Dangerous Liaisons: the Perils of the Pied-Affaire 

Feb 06, 2005

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THE middle-aged investment banker already owned a home in an upscale Connecticut suburb when he sought the help last fall of Darren Sukenik, a senior vice president at Douglas Elliman, to buy a one-bedroom pied-à-terre. Within days, the man settled on a $1.1 million condominium in a new West Village building. His offer accepted, he asked Mr. Sukenik to arrange a time to show the apartment to "Anne" before signing the contract.

"I made the mistake of phoning him at home," Mr. Sukenik recalled. The banker's wife answered, and when Mr. Sukenik blithely explained that he was calling to confirm the showing, she expressed bewilderment. But her attitude changed to pleasant surprise when Mr. Sukenik explained that her husband wanted her approval on a Manhattan pied-à-terre before signing the contract.

A few minutes later, the banker called Mr. Sukenik from his cellphone.

"He was furious," Mr. Sukenik said. After a moment, the client, apparently understanding that he was to blame for not making the situation plainer, "very gingerly and very gently explained to me that 'Anne' was not his wife." the broker said.

"He handled it with her by saying he was surprising her for their anniversary," said Mr. Sukenik, who wound up touring the client's wife and 20-something girlfriend through the apartment separately. (Not long after the closing, Mr. Sukenik said, his client filed for divorce.)

Such soap-opera skulduggery is all in a day's work for brokers who become involved, knowingly or not, with a client seeking a place for extramarital assignations. But business is business, and for brokers, the rewards can occasionally be high, as some philandering spouses seem not to blink when it comes to housing the object of their affection.

To use an engagement-ring analogy, pied-affaires range from the micro-diamond-chip variety (one-bedroom rentals in the $2,000 to $2,500 range), to a respectable one or two carats ($1 million to $2 million, or, in a rental, $4,000 to $5,000 a month), all the way up to more-than-respectable, multimillion-dollar dazzlers. (In comparison, Bernard Kerik's rented Battery Park City two-bedroom love nest seems downright proletariat.)

Asked who precisely looks for these specialized second homes, brokers answer that, with some exceptions, the old stereotypes hold true: well-off older men seeking to set up young, attractive women in style - in a condominium, if they can afford it, or a rental, if they cannot. Many times, though hardly always, the men retain ownership of the place and simply let the women live there.

"In the movie 'Pretty Woman,' she only wanted to get married, but a lot of the pretty women in New York really only want a condo," said Michele Kleier, president of Gumley Haft Kleier, who has brokered her share of such transactions, typically condominiums in the $2 million to $3 million range.

Among this demographic, condos are prized particularly for their less-intrusive (compared to co-ops) application process and their usual indifference to the divergence of identity between owner and occupant. Because established condos can be almost as nosy as co-ops, philandering buyers often turn to new condominium buildings, where screening is often more perfunctory. Sometimes, they buy them in their own names, and other times, they set up a corporation for the purpose of making the investment.

For buyers of preconstruction-stage apartments, "Ninety-nine-point-nine-nine-five percent of the time, if they're approved for the mortgage, they're approved for the building," said Mr. Sukenik of Douglas Elliman. Someone buying a new condominium as a love nest, he said, "is doing three things: A, there's a huge amount of upside because you're buying preconstruction; B, the chickadee has somewhere to live; and, C, the corporation has a tax write-off." Reflecting on his investment banker client, he concluded, "While he might be shady, he certainly was smart."

Barbara Corcoran, founder and chairwoman of the Corcoran Group, suggested that some pied-affaires evolved out of real estate speculation. "A lot of smart businessmen have heavily invested in apartment buildings in the recent go-go years," she said. "They often leave apartments vacant, an ideal spot for housing a girlfriend." She added that the sybaritic trappings of the "super-duper luxury condo"- including amenities like double-wide tubs, gleaming top-of-the-line kitchens and gigantic flat-screen televisions - make staying in more appealing to illicit couples. In addition, mobile communication has made nesting more feasible. "It's easier to be somewhere and have others think you're elsewhere, thanks to the Treo and Blackberry," she said.


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