There is a God. Otherwise, the airlines would be F****d.

God is real, absolutely real. You see, my flight out of Las Vegas to NYC was cancelled by an act of God. I didn’t imagine that, it really was cancelled. I’m not getting a refund, reimbursement or any return – neither in kind nor in kindness – from Delta Airlines. All because the Nor’easter snowstorm that hit NYC was not their fault, but an act of God. And who can argue with God and his great plan?

If the Nor’easter Snowstorm was a non-accidental, divine-mystery, God’s-will type plan, then I can respect that. At least God has a plan. Delta sure doesn’t. They overbook flights. And when those overbooked flights were cancelled, and everybody came rushing to their website to find out what gives, they bungled that, too.

Clicking “Find Other Flights” just lead to “An Error Has Occurred, Try Again”. “Try Again” lead to “An Error has Occured, Contact Us.”

“Contact Us” lead to a page wherein was listed all the numbers for customer service in various territories. Under “North America” we had the following: Haiti, Mexico, Dominican Republic… No United States or Canada. They pulled the number? Doesn’t matter because their office hours are Monday to Friday from 8am- 6pm or something like that, which isn’t very helpful when your flight has been cancelled at 8pm on a Friday.

Dig around the website and finally find a number for Customer Care (like they do) in the United States. “All representatives are busy.” You can get them to call you back instead of waiting on the phone for “a wait time of greater that Three Hours.” So, okay. They’ll call you back in “greater than Three hours.”

Meanwhile, the website says that you must schedule your flights before January 8. Further down that page it says extra fees or the difference in fares may be charged if you fly on or before January 9. Hm…what?

Twitter! Online, apparently, people have taken to twitter. @DeltaAssist, the hardest Screen Shot 2014-01-04 at 4.52.54 PMworking person in Airline Biz has started taking people’s ticket confirmation numbers via DM (direct message) and checking up on their bookings. Nice. But I have to follow them first in order to DM. Argh. Will definitely UNFOLLOW as soon as I’m back home.

Back alley way: I call technical support. And why not? After all, this error message I get when trying to find a flight online is technically a technical glitsch. (Eventhough I know it’s not. It’s on purpose. Just like they pulled the U.S. customer care number. I mean, how can “North America” not include the U.S. or Canada?)

Technical support! After 15 minutes in the phone queue,  I’m finally through. They don’t even blink. Don’t even ask if I”m having technical difficulties. I say “I’m calling because my flight is cancelled and I can’t find a flight online.” She asks for my  confirmation number and proceeds to find me one fortnight journey on Delta after another. Finally I just agree to fly out three days later, on a direct flight.

I’m lucky. I work from home. Right now, Las Vegas is home. 1525075_579740508776772_2076064054_n

 

 

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How To Buy A HDFC Apartment, Or: 3 Major Misconceptions

“How much did you pay for this apartment?” It’s the question we get most often. I can’t count the number of times we’ve heard that questions – mainly because people ask it so many times in a single conversation. Like so:
“How much did you pay for this apartment?”
“$ XX”
“I’m sorry, HOW much?”
“$1X….”
The person mouths the number to themselves, trying to visualize the digits, then: “You mean ‘million’.”
“Ha! Nope.”
“So, how much, again?”

Like that.
The second most-asked question then is usually: How did you find this apartment? And P1030546usually, they are also surprised to hear that we found it the way anybody finds an apartment: through the internet. Here are some misconceptions about buying an HDFC that I think are born out of ignorance, snobbery, and racism.
1) HDFCs are for poor people and poor people are all minorities, and minorities are unruly, loud, violent. Basically, you’re going to be living in the project.

Don’t be silly! That’s just your ignorance talking. Or your racism. Something. We are just like any other co-op in Manhattan. We are a community, we like our neighbors (some of them). We have shareholder meetings and we have barbeques in the summer.

2) They are a bad investment because you’ll never make a killing on the re-sale. The apartment isn’t really the investment here… it’s the HDFC’s that are investing in YOU as an individual. Letting you buy a piece a home in this city that you can actually, easily afford is an investment in you as a person. They expect their investment in you to pay dividends. That’s why there are qualification guidelines. Duh.

