WBF? Real Estate Terms Decoded
Deciphering the meaning behind New York City real estate lingo is key to finding what you want in a market with a vacancy that hovers around 2 percent
Hunting for real estate in New York City – whether you want to buy, rent or sublet – requires command of a veritable alphabet soup of acronyms, the volume of which could make a Wall Streeter’s head spin. Not sure what a FSBO with CAC in the EV is? That’s understandable.
“While this may sound like a foreign language to some consumers, it helps brokers include as much information as possible in a listing description to paint a full picture,” said David Maundrell, founder and president of Aptsandlofts.com. “It’s always interesting to see how quickly buyers pick up on this lingo and start using it themselves during the house-hunt process.”
Despite the necessity of such lingo, it can still stop first-timers in their tracks. “I was absolutely bewildered when I first rented an apartment in East Harlem about six years ago,” said Jonathan, 31, who now lives in Chinatown. “Eventually, you learn the quirks of the process—how brokers talk, how to tell if someone is just shady.”
To help out the bemused among us, we’ve broken down some of the most frequently used (and some of the most convoluted) terms and acronyms in a handy guide to apartment browsing. Read on for important terms to know, suspicious phrases and deal-breakers.
TERMS TO KNOW
Alcove studio. An alcove studio is like a normal studio (on average the size of a Midwesterner’s master closet) but with an added alcove area for sleeping. In translation, it’s a studio and a half. In a Sentence: Julian found an alcove studio in the Bronx that’s only $700 a month. He can now afford to take his girlfriend somewhere other than McDonald’s.
Brownstones. These classic New York City buildings famously immortalized on screen (see Sesame Street and Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing for starters) are essentially row houses clad with brown sandstone. They are usually three and five stories high and are found with the most frequency in Brooklyn, but there are a number in the Upper West Side and Harlem. In a Sentence: Bob bought this gorgeous brownstone in Crown Heights back in ’95 for a song and fixed it up. He uses the whole fourth story to house his growing taxidermy collection.
Broker and broker fee. A licensed broker represents you in the rental, purchase or sale of an apartment. In exchange for this service, you pay a hefty lump-sum fee, often 10 to 20 percent of a year’s rent, or in the case of a seller, usually six percent of the total price. While the broker concept is foreign to renters from other cities, in New York City most apartment rentals are brokered through an agent (they are often colloquially called “brokers,” but some are merely real estate salespeople and not licensed brokers). Brokers often control the most desirable listings. Of course, the effort a broker expends ranges from merely showing you an apartment you found yourself to spending hours hunting down your perfect pad. In a Sentence: The prime Williamsburg apartment had a huge broker fee, while the one in Ditmas Park, with a shower in the kitchen, was listed by the owner directly.
CAC. Central air conditioning. An amenity foreign to most inhabitants of Gotham. New luxury rentals and condos may offer central air, but most apartment dwellers manage with window ACs, which loom perilously over sidewalks. In a Sentence: Yeah, I didn’t realize how cute he was until I went home with him and discovered he had CAC.
Co-op. Many New York City apartment buildings are in fact cooperatives or buildings where residents own shares in a corporation rather than real property. Co-ops have a reputation for a tedious approval process, and a co-op board will ask for the most intimate details—financial to familial—prior to approving a sale. There will be a face-to-face interview and applications can be denied for any reason. There are also usually strict rules on floor coverings, maintaining quiet hours and talking in hallways, etc., and most co-ops bar renting out units. In a Sentence: Sarah didn’t pass board approval on the fancy co-op she wanted to buy because they found out she shopped at Loehmann’s.
EIK. Eat-in kitchen. If you have an eat-in kitchen in the five boroughs, huzzah, you are an investment banker, an heiress or you live off the Q train an hour out of Manhattan. An eat-in kitchen means there’s room for a kitchen table, although “real” New Yorkers probably just order take-out anyway. In a Sentence: Yeah, I visited my Aunt Sally in Bensonhurst, got a great meatball sub and ate it in her EIK.
FSBO. For sale by owner. A direct sale can carry a cheaper price than a similar brokered home because the seller won’t need to factor in the broker commission. However, an owner who has chosen to circumvent brokers—the norm for most New York City real estate transactions—may be difficult, unrealistic on price or simply out of touch. In a Sentence: This brownstone I like is FSBO, and the owner said to ignore the standing water in the basement. Should I make an offer?
Loft. A loft apartment. This sought-after configuration usually indicates a large, open room converted from light industrial use. Lofts now command high rents and sale prices, not only because of high ceilings and sense of airy space they provide, but also because they are often in areas like SoHo and TriBeCa that attract celebrities and the moneyed in droves. In a Sentence: Let’s go to the loft party in TriBeCa. The place is Harry Potter-themed and owned by Nicholas Cage’s niece’s literary agent.
Keyed elevator. Those swanky pads on TV where the elevator opens into the apartment? That is a keyed elevator. But if you can afford one, you probably already know that. In a Sentence: Melissa woke up at this schmancy condo on New Year’s Day … it had a gym for dogs, a sauna for toddlers and a keyed elevator!
