For Brokers, Cleaning Up Is Part of the Job
Authored: Anne Bahney
Publisher: The New York Times
In the competitive sport of residential real estate in New York
City, the arrival of end-of-the-year bonuses on Wall Street is like
the long awaited day when pitchers and catchers show up for spring
training: hope at the beginning of another season.
Rather than preparing for the summer real estate season typical
in the suburbs and much of the rest of the country, New York follows
the money. While there is no real "slow" time in real
estate in the city any more, inventory tends to build at this time
of year, making the period from January to April showtime.
With the bonus money circulating, interest rates holding relatively
steady and the supply of apartments only slightly more than it was
at this time last year, according to the appraisal firm Miller Samuel,
it should be another busy season.
Ethan Woods, an agent for Coldwell Banker Hunt Kennedy, wants the
apartment of his client Melissa Radin to be toned and fit for the
new season. Like a personal trainer, he is coaching, encouraging
and instructing Mrs. Radin on cleaning, updating and de-cluttering
her two-bedroom condo in preparation for it to be a real million-dollar
baby and bona fide contender.
Mr. Woods is pushing Mrs. Radin to be ready in the next couple
of months, although she doesn't think she will be ready until the
summer. "Bonuses have come in," Mr. Woods reminded her.
"People are itching to buy now. February is good, March is
O.K. But after that, people begin looking at spending their money
on their summer - the Hamptons or their vacation."
Walking through Mrs. Radin's apartment in the St. Tropez building
at 64th Street and First Avenue, where she lives with her husband,
Michael, and their two young sons, Mr. Woods also points out that
she has the best chance to make the most money during the first
two to three weeks it is on the market, after which, he said, properties
become stale. He stops and points at a yellow, brown and green equine
painting propped against the wall on top of a bulky bookshelf: "But
nothing is going to happen unless you get rid of that horse."
He's tough, but Mrs. Radin hired him as an agent to be her - and
her apartment's - domestic fitness guru. Mr. Woods showed the Radins
this apartment three years ago and they know he has a track record
for training apartments for higher sales. "I told him to be
brutal," Mrs. Radin said, "because I want to get the most
that I can out of this apartment," adding that she expects
to spend about $6,000 (for things like new doors, a bathroom vanity,
window treatments and storage for toys and furniture) to perk up
the apartment. She bought it three years ago for $830,000 and now
hopes to sell it for $1.5 million.
Mr. Woods is among a growing number of agents in the city taking
a stand against open houses featuring dirty dishes in the sink.
If he arrives to show an apartment and sees such a thing, he will
remind sellers, "That is $3,000 sitting in your sink."
He and like-minded agents try to find a diplomatic way to tell
sellers that Fluffy and Whiskers have a litter box that makes a
wall of stink upon entering the apartment. They delicately explain
that the acid green walls in the bathroom might make a better first
impression if covered in eggshell white paint. These agents have
concluded that "estate sale" doesn't have to mean an empty,
distressed apartment and will hire contractors, rent furniture and
even commission architecture plans at their own expense, sometimes
spending thousands of dollars.
Their mission is to show - often by rolling up their sleeves and
pushing around credenzas - that a property can get a higher price
and spend less time on the market if it is clean and uncluttered.
It sounds simple, but with several years of a strong seller's market,
brokers are faced with people who do not even pick up their dirty
socks, because they're convinced that their apartments will sell
If sellers don't think its worth some effort, they should talk
to more buyers.
Lindsay Hunter and her boyfriend, Chris Guilmet, both actors, have
been looking at apartments in Manhattan and Brooklyn since October.
"I think I'm particularly bad at looking past things that I
find unattractive on a surface level," Ms. Hunter said. "I
hate it when there is a flagrant misuse of space. Like if they can't
find a place to put their shoes, how will I? If it is cluttered
or unclean it really bothers me."
She remembers looking at apartments with dirty dishes in the sink
and black dust on the windowsills. One apartment had an old laminate
countertop "the color of tooth decay: a faux marble ivory with
odd ribbons of red that made me think of pain." She peeked
in a shower once, and "the owner's hair was there in the drain.
I felt awful, like I had looked in someone's underwear drawer -
a little too personal."
"I'm susceptible to charm," Ms. Hunter said. "If
it looks lovely, and I feel like I want to live there, it is a little
better. My boyfriend is better at pointing out that if we don't
like the wall color we can fix that. I tend not to have much imagination
about that stuff."
Kelly Cole, an agent with the Corcoran Group, is working with Ms.
Hunter and Mr. Guilmet. She has cleaned litter boxes, wiped down
counters and cleaned up accidents after pets while showing her own
apartment listings. "I'm really surprised that people don't
heed the advice of industry professionals," she said. "I
don't know if it is denial or if people think that because it is
a sellers' market it will sell anyway. But it is a numbers game.
Who knows what you will get when you clean up?"