3) Most HDFC’s don’t really care about income guidelines or qualifying their buyers. They just say that to get tax breaks. Um, no. I’m not saying those don’t exist. But such a crooked HDFC is comprised of crooked board members and you should ask yourself if you should be buying in a coop that is run by crooks, if it’s being “run” at all.

And as somebody who has not only a vested interest in keeping our coop tidy but also is a position now to review any crooked application, I can say that I take application very, very seriously. So be warned.

 

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How To Deal With A Coop Board: What came first? the Chicken or the Coop?

I was scared of our first board interview (there were two interviews in all). From our search for an apartment to buy, I knew – just knew – that we were the creme de la creme of buyers. I mean, I didn’t meet all the buyers out there, and I’m sure they were lovely. But I knew what we were bringing to the table: security.
Again, all the buyers out there, I’m sure you all are great. But also knew that the board had rejected co-opboard071210_560somebody before they let us offer on the apartment we ultimately bought. So, it stands to reason that somebody out there was simply not as good as we were. We don’t know anybody else, but we knew ourselves: We had good credit, and we were only looking at apartments in the lower range of our budget. We knew we could afford the monthly expenses and we knew we could afford the improvements the apartment needed. What’s more, we knew we were ready to buy: financially and emotionally mature.

One potentially dicey moment: The question of a visa. As an expat (an actual one, not just spiritually, like my third culture kid self) there was the question of my husband’s ability to stay in the country.

They put the question to my husband, who is the primary breadwinner: What happens if you lose your job?
My gallant man immediately launched into a speech about how he’s never met a more resourceful, talented, smart cookie as me. He knows, said he, that I could support us. He knows I will always be able to earn more money – my money earning abilities know no bounds!!! He has no fear WHAT.SO.EVER that…
“…Um, honey… I think they just mean, what happens if you lose your visa from work…”
“Oh.”
“Right!” said the board member “It’s just a question of your visa status.”
“Oh, right. well, we’re married, so my visa isn’t tied to my work. I’m a permanent resident, green card holder.”
And that was that. But good thing they know they have a solid couple on their hands.

Onward! More of our virtues: We knew we’d be good, non-nosey, non-loud, considerate neighbors. One of the ladies who was present at our first interview is our next door neighbor. I remember in the interview, she had been quiet the whole time. They had been asking us questions, getting to know us. And vice versa. Then they asked us, “Is there anything else you would like to ask us?”
And we put the question back to them: “Is there anything else you would like us to know?”
And Mrs. Barker raised her head (I thought she had been napping, actually) and said: “There are a lot of old people on your floor.”
In other words (well, then she ended up saying these words a few minutes later): We don’t like loud sounds.
No problem. Neither do we. See what I mean? We weren’t pretending one thing in the interview. We were a seriously good fit!
After that, the interview was reversed. They stated telling us about aaaalll their committees. The beautification committee, the pre-selection committee (for potential residents), the christmas parties they have in the lobby, and of course, serving on the board.
It became clear to me: They want us. They need us. They need new blood in the building and they need young energy to carry on caring for the building. I knew we could do this community some good, even just be being the kind of neighbors we were. And they knew it, too. I very quickly relaxed. That same afternoon, the broker for the apartment called us and said the board had declared us the perfect fit and we should proceed with the contracts.
A good thing we all knew this about each other, because what followed was seven months of due diligence and financing/ underwriting H-E-Double Hockey Sticks.

Chicken_LittleBut if all worked out and here we are today, happy and healthy! But now, chicken little sees the sky falling again.. After a year of living here, I’m afraid – very afraid – that the time will soon come that I will be called upon to serve…on the board.

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How To Get A Real Estate (Closing) Lawyer in NYC

I often get asked how I found the real estate lawyer my husband and I used for the  imagespurchase of our apartment. Before I get into that let me just make clear that – at least in New York City – you will need a lawyer to follow through the purchase of an apartment. (In our case, a coop.) So any imaginings you may have had of saving yourself the money and just reading up on things yourself can be put to rest. Get a lawyer. If, after you’ve exhausted all your personal resources, you can’t get a decent referral to a good, cheap lawyer, go it alone. There are a lot of guides out there on how to find an attorney. Use them. This is how I found ours:

1) Go online. Streeteasy, Trulia, BrickUnderground. Sites like these are a repository of not only information, but experience. I don’t mean just that people with experience are online. People who are or have experienced what you are or will go through are there. You know how they say there are no original ideas? Yeah. That. Many people have already asked your questions for you and many people may have already answered. If you’re looking for a lawyer recommendation, somebody will have recommended one.

