Who’s got your back? A guide to selecting a real estate broker
By Vivian S. Toy
IN a city with more than 20,000 registered real estate agents, is it any wonder that choosing one can be a difficult and sometimes fraught process?
There’s the agent who sold your best friend’s apartment for 20 percent more than she dreamed possible. But what about the downstairs neighbor who never misses a chance to remind you that he’s a broker? And what would Aunt Myra say if you didn’t use Cousin Bob, who just got into real estate and hasn’t sold anything yet? (“He just needs a little confidence.”)
A good broker can help you make sound decisions and guide you through what might easily be the most expensive and emotionally charged transaction of your life. So, how to weed out brokers who can’t stop talking about themselves, or who can’t tear their eyes from their BlackBerrys long enough to answer a question, and perhaps more important, know shockingly little about their listings or the market?
Whether you’re buying or selling, interviewing an agent is the best way to figure all of that out and to determine whether you would get along over the course of an intense several months. The interview can be as informal as a quick conversation at an open house and a follow-up phone call.
Find out what a broker has already sold and how he or she would help you sell or find a home. Dottie Herman, the chief executive of Prudential Douglas Elliman, also suggested asking what the broker would do “if not everything goes right” and an apartment doesn’t sell quickly or a board rejects a buyer. “You want someone who has confidence and knowledge and who you have a rapport with,” she said. At the same time, she added, “You don’t want a know-it-all, because nobody knows it all.”
Sellers sign contracts with their listing agents, and many buyers also work with specific agents in finding a home. A buyer’s agent is paid by the seller in a deal, but will shepherd the buyer’s bid through to the closing, which could be especially helpful in the notoriously enigmatic co-op board process.
“For buyers, you’re not getting the discount or saving a commission,” said Diane M. Ramirez, the president of Halstead Property, “so if you don’t have a broker, you’re just on your own. Do you really want not to be represented when the other side is?”
Buyers who don’t work with a specific agent sometimes agree to “dual agency,” in which the seller’s broker also represents the buyer. But Frederick Peters, the president of Warburg Realty, recently wrote a blog post in which he challenged the notion of dual agency, saying what many brokers believe but are reluctant to admit. “The buyer wants to pay as little as he can; the seller wants to net as much as he can,” he wrote. “What agent can fight simultaneously for both those outcomes?”
In the end, both buyers and sellers should have representatives. People tend to gravitate to agents with whom they feel comfortable. It could be their Type A personality, a shared love of the opera, or a favorite neighborhood deli. Or maybe they vacation in the same place, or have children in the same school. Maybe the agent tells hilarious jokes.New York City’s legion of real estate agents can be categorized in many ways. Here are a few of them.
Some agents are better than others at anticipating a client’s needs and at catering to people who need a little more attention through the machinations of a real estate deal. Someone who is patient and a good listener can play that part, be it for a jittery first-time buyer or a high-strung owner who needs frequent calming down.
Brian Lewis, an executive vice president of Halstead Property, is an easygoing Southerner who knows how to take the edge off the most frenzied real estate transaction.
“I take my cues from the client,” he said. “I understand that buying or selling a home is an emotional thing. When you add that emotion to the kind of money we’re dealing with, you get a perfect storm of crazy.”
An actor by training, Mr. Lewis can sense when someone needs a sympathetic ear “and someone to hold your hand to help navigate what can be tumultuous waters.”
One of Halstead’s top producers, he has represented owners of $400,000 studios and buyers searching for a $20 million penthouse. “I treat everybody the same,” he said. “I do my best to make sure they feel that someone has their back.”
Alan Nickman, an executive vice president of Bellmarc Realty, operates similarly. “Any broker worth his or her salt needs to be able to hear and not just listen to what somebody else is saying,” he said.
He once worked with a buyer who was blind, but insisted she wanted an apartment with a view. Believing he knew better, he tried to steer her to apartments without views that were a better value. When he pressed her on why she wanted a view, she responded, “Alan, how many of your clients are blind?”
