3 New Yorkers Share Their First Homebuying Experience From Finding Their Homes to Sealing the Deal

A typical residential street in Jackson Heights, Queen (Jleon via Wikimedia Commons)

Buying a home for the first time is a major life event, right up there with getting married, having children, or driving your first car. Especially for longtime New Yorkers who have previously rented, it's a big step towards owning something that you can truly call your own while also building equity—why continue to rent monthly and get nothing out of it?

Of course, when it comes to buying a co-op or condo, the process is very daunting, from finding the right place and neighborhood; to determining the financing for the purchase; and -- especially in the case of a co-op -- getting the approval from board. It's a headache, but a worthwhile one once you get those keys in your hand.

The Cooperator spoke with three New Yorkers who made the jump into becoming first-time homebuyers. They spoke about their reasons on why they decided to buy instead of rent and feelings about the process.

Judy McGuire
Co-op owner
Jackson Heights, Queens

Judy McGuire, a writer, had lived in her rent-stabilized building in Brooklyn for two decades. But over time, things changed. “The developer who bought my building did not share my warm and cozy feelings, and began torturing us,” she recalls, “so we had to leave—albeit with a chunk of change to grease the wheels. Now that I had enough for a down payment, I wasn't going to waste my money on rent again.”

McGuire and her husband settled on the ethnically-diverse Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens. Through a friend, the couple came in contact with Jackson Heights reatlor Chris Georgakopoulos, now with Nu Realty. McGuire says that having a great agent made a huge difference. “We had no idea that knowing what kind of shape a building's financials were in was even an issue. Derp. We were like the clueless idiots on House Hunters, except with no delusions about a 'bonus room' or granite counter-tops. Chris helped us immensely—she even walked us to the co-op board interview.”

The two settled on a co-op building circa from the 1940s that has about 97 units. “Condos were a lot more expensive,” she says. “If we had found a great condo, we would have bought that, though friends who live in condos have a lot of trouble with absentee owners Airbnb-ing their apartments. So in the end—even though it was a pain in the butt—I'm glad we picked a co-op.”

The financing aspect of buying a home was somewhat daunting to McGuire, whose previous real estate transaction involved handing an old lady a check for $500 for renting a Williamsburg apartment. She describes that process as a logistical nightmare despite her and her husband's excellent credit and substantial down payment. “There is just so much paperwork,” she says. "I'm a freelance writer, so I was around to make copies, print stuff out, etc. But I don't know how people with full-time jobs do it. Speaking of which—even though I had most of the down payment, only my husband's income was part of our mortgage, because freelancers are seen as unreliable. That really chapped.” 

Another jolt came in the form of the application process, due to a person in her building's management finance department, according to McGuire. "Our broker helped us do the application, which was a huge help, since it's the size of a phone book. We were really freaked out about our board interview, but that was, by far, the easiest part of the process. Everyone was nice and seemed to have already made up their minds. It was ours to [mess] up, and for once, we didn't!”

For those newbies are now ready to buy a co-op or condo, McGuire recommends calming down, because, unless you're extremely wealthy, the process will drive you crazy, “Buying a home in NYC is a nightmare for everyone," she says. "Be ready to walk away, because you are not allowed to fall in love with an apartment until you get the keys.” She adds that what also helped them was making list of wants, must-haves, and 'nopes' to guide them along.

In the end, after previewing an endless series of apartments with their realtor, it worked out for McGuire and her husband. “He got his dishwasher, and I got my doors AND outdoor space. Oh, and we both picked space over location. I would have rather stayed in Brooklyn, but we would have wound up in a much smaller apartment (and probably divorce court). OH, and since we bought our place three years ago, it's gone up in value by over $100k!

South Williamsburg (Lisa Larson-Walker via Flickr)

Condo owner
South Williamsburg, Brooklyn

We really wanted a place of our own and also a place to invest,” Brooklyn resident Lauren says of her and her husband's reason for wanting to buy their home. “Real estate is always a good place to let your money sit.” It didn't matter much to them whether it was a cooperative or condominium. “We were mostly focused on a building with all the elements that we were looking for. We did end up going with a condo,” she explains.

Lauren says she and her husband had put in offers on five or six places in various neighborhoods throughout the the city before finding a condo a place in South Williamsburg, whose ethnic makeup includes Hasidic jews and Latinos. “After a few years of looking, we hired a broker to help us out and guide us through the process. I was actually the one that found the building by walking by the sales center.” 

The couple didn't seek advice from family and friends to avoid confusion with differing views. “We really didn't want too many opinions. My husband and I both know what we like and thankfully, have a very similar taste.” As for the application process, she recalls: “We submitted an offer to the developer. Once the deal was close, we worked on our mortgage which was quite a process and took several months. Once we were pre-approved, we signed our contract.” 

Lauren and her husband are getting acclimated to their new living situation, as the rest of the building is still under construction “We are still in the early stages of living in our building,” she says. “We're in a new construction building and it's nowhere near complete - there are not a lot of happy campers currently, but I'm sure it will all be figured out.”

She offers this tip to prospective buyers: “Get in sooner than later. Real estate is always a good place to put your money.” 

Albany Av, Crown Heights, Brooklyn ( ~ggvic~via Wikimedia Commons)

Georgia Kral
Co-op owner
Crown Heights, Brooklyn

Like Lauren, journalist Georgia Kral and her husband saw the investment aspect of homebuying as a reason to purchase their co-op in Brooklyn's Crown Heights neighbohood, which known for its predominantly West Indian, African-American and Jewish populations.

The five-floor, 15-unit co-op, which Kral and her husband found through a listing in the The New York Times, represented the type of apartment the couple were looking for. “We didn't think that's what we wanted specifically,” she says, “but in our search realized most pre-war buildings were co-ops, which is the style we prefer.”

Kral sought feedback from her family although they didn't know much about Big Apple real estate. However, she knew friends who recently purchased in the city--their advice to her was to have a thick skin. “We got lucky in that we only bid on this apartment (and one before it that we didn't get) and we got it.” 

She and her husband underwent interviews during the application and financing process as well, which echoed a similar experience to that of McGuire's. “It was nerve-wracking,” Kral says, “but the hardest part was putting all the paperwork together.”

Kral also served on the board in her bullding for three years, which provided another experience for her. “It was very interesting to learn the ins and outs of how a building is run. We are a self managed building, so mostly I learned how much work it is to be on a board.

Her advice to those buying a home for the first time? “Tap every resource you have to get a larger down payment,” Kral says, “and be ready to act quickly. Apartments are snatched up in a day.”

The Cooperator has many articles on its website cooperator.com for those considering buying a home. Here are just some of those:

"The Purchasing Journey"

"The Buyer's Guide"

"Essential Qualities"

"House Hunting in the City"

"Expediting the Co-op Application Process"

"How to Get In"

David Chiu is an associate editor at The Cooperator. 

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