Thursday, July 17, 2008

The cost of home heating in New York City is going up

Conserve, conserve, conserve...

July 17, 2008
U.S. Report Shows Spike in Energy Costs for Households in New York Region

From May to June, the cost of residential energy use in the New York metropolitan region shot up by 10.8 percent, the biggest increase in any month on record, according to the latest report on inflation from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. The price of electricity, which rose more than 15 percent in that period, was the main driver of the overall cost of household energy.

Power bills have been rising fast in the region as utilities have passed on the surging cost of fuel. Locally, the price of fuel oil was more than 75 percent higher than in June 2007. Con Edison said last week that residential customers would be charged about 22 percent more this summer than last.

Over the past year, the cost of household energy has risen more than 18 percent, according to the report. The escalation of energy prices easily eclipsed the fast rise in the cost of food. Prices of groceries and other food consumed at home rose 6.4 percent in the past year, which was the largest change in any 12-month period since June 2004.

The overall rate of consumer price increases in the metropolitan area in the last 12 months was 4.5 percent. That was the highest annual rate of inflation in the region in almost two years but was lower than the national rate for the past year, 5 percent. From May to June, the local inflation rate was 1 percent.

In the metropolitan area, the only prices that have not been rising sharply have been for discretionary items, like clothing, household furnishings and entertainment, the report showed.

The price of clothing in the region dropped more than 5 percent last month and is down by more than 3 percent over the past year, a reflection of the weakening job market, said Michael L. Dolfman, the regional commissioner of labor statistics.

“When the job market is strong, people go out and buy some clothes, interview suits,” Mr. Dolfman said.

Rising rents also contributed to the surge in the cost of living. In the metropolitan area, rents rose 0.7 percent in June, about double the rate recorded in each of the previous seven months. Over the past year, rents have risen 4.8 percent, the report showed.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Boards reject Wall Streeters

July 13, 2008
Rich, but Rejected

ALMOST overnight, investment bankers and others on Wall Street have gone from being Manhattan’s most aggressive apartment buyers to real estate pariahs.

As financial services companies continue to cut jobs and bleed billions of dollars, their employees have far less cash to spend on high-priced apartments, and very little optimism about taking a risk right now anyway.

Those in the financial industry who still want to buy real estate are often unable to persuade lenders and co-op boards to work with them.

The biggest problem is that buyers who work on Wall Street no longer have the guarantee of huge bonuses to bolster their financial status. And even those who continue to get bonuses are finding that banks and co-ops will not let them count all that money as part of their income, because unlike a salary, it can fluctuate wildly.

Workers in financial services-related businesses make up roughly 25 to 30 percent of Manhattan buyers, according to estimates by Halstead Property. Although some lenders and building boards are accepting these buyers after tightening requirements, others are becoming far more interested in buyers outside the financial industry.

“They’re looking for people who have stable incomes that are not so market dependent,” said Melissa Cohn, the president of the Manhattan Mortgage Company, who has noticed the changing standards regarding bonuses in the last month.

Lenders, she said, fear that “bonus levels won’t be the same in 2009 as they were in 2008” and will no longer take any risks.

The problems facing buyers from Wall Street won’t necessarily cause Manhattan apartment prices to slide drastically, said Diane M. Ramirez, the president of Halstead Property, though they could result in slightly less competition for properties and prompt more sellers to negotiate.

Buyers who work in finance are having trouble with both co-ops and condominiums. Some co-op boards are rejecting bankers even when they appear to be financially qualified, or they are demanding as a condition of approval that many months of maintenance payments be provided upfront.

Tighter home mortgage standards are also affecting some condo sales.

In the past, Wall Street workers would count most or all of their year-end bonuses to qualify for mortgages, often borrowing amounts that covered 90 percent or even 100 percent of the purchase price of high-end condos. Now, some lenders allow buyers to count just a third of their bonus. A banker who qualified for a $3.75 million mortgage a year ago based on a $250,000 salary and a $1 million bonus now qualifies for only a $1.8 million mortgage with the same salary and bonus.

