I spent months freaking out about my co-op board interview -- here's the best advice I can give you

Working late stressed office nightShutterstockNot me, but not so far off the mark, stress-wise.

The night before my co-op board interview this winter, I had nightmares.

I don’t remember them anymore, just that there was fire and a co-op board and a general feeling of hatred — theirs, not mine.

I was trying to buy a one-bedroom co-op apartment in a New York City suburb, about 30 minutes away from Penn Station by train.

(Spoiler alert: I got it.)

The board had been a looming presence since the first time I looked at the place. Unlike a condo or a house, when you buy a co-op, what you’re actually buying is not only the privilege of sharing walls with your neighbours, but also shares in the building, complete with stock certificate.

For that reason — well, probably also because of said shared walls — a board of “shareholders” has to meet with, interview, and approve every potential applicant.

So the process goes, ideally and in broad strokes:

• Make offer / have offer accepted by seller

• Get bank approval and commitment for mortgage, if applicable

• Sign mutually agreed-upon contract

• Get approval from co-op board

If the co-op board doesn’t approve you, so much for your offer, your mortgage commitment, and your contract. It’s over.

Here’s the best advice I can give you, courtesy of my real estate attorney father, relayed via email the night before I made the frigid trek to the suburbs after work. “You’ll be fine. These people all want to go home and watch television like the rest of us.”

Duh, right? Let me explain why this was so helpful.

Overall, the buying process went smoothly. I made an offer and the buyer accepted within two days. “Don’t get too excited,” my mother cautioned me. “It’s not yours until the co-op board approves you.” This was the guiding principle of the next few months, as we bickered with the seller’s lawyer over tedium, like whether I was guaranteed a parking space in the building lot or not and while we filled out every paper ever produced.

So by the time the board interview came, over three months after my initial offer was accepted by the seller, all of my nerves were on edge. I had arranged to leave my rented apartment, and my landlord had someone moving in days after I left. I needed to know whether I’d have anywhere to go.

I did what anyone would do: I Googled. “How to prepare for a co-op board interview.” “What to do at a co-op board interview.” OK, fine: “Co-op board interview.”

Here’s the gist of what I found: Look nice. Arrive on time. Be friendly but not chatty. Answer only the questions you’re asked, and don’t volunteer any information about anything, lest they have a reason to ask you more questions. Don’t try to be funny. And don’t get offended and flounce off, no matter what.

Is it just me, or is most of that just common sense? Ultimately, it boils down to the anti-job interview: Instead of giving them reasons to “hire” you, just keep from giving them reasons not to.

I asked my realtor for advice, and she sent me an article I’d already read. I memorized answers to common board questions listed online (“Would you be interested in serving on the board?” “I’ve never done it before, but if the building needed me I’d be happy to help out!” [Smile]). I carefully laid out a “business casual” outfit. I took screenshots of the train schedule on the night of my interview, lest I be late. I asked the management company for a contact phone number, just in case something happened and my screenshots were wrong and I was out on the street in the cold while they cursed my name (“Sorry, we can’t provide numbers of board members“).

By this time, the board was a huge presence in my mind, one that had loomed over every step of the process. Don’t tell them if you plan on making renovations! Don’t mention whether a significant other will live there — or if you have a significant other! Don’t say anything about anything unless you’re directly asked, and then say as little as possible!

So, my dad’s advice was a breath of fresh air. These people all want to go home and watch television like the rest of us. It was 7 p.m. on a dark, cold weeknight in February. As much as I didn’t want to schlep out there, they probably didn’t want to gather in the super’s office and ask a stranger about the balance of her retirement accounts.

I was the second person there. I didn’t get stranded outside. I accidentally made small talk about the weather while we were waiting for the rest of the group arrived and then mentally chastised myself as I forgot all of their names. I was able to offer my copy of the materials to someone who was missing a page. I told a group of strangers about my salary and work history, and that yes, I was fully confident I could make my monthly payments. I eyed the five separate copies of my financial and personal information in their laps that might as well be called the EZ-identity-theft packets.

And you know what? They were very nice. I was fine. Less than half an hour later, we all went home to watch TV.

The next day, I got an email: I was approved.

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