Find a few recommendations online make sense for your situation: They must be based in New York City (or whatever area you are buying in). They must have experience with your particular type of purchase (co-op, condo, loft, HDFC, etc.) Your loan officer (if you go directly to a lender) or real estate broker will also be able to recommend somebody. But do not let yourself be pushed into using them.

girl-talking 2) Speak with them. Call them all up and speak to all of them. Yes, all of them. Even if you think you’ve found “the one” on the first call. Consider the time you spend on the phone to be a learning experience that you have to see through to the end. Be sure to notice their phone manner. How quickly they return your call after you leave a message is already noteworthy. How confident are they (“oh, I’m sure we can figure this out together” does not cut it.) And are they forthcoming with information like: their fee structure, the general timeline of a purchase, etc. I personally liked how willing my lawyer was to share his knowledge with me before we even officially hired him. He was not pushy at all and spoke with me at length, answering my questions as if I were already his client. At the end of our conversation (during which he laid out his fee structure very clearly) he merely said “good luck with the search, and let me know if you have more question, let me know if you’d like me to work with you.”

Be sure you are comfortable with how responsive they are to you. You must have access to your lawyer.

3) Pay them a deposit once they actually start working. Your lawyer is not your real estate broker. Unless they feel like it, they won’t be giving you advice every step of the way through negotiation. That being said, if you can’t ask them simple questions via email before you go to contracts (the official time to bring in lawyers) they are probably not the lawyer for you (you first-time buyer, you). But our lawyer only officially became so at contract signing. We only ever paid him a small deposit when we went to sign contracts. The rest of the money was due at closing.

It goes without saying that a recommendation for a lawyer from a friend or acquaintance is great. But many of us don’t have any of those. Do not despair. The internet is there for us all.

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On the set of Black Nativity. And by ‘on’, I mean ‘above’.

At the risk of appearing as if I’m a recluse who does nothing but sit in her apartment all day, looking out the window at the world below, I must say I LOVE staring out my window, looking at the world below.

It’s become a bit of meditation ritual. I look out my window and take my cue from what I see: The first thing I look at is the flag. Is it half-mast? Why?  Two soldiers from New York making the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan. Former New York Mayor, Ed Koch.

A few short weeks ago, I looked out the window to this guy:

P1030697

Hey, said I. There’s a Guy! A Guy on roof of the Church. But Why?

Turns out, my corner was once again playing host to a film shoot. Now, I have nothing against film shoots in general. I love the Made in NY program.

Made in NY

Made in NY

Our street is background for one of the most famous addresses in the world, 221b Baker Street and I love that it is. (Though I hate they pretend it’s Brooklyn – WTF?) It’s just that their trailers take up all the damn parking spots and I feel bad for my poor husband who inevitably has to circle the block a bunch of time before finding a spot.

So, when I saw this guy, I immediately panned down the street to see if there any of the tell-tale signs that a film crew was about to descend upon our otherwise quiet street. And there were signs: Neon green signs taped to sign posts and trees telling people they could not park there any more because of a production called “Black Nativity”.

Weeks and weeks they stayed here. And despite the fact they took all the parking spots, it was fun having them around. There’s something festive about a camera crane looming over your street. Something cool about imagining Jennifer Hudson and Forest Whitaker acting and singing their hearts out inside the church. Something joyful about images like these one a random night. Why, it almost felt like Christmastime! Geddit?

Can’t wait for the movie. From the title, I’m guessing Christmas ’14?

Love those glowing orbs. Makes a good night light.

Love those glowing orbs. Makes a good night light.

P1030836

Can we just agree that one of those people is Jennifer Hudson? Cool.

 

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Excruciating Expat Math: The American Holiday Tipping Culture (An Aimless Guide)

imagesI’m pretty cheap. I like to call it being frugal, but many people would just say I’m just cheap. I don’t like to tip. I mean, I tip in restaurants, and spas and salons. Oh, I tip. Listen, I know too many waiter-actors to not appreciate how awful it is to serve food to people. (Also, I worked in bagel store until the fateful day I snapped and cussed out the manager in front of the customers. More on that another day.)

