The closing for the apartment was yesterday. Hallelujah! The whole process has taken about half a year, was at least a month past contract, and survived a last minute scare when it wasn’t clear if Washington Mutual, which holds the old mortgage for my apartment, would be able to get to this closing to hand over the co-op stock certificate and proprietary lease to JPMorgan Chase yesterday. But they made it, and I now have the keys and an official move-in certificate from the management company. The next move is to get a hold of an architect and a contractor to knock down the adjoining wall. More paperwork, but hopefully all the alterations will be done by December.

The whole process took about two hours. I arrived at Penn Station about twenty minutes early and picked up an iced chai from the Starbuck’s in the lobby before heading up, the sugary sweetness meant to power my forearm for the signing marathon to come. The sellers were already there, and our attorneys soon afterwards. The bank’s attorney called and said that he’d be about half an hour late. We waited for a few minutes for the management company to prepare the room, etc.

The management company’s office is a bit different from the ones I’m used to. Most of the places I’ve gone to have been modern offices of financial companies, cube farms built in expensive Class A buildings with open floors and clear lines of site. The management company was in one of the older buildings near Penn Station, presumably a Class B building: it was a rabbit’s warren of small offices and two-to-four-person cube gardens instead of farms. Our conference room was located at the end of three right turns that took us to through a good deal of the office.

WaMu’s attorney actually arrived before the JPMorgan Chase guy did. I felt a little sorry for him: he was basically an expensive gofer, there to deliver papers, receive a payoff check and sign on a couple of dotted lines. He only had to be present for about fifteen minutes, really, but had to stay for the whole process.

There was some yelling at the beginning of the closing when it turned out that the seller hadn’t brought the proprietary lease for the apartment. Their attorney was under the impression that this wasn’t necessary, and hadn’t asked the seller to bring it. The management company insisted it was necessary, and, because the document was missing, required the seller to sign an affidavit and pay a $150 fee for the lost document. After fifteen minutes of yelling and bringing the manager to explain the situation, the seller signed the affidavit, and the management company signed a hastily drafted document saying that the $150 fee would be refunded if the seller sent the proprietary lease via FedEx by the next day. Possibly, the management company’s agent felt vindicated when the JPMorgan attorney (who missed the altercation) asked for the lease when he was doing his paperwork, and, when told the lease wasn’t there, made sure there was an affidavit.

The amount of paper signed (in several duplicates) and exchanged and copied is simply astounding to anyone who hasn’t been to a closing. This closing was actually more complicated because of the combined refinance and purchase, so there was more paper to be signed. I’m not sure how people did this before photocopies were invented. Yes, all the documents I had to sign could have been carbon copied or simply typed in triplicate, but the management company made all sorts of copies of checks and certificates during the closing.

Also, watching the attorneys work, I can see why laptops weren’t used. They were doing calculations for various fees and adjustments, and something like Excel would have helped there, but there was a great deal of notetaking and some scribbling in the margins, something that’s both difficult and inefficient on computers right now. There was a New Yorker article last year on efforts to clear the paper clutter on desks with computer software, but it turned out that the piles of printed documents and the little notes on stickys attached to the monitor better reflect the cognitive process of people. Seemingly disorganized notes may represent the mental “to do” stack, with both the mental details and the paper reminder of these details in easy reach, both physically and imaginatively. Also, it’s damn easy to scribble a note. Right now, with a computer, you have to make a new file, type, then save it. Someday, there may be a more paperless office, but it’ll require the obvious stuff, like a critical mass and agreement on authentication standards, and the less obvious stuff, principally software that’s at least as good and efficient as simple notetaking in the margins.

The other thought I had while waiting for the next stack of papers to sign was de Soto’s arguments about property rights. Advanced economies are underpinned by clear property rights, something developing economies don’t have. Here I was, participating in the invisible rites of advanced capitalism, the transfer of abstract property rights from one party to another; there is perhaps no better demonstration of this transfer of abstract property rights and claims that a co-op closing. The seller brought a stock certificate, a physical representation of the right to occupy a residence owned by a corporate entity. The management company cancelled that right at the end of the closing, and issued a new right for occupancy to me, which was promptly transfered to the bank as collateral for a loan. The loan itself was represented as a set of checks on the table (a claim on funds), and a stack of papers with my signature on them. We won’t bother to mention the interbank refinancing and payoff between JPMorgan and WaMu. At the end of this exchange of abstractions, I got an envelope from the seller containing the keys to the apartment and a piece of paper from the management company authorizing my entry into that apartment. The keys will jangle when shaken, but the important thing in our world is that piece of paper that represents the distilled processing of ownership.

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