"Real estate is security. Get into the market as soon as possible. The current real estate situation favors owners. If you're intimidated by the idea of committing to ownership or feel you don't know enough to get into the game, there are plenty of ways to get the basics-browse the Internet, question real estate agents, read books and be resourceful."
-Cash Tilton, 51, Wall Street marketing consultant
Cash Tilton owns a 575-square-foot junior one-fifth floor apartment in a 23-story coop building on E. 14th St., just west of Union Square. He took possession of the place in May 1996 as the result of a divorce settlement. His ex-wife kept their six-bedroom Ridgewood, New Jersey house. Tilton was and is satisfied with the arrangement.
"We wanted to keep the divorce proceedings civilized. I think it was my lawyer who suggested this particular division of assets, and it seemed reasonable, although the apartment originally belonged to my ex-wife, who purchased it in the mid-80s for about $125,000. I moved in with her when we married. It's small for two. Space was tight. But we were honeymooners-so small was cozy," says Tilton.
When their daughter came along, the Tiltons bought their New Jersey residence, an early 1900s farmhouse that was a bit of a fixer-upper.
That was in 1992. They paid about $185,000, put in another $25,000.
"Because New York real estate was down, we kept the apartment, renting it to cover expenses and make a little extra money. Keeping the apartment was a good decision, financially and otherwise. When I took title, the unit was valued at about $96,000. When I refinanced it five years ago, it was appraised at $200,000. I'm not sure of its current value, but similarly sized units in the neighborhood have recently sold for much more than that."
Tilton acknowledges that his apartment's value is somewhat limited by the physical nature of the building, a post-war early 1960s glazed white-brick boxy structure, which is well-maintained but lacks some of the architectural appeal that charms buyers into paying huge sums for smallish apartments.
"I doubt my apartment's value will skyrocket, although this area seems to be hot on the real estate map these days, especially since the clean-up and reconstruction of the Union Square park and plaza, and subway hub," he says. "We have lots of good new restaurants and shops that upgrade local lifestyle, and that always enhances real estate value."
Tilton says it was neither difficult nor depressing to move back into the nest he and his wife once shared, largely because interim tenants had made significant changes in the decor.
"It hardly felt like the same place," he comments. "The most recent renter had painted the walls a lovely, soothing sage green, and I've kept them that color. Little space is a big concern, however, after having had a big house and expanding into it. I have too much stuff, but I can't help it. The apartment's bedroom is too small for the extra-long king-size bed that my great grandfather built, so I reposition it periodically, trying to make it fit better. And my dining room set, which I won on Jeopardy just before I moved in to the apartment, is really too large for the living room. But I'm sentimentally attached to these things, so I make the space work, or work around them."
For Tilton, accepting the apartment in his divorce settlement was practical and convenient, the path of least resistance in a difficult situation. At the time, he wasn't as concerned about who got the bigger award as much as finding a fair solution, and hadn't really given much consideration to long-term financial benefits or losses.
"My apartment's value has increased substantially. My ex-wife subsequently sold the house for a huge profit. It worked out well.
"I'm comfortable that our settlement gave each of us a sense of security that comes with property ownership. Divorce is a dreadful experience that leaves you feeling very insecure. The equitable division of our real estate, with both of us leaving the marriage as owners, countered those feelings, made the divorce more civilized and enabled us to remain friends."