It has been compared to a trip to the dentist and a police interrogation. The very mention of it makes potential buyers' knees tremble and sets brokers' eyes rolling heavenward. What could strike such apprehension in even the most jaded New Yorker? Passing board approval, of course.
An interview with the co-op's admissions committee is the final step before a buyer is accepted. At such times, when hopes are set high and the tension mounts, a slip of the tongue or an unwanted appearance by a furry friend especially when the committee is told you have no pets might all spell disaster for co-op hopefuls. In any event, the best way to not slip up and get turned down is to know what's expected and how to prepare for the crucial interview.
The interview committee is usually made up of three board members, although there is nothing to hold a shareholder back from volunteering to join the committee. Generally, the managing agent will handle the calls and contact the prospective resident personally to set a time, says Marcia Taranto, president of Taranto & Associates, a management firm. This is to prevent any confrontations between future neighbors, says Steven Greenbaum, a principal with the management firm Mark Greenburg Real Estate (MGRE). If the buyer wants to yell at anybody, they can yell at me and not the board about the time of the interview, he says.
Interviews last anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and are conducted in either the board's meeting room or, more often, in a board member's apartment. You want to keep the interviews informal and on a friendly basis, explains Greenbaum. The interview's main purpose is to see if the applicant will make a good neighbor and not be anyone disruptive, he says.
For one prospective resident, the interview was anything but a relaxing experience. They made me feel like a criminal, says Harry, who was interested in buying an apartment in an East 40's co-op. It was like a police interrogation. I answered all the board's questions about my finances and background in the application, yet they asked me the same questions regarding these matters during the interview. I felt like I was going around in circles with them, like they were trying to get me to admit to something. It was crazy, he says.
Not all applicants have such a rough time with the interview. For the most part, prospective shareholders say they found most of the questions reasonable. I found the interview a friendly experience, says Brian Pillacer, who recalls being interviewed for his co-op in Queens. We went over the house rules for the building and visiting policy. It didn't last long and I felt like I learned a lot about the co-op.
Pet Policy Peeves
While the reason for a turn down is usually not a mystery, sometimes the motives behind the decision leave potential shareholders scratching their heads in wonder.
My husband and I wanted to buy into this co-op on the East Side, explains Sharon Steinberg. We made an offer to the seller and he accepted it on the spot. We were scheduled for an interview not with the board, but with the building's managing agent. We later found out this is unusual. Well, what happened next made it even more unusual, she says. Steinberg was asked if she had a dog, and she said yes. She was then told by the agent that the building had a problem with dogs.
I was told the co-op had a 30-pound rule for dogs. We had to get the dog weighed by a vet and then tell the agent during the interview how much our little Cleo weighed, which was 32 pounds. The agent told us we would not be recommended because the dog was two pounds over, says Steinberg. Needless to say, the seller was not amused and neither were we. But the Steinbergs did have the last laugh: They became shareholders in a co-op one block away where every member of the board has a dog!
At the Dorchester, a co-op in the East 50's, applicants must bring their dogs to the interview. Until recently, we had a M-no dog' policy, but we've decided to allow dogs in on a case by case basis, says board president Elizabeth Brown. The purpose of the interview is to make sure we're getting a dog of the non-barking variety. We had one potential shareholder, Curtis D. Deane, come in with this lovely chocolate Labrador named Daks. The dog was mannerly, mature and listened to his master completely, says Brown. In fact, she says, when Deane called his broker to find out if he was approved he was told, the dog passed our committee with flying colors but he wasn't approved yet and would have to wait a few days. The board wasn't done going through his financials. Deane has since been approved and joined the building as a board member.
Dogs aren't the only animals causing trouble for potential shareholders. In Harry's case, the board president was having renovation work done on his unit, and asked if they could conduct the interview at Harry's mother's apartment nearby. They agreed to hold the interview at 6:00 pm. I put on classical music and had some Perrier, lime and glasses on the table. I was anxiously waiting. At six sharp the doorbell rings and the board president and fellow member walk on in. We sit down and start the interview. As though the meeting wasn't tense enough for me, while the president is going over the building's no pet policy and me agreeing that I have no cats or dogs, who should come out from under the couch and start rubbing herself against the board president's leg but my mother's cat, Adelle. I immediately apologized and told them I would take the cat out of the room but they told me not to. However, towards the end of the interview, the president said sarcastically, M-So, who is going to live in the apartment, you and the cat!' I told him again, no, just me, this is my mother's cat, all the while looking at Adelle and thinking about ways to smash her. Despite the feline's interference, he was approved for the co-op four weeks later.