But as somebody who has lived outside the USA a good part of her life, tipping hasn’t been ingrained in my psyche the way it perhaps should be. Particularly if I’m wanting to live in this borough. Currently, I still get my back up at the notion that tipping is-not-but-it-is mandatory. Now I’m a shareholder in a co-op with a Super and an Assistant Super. They’re super nice guys. They work hard, I know. I’ve never asked them to do anything for me that didn’t strictly belong to their job scope. Cue the Holidays and I know that time has come for me to confront my anathema to tipping building staff. I get it, intellectually, but morally, I throw up in my mouth a little bit every time I’m told I need to do this to ensure good service, good relationships, and no retaliatory behavior for the following year. Basically, to me, it’s not so much a tip as it is protection money.

The weeks leading up to December have been defined by my extreme agita at the thoughtimages-1 of having to tip staff for the first time. I resent the practice. A friend who once lived in a studio in one of those ghastly Trump buildings along the West Side Highway told me that he had budgeted $250 for holiday tips to the many and varied staffers. And that was the low end (but he was a renter in a studio so he felt justified). $50 for the doorman, $75 for the super, $20-$30 to porters, concierge, and so on. If every unit gave around that amount, a doorman getting $50 from each unit stands to make $14,000 in tips during the holidays. And again, $50 to the doorman is the low end of the “broad range”.

So: where does that leave us with my large-ish one bedroom in a Harlem, non-doorman, pre-war HDFC? There are a hundred tipping guides out there. I was even able to contribute one that (thankfully!) involved finding alternatives to cash. But there very few insights to how these apply in HDFC buildings. (beside, who wants insights? I want a cold, hard figure) I know some HDFC’s out there don’t really take their income requirements seriously, but ours does. So I’m thinking, they can’t possibly expect we’ll be tipping in the same range as the rest of Manhattan. But then our guys do the same work, if not more, as other supers/assistants. (Why more? It’s a really old building full of really old residents). But we just really don’t have that kind of expendable cash (plus all the moral back up bullshit I was talking about just now). I tried talking to my neighbors about the tips but got no straight answers. No wonder. As I learned on Streeteasy, neighbors don’t like to discuss such things because they don’t want to be exposed as paying to little or too much. And if they tip a lot more on purpose, then that means they want to be top of the heap with the staff and don’t want anybody supplanting them as king of the tippers.

images-2Enter MATH. I noticed that many forums and guides out there mention square footage, and family size and family age and such things to come up with their numbers. So math figures into it? Okay then. Proportions and percentages, thought I! With a few simple mathematical formula, I could find out by how much percent our apartment was cheaper than other, comparable, apartments in Manhattan. And then I’d adjust the amount of tip in proportion to that percentage. And just because I said a few sentences ago, that I wanted cold, hard figures, let me put my money where my mouth is: We were thinking $75 Super/ $50 Assistant Super. But that was more than I was willing to spend on some of my friends presents, so then I was thinking more like $60/ $40.

Here’s the math: First, calculated the mean value. I found a couple of comparable apartments (same squarefootage, features, bedroom/bath count). Then I simply added their asking prices (didn’t bother with sale prices, I mean, c’mon) and divided that amount by the number of apartments. Mean value for 900 squarefeet of pre-war goodness?: $821,000. (Seriously??? That can’t be right.)

Next, I needed to find the Percentage of Discount between that Mean Value and our purchase price to determine how big of a discount we got! I love this part.  Percentage of Discount is calculated like so: Screen Shot 2013-03-25 at 11.20.34 PM

 

 

 

The Discount amount is: Original Price (in this case the Mean Value) – Purchase Price.

So, to get the percentage we calculate $625,000 / $821,000 = .76 or 76%.

NOW: If we’re being generous (which I am) and take a $100 tip , and apply the 76% discount, we’ll have our tip amount commensurate to our apartment’s value! So, 76% of $100 is a $76 dollar discount, making our Tip Amount (drumroll please…) $24 dollars!