At the same time, some lenders are demanding 25 percent down, rather than just 10 percent. Thus, a banker who went to contract on a $4 million apartment a year ago with a $400,000 down payment now has to come up with $600,000 more to close the deal.

The bonus situation is expected to get worse before it gets better. Alan Johnson, the managing director of Johnson Associates, a company that tracks compensation data, said that Wall Street bonuses are projected to be 30 to 40 percent lower in 2008 than in 2007. “It’s going to be the toughest year in at least five years,” he said.

He predicts that bonuses will not pick up until 2010.

The buying habits of bankers also matter more during this slowdown because the financial services industry has become a larger percentage of the city’s economy than ever before.

Rick Wohlfarth, a Manhattan real estate broker for three decades, said that during the economic slowdown of the late 1980s, fewer people had Wall Street jobs and he could count on a more diverse pool of buyers.

Now, his firm’s 18 agents are advising 60 clients who work in finance and are struggling to buy or sell apartments when market conditions have turned against them.

“This downturn is more profound because it has hit the largest customer base we’ve had,” he said.

The slowdown in sales, however, has not yet hurt Manhattan apartment prices. Data released earlier this month show that while the number of transactions fell, the average apartment sales price of $1.6 million is a third higher than a year ago, according to Halstead. These numbers have risen mainly because of high prices for brand-new condos at 15 Central Park West and the converted Plaza Hotel.

While many bankers and other Wall Street workers interviewed for this article would not speak for the record because they feared being laid off or jeopardizing their severance packages, their lawyers, real estate brokers and mortgage brokers said they were struggling with shrinking bank balances and new buying standards that in some cases might mean they could lose apartments they had already signed contracts to buy.

Peter Graubard, a real estate lawyer, said that about 5 percent of his firm’s clients were struggling to get financing on apartments that they decided to buy a year ago, when the buildings were still under construction.

One couple, who both work in finance, put down a $250,000 payment for a $2.5 million condo at the Element at 555 West 59th Street. Then they lost their jobs. Even though the husband found a new job, the lenders won’t give the couple a mortgage because their salary total has dropped and they depend on bonus income.

By the July 7 deadline, the couple had not found a lender willing to give them a mortgage. So they sent a letter to the developer that day asking for more time, the ability to assign the contract to another buyer before closing or the option to buy a less expensive apartment in the building.

Other buyers are simply backing out of deals. Josh Guberman, the chief executive of the Core Development Group, found that bankers had been his most active buyers on his five condo projects in the last decade. But in the last three months, four bankers have backed out while negotiating contracts at his buildings at 157 East 84th Street and 433 East 74th Street because they were worried about the financial markets or couldn’t get mortgages they wanted.

Mr. Guberman said the most striking case involved a buyer who had signed a contract and paid about $20,000 in architecture and engineering fees before backing out of a $5.7 million apartment at the building on 84th Street. His deposit was returned.

“Our base of clients for years was always the finance guys,” Mr. Guberman said. “They were the guys who stepped up.”

Mr. Guberman has now started educating buyers about changing lending standards well before going to contract. He tells them not to expect to include their bonus income when qualifying for mortgages. He also advises them that lenders will require them to make 25 percent down payments, supply 12 months of financial and bank statements and four to five years of tax returns. (He previously told clients they needed three months of documents and two years of tax returns.)

Other bankers are trying to stay away from deals that require co-op board approval. Chris Poore, a broker for the Corcoran Group, recently worked with a banker who bid on an $800,000 co-op and had the offer accepted. But the banker withdrew the offer when he heard that co-ops were tightening requirements and not factoring bonus income into deals, and instead bought a sponsor unit co-op that didn’t require board approval.

In some cases, co-ops are rejecting bankers outright.

Felix Nihamin, a real estate lawyer, recently advised a couple who work in finance and who tried to buy a $740,000 co-op on East 77th Street. While the husband and wife felt their jobs were safe, they took steps to ensure board approval. They put down 20 percent of the purchase price, offered a parent with a multimillion-dollar net worth as a guarantor and offered to pay extra maintenance costs upfront. Under these terms, a lender approved them for a $560,000 mortgage. But the co-op board rejected them before even meeting with them.

