Small Co-ops: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Small Co-ops: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

- in Real Estate

The bad news: Because there are only a few shareholders, “any discord will be magnified and factions will have more influence,” said Steven Sladkus, a real estate lawyer. “Four people banding together may not get far in an 80-unit building, but they’ll get very far in an eight-unit building.”

The good news: With just a few residents, a small co-op building is almost like a private house, and your neighbors become like family.

The bad news: With just a few residents, a small co-op building is almost like a private house, and your neighbors become like family.

When Saskia Coleman and her husband, Brendan, decided to take that big step — to go from renters to owners — they considered all options. They looked at large full-service buildings, “where the apartments were very cookie cutter,” said Ms. Coleman, 36, the chief executive and president of Radius, a personal care company. “But that’s not our style. We wanted a unique space.”

Mr. McLaughlin and Ms. Grace at their Chelsea co-op.

Jacqueline Mia Foster for The New York Times

Two and a half years ago, the couple found that unique space — a loft duplex with a balcony in a self-managed, seven-unit co-op in the Flatiron district.

“There are a lot of benefits — it’s quiet and it’s private,” Ms. Coleman said. “The negatives are that it’s like living with family. When things happen, you can’t separate yourself and say, ‘Let the management company handle it.’ ”

A management company would have been useful to mediate an ongoing battle in their building. Because it is a landmark, the front windows must conform to a particular style. “One shareholder is complaining that her windows don’t open to her satisfaction, and she wants the rest of us to pay to replace them,” Ms. Coleman said. “We’ve all told her the windows are fine, and she now sees us as the heavies.”

Of course, doing without a management company saves money, one reason small co-ops tend to have lower maintenance fees. They are also light on services and amenities like doormen, gyms and elevators — yet another way to keep a lid on shareholders’ monthly fiscal obligation.

“The cost of operating our building is $4 a square foot,” said Charles Morisi, 60, who works in real estate development and owns a duplex in a small co-op in Park Slope, Brooklyn. “It could be four or five times that in a full-service building.”

The seven-unit co-op in the Flatiron district where Saskia Coleman and her husband, Brendan, live.

Jacqueline Mia Foster for The New York Times

There have been other issues where Ms. Coleman lives. “It’s very easy for power to be taken in a small co-op,” she said. “The people who’ve been here the longest do most of the decision-making. It’s great because they know how to get things done. But there is cronyism. We want to know why they’re using a particular plumber who charges a lot, and the longtime shareholders get annoyed when we question their decisions.”

And every problem is everybody’s problem. “You start weighing the value of making a noise when you have a concern,” said Ms. Coleman, citing the example of a vestibule door that failed to close properly. “You turn a blind eye to certain things to avoid the barrage of discussion that will follow.”

Ms. Coleman is pregnant with her second child. The family needs more space. While that’s the primary reason for their planned move this spring to a larger apartment in a full-service building, it doesn’t hurt one bit that there will be a management company to deal with thorny matters. There will also be many more residents “to spread around the hostility,” Ms. Coleman said with a laugh.

When you only have half a dozen neighbors, it would be nice to limit personality clashes. But prospective residents need to broaden their definition of congeniality beyond, “How perfect, we all have toddlers.”

“You have to consider how you fit with the building’s dynamic and whether the shareholders share your beliefs about how to handle problems,” said Ms. Braddock of William Raveis.

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