The Hunt: Savvy First-Time Buyer Does Her Homework

February 16, 2018
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About three years ago, Ms. Lewis read about the Housing Development Fund Corporation (H.D.F.C.), a city program that promotes homeownership in once-derelict buildings. The prices of its co-ops were tantalizingly within reach. “I made it my mission to learn everything I could,” she said, although in some cases the buildings came with income caps that were too low for her. In other cases, however, she qualified.

She signed up for a class on buying an H.D.F.C. co-op given by the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board. The room was packed, but she learned attrition was high when it came to actually making a purchase.

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The apartment is just over 600 square feet. Relatives helped her paint.

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Stefano Ukmar for The New York Times

She resolved to follow through. “Luckily, I love the thrill of the hunt,” she said.

Ms. Lewis knew she would get a small place in a no-frills building, probably a walk-up. Her biggest priority was a laundry room or the ability to add a washer-dryer. “I didn’t really have a grasp on what I could afford or what I needed to put down,” she said. “I was looking at the cheapest of the cheap.”

Then she discovered Neighbors Helping Neighbors, a counseling agency sponsored by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, and was connected with Robert McCool, the director of homeownership programs, who explained things like debt-to-income ratio, closing costs and flip taxes.

Craigslist, which Ms. Lewis checked daily, led her not to a studio but to a dilapidated H.D.F.C. two-bedroom on South Second Street in South Williamsburg for $310,000.

“I could see my vision,” she said. “I showed the photos to friends, and they were horrified. I was O.K. with that because I didn’t have much of a choice.”

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Big windows and bold color make the apartment a pleasant place to be.

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Stefano Ukmar for The New York Times

Her offer of $280,000 was accepted, but the place was tied up in probate court and not yet sellable. Then Ms. Lewis learned that some H.D.F.C. co-ops required a down payment of just 5 percent.

“That’s when what I was looking for kind of flipped,” she said. If she had a two-bedroom, she reasoned, she could rent out a room. And Williamsburg, where there were more H.D.F.C. buildings than in many other places in New York, was a good location for her, cutting her commute time to Manhattan in half.

Months passed, and she kept saving and hunting.

By now, her heart was set on Williamsburg. “I was looking for my diamond in the rough,” she said. “I saw some pretty bad things in really bad condition.”

One option was a two-bedroom on South First Street for $350,000. But it was a hall-less railroad flat, and would not offer her and a roommate much privacy.

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South Williamsburg Ms. Lewis liked a dilapidated two-bedroom a lot, despite its state. Alas, it was in probate.

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Stefano Ukmar for The New York Times

Two years ago, she saw another two-bedroom nearby. She liked the layout, with windows in the kitchen and bathroom. A walk-up, it had been lingering on the market.

“She was very educated on H.D.F.C.’s,” said the listing agent, Evelyn Magallanes, the owner/broker at City Living Realty, who specializes in H.D.F.C. co-ops. The apartment was in decent shape, but the price, $429,000 (with monthly maintenance in the low $700s), was out of reach.

“I put it in my back pocket and kept looking,” Ms. Lewis said. She also kept checking on the place in probate court. “I was really upset. I felt downtrodden.”

Then, nearly a year ago, Mr. McCool alerted her to a temporary change to the income cap in the city’s HomeFirst down payment assistance program. The cap had been raised to 120 percent of the area median income, from 80 percent. Now she qualified.

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South Williamsburg A two-bedroom was what Ms. Lewis wanted, but a place with a railroad layout wouldn’t allow her and a roommate much privacy.

Credit
Stefano Ukmar for The New York Times

And with the HomeFirst loan, plus her savings, plus a mortgage, she was able to buy the two-bedroom she had initially thought too expensive.

Ms. Lewis paid $380,000 and arrived in the summer with her cat, Pacha.

The apartment is just over 600 square feet, the same size as her old Kensington studio.

“I was super excited to personalize the space,” she said. Relatives helped her paint: The living room is pale pink; her bedroom is dark green. She found a roommate from Craigslist to defray expenses.

Ms. Lewis, who wrote about her home buying experience on her blog, installed a portable washer that connects to the kitchen sink and an electric dryer — slow but serviceable — with an indoor vent. At last, she feels at home.

“It is all possible because of the wonderful nonprofits here in New York City that were able to give me advice,” she said.

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