New York Real Estate Then & Now

Joy Weiner
Apr 9 · 4 min read

I am awestruck by the changes in real estate since I started as an agent in 1987. It was a burgeoning field then and easy to enter, unlike it is today. For a beginner, there were many roads to success within the industry, beyond having an extensive personal network. The buying public was dependent on their agent for guidance, advice and data. You would connect through a phone call in response to an ad in the New York Times, at an open house or when the client simply walked in to the real estate office. Here are a few more ways this dynamic field has changed:

  1. There were no computers or internet. All communication was done by telephone and fax.
  2. Listings were faxed daily from the main office to the branches. The listing was then shrunk, copied and stapled to a 3 x 5 card and organized by number of bedrooms into each broker’s Rolodex.
  3. In addition to a Rolodex, every agent had either a Daytimer or Filofax. A Daytimer was a spiral bound monthly planner with corners on each day page perforated to be removed daily. A Filofax was a British leather bound calendar and planner. Imagine all the details on Outlook in hard copy. Try carrying that around!
  4. There were no cell phones. We carried bags of quarters around and used public phone booths or came back to the office to make calls.
  5. It was mandatory to have an answering machine which recorded your message or work with an answering service with live operators to take the message for you.
  6. Most properties were non-exclusive and open listings so the owner would distribute keys to the various offices. The keys were kept in a key box and would be signed out by the agent and returned the same day.
  7. Condominiums were just starting to be built and were considered much less prestigious than coops. Coops carried a sense of exclusivity where you had to be “accepted” by a board. The idea that anyone could buy an apartment in a condominium was a somewhat maligned concept. Snobbish? You bet!
  8. When a building was converting from a rental to a coop, a building resident would typically be able to buy the property for 50% off market value and was allowed to sell their rights to purchase the property to an outsider for a profit.
  9. Most agents did not start their career in real estate until they were in their 30s and had professional business experience.
  10. Corcoran was a startup business that differentiated themselves from traditional real estate offices through unprecedented marketing, public relations and a comprehensive market report.
  11. All advertisements were placed in The New York Times. It was the only media where you could find a new listing, call the owner directly and sell the property.
  12. Buyers and sellers relied on their agent for sold data as it was not public information and shared only within the brokerage community.
  13. Company parties were lavish and creative. Barbara Corcoran, the then chairperson of the eponymous company, hosted several fabulous events such a circus at her country home, a dog costume party in Central Park, a 50s glamour party at the The Rainbow Room, and a gambling night with her face on all the fake money at Capitale.
  14. Small independent companies such as Edward Lee Cave and Alice Mason dominated the luxury markets and were mainstays of social pages and gossip columns. A few small luxury companies still exist but most have been incorporated into larger firms.
  15. Only one company, Bellmarc, which is no longer in business, had a training program. When I started there, I did not even know what a mortgage was. Now all the big firms have very sophisticated training programs on a year-round basis.
  16. The majority of buyers did not renovate their new apartments. Most bought “as is” and kept it that way. Home renovation did not explode until the end of the 1990s as shelter magazines became mainstream.
  17. Monthly common charges for condominiums were lower than coop monthly maintenance charges and were fairly consistent at $1.15 a square foot. For example, if your apartment was 1,000 square feet, your monthly condo fees would be about $1,150 a month.
  18. We used typewriters to prepare the board packages.
  19. A $600,000 sale for a classic six-room apartment was a big deal!
  20. Most east side buildings did not allow weekend and evening showings. Some still maintain this policy. It harkens back to a time when it was assumed the wife did not work and would be free to look at homes during the week.
  21. Most agents focused on one neighborhood since there were fewer agents and more property. Since I lived on the West Side, this is where I did almost 100% of my deals. It wasn’t until a decade later that I started selling on the east side. Now I sell all over the city, from one end to the other.
  22. Neighborhoods did not have the appeal they have today.

The Lower East Side was not hip. It’s where you bought discount designer clothing and kosher pickles.

The Meatpacking District was incredibly dangerous, and populated with prostitutes — I remember seeing one walking up Greenwich Street topless.

The Bowery was filled only with the destitute and forlorn.

Union Square was something akin to a medieval village during The Plague.

The west side was filled with theater folk who you could hear rehearsing as you walked below the brownstone windows.

The east side was the most desirable neighborhood in the city.

Soho was filled with artists and a couple of reliable cafés and bars.

Battery Park did not exist.

Tribeca was not even a word.

Joy Weiner

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Licensed Associate Real Estate Broker | Selling fine Manhattan homes since 1987