Mistakes and Marriages
Anita Perrone, vice-president and director of marketing for the Corcoran Group, a real estate brokerage firm, recalls how the board once played matchmaker during the interview. The board told this young couple during the interview that they would not accept them because they were unrelated, explains Perrone. The couple decided to postpone the closing a month, got married, returned and were admitted into the co-op. They were headed down the aisle anyway, but the board interview facilitated the guy popping the question a lot sooner.
Another couple's approval was threatened by a misunderstanding. We wanted to move from upstate to the city. My husband and I were interested in a co-op in Greenwich Village. During the approval interview we were asked why we were moving. My husband said it was because he wanted our son to go a city school, which he felt was better. He also said that he had tried to work with the school board upstate and finally realized that the only way to get things done was to take them out and shoot them. Well, there was this silence from the board members and then one asked, M-The children'? M-No,' he said, M-the teachers'. Despite the confusion, the couple was approved.
Blossom Deutschman, a real estate broker with Charles H. Greenthal Residential Sales, has one story that doesn't have a happy ending. Friends of mine were appearing before the interview committee at an East 50's co-op. The interview was going along fine when the applicant turns to the board president and asks him if he lived in such-and-such building years ago. M-I certainly did,' answered the board president as the applicant realized why the board president's face was so familiar. It turned out, explains Deutschman, that the applicant's father had been having an affair with the board president's mother years ago and the affair had caused the board presidentM-s family to leave the building. Needless to say, this couple did not find themselves approved.
Although strange things are said and do happen during the interview, experts agree there are ways to prepare yourself for the unexpected. To begin, take a realistic look at the occupants in the co-op you're interested in, advises Jay Hollander, a principal at the law firm of Hollander & Company, LLC. Is the building especially selective? Sit in the lobby, watch who comes and goes. Is the board looking to attract a certain type of clientele: couples, big families, no children, young, old, whatever. In addition, says Hollander, check with the seller. For obvious reasons they'll want to help the applicant pass by the board and may offer some tips on how to do so, says Hollander.
Also, says Hollander, it is important to come across as someone positive during the interview. The committee may ask the applicant whether or not they would get involved with a building committee. If the applicant comes across as someone who is willing to lend a hand, the interview will run a lot smoother, he says. Taranto agrees. Boards are looking for residents who are not afraid to get involved in helping the building. This is a big point with them, she says. Glenn Kuffel, president of Pride Property Management, adds, The committee doesn't want someone who they'll see in the halls and never hear from. They don't want another resident who is indifferent to the concerns of the building.
Needless to say, letters of reference and any proof to back your financials is another sure way to get on the committee's good side. Be sure to come with substantial references to back your paperwork to prove that carrying the apartment won't be a problem, advises Hollander. A note from a long-time friend will not be as valuable as a reference from the bank.
Most of the questions asked at the interview are straightforward, say the experts. Some common questions to anticipate are: Do you have pets? Do you have children? Do you plan on having children? Are you going to conduct a business in the apartment? Will be it your home office? How many are going to occupy the apartment and who is going to regularly visit?
If something is questionable in the financial statements, expect a question to be asked during the interview about it. This, says Hollander, is another place where references can come in handy. If there is any history of non-payment in another co-op or rental building the prospective shareholder has lived in, make sure it's straightened out and you have documented proof to show the committee, he says.
Applicants should make no mistake that there are restrictions on what can be asked. Some questions are not permitted, says Phyllis Weisberg, partner with the law firm of Kurzman Karelsen & Frank. The committee cannot ask what is called M-Suspect Classification' questions, which include race, age, gender and sexual orientation. For example, the applicant can not be asked what his ethnic background is. If such questions are asked, the co-op can be brought up on discriminatory charges.
Dressing right is another consideration. Greenbaum says, You don't have to come overdressed but it is important that the applicant project a positive clean-living image. A board I work with once turned down a Wall Street broker because he came to the interview dressed like a Hell's Angel.
He adds, The applicants are sometimes too nervous and offer way too much information. If an interviewer asks them if they've read the house rules, they'll go on and on about the particulars when all they need to say is M-yes'. My advice to applicants is to relax and just answer the questions as honestly and clearly as possible, says Greenbaum.
Ed Serken is a former associate editor of The New York Cooperator.