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The scrutiny of the co-op board interview can ratchet up the tension when you’re buying in New York City. These days, like much of the buying process, this part has now gone online as a result of the coronavirus pandemic; board members and buyers alike say being able to schedule a video conference, rather than trying to find a suitable date and time to convene in person, is much more convenient.
One interview protocol worth stressing with the online format is to make sure you prepare well for the interview. That means familiarizing yourself with whatever platform is required, being aware of your background, muting your phone and positioning the camera correctly.
Dean Roberts, an attorney with Norris McLaughlin, says he’s amazed at how many unpleasant things he’s seen or heard in the background of interviews. “You do not want to have someone flushing the toilet or two kids screaming at one another during the interview process,” he says.
[Editor's note: This article was originally published in July 2020. We are presenting it again here as part of our summer Best of Brick week.]
Even though the format of the interview has changed, much of the content remains the same—although you can likely expect questions that address some of the uncertainties presented by the pandemic. Keep in mind, however, that for all the anxiety the co-op board interview can generate, the vast majority of rejections are based on application packages, with the bad news delivered well before a co-op board interview is scheduled.
"The buyer is about 95 percent there by the time they get to the board interview," says Rachel Altschuler, a broker at Douglas Elliman. "So the interview is really more of a meet-and-greet."
Real estate attorney Steve Wagner of Wagner Berkow & Brandt (FYI, a Brick sponsor) is chair of the admissions committee on his co-op board and says his goal is straightforward: "I just want to see they are who they say there are and there are no bad vibes."
Still, it's an important introduction, and even though your chances of approval by the time you’ve reached the interview are excellent, you don’t want to spoil anything by saying something that will make a board uneasy.
(And for some first-hand accounts of real-life board interviews, check out Brick Underground's My Co-op Board Interview series, which can give you a sense of the predictably unpredictable terrain of the process.)
There can still be some awkward questions, like whether you have renovations in mind or how you socialize. We've asked real estate brokers and lawyers—former board members among them—for tips on how to answer some of these curveballs. And remember, Altschuler says: "Keep answers simple and short. Less is more."
1. How secure is your job?
Before the coronavirus, a conversation about your career may have just been an innocuous part of getting to know you, but this question is more pressing than ever as the country faces the economic effects of the pandemic. Board members will most likely be trying to get a sense of your overall job security and how you will be able to handle any temporary pay reductions.
“A buyer's job security will be an increased focus for most boards these days so this is not the time to discuss any existential crisis about your work,” says Therese Bateman, a broker with Level Group. “There’s no need to cause unnecessary alarm with throwaway lines.” Instead, she recommends being upbeat about your role and not giving away too many details.
One byproduct of the pandemic is that the concept of working from home has a very different spin to it. “Rather than being an issue, board members and applicants are often exchanging war stories about it,” Roberts says.
2. Why are you downsizing?
This is a common question, though not one that applicants necessarily expect. (And, of course, only applies if you are actually downsizing). You may have fewer family members living at home, or maybe you are trying to trim expenses. If it’s the latter, keep it to yourself. Focus on space, not money.
Brokers advise that co-op boards don’t want to hear that you are moving to save money. It's better to say that you’re empty nesters.
3. Are you planning a renovation?
Hearing about any renovation plans can be a concern to board members. For one thing, you never know who may live adjacent to your apartment and might dread the disturbance of a renovation. “It is best to omit details of your proposed renovation until after closing,” says Bateman.
While you want to be truthful—obviously an estate purchase will require upgrading—it is best to instead say, "We are taking one step at a time and have no immediate renovation plans."
4. What are your political beliefs or with which political party are you affiliated?
While this question is completely legal, it might be unexpected and throw you off your game. "Just be honest," Wagner suggests. And keep things simple.
Brokers recommend buyers prepare reference letters that don't have too much of a political bent to it. Often polarizing, it's better to steer the conversation away from this subject in a co-op board interview.
5. Are you interested in serving on the board?
Again, neutrality is your best approach on this issue, brokers say. Your answer will ideally be along the lines: “If the board or the building thought that I could make an important contribution, I would certainly be open to discussing it.” It is best not to give the impression you are aiming for a position on the board.
Some application packages might ask you directly if you have any background or skills that may be useful to the board, in which case, it's fine to list expertise that might not be readily apparent from other parts of your board package.
6. Do you have parties or entertain often?
This question is quite common—and it's not a popularity test. The board wants to gauge whether your socializing will be disruptive. Your best answer might be to say you enjoy having occasional dinners with close friends and leaving it at that.
7. What do you do in your spare time?
While it seems innocent enough, this question can trip buyers up. Bateman has three easy suggestions when fielding this one: “Keep it clean, keep it simple, and keep it quiet,” meaning now is not the time to tell the board about your plans for learning the clarinet or your annual Halloween party.
8. Why did you choose this apartment/neighborhood?
“This is an opportunity to be complementary,” Bateman says. “Don’t bog down your response with a blow-by-blow description of the 30 apartments that you saw before this one, or that it is the only one you could afford.”
This also isn’t an invitation to overshare. There are times when boards don’t phrase a question as a question, and that can take people off guard. Brokers advise clients to be cordial and not chatty.
9. What was your last interaction with an attorney?
"The best answer is, of course, 'My lawyer brother-in-law and I had Thanksgiving dinner together,' but if you do have something behind you, be honest," Roberts says. "Temper your answer, though," he says. "Go with something like, 'I was unjustly sued by someone, we were able to resolve it quickly and cleanly and fortunately I've never had any legal involvement since."
You want to give a clean, simple explanation that proves you are reasonable and weren't the source of the problem. But remember, "Litigation is not a scarlet letter, especially for certain businesses," Roberts says.
It’s worth doing an online search of your name before an interview to see what information comes up. Be prepared to answer questions related to the results.
10. Why are there some inconsistencies in your application?
Wagner says some buyers will have an assistant fill out their application for them and that might introduce inconsistencies. So to head this off, "it's a good idea to read through the application before the interview to make sure that everything looks legit. And be prepared to answer any questions you think it may have elicited," he says.
Usually, some financial questions arise, like how much money a person has, especially if their assets are a combination of several businesses or a trust.
"If, say, you receive $60,000 a year from a trust, be sure to explain that that trust allows you to invade the principal if that's how you're planning on paying for the apartment," Wagner says.
And if you don't know the answer to a question, try not to seem flustered. Just say you don't know the answer, and that you'll get back to them as soon as you've spoken to your accountant, Wagner says.
11. Do you have any questions?
While in other forums it is often useful to have questions at the ready as a demonstration of your interest, you really shouldn’t raise them during a co-op interview.
Boring is good. A co-op interview is not a job interview—people do not have to fall in love with you. For instance, when the board asks you if you have any questions, say, ‘None that I can think of right now, but I’ll be sure to get back to you if any should occur.’ It is never about keeping the conversation going, as it might be at a job interview.
Finally, never ask about the board’s decision at the time of your interview. Instead, say something like "We look forward to hearing from you."
Earlier versions of this article contained reporting and writing by Joann Jovinelly.
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