Mightier Than the Board 

May 28, 2006

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IN New York City, letters of recommendation are part of the hazing ritual known as a board package, whereby a buyer must convince a co-op board that he or she would make a worthy neighbor. But in this era of cellphones and instant messaging, formal letters of recommendation solicited from friends and associates can seem as quaint as cucumber sandwiches, with buyers and writers alike tempted to treat them as crustless formalities.

"It's not really a blowoff," said Joan Sacks, an associate broker at Stribling who sits on the board of her white-glove building at 45 Sutton Place South. "Many people believe falsely the letters will never be considered, because who would ask for one from someone who would give a bad one. But the quality of the letters will speak to the kinds of people the applicant knows, their ability to write well, and most importantly, the ability to provide a sense at a personal level what the applicant and his family are like."

Boards typically require three to six letters from friends, employers and professional colleagues. And depending on the building and the candidate, the letter-writing ritual can make the difference between acceptance and rejection. But, brokers lament, letters of recommendation continue to be chronically misunderstood, occasionally faked and frequently bungled — sometimes to comic effect.

Consider the reference submitted by a lawyer on behalf of a couple buying a one-bedroom pied-à-terre a few years ago. "Both applicants are of the highest moral turpitude," he wrote.

"I read it three times to myself, saying 'This has got to be a joke,' " said Susan Ruttner, a senior vice president of Halstead Property who, as the seller's agent, reviewed the board package before it was submitted. The writer was asked for a revision.

"I get a new one faxed to me a month later that says: 'I purchased a dictionary for my secretary. Sorry for the previous effort,' " Ms. Ruttner said. "He changed it to 'of the highest moral character.' "

The inadvertently maligned buyers got the apartment.

Sometimes, the letters really are intended as jokes — ones that are not always recognized until it is nearly too late. When an actor asked a comedian friend for a reference, he said that the actor "sleeps all day, and he's really very quiet, even at night when he practices the piano at 3 in the morning, and he's actually very talented," said Michele Kleier, the chairwoman of Gumley Haft Kleier. The letter slipped by the buyer's broker and would have gone into the board package if Ms. Kleier, the seller's broker, hadn't noticed something amiss. "About four days later, the real letter arrived," Ms. Kleier said.

Less amusing, she said, was a reference on behalf of a couple buying one of her listed apartments. "It was very long and started out beautifully," she recalled, "and toward the end there was a paragraph about how wonderful these people were in the face of adversity — that after three bankruptcies, they landed on their feet each time and only did better, and now their lives had turned around. And I said, 'Oh my God, who wants to have someone in their building who has had three bankruptcies?' "

It is also unwise to bring up a candidate's penchant for entertaining or for cooking pungent-smelling foods. JoAnne Kennedy, the chief operating officer of Coldwell Banker Hunt Kennedy, said that other instances of innocent sabotage involve statements like "they train pit bulls and have five grandchildren that they like to take care of."

She also bemoaned references to "things that are absolutely off the wall — like gun collections."

"I mean, gun collecting is an honorable pastime in some parts of the world," she said. "But New Yorkers don't collect guns; they collect art."

Obvious miscues like these rarely make it to the board. They wind up in rewrite or in a dead-letter file after the brokers have vetted them. But plenty of people submit brief, pro forma letters that brokers can do little about if the writer is unwilling to try again.

These terse cookie-cutter letters bespeak a maladroit candidate who doesn't play well with others, particularly when they are from social references.

"The last thing you want in a package is four letters, each of which is two-sentence paragraphs," said Frederick Peters, president of Warburg Realty, who was the president of his board on Central Park West for five years. "That makes a really bad impression. When I was a board president, what I thought was that people couldn't really be bothered. And I think that says something about how they feel about the applicant."

The tone and content of the ideal letter vary according to the building. An astute broker can tell you whether a chatty, sophisticated or businesslike approach will work best.

But all letters should describe through specific examples "people who have a solid base in society in terms of relationships," said Judith H. Saunders, a senior vice president of Halstead. "They show that you can get along with people, accommodate yourself to other people's needs, and you're not going to make unreasonable demands."

A reference from a fellow volunteer, for example, should say "not just that you sit on the board, but that you worked tirelessly to raise money for X and painted the playground," said Laura Matiz, an executive vice president of Bellmarc Realty.

While stock phrases like "financially prudent," "quietly reliable" and "excellent reputation" have their uses, they are no substitute for personal and powerful storytelling. "I've had other board members tell me they've been moved to tears on more than one occasion by beautiful letters of a beautiful friendship," said Maury Solomon, an associate broker at Halstead and former board member at an Upper West Side building.

