Monday, July 23, 2007

Monday Night in Soho: Alison Rogers & "Diary of a Real Estate Rookie" at McNally Robinson

This report by Richard Grayson first appeared on Jeff Bryant's blog Syntax of Things (go there for the original links) on Monday, July 23, 2007:

New York is one of the most expensive cities to live in, but its many bookstores provide free entertainment nearly every night for those residents on a budget. Most bookstore readings and appearances begin between 6:30 and 7:30 p.m., and oldsters can get home in time to be in bed before The 10 O'Clock News ("Do you know where your ability to stay up late is?") and others can get out in time for real fun, when the night is still as young as they are -- just not so drugged up.

With the mammoth Harry Potter for Grownups party of Friday night now a memory, this evening at 7 p.m. Soho's McNally Robinson store featured an appearance by Alison Rogers, author of Diary of a Real Estate Rookie: My Year of Flipping, Selling, and Rebuilding and What I Learned (The Hard Way).

The book is based on the online column for the website InmanNews about her new career as a real estate agent that Rogers, the founder of the New York Post's real estate section, began after she "stormed off in a huff" after 20 years of being treated like, well, like someone who works for the News Corporation's crazed management. (Her book's dedication is "To Rupert Murdoch, whose refusal to pay me a decent wage launched me on the adventure of a lifetime.”)

So I guess you could call Diary of a Real Estate Rookie a "blook" -- except it seems more like a memoir with sidebars (i.e., when looking at apartments to buy, bring along a heavy book like Ulysses so you can drop it on the floor at an opportune moment and see how many howling dogs and crying babies you can flush out).

No doubt many in the crowd were there just for the Q & A to find out where the cheap condos are (try Little Rock) but some of us came for the pleasures of Rogers' prose:
I write weekly dispatches about my real estate adventures, which I had pitched as "trading in my Jimmy Choos for a hard hat," and this is the first time in four months life really feels that way. Hey, I'm in the belly of the flip. What's it like? Well, your intrepid heroine is playing a beam of light through a darkened house, and she sees ... crap everywhere. Abandoned mattresses, fast-food wrappings, in one case actual human waste where someone had squatted like a dog over a piece of plastic, and then wandered off again. I feel only drugs could have caused people to live like this. I had seen a crèche proudly displayed on someone's lawn the day before, and what stuck in my head was, "I wonder if conditions in the manger were this bad." At one point, my partner moves a refrigerator, and a yowl and a streak of escaping black-and-white fur revealed that he'd surprised a cat. Frankly, I was glad it wasn't some kind of gigantor rat.

Though some in the audience didn't quite get it -- and I suppose that Kaplan, Rogers' publisher, may not want them to -- after listening to several beautifully crafted entries that Rogers read tonight, I suspect the New York Observer was on the mark when it said that this is a book about real estate the way the NPR show Car Talk is about cars.

Not that you won't learn a good deal: as Publishers Weekly noted, "...the book doesn’t just rely on funny turns of phrase: it also provides plenty of working advice, including tips on handling lowball offers, staging the sale of a bohemian apartment and talking to your realtor. Those looking for some good information on the real estate industry in a book that doesn’t feel like homework will be hard-pressed for a better choice."

I learned, for example, why the $10,000-a-month end of the rental market is impervious to any downturn and why Sub-Zero and Mille appliances are de rigeur and that when one Manhattan luxury building provides cold storage for grocery deliveries, within weeks every other luxury building has a refrigerator/freezer in its lobby.

Alison Rogers is wry, thoughtful and often extremely funny: the epistolary entry that she read as her last excerpt, "Sorry I Hid Your Underwear," makes equal fun of sellers, buyers, agents and the author herself.

Oh, and there were enough struggling writers in the audience so that of course one asked where in the city struggling writers could afford to live. Alison Rogers noted that she used to enjoy hanging out with Neal Pollack and his wife, but that successful as Neal has been, they moved first to Philadelphia and then to Austin.

"So that doesn't bode well for you," she told the questioner, suggesting that struggling writers might want to band together with their equally struggling writer friends and explore neighborhoods outside New York -- and maybe outside New Jersey, and maybe even outside the whole Northeastern corridor. . .

Still, I have to admit to being disappointed that Rogers didn't show more skepticism about the New York market. Like everyone else here, she buys into the myth that New York is "different," that it's now like London or Tokyo, a place where the superrich from all over the globe want to live. Rogers says nearly all her clients are younger than she is (she's 40 and a newlywed): mostly corporate lawyers and hedge fund types.

Having lived most recently in two markets -- South Florida and Phoenix -- that became incredibly overheated and then crashed below ground, plus knowing that my friends who bought Manhattan co-ops in 1987 who had to sell them before 1992 often took a substantial loss, I'm skeptical that New York's real estate market is somehow invulnerable.

Still, given her diary's literate digressions -- whether musings on the deaths of two rather inept New Jersey cops or reflections on how her "flipping" failures affected her relationship with her new husband -- this isn't a book just for New Yorkers. Newsweek's anointment of Diary of a Real Estate Rookie as a "pick of the week" indicates that it's a book lots of people not currently facing foreclosure can enjoy.

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