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There are a few dates in my life that I’ll always remember: Oct. 2, 1987, when I quit smoking; Dec. 16, 1997, the day I met a boy I was crazy about for about 10 years; and Dec. 15, 2003, the night I got engaged to the friend of the boy I was crazy about (yes, do the math. No, that one didn’t last).
June 27, 2013 will be the date I’ll remember as the day I finally became a homeowner. After two years and three months of looking, negotiating and waiting, I was about to be inducted into the club.
The closing was to take place at a law firm serving as the transfer office and I was to bring photo ID, the remainder of the down payment and my personal checkbook for the rest of the miscellaneous fees and charges.
That morning my attorney called me in a panic: the name on my ID did not match the mortgage paperwork. Though I go by the name, Elle—and have my entire my life—my official documents identify me as Elena, the name my parents gave me. It never occurred to me as my entire credit history, and all my academic degrees were issued under Elle.
I was already required to bring a passport or driver’s license, which were issued to Elena, but I also gathered my NYPD press pass, several utility bills and credit card statements and my diploma, all under the name of Elle, in the hope the discrepancy wouldn’t cancel the transaction. At the same time, in a second of buyer’s anxiety, I almost hoped it would. Was I really ready to be a homeowner?
My attorney sent an associate to guide me through the closing. I hadn’t met her before and though I wouldn’t exactly say my heart sank when I met her, I was a little nonplused by her appearance—a fusion of Miami matron and stand-up comic. Her cropped hair was bright orange and topped off a head-to-toe purple pantsuit. Jangly earrings and a huge beaded bracelet with little charms completed the ensemble. Every time she moved her arm, the charms tinkled.
Ellen and I were guided to a conference room, where the attorney for the lender was already waiting for us. It was 1 p.m. and my stomach rumbled from hunger or nerves. I hoped they would serve lunch, but was also aware it would likely show up on my bill if they did. We reviewed the closing document schedule while we waited for the others and debated on which name to use for the many signatures I would execute that day, finally deciding on “Elle.”
By the time both real estate agents and the attorneys for the co-op and the seller arrived, we had nearly a full table. The only person missing was the seller. I was curious to see what kind of person had lived in the apartment—was she a crazy cat lady? A sad, lonely spinster? I chided myself for jumping to stereotypical conclusions, but the attorneys representing her interests were so off-beat, I couldn’t help but think of the worse-case scenario.
The seller’s attorney arrived like someone just woke her up, drained some coffee down her throat and shoved her into the conference room. She looked like a disheveled preppy mother.
She sat down slowly, as if every muscle ached, looked at us with half-open eyes, ran her hand through her disheveled hair, introduced herself with a smoky voice interrupted by a few hacks.
The co-op’s attorney fired out questions in rapid-fire succession and within two minutes established herself as the most unlikeable person at the table.
She snapped at droll Preppy Mom Attorney, who lifted her brows and rolled her eyes at every provocation. She told the bank’s attorney—a young, quiet, well-dressed man—that she would refuse to notarize his documents.
“I’ve never notarized bank documents and I never will,” she declared. We were at an impasse: no one thought to bring a notary. Ellen’s bracelet jangled. So did my nerves. This didn’t bode well for my mismatched identification credentials.
Where did they get these people, I wondered, Central Casting?
After a few minutes of debate, Uptight Co-op Attorney disappeared into the law offices and returned with a notary who was on staff at the firm. I felt a collective sigh of relief around the table.
Each attorney had a stack of papers for my signature—certifications that I would abide the co-ops rules, acknowledgements of bed-bug abatement, affidavits that confirmed my monthly income, certifications that I understood what would happen if I didn’t pay on time—or at all. Both realtors were busy on their iPhones: their jobs were done, they were just there for ceremony.
Uptight Co-op Attorney looked at my IDs. I explained the situation and held my breath. As it happened, her daughter is a reporter for the Associated Press, and in an unexpected moment of kindness, she approved my NYPD press credentials without further scrutiny. (She did ask how her daughter could qualify for a pass.)
As we shuffled papers around, as the two attorneys traded occasional snipes, the seller—also named Ellen—arrived. She was a younger version of her attorney.
I tried to exchange a friendly recognition, but she didn’t raise her eyes, never looked beyond the stack of papers awaiting her signature. It was the oddest assemblage of people I’d ever seen. And as New York City reporter, that was saying a lot.
Oddly, my costume-bejeweled attorney was a steady and calming presence. She explained each document, ensured I caught the small print, helped coordinate the many checks I wrote: fees for the management company, reimbursement of maintenance for the seller, transfer fee for one set of attorneys, the final sum owed to my attorney. All told, I wrote checks for another $2,574.00 on top of the certified bank check for $36,000.
After two hours of paper shuffling and signing, I was allowed to hold the original shares certificate before handing it over to the bank’s attorney. I snapped a picture of it with my phone. With no ceremony whatsoever, the seller handed over the keys in a Ziploc bag.
“The black keys open the front door and the apartment door, and the other keys, I think are duplicates, but I don’t know which one is which,” she said. Her voice was softly hesitant, completely unremarkable. I was disappointed.
I thanked her, asked if the shower had been fixed, which she confirmed before adding, “Good luck, I enjoyed living there.”
She handed over a two-inch-thick binder, which detailed the building’s conversion history and updates—something I would have to keep, update and hand over should I ever transfer the apartment.
And that was it.
The event I had waited so long for was accomplished without ceremony or sandwiches (my stomach growled through the three-hour transfer). The attorneys scuttled out quickly, none exchanging glances with the other.
Sidney, my broker, congratulated me and told me to friend him on Facebook. The seller’s agent, who lived in the building, shook my hand and said “see ya in the building.” I was alone in the elevator with a huge binder. And missing my friend, Chris, who had seen some 60-plus apartments with me, but wasn’t there for the finale.
I pulled it up the photo of the share certificate on my phone and emailed it to her with a one-word comment, “done!”
It wasn’t the same, but at least she was the first to know.
Next up: Lessons learned
Elle Bee is a lifelong renter currently in the process of buying a Brooklyn apartment, recounted in her bi-weekly column, Diary of a First-Time Buyer.
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