Lessons Learned From a Decade of Answering Your Real Estate Questions

Q: For 10 years, Ronda Kaysen answered New Yorkers’ questions each week as The New York Times’s Ask Real Estate columnist. Now, as she shifts her focus to writing more feature articles for The Times, she looks back on what she’s learned. How did she answer the hardest questions and what parting words would she give to anyone seeking housing advice?

A: It’s an odd assignment, telling strangers how to deal with landlords, co-op boards, roommates and neighbors. But soon after I started writing the Ask Real Estate column in 2013, my editor offered me this advice: Think of myself as a bossy, but knowledgeable, big sister. As someone who grew up with two older sisters, I got it. If you were wrongheaded, I was here to set you straight. If you were wronged, I could help you defend yourself.

I soon became something of a 311 operator for The Times, fielding questions from New Yorkers baffled by the byzantine rules that govern their housing. How do you oust a roommate who refuses to leave? Can a co-op really ban overnight guests?

Week after week, I searched for solutions, sifting through laws, talking to industry professionals, government agencies, lawyers and other experts about how — or if — these problems could be fixed.

And this is where I found a common thread: Before you act, know your rights and your leverage. Read your lease, read state and city laws, anticipate the worst-case scenario before you decide what to do.

I learned that it helps to find allies. If you’ve been dealing with stolen packages for months, odds are you’re not the only one. A chorus of voices pestering a dispassionate landlord is harder to ignore than a single one. Of course, this means you have to talk to your neighbors, and what New Yorker wants to do that?

Which brings me to the next lesson: For New Yorkers, hell is other people. Yes, they resent their landlords and co-op boards, but they are pretty down on each other, too. They hate each other’s pets, children, musical tastes and smoking habits. One person was shocked when his neighbors reported him for walking around his own apartment naked. A home buyer couldn’t believe that the seller would take the chandelier.

What can readers take away from all this? Talk to each other. A bottle of wine or a box of cookies can go a long way toward keeping the peace. But when your rights are violated, and the law is on your side, don’t be afraid to rock the boat and protect yourself. (You may even find that the allies you’ve made rally behind you.)

As I pass the baton to a new columnist, I will miss helping people live calmer, saner lives in the city. And yes, I’ll also miss being the bossy big sister.

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