APARTMENT sellers might be forgiven their nostalgia for the last few holiday seasons, when everything seemed to sell quickly, even the dreaded ground-floor studio adjacent to a methadone clinic.
These days, Manhattan dwellings are spending 53 percent longer on the market than they did in the first quarter of 2004, which was the height of the market, according to the appraisal firm Miller Samuel. The slowness of sales requires a big change in attitude for sellers — but not all of them have gotten the message. The notion that it might be time to be more accommodating, even simply more friendly, is not one typically associated with Manhattan real estate.
“Buyers are shifting the balance of power and demanding a modicum of fair play, reciprocation and general good will,” said Julie Friedman, a senior associate broker at Bellmarc. “Sellers don’t have to be puppy dogs with wagging tails and drooling tongues, but given the variety and scope of good product on the market, the old Doberman attack-dog approach will ensure only hefty legal fees, not signed contracts.”
Sellers can sabotage themselves, she said, with “evil lawyers and twisted brokers.” They can also unwittingly alienate potential buyers by attending their own showings, restricting access too much, tussling over whether they’ll leave window treatments and light fixtures, and engaging in clumsy or high-handed negotiations.
Shuttle diplomacy performed by brokers can sometimes avert or heal a rift between buyer and seller. But some buyers, angered by something a seller has done, extract revenge by building mountains out of foothills, or even walking away. A seller who demands the right to take a $1,000 chandelier might vaporize a million-dollar deal.
Raphael Sbarge, a 42-year-old actor, exited stage left after playing a long, tortured scene opposite a seller.
Mr. Sbarge, who owns homes in New York and California with his wife, Lisa Akey, became enchanted last May by an East Harlem brownstone being renovated by its eccentric, artistic owner. The multifamily home was listed for nearly $2 million and had been on the market for six months.
The owner, Mr. Sbarge said, “had bought the house 10 years ago for about $60,000 and put his life and energy into it and basically assembled it into an art piece.”
But the man was detached from the reality of East Harlem real estate, Mr. Sbarge said, noting that nearby homes of similar size and condition were selling for around $1.2 million.
That was about what Mr. Sbarge and his wife first offered. When the seller did not respond, the couple increased their bid and were told that it had been accepted. They flew in from Los Angeles, where they currently live with their two young children, only to learn that their supposedly accepted offer wasn’t high enough. Three months of negotiations followed, during which the couple raised their offer twice.
They were, recalled Mr. Sbarge, belittled and stymied at nearly every turn by an owner who grew more hostile and erratic.
“Every time I made an offer, he got more and more surly,” Mr. Sbarge said. “In his mind, the house was a Taj Mahal.”
Mr. Sbarge estimated that he spent around $12,000 in travel and legal fees — and paid more steeply in lost sleep and domestic disharmony.
(“It’s kind of like dating,” he said, explaining why he persisted. “They say you fall in love in the first three seconds and the rest is denial.”)
In August, a deal was struck close to the original asking price. About to sign, Mr. Sbarge toured the brownstone only to discover that renovations supposedly taking place during the prior six weeks were simply not happening. The seller also announced he was keeping architectural salvage pieces that Mr. Sbarge had assumed were part of the deal.
“My knees started to shake, and my insides turned to jelly,” Mr. Sbarge said. “I just couldn’t believe that after everything we’d been through, this guy was so dismissive and rude. And I suddenly thought, not only can’t I trust this guy, but what’s hiding behind the walls that I don’t know about?”
Frustrated and embittered, Mr. Sbarge walked away from the deal. The dwelling remains on the market nearly a year after it went on.
The seller’s former broker confirmed the details of the story, but would not speak on the record, or identify the seller, because of her firm’s policy against speaking negatively about clients past or present.
While Mr. Sbarge contended with a seller he found particularly difficult, there are more innocent ways that owners can bumble a negotiation.
“If you’re not giving a buyer the feeling that they are in control or somehow in mutual discussions, you’re really putting them off,” said Stephen Klym, a senior managing director at Warburg Realty. A measured waltz of negotiation is “a longstanding tradition that is more important these days.”
As an example, Mr. Klym offered: “If you’re priced at $1 million and someone offers $925,000 for an apartment on the market for four months, that’s not a bad offer. If you come down to $995,000, you’re apt to get resistance from the buyer and they’re likely to go somewhere else if there’s something on the market.” Countering with $975,000 would be a better response, he suggested.
Ritualized give-and-take is less important if a property has multiple bids. Still, buyers can no longer be pitted against one another with insouciance.
“Sellers forget they can lose both bids if they don’t handle it properly,” cautioned Kirk Henckels, director of the luxury property firm Stribling Private Brokerage. He and his wife, who were recently selling their apartment on Central Park West near West 69th Street, fielded two asking-price bids from neighbors.
“We knew the parties well enough to know that they would have been offended had we gone to a sealed bid to get more money,” he said. Instead, he and his wife picked the more longstanding neighbors who, unlike their rivals, had no other avenue of expansion.
An accepted bid, of course, is not the same as a done deal. One inexperienced, grandstanding or lackadaisical lawyer can foul things up. Two can make life unbearable. A few months ago — through a long, hot August — two lawyers jousted over the sale of a Sutton Place two-bedroom listed for $1.375 million, even though the buyer and seller had already agreed on a price. “Literally from the moment these two attorneys made contact,” said Joan Sacks, an associate broker at Stribling & Associates, “there were sparks.”
The lawyers’ conflagration baffled and shocked Ms. Sacks, who was representing the seller.
“There were fiery e-mails shooting between attorneys that stopped short of saying, ‘You’re a moron.’ I was trying to step in as peacemaker and say: ‘Let’s keep the deal together, boys. Let’s stay on track, let’s stay focused.’ It got to the point where it wasn’t about the deal anymore. It was about who was going to win — who was going to make the other appear to be so dumb that they would come out with some banner on their back saying they were the smartest attorney in town.”
