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My Brief Stint as a Shady, Unlicensed New York Real Estate Agent

My awkward immersion in the fast-paced and cutthroat world of selling apartments to dubious strangers.

The image that the author used for most of her Craigslist postings

Here's my short explanation: I was young and naive and really needed a thousand dollars.

And here's my long explanation: I was working as a hostess in a two-story, vomit-friendly nightmare of a club in Times Square (a.k.a. I was working at a panic attack inside of a panic attack while having a panic attack), finishing my spring semester of college, and interning. My paychecks were enough for my weekly MetroCard and the occasional iced coffee if I was feeling spontaneous, but I constantly came up short when rent was due. I also planned to move to Rome at the end of the summer to study abroad, so I needed money. A lot of it, and fast.


A friend had asked me if I wanted to be a real estate agent. I didn't know anything about real estate, but that didn't stop me from saying yes.

So it was that I got introduced to "Anna." She was in her mid 30s, intimidatingly Russian, and gorgeous in a way that forces you to accept that drinking kale and redeeming your Groupon voucher for Pilates can only do so much. The office was located in the basement of an apartment complex, which totally seemed legit. Anna and her assistant (and cousin) "Vlad" were the only two people in the office and welcomed me with a mug of tap water. (I've changed both of their names.) Although I immediately felt like this was the sort of place my parents warned me about, the colorful Post-It notes with addresses on them and key-cutting machine somehow calmed me.

Calling what I had a "job" might be a stretch, at least in the legal sense. I didn't sign a contract nor was I given tax documents. All of the money was to be paid under the table. However, Anna assured me that I could make thousands of dollars with them. If I successfully rented out an apartment, I would make half of the tenants' deposit in cash—so if I convinced someone to rent a $4,000-a-month unit, I'd make $2,000. After a quick tutorial in credit scores and Craigslist ads (ask if the client had a score over 720; make sure I pressed the "post" button) I began my new career as a burgeoning real estate mogul.


A part of me knew what I was doing was probably (definitely) illegal, but I chose not to think about it. I figured the less I knew, the better.

I spent my days off posting on Craigslist, eager for appointments. I would write "GORGEOUS 4BR 2BATH OPEN LUXURIOUS SPACIOUS!!!" hoping the all caps and exclamation marks would catch the attention of a desperate renter. And since I had no training in real estate terminology, the only words I used in the ads were open and spacious, because those were the most popular words on all the other Craigslist ads. Although they aren't necessarily lies, there is a certain redundancy in calling an empty space "open" and "spacious." It's like calling an empty mine shaft "deep" and "dark."

I used the same image they sent me for every apartment, whether it was a one-bedroom in Bed-Stuy or a four-bedroom in Bushwick. I should have uploaded actual images, but the image of the fake enormous room with sunlight beaming through kitchen window like a Folgers commercial was sort of protocol.

Another key point in fishing out people to view the apartment was to always call the location "East Williamsburg." Anyone who has ever scrolled through Craigslist hoping to find an affordable anomaly in Bushwick or Williamsburg has encountered this strange locale. Geographically, East Williamsburg is between the Graham and Morgan L train stops, lodged in the middle of Greenpoint, Williamsburg, and Bushwick. But in the eyes of New York real estate agents, it begins at the Morgan L and extends eastward to the Atlantic Ocean. Technically all of the listed properties were all "east of Williamsburg," so I suppose I wasn't lying, exactly, at least not about that.


The way this sort of thing is supposed to work is you sacrifice your morals and make a bunch of cash. I was pretty good at the former, but not the latter, which is to say I made absolutely no money.

Image courtesy of the author

There aren't enough synonyms or metaphors to describe the frustration of making appointments, taking the subway to a different neighborhood, and waiting for hours at an empty home, only to have your prospective tenants flake. I couldn't run my errands or even step outside to buy a bag of Cheez-Its from the nearby bodega.

