Saying Ciao to Little Italy
Home ownership new stage for woman after years in $600 apartment
New York Daily News
BY Lore Croghan
Published July 16, 2007
For 20 years, whenever Claire Higgins was ready for a bath or ready for dinner, she headed to the same room.
Her Spring St. apartment in Little Italy was a 400-square-foot, fifth-floor walkup with a bathtub in the kitchen.
But the rent was dirt cheap - which left Higgins, who earned a living as a speech pathologist, with money to spend on the Chain Lightning Theater company she started 16 years ago with her husband, actor Kricker James.
That pursuit changed after James died of cancer 10 years ago. Three years later, she staged her final production, "When Real Life Begins," which playwright Karen Sunde compiled from essays and short stories Higgins, a lymphoma survivor, wrote as part of her participation in a bereavement group. And Higgins, 47, decided to leave the theater and the tiny apartment behind.
She took the advice of her 89-year-old mother, Agnes, who'd been saying for the longest time, "You ought to buy a place. You won't be able to walk up the stairs forever."
The Plainfield, N.J., native, who earns about $80,000 a year working with preschool and kindergarten kids with autism at Public School 226 in the West Village, is the last of 14 children in her family to become a homebuyer.
Higgins spent two years paying off thousands of dollars of credit card debt accumulated during her and her late husband's illnesses, so her finances were in good shape.
But first she got homebuyer's counseling through ACORN, a nonprofit group that helps low- and middle-income workers, which is offered free to the teachers' union. She also talked with a brother-in-law who's a retired banker - he told her she could afford to buy. She set a price limit of $475,000.
She looked in Greenwich Village, Chelsea, the upper West Side and in Concord Village near Brooklyn Heights. Then, she focused on Co-op Village on the lower East Side.
For decades, co-ops in the dozen union-built properties along Grand St. went for very cheap prices. But if owners wanted to move, they had to sell the units back to their co-op for little or no profit. Would-be buyers put their names on lists and waited, sometimes for years.
The rules were changed several years ago to allow open-market sales. Though prices shot up, they're still lower than those in many Manhattan neighborhoods.
Higgins made an offer for an apartment in the East River development of Co-op Village. But the place needed work, and she couldn't get the seller to drop the $480,000 asking price. Then Doris Elpin of LoHo Realty took her to see a 750-square-foot one-bedroom in Co-op Village's Seward Park complex.
"I had a good feeling about it," Higgins said. She liked the size, solid construction and landscaped lawns.
"I can smell the trees," she said. "It's like the suburbs in the city."
The asking price was $440,000. She and the seller settled on $426,000, and the seller also agreed to replace the worn-out parquet floor in the bedroom.
She pulled together the 20% down payment of $85,200 from several sources - including one unlikely contributor.
While some of the money came from savings, her landlord on Spring St. kicked in $10,000.
Why would he help?
Amid a hot real estate market, she asked him to pay her in exchange for giving up her $600-a-month lease. In return, he got to substantially raise the rent for the next tenant.
Higgins also borrowed from her pension fund and a tax-deferred annuity she'd been fattening for retirement. Family members gave her about $20,000.
She took a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage at 6% from Bank of America. Her mortgage and co-op maintenance payments total about $2,400 per month.
That's four times her former rent. But there's more money in her paychecks now because her accountant lowered her tax withholding, knowing she'll be able to take big deductions for her mortgage interest. And Higgins plans to earn extra money this year by doing a summer-school stint.
When she closed on her purchase in April, she was so excited she got a sleeping bag and spent the night. The movers came the next day. Since then, there have been major adjustments, but they've been happy ones.
She has four closets, three more than her apartment offered. She bought a queen-sized bed; there was only room for a full-sized bed on Spring St. For the first time, she has a full bathroom - and space for a dining room table, allowing her to host dinner parties. "I love to cook," she said.
Higgins paused to look around her light-filled living room. "I wish my husband were here," she said. "He'd have thought it was a great rehearsal space."