swaggered into the already borderline neighborhood. Main Street, which was just to the east of our condos, used to be the unofficial dividing line between the “bad” part of town and one just this side of seedy that many, including myself, viewed as eclectic, exciting, and historic. When the economy tanked, the gangbangers and tweakers oozed into what used to be only a marginally sketchy neighborhood and turned the streets into a never-ending episode of Cops.
I saw another lawyer on my own, and she (as did my brother, who’s also an attorney in another state) told me to fold. She offered to just stick the fork in me because I was done. I needed to file for bankruptcy. Admittedly, I’d made some unbelievably stupid financial decisions (namely gambling and purchasing lots of pretty little things) during the previous years in an attempt to self-medicate the stress and misery of an unhappy and then dissolving marriage and had some major credit card debt. Maybe I’m being delusional, but I think I could have eventually dug myself out of the Visa Vortex had I just stayed in my funky apartment and not bought that condo. But the legal eagles assured me that I needed to start from scratch by filing Chapter 7 as opposed to just foreclosing in order to have a clean slate in 10 years as opposed to 20. I was so exhausted and dejected at that point that I just went on autopilot and did what I was told. I was already hopelessly in the hole from repairs and lawyer’s fees, and had lost what little fight was left in me. And so it was done.
Last I heard, a couple of the other residents are still hanging on, but most foreclosed and/or did the Bankruptcy Boogie. We got skunked, and it’s going to take a long time to get the stink off.
Which leaves me in the position of being stuck in a laughably overpriced apartment. Even though they just raised the rent 10% (do YOU know anyone who’s had a 10% raise this year?!), we’re stuck here indefinitely. Sure, we could move to a cheaper part of town, but we’d just end up having our insurance rates double and our work commutes triple, which would negate any money saved on rent. Not to mention that you need to come up with a few grand out of pocket to move once you factor in the first month’s rent and hefty deposits and processing fees.
We could easily swing a mortgage on a mediocre house. The mortgage isn’t the problem – it’s everything else involved in buying a house in this market. We’d need about $40K for a down payment IF I could even get a loan in the first place. At this rate it would take us 50 years to come up with that kind of scratch. Then there’s the inspector and closing fees. We’d have to buy hundreds of dollars in yard implements. And even if we could come up with all that cash, we’d never be in a position to take care of any necessary and assuredly expensive repairs that would crop up with owning a home. I just checked the website for our apartment complex, and a new tenant will pay between $1400 and $1900 for a 3-bedroom architectural joke. This market has us all by the b*lls.
So now all these houses stand empty. I drive by these proud old Victorians and WWII bungalows and can practically smell the old wood polish and fireplaces and hear the hardwood floors creaking underfoot. I can imagine running my hands along the wainscoting while looking up to the 9 foot ceilings with carved crown molding. I want to live in a place I don’t hate. I want to look forward to coming home. I want to raise my daughter in a place she wouldn’t be ashamed to have her friends over. I look at those houses and know I’ll probably never have one again and will likely be living in something just one step up from public housing for years to come.
But, because I didn’t listen to my gut and did not fully appreciate the possibility of every worst-case scenario coming to fruition, I’m stuck with a lousy credit score and an even worse place to call “home.” I didn’t do the homework and I definitely didn’t do the math. Next time I’ll pay attention in class.