Whenever someone actually showed up to view the place, they would walk through the door already dissatisfied. This wasn't a Folger's commercial, nor was it East Williamsburg—this was the heartbreaking reality of a $3,000 3BR in Bed-Stuy. My main riff was to point at a window and confidently say, "natural light!" thereby drawing attention to the fact that the room was exposed to "the sun." As we walked across the floor, I would knock on it with the same confident smile and say, "Hardwood! Or put a rug on it!" My selling techniques were those of a toddler who has learned how to point at and name things.

I tended to get comments like, "I get it. It's an apartment with a window and a floor. I still don't want it!" It was like I roused this "salesperson character" I subconsciously accumulated from movies and TV shows. It always worked for them, but I was so painfully transparent how could anyone buy anything from me?


One problem was that I was an unlicensed realtor making appointments to show empty houses to complete strangers. Obviously I knew this was not the smartest way to make money. But only after it was over did I realize how unsafe and strange my "weird second job" truly was.

I recently talked to my friend, David, who I had recruited to help me rent out rooms and to make tons of imaginary cash. He just got his real estate license so he knows now just how unethical our jobs were.

"There are so many unscrupulous agents and brokers," he told me, "but the law dictates that there are legal perimeters that you have to work within to protect the customer and [the company] wasn't doing any of that."

One obvious way they cut corners is that you have to have a license to sell real estate, and the penalties for breaking that law, depending on the state, can range from probation to fines to jail time. I should have known that already, or at least had the presence of mind to look it up—but I was at least as desperate as the poor schmucks I was trying to unload "spacious" apartments to, and therefore easily manipulated. There was no paper trail tying me to Anna and Vlad, making me, essentially, a buffer between the scammers and the law.

My complete lack of qualifications didn't stop me from posting on Craigslist and showing apartments for months, which really made me aware of the near impossibility of finding a decent place to live in New York. From the instant someone walked in, it was obvious whether they were serious about the apartment. I knew the face I was looking for—excited yet exhausted, a look that says, "'I love this apartment but probably because I don't have the patience or time to find another one." I always wanted to find that face, because I've made it myself. It only happened once. It was actually one of the first apartments I showed, and the dude was clearly anxious and desperate. The apartment itself was uncharacteristically livable: a Bed-Stuy second-story walk-up with a balcony and exposed brick. He took five minutes and reluctantly said, "Yes!" and I thought to myself, "Holy damn I just made $1,000!" But he wasn't approved thanks to lousy credit, and I never so much as sniffed another sale.


As hard as it is to find an apartment in New York, it's almost as hard to convince a total stranger that they should take the apartment you're trying to sell them. That's what I found out when I told my marks that the unidentifiable green and blue mass pulsating in the bathroom corner was "uh… maybe not mold?" and reassured them that "that's just what Brooklyn smells like!"

Another reason I never made a sale was that the business I worked for had an odd way of doing things. For instance, I'd get sent lists of properties that included giant six-bedroom duplexes, but I'd be told I'd have to rent out the rooms separately. Armed with his wisdom as a now-actual real estate agent, David told me, "You don't piecemeal the roommates together. There is a leaseholder and then they find their own people."

It's possible practices like that scared people away from even applying for my apartments, as there are plenty of cases of real estate brokers who will take your deposit, reject your application, then try to keep your money. Maybe my prospective tenants could smell how shady this whole scheme was, even when I couldn't.

It's not breaking news that Brooklyn is one of the most expensive places to live in the country. Gentrification has pushed families further away from the center of New York as their neighborhoods become trendy and desirable. And with all this movement—people leaving, people moving in, everyone attempting to buy or sell or rent all at once—come a lot of opportunities for various middlemen to get a piece of the pie, legally or otherwise.

Although I didn't make a profit, and this was a total waste of my time, I learned a lot about what not to do when looking for an apartment. I also learned that there is no such thing as quick and easy cash, especially in New York real estate. If you are young and trying to make a lot of money, be warned: If it seems remotely illegal, it's probably highly illegal, so just get a bartending job and suck it up.

Jamie is on Twitter.