“Everything else was perfect,” Mr. Nihamin said. “The board did not like that they received the chunk of their income from bonuses.”

Michele Kleier, the president of Gumley Haft Kleier, recently represented a woman buying a three-bedroom co-op on the Upper East Side. At the time, the financial company that employed the woman had suffered so badly from the subprime mortgage crisis that she did not receive a bonus for 2007.

The co-op board asked her for seven years of tax returns and detailed references showing how much she was valued at her firm. After the review, the board accepted her. She moved in late in the spring, and soon after, obtained a higher-paying job at another company.

“They took a risk on her and said that they thought she was very bright,” Ms. Kleier said. “She wasn’t somebody they thought was just lucky.”

Amy Herman, a Halstead broker, recently prepared one client who works for a top bank for his board interview for a one-bedroom prewar co-op in the East 70s.

In addition to providing salary and bonus information, her client gathered numbers about how many people had been laid off from his bank, how the firm’s layoff numbers compared with other major banks’ numbers and how his division had performed. He also assured the board that he wouldn’t go to business school and take on student loan debt or try to sublet the apartment.

Ms. Herman said one thing in his favor was that his career in finance was short enough and his salary low enough that his bank still paid him in cash and not company stock. So the board accepted him and he moved in last month.

Ms. Herman fears that some bankers may not be willing to work so hard to impress boards.

“It’s a really fine line,” she said. “If they do start hunkering down and go to an extreme toward people in the financial world, you’re going to absolutely see a decline in prices. That’s one out of every three buyers that you’re going to be eliminating or giving a hard time.”

Sunday, July 6, 2008

The Noise Children Make Is a Growing Source of Complaints

The New York Times
July 6, 2008
The Noise Children Make

APARTMENT dwellers in New York City have long endured the trauma of jackhammers, Manolo Blahniks, recycling trucks, sirens, canines and air-conditioning systems.

But, perhaps because the population of children in the city is increasing, the sound of little feet is a complaint being voiced with increasing frequency. And, for reasons ranging from a sense of entitlement to the impossibility of teaching a 3-year-old to glide to the potty like a supermodel, the parents of those little feet are not happy to hear that their children are driving you crazy.

Many, in fact, have heard just about enough of it. They complain that they are being forced to choose between being good neighbors and good parents. “It’s nerve-racking to be constantly shushing my kids and not letting them be normal kids in the morning,” said Janeen Thompson, who lives in a postwar rental building in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Her two young sons — ages 5 and 2 ½ — have elicited multiple noise complaints from their downstairs neighbor, a 25-year-old woman with no children.

In the morning when the boys are getting ready for the day, Ms. Thompson said, she insists they not roll their little cars down the hallway, or run before 8 a.m. “I tell them the neighbor is still sleeping, and they just look at me — ‘Why is she sleeping?’ ”

Ms. Thompson said she can’t even let her children cry when they need to. “For six months straight, my younger son woke up at 2 a.m. — we kept him quiet for two hours every night so the neighbor wouldn’t hear him,” she said. “Finally, we had to post signs in the building saying we were going to let him cry it out for a weekend, so our neighbor wouldn’t get mad at us.”

The downstairs neighbor, who agreed to give her first name, Jennifer, but not her last, out of fear of being branded antichild, said the children were waking up every single night in the middle of the week, which prompted her to pound on the ceiling after midnight, triggering an even noisier altercation with the children’s father. “The bedrooms of the parents and children are really far apart, so I don’t know if they can hear the children,” she said.

But what bothers her the most, she said, is the sound of the children running — “they don’t walk, ever,” she says — particularly before 8 a.m., when she gets up. “I try to be sympathetic but it’s very hard for me to relate to them because I don’t have children,” Jennifer said. “It’s exhausting. Even my boyfriend doesn’t ever want to come over — it’s so horrible.”

According to the professionals drawn into disputes about child noise — managing agents, lawyers, mediators and acoustical engineers — square-offs like these are increasingly common.