Pre-war. This term applies to any building built before WWII, and usually indicates spacious, stately co-ops in tony neighborhoods like the Upper West and Upper East sides. Prewar buildings are seen as status symbols with generally sturdy construction and classic architecture. At the other end of the spectrum, new construction buildings offer amenities and public spaces some buyer may be more interested in. In a Sentence: I’d prefer a prewar co-op near Central Park, but my budget dictates that I will be living in a siding-clad row house in Queens.
Railroad. An apartment with contiguous bedrooms, one of which is not accessible from some or all of the main rooms. Most New York City apartments have been reconfigured at some point, from single-family brownstones into multiple apartments or from large apartments into smaller units. The result is some wonky floor plans, one of which is often called the railroad. A railroad arrangement is tricky with roommates. It may work for you if there is a door from the central hallway into the isolated bedroom, or if you and your roommate are really good friends (or simply lovers). But for most people looking to share a space, a railroad-style set-up is not ideal. That said, the format may slash the price. In a Sentence: Sure, Don will have to walk through Angelique’s room every time he has to go to the bathroom, but they’re both saving $500 a month on rent.
Rent regulated. Apartments that are rent-regulated, meaning either rent-controlled or rent stabilized, are coveted as rents tend to fall below market rates. Rent-controlled apartments are rare and apply only to tenants or their direct family member who have been living in the apartment since before July 1, 1971. Rent goes up based on building improvements. Rent-stabilized apartments, which are more common, have rents which rise a certain percentage every year. (For more info go to housingnyc.com/html/resources/faq/rentstab.html) In a Sentence: I got a rent-stabilized apartment in 1996 and now can afford monthly trips to Maui.
Super. A superintendent. A super is a guy (or gal, in rare cases) who helps out with tasks at your apartment, and who, per Seinfeld, absolutely must be tipped at Christmas, lest he neglect your heating and plumbing or allow cockroaches and rats to proliferate in your home. In a Sentence: My super hasn’t fixed the buzzer since 1984, but I still give him $100 at Christmas.
Walk-up. The benign-sounding term “walk-up” means literally “a place you will have to walk up to” often for many floors. Walk-ups can go as high as the sixth floor for older or smaller buildings without an elevator. In a Sentence: I brought a keg to the party, but Ken lives in a fifth-floor walk-up, so I abandoned it on the street.
WBF or WBFP. Wood burning fireplace. It’s not a surprise if you don’t recognize this term, as sightings in New York City are about as rare as that of bald eagles in Central Park. If you find one, jump on it, as it will keep your heat bill down and your toes warm in the winter months. In a Sentence: Get your marshmallows ready, this apartment has a WBF.
WORDS TO LOOK OUT FOR
Just as you steer clear of employment listings that demand a “thick skin” or the “uncanny ability to multitask,” there are similar code words in apartment postings that jump out as red flags. Though these words and phrases might not be deal-breakers, you should think twice about schlepping to Utica Avenue in order to check out that “cozy railroad.”
Artsy. When the term is applied by a real estate broker, what good can come of it? While it’s possible the word is referencing charmingly distressed plank flooring, the more likely reference is to a dirty burned-out tenement on an outer borough street dominated by tire stores. Call: Check it out on Google Streetview and bring a friend.
Cozy. Most real estate in this fine city is already cozy by the standards of any other American state. You may want to think twice about apartments that admit straight-out that the space is minimal, unless you fetishize Tokyo-style pod living. Call: Arrange a viewing only if it’s on a well-served subway line or in a prime neighborhood.
Fee waived for the right person. While this may sound enticing, it’s likely that it’s a gimmick to attract a credit-worthy renter whose application for fee waiver will be denied regardless. Technically, there is no rule saying that owners can’t take steps like this to attract a tenant they’d like to rent to, but the Fair Housing Act stipulates that no one can discriminate on the basis of sex, family status, etc. So, anyone brazen enough to post a listing that feels like discrimination bait may not be the smartest or most aware owner or broker. Call: Best to steer clear.
Loft-like. It’s either a loft or it’s not, and if it’s only “loft-like,” chances are that it’s a studio that’s being dressed-up with a better sounding name. Call: Fine if you’re looking for a regular old studio, not so fine if you want a loft.
Junior 1 bed. While this sounds like a one-bedroom, what it usually means is that it’s a studio-sized apartment with a room walled off for a bed. The overall effect often makes an already tiny apartment feel even smaller. Call: Avoid unless you like the idea of sleeping in a closet.
If you ask to see a two-bedroom and you’re shown a three-bedroom or a four-bedroom, that’s a deal-breaker, renters, as the agent is looking to take you for a ride. The same is true if you respond to a no-fee advertisement and are told that “while that apartment isn’t available but we do have several just like it with a fee.” Other deal-breakers? “You must pay the broker fee in cash.” Yeah, and that broker is headed to Atlantic City with your $3,000.