That stopped him cold. He realized then that he had made an incorrect assumption and that the buyer had been thinking ahead to her apartment’s resale potential. “I learned a big lesson that day,” he said. “Everybody’s got their own issues or concerns, and you have to listen carefully and address them.”
DO YOU NEED A HAND-HOLDER? Yes, if you’re wondering how many times you can call or e-mail your broker every day.
While most people don’t like being told what to do, some buyers and sellers respond better to a broker with a firm and definitive style. Someone who knows the ropes and exudes confidence because of that knowledge can be that kind of authority.
Richard Orenstein, an executive vice president of Halstead, knows the downtown market like few others. Mainly a seller’s broker, he has a no-nonsense manner and a dry wit. “People just feel comfortable with me,” he said. “Maybe they need a daddy figure to tell them that they’re doing the right thing.” But with him in their corner, he said, they know “they’re going to get the job done and they’re going to get the most money.”
He likes to say that he has a Ph.D. in managing unrealistic expectations. Sellers, he said, are like new parents, and “just like nobody has ugly children, everybody wants $10 million for their home. Part of my job is explaining to them what it’s really worth and bringing them down to earth.” He does that by sharing all he knows about comparable properties, including ones that aren’t yet on the market because “people invite me over even if they don’t know they’re going to sell.”
Lisa Lippman, a senior vice president of Brown Harris Stevens and the firm’s West Side broker of the year for the last six years, has a similarly encyclopedic knowledge of the Upper West Side. A former lawyer and the mother of three, she speaks with rapid-fire intensity and rarely misses the mark.
“I give people a lot of information, “ she said. “I always remember it’s their money, and I keep them as informed as possible.” It helps that she rarely forgets an apartment she has seen or anything she has heard about a building. When working with buyers, she said, nothing bothers her more than “a listing broker who knows nothing, and all they can say when you ask a question is: ‘I don’t know. I don’t know.’ ”
In Brooklyn, Jim Cornell, a senior vice president of the Corcoran Group, has been known to call trends before anyone else has spotted them. He started taking people to the Gowanus neighborhood when others were still running from the Gowanus Canal. He has worked in brownstone Brooklyn since 1992, long before it became a bustling alternative for displaced Manhattanites.
His knowledge is not thanks to longevity alone, he said, although it does help that he has his own database of sold properties for the last nine years. “Part of it is just a gut feeling,” he said.
Mr. Cornell works with a partner, Leslie Marshall, who perhaps not coincidentally is better at hand-holding than he. “The authority part of it just frankly works for me; it’s the only way I know to be,” he said. “You get that way by telling people what they should bid instead of asking what they want to bid — it’s just how I talk to people, and my wife will tell you that it’s not always a good thing.”
HOW DO YOU KNOW YOU’VE FOUND AN AUTHORITY? If the broker can tell you how many other apartments just like the one you’re looking at have sold in the last six months.
The Local Expert
In this age of easy Web access to listings, brokers don’t often specialize in neighborhoods the way they did when properties were listed only on closely guarded index cards. But there are still some brokers with a very narrow focus who are known as building specialists, and in at least one case, as a block specialist.
Over the last 16 years, Jessica Ushan, a senior vice president of Brown Harris Stevens, has sold about 200 apartments at the Sovereign, a 48-story tower at 425 East 58th Street. She has handled 9 of this year’s 12 sales in the building, and has another pending.
Ms. Ushan’s first deal in the building was in the early 1990s when she represented the person who bought Freddie Mercury’s three-bedroom apartment, complete with “silvery draperies everywhere.” The buyer was a co-op board member who then recommended Ms. Ushan to become the Sovereign’s on-site broker. She left that position when she joined Brown Harris in 2007, but her relationship with the building stuck.
Residents and buyers turn to her because she knows every apartment line, is familiar with the co-op board and keeps a list of contractors and designers who have worked in the building. Ms. Ushan has never actually lived in the Sovereign. “My husband didn’t think it would be a good idea, because I would be working 24/7,” she said.