Before the contract could be signed, brokers for both sides swooped in and deposited their clients alone together in the Sutton Place apartment.
“When they finally spoke, the intensity was defused,” Ms. Sacks said. “I think the buyer and seller were very reasonable. It’s just that sticking points that shouldn’t have existed at all were intensified as issues by the attorneys.”
(Noting that the deal hasn’t closed, Ms. Sacks observed with trepidation that “we’re still going to have that moment where everyone is going to be in the same room. I’m going to make the assumption that these people can behave professionally.”)
But even congenial lawyers can wrench a deal by dragging things out.
“Time is the No. 1 killer of all deals,” said Jon Phillips, a vice president at Halstead Property, emphasizing the need to sustain momentum to stave off second thoughts. (This is true even in small ways: For instance, accepting a bid on a Friday may invite buyer’s remorse on the weekend.)
In Manhattan, the usual lapse between accepted bid and signed contract is a week to 10 days. But the timeline can go awry if a seller’s lawyer is inexperienced in local real estate.
“They can encounter unfamiliar practices or terms that seem much more alarming at first blush than they do once they’re properly understood in context,” Mr. Phillips said. “The main thing that can happen is that doubts or concerns can be conveyed to buyers. Especially in these nervous times, that can alienate a deal. Every experienced broker has seen deals crater because of attorneys not sufficiently grounded in New York issues.”
Long before lawyers get involved, however, sellers can undercut their own cause by simply refusing to leave their property during showings. It’s the surest way, say brokers, to cut a buyer’s interest off at the jugular.
“Once you lose a buyer’s focus, you can’t get it back,” said Rochelle Bass, an executive vice president at Bellmarc. “That’s why I never let sellers be home. It’s the kiss of death.”
“Helicopter” sellers have their reasons for hovering. “To some people it’s a very personal experience,” Ms. Sacks said. “They want to show everything. They’re proud of what they’ve done, and they feel they can do a better job selling it than anyone else because they know it so well.”
But being asked to marvel over outdated, tacky or merely mundane improvements is too much for some purchasers.
“If someone says, ‘Wow, I just put in a new heater’ — does anybody care?” said Ellen S. Simon, a senior associate broker at Bellmarc, briefly evoking the lonely tree falling in the forest. “All they care is that it’s not cold. Either be nonchalant about it or use a broker to spin it and make it seem really great without overkill.”
Ms. Sacks noted: “It’s kind of like an overwhelming salesperson when you walk around the store. Even if you love it, you can’t stand being followed around and being told, ‘Look how wonderful my closets are.’ ”
Hanging around also interferes with the crucial mental leap that the buyer must make to imagine living in the property.
Innocent slips of a seller’s tongue can be equally deadly, said Marguerite Platt, a senior vice president at Halstead. Her seller inadvertently spooked a pair of buyers away from a nine-room apartment on Fifth Avenue overlooking Central Park. As the buyers ogled the view from the windows after their bid had been accepted, the owner agreed, “Well, it is nice, except when the parades go by.” The buyers promptly withdrew their offer.
Along with vacating their property during showings, today’s sellers may need to be more flexible about the hours in which they welcome apartment hunters.
“A couple of years ago, you could say, ‘I’m only showing the apartment from 10 to 5 o’clock, no evenings or weekends,’ and the apartment would sell,” said Matthew Mackay, a vice president at Corcoran. “Now with more inventory, sellers need to know that if a buyer is working all day and wants to see an apartment at 7 p.m., they have to be more accommodating.”
(Sellers beware: your own broker could be causing a bottleneck by clustering appointments together for his or her own convenience. Make sure your broker has a backup plan in the form of a colleague or assistant who can cover.)
Restricting access to a buyer who wants to make a repeat visit with a contractor, architect or decorator is another mistake. Sellers who perceive such intrusions as a put-down of their tastes and lifestyle ought to swallow their pride.
“In this market,” Mr. Mackay said, “we see so much money coming into the city and people paying so much for apartments for which sellers paid a tenth as much and can’t afford to do the modern finishes required by the buyer. Once it goes into contract, coming back one more time is perfectly standard.”
Even as they open their door wider, sellers should make sure they have hustled any skeletons out of the closet — preferably into the listing information. Any kind of surprise — including land-leases, upcoming maintenance increases or assessments, flip taxes, extra long or short closing dates, and plans for nearby construction — can reverberate unpleasantly.
“They can create a nasty negotiation,” said Richard Ferrari, a senior vice president at Prudential Douglas Elliman, “or one where a buyer will retract a bid and come in with a lower one, even if the facts don’t really impact the value of the apartment.”
Drapes, light fixtures and other accouterments are among the things a buyer might assume to be part of the deal. Claims staked after an accepted bid are particularly incendiary.
“Sellers always feel they’re selling for less than they could have gotten, and buyers feel like they’re paying more,” Mr. Henckels said. “So by the time you reach a deal, people are not in the mood to give a little.”
Fern Hammond, a senior vice president at Halstead, said: “I’ve had sellers ask for anywhere from $5,000 to $25,000 for curtains after there was an accepted offer. Normally a broker can straighten it out, but the purchaser may extract revenge either by pressing to close early or finding another way to give it back to the seller somehow.”
It can devolve into a game of chicken, played up until the very last second.
Some brokers end closing-room standoffs by digging into their own commissions for the comparatively few dollars it might take to leap over tall egos and conclude the deal. “Usually,” said Mr. Henckels, who has pitched in from time to time, “it comes down to the issue of ‘money talks and nobody walks.’ ”