“Fifteen years ago or so, it used to be that the noise complaints were all about loud stereo and TV equipment,” said Stuart M. Saft, a real estate lawyer at Dewey & LeBoeuf in Manhattan, which represents about 100 full-service co-op and condominium buildings in Manhattan. “Now it’s kid noise more than anything else, and I think it demonstrates the changing demographic of the city. You have more kids living in the apartment buildings, and parents who feel their children have the right to be children.”

At the same time, even as New York City has become a magnet for young families, the escalating price of real estate has contributed to the feeling that people ought to get what they want and expect for their money.

“People’s expectations of quiet for their very expensive apartments have risen, so something that might not have bothered somebody 20 years ago because real estate was so inexpensive then does become an issue now,” said John Hauenstein, the president of JRH Acoustical Consulting Inc., which assesses and mitigates child noise issues.

Parents, meanwhile, feel persecuted.

The problems of an Upper West Side mother who did not want her name used, out of fear of reigniting old tensions, began four years ago. Two days after she and her family moved into their $1.8 million prewar unit, they received a hostile missive from the 30-something married couple living below.

“It was a typewritten note in a typewritten envelope with a formal return address. It said something like, ‘We never heard a sound from the older couple who lived in your apartment, and now that you moved in, our peace is being disrupted and we don’t appreciate it.’ It set such the wrong tone, almost like a lawyer had sent it, and we had been in the building less than a week. It would have been better even if it had just been handwritten instead of typed. It was like the punishment didn’t fit the crime.”

Still, she said: “I wanted to take the high road. They left their phone number so I called and introduced myself and left ours.” It was a decision she quickly came to regret.

Despite the wall-to-wall carpeting in her children’s bedrooms and a firm policy against bouncing balls indoors and leaping off beds, she fielded a series of “incredibly nasty” telephone calls that “were confrontational, upset and accusatory, not like, ‘Hey, do you mind — it’s getting a little noisy.’ ”

“Over the course of the next year, we felt we were living on eggshells,” she said. “It became almost a mantra, saying to the kids, ‘The neighbors, the neighbors.’ ”

A frosty d├ętente set in when the couple downstairs had their first child two years ago.

“I think you become a more sensitive person when you have a kid — you have to become more tolerant and understanding,” the Upper West Side mother said. “You kind of realize that life is not as tidy as you’d like it to be.”

Indeed, the vast majority of child-noise complaints are said by those called to intervene to be lodged by neighbors with no children or grown children. Trouble also tends to flare when a family replaces an especially quiet resident, when renovations render layouts incongruent (so that a hallway now runs over a bedroom, for example), and when neighbors have different sleeping schedules.

Deborah Orr’s former downstairs neighbor, a lawyer in her 30s with no children, waited six months after moving in to complain about the noise produced by Ms. Orr’s son and daughter, who were 4 and 1 at the time.

“I think she tried a little too hard to tolerate it, then I think basically she kind of snapped,” said Ms. Orr, 40, a music publicist who lived in a Park Slope brownstone co-op. “When she complained, we bought thick rugs and pads, but I think it was just too late.”

Still, Ms. Orr and her husband tried.

“There was a point,” she said, “where every time the kids would go into the hall we would get this kind of twitchy ‘don’t run — walk, walk.’ We probably tried a little too hard to eliminate the noise because we wanted to have good relationships with the neighbors and to have good kids that other people enjoy being around and not like this focus of resentment. They were not doing anything outrageous. They were just doing normal kid things. But small children, especially toddlers, have this clumsy flatfooted walk. It’s impossible to control.”

The Orrs eventually moved, because they wanted more space.

Parents who hope to avoid having angry neighbors are not presented with many good choices in New York unless they can afford a house. Many of the prewar buildings and brownstones that seem especially solid are worse when it comes to noise.

“Any building that has a wood beam floor construction” — which includes most prewar buildings up to six stories tall — “is going to be more prone to these problems,” said Mr. Hauenstein, the acoustics expert. And even high-rise prewar buildings, with masonry floors, don’t necessarily live up to their reputation for being quiet. The insulation, which resembles ashy debris, can settle over time, and contractors sometimes remove it by mistake during renovation.