Lisa Lemisch Lazarus, an occupational therapist who put her Riverside
Drive apartment on the market last fall, was skeptical about the
idea of investing in an apartment she was leaving. Not only did
she make back the $5,000 she put into the property, which was listed
at $995,000, but she made another $100,000 because it went into
a bidding war after 30 days on the market and is in contract for
Susan Nierenberg, a broker for Coldwell Banker Hunt Kennedy, Ms.
Lazarus's agent, insisted that this was not "designing to live,
but designing to leave," and aimed to make the cozy apartment
into a spa-like environment. "It's as if you were going to
a fancy-schmancy hotel for three months."
The 1,400-square-foot two-bedroom, untouched since Ms. Lazarus
moved in 18 years earlier and did her own renovations, was repainted
with a neutral cream color going over the lavender walls. White
sheer curtains were placed on the windows to pull light in and a
spray of bright flowers was placed in front of windows looking out
to another building to distract the eye from the unappealing view.
Ms. Lazarus spent two weeks sorting through her crafts supplies,
packing up books and dishes and hauling away 20 years worth of National
Geographic and Architectural Digest, with the help of her broker
and her twin sister, Ellen Lemisch.
She also spent at least two weeks crying. Ms. Lazarus said it was
a scary process to face the erosion of familiarity around her. She
wasn't the type of person, she said, to have silk flowers and a
glass vase of cranberries in her house. She was alarmed not to have
any books around. She was hurt to have to pack away the china and
move out the furniture. But among the most painful was painting
over the bathroom walls.
"I had painted it celadon, this bright green color,"
Ms. Lazarus said. "As the painter is painting it white, I'm
standing there with tears running down my face and he said, 'Let
it go. Just let it go.' "
Through it all, Ms. Lazarus recalled, her agent was a cheerleader.
"I would cry and she would say, 'No, no, no. There are no tears
in real estate.' It was her mantra. It did make a difference. She
kept me focused on the goal, which was to sell the apartment and
get the most out of it."
When the work was done Ms. Lazarus told her agent that it was not
her house anymore. Ms. Nierenberg, who has trained in staging properties
for quicker sale, told her, "Then I've done my job," adding,
"Every house speaks, and I control what it says."
She is also careful about how she deals with sellers, tending to
bring in her partner to make more controversial suggestions, particularly
regarding hygiene and odors.
"As the broker you are their knight in armor," she said.
"The seller needs to have every confidence you love the apartment.
You can't be the one to say, your apartment smells like a cat."
Occasionally that job falls to Dana Williams, who is the director
of concierge services for Coldwell Banker Hunt Kennedy. and, among
other things, arranges for the painters and cleaners to come into
an apartment. Often agents will bring her in to tell a client that
there is a need to clean up and clear out the apartment.
"People are very aware of it," Ms. Williams said. "They
are almost embarrassed. Just selling their home can be emotional
so you need a few people to be supportive."
But she can be tough when she needs to: "I've been pretty
forthright if there is a smell, from a cat or smoking. They may
not smell it, but it slams me when I walk in."
Most agents agree that there is no need to get rid of the pets
(or children for that matter), while the property is on the market
as long as they are out of the house during showings and a cleanliness
routine is maintained.
Few agents have gone as far in transforming a space as Jacky Teplitzky,
an executive vice president and agent for Douglas Elliman. She calls
the two-month journey to transform an apartment on Gramercy Park
North, priced at $1.995 million, her "via Dolorosa" of
When she visited the two-bedroom apartment in the back of the building
that had been occupied by a tenant for 25 years, and had no park
views, she knew she had a problem.
"I needed to tell the owner she had to do several things,"
Ms. Teplitzky said. "At the bare minimum we had to paint the
walls and redo the floor. Some of the windows didn't have glass
in them. There was a hole in the wall." Although the owner
was hesitant, she agreed to go along with Ms. Teplitzky.
Ms. Teplitzky arranged for a contractor to repair the walls, windows
and some lights. The apartment also needed a "very deep cleaning,"
she said, and some charming objects to distract from the fact that
it not only lacked a park view, it had a difficult layout.
She said she rented some furniture, because nearly everything looks
worse when it is empty, and even hired an architect to draw sketches
of possible renovations, to inspire prospective buyers.
"If you spend $10,000," Ms. Teplitzky said, "you
might increase your price by $50,000."
Gus Perry, the principal broker and owner of Stein-Perry Real Estate
in Washington Heights, said that he would never advise anyone to
renovate a kitchen with the goal of getting a higher price. More
important, he said, is editing out clutter, and engaging in constant
"Clean windows, clean bathrooms," he said. "It can
be the oldest appliances in the world. It doesn't matter as much
as if it is clean."
Ms. Hunter, searching for an apartment, agreed. "Old is different
than old and sticky," she said. But she said that sometimes
brokers go too far.
She saw an apartment where the broker had lit an assortment of
scented candles to cover a bad odor, but they only made the smell
worse. "She clearly meant it to be a good thing but the effect
was quite the opposite," Ms. Hunter said. She and her boyfriend
were driven out, she said, "in a steam of an awful hazelnut,
vanilla, ocean and rain candle smell."