For brokers that handle swanky new condos or TriBeCa lofts, the sale that landed Norman Horowitz REBNY’s Deal of the Year Award might seem the stuff of paperback thrillers.
The seller of a townhouse in the West 150s, eyed by a local businessman looking for live-work space, was neither trusting nor entirely trustworthy. “There was a lot of cloak and dagger stuff going on between buyer and seller,” Horowitz said.
For the Halstead broker, who is now a two-time recipient of the Board’s top residential sales award, the transaction was business as usual.
“People don’t realize that uptown, the deals are more difficult,” he explained. “They involve situations where the issues are not black and white. A lot of times, the ownership itself comes into question.”
Before carving a niche in the townhouse market north of 96th Street, Horowitz sold a couple of brownstones in Greenwich Village. “It kind of prepared for me when I went uptown,” he said. At one point, he had to calm a family that bickered throughout the closing process. While visiting another property in the neighborhood, he was bitten by a guard dog; it was the late ‘80s, and homeowners in the Village were still wary of crime.
Still, contracts were signed with relative ease. “I don’t think any of them warranted Deal of the Year,” Horowitz joked.
Twelve years ago, one of the sellers Horowitz had worked with below 14th Street, began investing in cheap condos in Harlem and Washington Heights, and handed him some of the listings.
“A lot of brokers were fearful of going uptown,” he said. “There was no fear factor as far as I was concerned.”
He had visited the neighborhood regularly when crime was at its peak, having graduated from the Hamilton Heights campus of City College in the 1970s before a stint in the military.
When he began selling the neighborhood’s historic rowhouses, he approached each property as if it were a detached suburban home. “A lot of downtown brokers don’t understand the townhouse market,” Horowitz said. “Every situation is unique.”
Beyond differences in width, age, and architectural style, there’s the wear and tear that come from years of occupancy, or on the flipside, negligence during Harlem’s bleakest decades. “You have to get into the head of the sellers,” Horowitz said.
Because Harlem is so large, spanning the blocks between the East and Hudson rivers, and roughly 110th and 155th streets, gentrification patterns differ than in the patchwork quilt of neighborhoods further south. “The Flatiron District,” – which took only several years to transform into a foodie and fashion hotspot – “is only three blocks wide,” Horowitz pointed out.
Condos and upscale shops have been spreading to Northern Manhattan one avenue at a time. A handful of Horowitz’ current listings, for instance, are at a luxury development on Frederick Douglass Boulevard, a thoroughfare now lined with glass and steel mid-rises, bakeries, and bistros, including a branch of Levain’s, a popular Upper West Side bakery, and Harlem Tavern, a trendy new hangout spot.
In pockets of Northern Manhattan untouched by young professionals on the hunt for bargain prices, a handful of rundown brownstones, many with good bones and charming historic details, can be challenging to market.
Several years ago, Horowitz oversaw a sale that was nothing short of a horror story.
A four-story townhouse in the West 180s, owned by a retired artist in his 80s, had deteriorated over the years. The roof was leaking, and stray cats climbed in through broken windows. A next door neighbor’s renovation encroached five feet onto the property.
Horowitz was prepared for a long, exhausting marketing campaign, but not multiple trips to the emergency room: at one point, he took a two-story tumble from the building, and later got a piece of metal stuck in his eye. “I had to have microsurgery,” he said.
With some luck, Horowitz managed to find a buyer willing to see past the disrepair. “The property had some unique qualities,” he said. “It had a lot of original details.” All parties agreed to a price of $800,000; at the time, townhouses in the area fetched between $700,000 and $1.2 million. When a contact who had promised to lend the buyer $12,000 disappeared, the closing process stalled.
The buyer hired a private detective to track the lender, who turned up in Washington DC.
Then, just as the contract was ready to be signed, the owner wound up in the intensive care unit of a hospital near the Canadian border. “The contract was sent off to him in the hospital,” said Horowitz. For a while, it was unclear if the document had been signed properly, or even at all.
“It turns out he did sign the contract,” Horowitz said. “He promptly died minutes thereafter.”
When REBNY called for submissions to that year’s awards contest, Horowitz raced to rattle out his story, which landed him the Deal of the Year award for residential sales. A fellow nominee, he said, had submitted a more familiar tale about a difficult co-op board.
“One of the keys to winning the award was to write things up in an entertaining way,” Horowitz said. With a three-page limit, “you don’t have a lot of space for flowery descriptions. I could have written a novel.”
Mystery still surrounds the deal that earned Horowitz the second REBNY award of his career. Due to confidentiality agreements, he’s unable to discuss even the price of the deal
Award winners are chosen anonymously through a REBNY judging committee and only members of firms who have not submitted deal entries are allowed to judge.