Postwar construction is hit or miss as well. Concrete floors are common but can mean little in terms of noise-proofing without a good underlayer or a dropped ceiling below, Mr. Hauenstein said.

Meanwhile, acoustical engineers say they are fielding a rash of noise complaints from owners of fancy new condominiums who never thought to inquire beyond soundproof windows.

“There’s been a rush to develop apartments, and in that rush I think developers have been taking shortcuts,” said Alan Fierstein, the president of Acoustilog Inc., a Manhattan acoustic consultant. “I see these amazingly flagrant violations of the building code with regard to soundproofing. Typically I see floors that don’t have the required insulation or they don’t have the proper resilient materials in the floor above or ceiling below. If the space is hollow, it tends to amplify or make booming sounds, which are very difficult to stop unless you put in good insulation or padding.”

For acoustical engineers, business is also booming from co-ops, which are increasingly taking a preventive stance on noise control in an era where expensive apartments often entail extensive renovations when they change hands.

“In many cases they’re combining apartments, so now you have a problem with people putting walkways where there was just a bedroom before, so it’s no longer bedroom over bedroom or kitchen over kitchen,” Mr. Fierstein said. “They’re also worried that people are coming in with new giant stereo systems and home theater media rooms.” Because of that, some co-ops are demanding that new buyers put in soundproofing when they renovate.

Michael J. Wolfe, the president of Midboro Management, which manages about 75 buildings in Manhattan, encourages neighbors to talk it out first. “If they don’t want to, we set up an inspection in the apartment and make sure it’s in compliance with the lease,” he said, referring to rules in many buildings requiring that 80 percent of a floor be covered with rugs. The type of rug matters too. “A throw rug with no padding would certainly make a lot of noise,” he said.

If the problem remains, according to Mr. Saft, the lawyer, boards will often have a sound meter installed in the afflicted apartment to determine whether the sound is excessive. “At least half the time it doesn’t show enough noise,” he said. “At that point the board sends a letter saying they looked into the situation and the noise is not excessive and the complainant should be more understanding of their neighbors.”

The other half of the time, parents must address the problem, such as by agreeing to limit their children’s activities to certain types, times and locations. Failure to comply can trigger fines by co-op boards along the lines of $100 per violation. Theoretically, parents who own their apartments could be forced to sell them. Though Mr. Saft said he had never seen a family turned out on the streets, he said co-op boards frequently threaten to cancel proprietary leases.

In resolving conflicts, face-to-face communication works best. “It may feel like you’re parroting, but literally just repeat back to them what you heard them saying in a calm and neutral voice, so they’re able to feel they’ve been heard enough and it’s your turn to talk,” said Elena Bayrock, the assistant director of the Manhattan Mediation Center, a nonprofit group that provides free mediation services. In mediation, solutions often revolve around sleep schedules, work patterns, and floor plans.

“By now, I kind of know that our bedroom is over their bedroom and if we drop stuff on the floor it’s really loud for them, so if the baby has a loud toy I just shut the door so she doesn’t come in,” said Margaret Hundley Parker, a 39-year-old freelance writer who rents a postwar apartment on Prospect Avenue in Brooklyn.

“We do indeed walk on eggshells, and I find myself on tiptoes if I have high heels on, even when I’m not home,” wrote Ms. Parker in an earlier e-mail message. “I’m a trained monkey. But my 19-month-old is not.”

“We’d love to move,” she continued, “but did I mention the rent-stabilized apartment?”

Multimedia: Listening for noise

Michael Nagle for The New York Times

SLEEP SCHEDULES Greg and Janeen Thompson, with their two sons, got complaints from their downstairs neighbor, who doesn’t have children. Both sides say they have tried to be sympathetic to the other’s plight.

Michael Nagle for The New York Times

ON EGGSHELLS Margaret Hundley Parker and her husband don’t let their daughter play with loud toys in their bedroom, because it is right above their neighbor’s bedroom.

John Marshall Mantel for The New York Times

Alan Fierstein, a Manhattan acoustic consultant, says his business is booming