NEW YORK -- Psst. Hey, buddy, wanna buy a slice of the Big Apple real cheap?
The 'woid' on real estate steals does not come from a shyster with seven gold watches on his right arm and a great deal on the Brooklyn Bridge.
It comes from the City of New York itself.
For decades, the sprawling 303.7 square mile city has been seizing property for non-payment of taxes. It then auctions that property - often at unbelievably low prices -- to the highest bidders in regularly scheduled public sales.
For years, the bargains were one of the city's better kept secrets - shared only by knowledgeable lawyers, developers, builders and speculators who regularly attended the auctions. Over the past two decades many have amassed small fortunes buying low and selling high.
In the past year and a half, the city has been trying its best to bring more and more people into the auctions to generate more competition and produce higher sales prices. 'Buy a Piece of New York City' is the sales pitch.
The campaign has worked, says Terrence Moan, deputy commissioner for the Division of Real Property. 'More and more' people are showing up for the sales and they have served to break up 'cabals' of bidders who strike gentlemen's agreements to keep bidding low on certain pieces of property to realize higher profits on their resale.
One can buy anything from underwater land and postage-stamp sized parcels to private homes and abandoned commercial sites.
Recently Fran Fallender and her mate, Cliff Newlands, showed up at one smaller sale to buy a 'hole' next to their Staten Island house for $6,100.
'It's 37 by 100 by 6 foot deep,' Newlands grinned.
'Believe me, this is the scariest thing I've ever been through,' Ms. Fallender gasped. They plan to put in a swimming pool and a garden.
A Ridgewood, N.J., man h Avenue and West 56th St., in a prime section of Manhattan, for a mere $10,000. The minimum acceptable price was $100. The lot is assessed at $1,000.
Not much can be done with such a tiny piece of the island. But if someone needs it for a building venture, the owner can more than make his money back, said a spokesman for the Department of General Services.
The city's new strategy to increase its take from auctions has upset some old-timers.
One is a retired builder from Brooklyn, who would only give his name as Max. 'Let somebody else buy,' he said, waving his hand in disgust. 'These prices, they're higher than private.'
The self-proclaimed champion of buyers, Aleck Slade, a 74-year-old New York lawyer who has been coming to city auctions since the 1950s, agreed. 'These upset prices are shamefully ridiculous,' he said.
He said people who bid above the current upset prices 'aren't going to get anything' out of their investment. 'They're paying user prices rather than speculator prices.'
Max pointed to a catalogue listing with a minimum upset of $30,000 that had just been sold for $86,000 to a man in an expensive-looking suit. 'I got a piece of property next to this. I will sell it for much less,' he said, eyeing the gentleman he obviously believed had been taken by auction fever.
Slade had a bit of sage advise for newcomers: 'You've got to look at the maps. You can't go by the catalog. You have to know what you're buying.'
That point came home to Valerie Shakespeare of Manhattan more than a year ago, when she paid $525 for a small plot on the Lower East Side between the Essex St. Market Building and another building at 123 Rivington St.
It sounded too good to be true. It was.
When she got there to look at her new purchase, she learned that the two buildings were side by side and her property was the tiny space between the walls. She protested.
But unlike the guy who sells the Brooklyn Bridge to the first sucker who comes along and then disappears, the city made good by refunding her money.