That’s awesome! Obviously, I’d round that up to $25, I mean, it’s Christmas, after all. Great. So that would mean, $25 (Super)/ $15 (Assistant). Great. Awesome. Totally Fair. I mean, you can’t fight the numbers. Math is Math, that’s why they call it Math. Right? They won’t hate me for just sticking to cold hard facts, right? Right. $60/ $40 it is then. Merry Christmas, one and all.

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Butternut Squash Mac ‘n’ Cheese: mac and cheese minus the heart attack

Photo courtesy of dailyspark. But the dish really looks just like that.

Photo courtesy of dailyspark. But the dish really looks just like that.

As mere months old shareholders in our coop, we were delighted to see the notice posted in our lobby for a shareholder’s meeting, which included this postscript: Dinner Will Be Served. I mean…wow. It’s a smallish building, so I didn’t think the catering would cost that much, plus it seemed to be a good way to build building morale and a sense of neighborhood. And it was. It was a good way to get to know the building. And I think that is the right way of saying it: getting to know the building. Not so much the individual people in it, but character of the community. As one would expect from any building meeting, it was lively, sometimes frustrating, but very engaging. Most of the people there were there to listen, some came to talk, some to argue. But all of them came to eat. Since food at a meeting always brings a ‘watering hole effect’, I thought it was genius, to let people eat during the meeting. That way, all are fed and happy and too busy chewing to let any too heated arguments break out. Dessert was saved for the end to let everybody come together again and calm down after hearing about the ten ton of work the building needs money for.

Instead of the bog standard sandwich halves and wraps and the plate of cookies and maybe a ceasar salad bowl, there was soul food. Catered by a really good soul food buffet close by, where I have eaten many times. A dinner meeting with a point of view. Okay. Unfamiliar but very okay. so there was salad, but also mac and cheese, peach cobbler, barbeque chicken and fried chicken and other such goodies. I love the mac and cheese. I don’t know how they get it like that and I don’t want to know. All I know is, ever since then I get cravings for mac and cheese all the time. But I can’t eat it all the time or I’d die of a clogged artery.

Here’s a healthier version for the everyday, non-building-meeting meals.

Oh, also: if you don’t have a dishwasher and want to cut down on pots to wash, make the pasta ahead, cut 4 minutes from the cooking time (instead of the 3 min I recommend below) and when you drain them, run some cold water from the tap over the pasta for a second just enough to stop the cooking.

You’ll need:

  • 1 can of butternut squash puree (14 oz can, or make your own by roasting a peeled squash of sort and then pureeing it yourself. The amount is not critical, but have at least a cup)
  • 1 cup chicken stock (from a bouillon cube, or a can or a box is fine.)
  • 1 1/2 cups 2% milk
  • Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
  • Pinch of cayenne pepper
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 pound elbow macaroni
  • 4 ounces finely grated extra-sharp cheddar cheese(about 1 cup)
  • 4 tablespoons finely grated Parmesan cheese, finely grated
  • 4 tablespoons Panko crumbs (these are japanese breadcrumbs that are already super crispy. Regular breadcrumbs would work as well, though I’d mix it with a few drops of olive oil to crisp in the oven)
    Directions:

    1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. In a large pot, combine squash, stock, and milk in a medium saucepan and bring to a simmer on medium-high heat. Sprinkle in the nutmeg, cayenne, season with salt and pepper. Turn off the heat then stir in the cheeses, but hold back half the Parmesan. Mix till melted.
    2. Meanwhile, cook the macaroni according to package instruction but cook them about 3 minutes less than the box says (they’re going to get a lot more cooking in the oven) Drain but reserve some of the pasta water in case your mixture is too dry. Transfer pasta to the large pot with the squash mixture. Mix and meld.
    3. Lightly coat a 9-inch square baking dish (4 inches deep) with oil or butter. Transfer noodle mixture to dish. Combine breadcrumbs and remaining Parmesan; sprinkle evenly over noodle mixture.
    4. Bake until lightly browned and crisp on top, about 30 minutes.

    This recipe uses so much less fat than traditional mac and cheese and that’s due to using less cheese and cream or milk. But the squash adds to much flavor and color you really won’t miss it. Still, it been known to happen that a few pieces of cut up bacon finds their way into the panko topping. ;-)

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