Ms. Sacks recalled the stirring recommendation she recently read "from a woman who met her next-door neighbors"— the buyers — "because of 9/11. She lived alone and was absolutely terrified to come out of her apartment. Her next-door neighbors made it a point to ring her doorbell and make sure she was all right and befriended her and really helped her get through that kind of trauma."

While some board members are motivated mostly by curiosity, satisfying it can be tantamount to a red carpet at the board interview, the final and traditionally most feared part of the application process.

"We're all very nosy people," Ms. Kennedy said. "Look at all the reality shows on television. And when you know another person's story, you then learn how to connect with them."

Of course, in New York, who is writing can be as important as what they say.

"Sometimes a building wants to know who the letters are from before the application review," said Margaret Furniss, a vice president of Stribling, referring to certain buildings in the white-glove category, including those that expect handwritten letters on engraved stationery. "They want to make sure the buyers know people who live in the same sort of co-ops. And they want a snapshot profile of who the person is. What kind of world do they live in?"

At other times, it's the seller who may be gun-shy. Last year, Ms. Matiz helped sell a $2.5 million apartment on Park Avenue after the board had already turned down one pair of financially qualified buyers, raising suspicions of a "social" turndown. "The seller's agent would not look at our financials until they knew who the letter writers were," Ms. Matiz said. "I gave them very wealthy C.E.O.'s who all lived on Park Avenue."

In a slightly different wrinkle, a seller's broker weighing competing bids may ask for the names of the letter writers to help identify the offer most likely to pass the board.

The "right" names depend on the personality of the building. "Different buildings are looking for different things," said Mr. Peters, Warburg's president. "There are some buildings which are quite clubby, and they want letters from people they know, so you have to figure out who's on the board, what they do, and figure out if you know someone who knows them."

(On the other hand, brokers warn, don't ask someone who barely knows you, even a famous someone, to write a recommendation, and think carefully before including one of your potential neighbors. "You don't know whether they are really well liked or not," said Mr. Solomon of Halstead.)

So can reference letters really torpedo an application?

Occasionally, yes.

"We had at least one experience on my board that I can recall in which the letters hinted to us at stuff that we then did more research to find out, which led us to conclude that the candidate was not right for us," Mr. Peters said, referring to his Central Park West board.

Much more commonly, great letters can push a buyer with so-so financials across the finish line.

"If it's a business recommendation and that letter is saying John Jones is a highly competent employee and his future with our company is excellent, that, of course, becomes very significant in weighing that applicant," said Ms. Sacks of Stribling.

Similarly, Ms. Furniss, her colleague at Stribling, said: "If you have an entry-level couple and their finances are sort of on the edge, if their letters all say they're honest and straightforward and always meet their obligations personally and financially, that can tip it right over into their favor. A lot of boards are interested in having smart young people on their way up in the building and will give a leg up to people like that."

What if you are quiet, honest and reasonably solvent but keep to yourself? This is not the moment to abandon type and forge a set of letters, at least not in the traditional sense.

Some boards actually check references, especially on the Upper East Side. "Your 10 percent deposit can be lost that quickly," Mr. Solomon said.

But there are legitimized types of fakery — for example, when references say they will sign whatever you write (or when a script-doctoring broker offers to "fill out" an awkward or anemic letter). While this is not cause for disqualification, it can backfire by producing a subpar letter.

"You always get better references from someone else than one you write yourself," said Ms. Saunders of Halstead. "People writing their own letters and asking a friend to sign it are less likely to have personal detail quality."

Plagiarism is another problem and often can be traced to the sample letters brokers hand out. "Then, the danger is that everybody uses it, and you get four letters back, and all of them have the same middle paragraph," Mr. Peters said.

Anthony vanEyck Miller, a vice president of Bellmarc, defended the widespread practice of distributing examples. "In this age of e-mails, many college-educated people do not know how to write well," he said, "and they don't know how to construct a letter. With a sample, they get the idea."

Sometimes, a board confronting a sheaf of clonish or skeletal letters will ask for a new and improved set. But if a candidate's finances are excellent, money will usually speak louder than words.

"At the end of the day, it's the finances of the buyer that count," said Mr. Miller, a veteran of two boards. "The reference letters simply legitimize whatever conclusions the board might have already reached by view of the financial statements."

Regardless of the outcome, a board package containing detailed and moving references may carry sentimental value.

"It's like a little time capsule," said Meg Siegel, a senior vice president of Sotheby's International Realty and the president of her SoHo board for five years. "A friend or associate who writes a wonderful letter for you — it's a wonderful marking of time, of where you are at this point in your life. It's kind of like a complete packet that really sums up who this person really is. And it's pretty accurate."


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