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Monday, May 18, 2009

Looking for a home in NYC ain't easy

Mary Elizabeth Williams, her husband and two daughters's search for a home in New York City is recounted in Gimme Shelter- Ugly Houses, Cruddy Neighborhoods, Fast-talking Brokers, and Toxic Mortgages: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream.

Timing is everything, and Mary Elizabeth and her husband started their search in 2003,at the height of the home buying insanity. After living in a cramped apartment with one daughter and another on the way, she convinced her husband it was time to look for a home of their own.

If there is anything harder than finding an affordable rental unit in NYC, it's finding an affordable condo, co-op or home to buy. Williams places her story in the perspective of the national experience. Many of her friends were buying homes across the country, and she tells their different stories- from San Francisco to post-Katrina New Orleans to St. Louis to Minnesota.

Williams and her husband lived in Brooklyn, and they loved it there, so it was there that their search began. She figured they could afford a $350,000 mortgage, but everything in that price range was awful, filthy with missing stairs, sagging porches and a home that had mushrooms growing inside the house.

Brooklyn was becoming as expensive as Manhattan, as Manhattanites were spreading over the bridge and making real estate prices skyrocket. Getting a mortgage was a scary proposition as well. While Williams and her husband had excellent FICO scores, they did not have the 20% required for a down payment.

No problem; this is where the creative ideas of mortgage brokers come in. They could get a no-doc loan. This type of loan requires no pesky checking by the bank to see if the information provided by the prospective buyers on salary and credit history is accurate. Williams humorously described this type of loan as the banking industry's version of "don't ask, don't tell". While Williams and her husband were good credit risks, other people who received no-doc loans were not; thus created the housing crisis that tanked our economy.

For three long years, Williams and her husband looked at condos, co-ops and houses. They finally found a co-op they liked in a neighborhood that, although far from Brooklyn, had a big park, a grocery store, decent schools, and most importantly a nearby subway station. (Anyone who lives in New York understands how crucial that is.)

There is as much suspense as in a Stephen King novel as they wait for approval by the co-op board in a timely manner in order to get the low interest rate they need to afford the bank loan.

This is a timely book, as Williams shares her personal story of looking for the American dream of home ownership in the context of the beginning of the housing crisis. It is immensely readable, reading almost like a novel, and if you have ever bought a house, you will relate to her story.

Rating: 4 of 5 stars

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