Arabella Buckworth, a senior vice president of Corcoran, is known as “the Queen of West 67th Street” because she has sold scores of apartments on the block that runs between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue. Anchored by the Hotel des Artistes, the block is a trove of distinctive prewar apartment buildings with high-ceilinged apartments designed to be artists’ studios. Over the years, as many of the original artists moved on, the block attracted luminaries from other fields, including film stars and writers.
“I fell in love with this block the first time I saw it,” said Ms. Buckworth, who sold her first apartment there more than 20 years ago. After that, her reputation developed by word of mouth. By now she has sold apartments in every building on the block.
“There are buyers who live elsewhere who are just fixated on the block, and people on the block tend to want to stay on it,” she said. “It has something that sets it apart.”
HOW DO YOU FIND A BUILDING BROKER? Check building Web sites and ask doormen or current owners.
When just starting out in real estate, most agents are on their own, but as their business develops, they may enlist an assistant or a partner to allow them to take on more business. Some teams list as many as 9 or 10 agents, and clients may be disappointed when the marquee name who heads the team doesn’t have as much time for them as they had hoped.
Leonard Steinberg, who leads the seven-member Leonard Steinberg-Luxury Loft Group at Prudential Douglas Elliman, says he avoids that type of criticism by making sure that either he or his partner, Herve Senequier, handles all client meetings and most apartment showings. Other team members handle the administrative and technical work and some showings with prospective buyers for their listings.
“To expect a broker in a big team to devote all their time to one client is not realistic,” Mr. Steinberg said. “Brokers who can do that are inexperienced and don’t have many transactions. There are some things that don’t require my direct attention, but the most important thing is whenever a client needs to speak to me, I am available always.”
The benefit of a large team is that it can accommodate many more appointments, so clients who don’t mind visiting an apartment without either Mr. Steinberg or Mr. Senequier can often see the space without delay.
Michele Kleier, the president of Gumley Haft Kleier, is similarly unconcerned about clients’ feeling shortchanged, because her team includes her daughters, Sabrina Kleier-Morgenstern and Samantha Kleier-Forbes. “When you have somebody who has been with you for their whole lives,” Ms. Kleier said, “they’re going to know exactly how you would like things done. We’re like one person divided into three bodies — it’s one brain.”
As seen on the HGTV show “Selling New York,” the three Kleiers spend a great deal of time together and frequently finish one another’s sentences. It is not unusual to send an e-mail to Ms. Kleier and receive a response from one of her daughters. “Even if it’s not directly from me, you get an answer right away,” Ms. Kleier said. “But you don’t feel like you’re getting a junior member or someone who’s not up to snuff.”
WHO SHOULD CHOOSE A TEAM? Someone who wants a cast of characters to be able to quickly handle all questions and appointments.
The Legacy Broker
Many brokers build their business through their networks of acquaintances, but some maintain those relationships so well that they wind up representing the friends, relatives and children of early connections.
For Bonnie Chajet and Ronnie Lane, senior vice presidents of Warburg Realty who have been business partners for 33 years, the relationships develop naturally, because “most of the people we sell apartments to are part of our social circle,” Ms. Chajet said. They run into one another at dinner parties, at charity and school events, or in the communities where they have weekend homes.
Their clients know, Ms. Chajet said, that she and Ms. Lane are not afraid to recommend against buying if they have concerns about a particular apartment or building. “We’re not after the deal because we’re more interested in the relationship,” she said.
Their first deal was for a 10-room apartment on Park Avenue that sold for $78,000 in 1978, and that probably would sell now for as much as $6 million. “That certainly dates us, doesn’t it?” Ms. Chajet said. “But once we sell to someone, they tend to refer us to their offspring, and we’ve done this with many families.”
And, Ms. Lane added, “we hope to stay in business long enough to get the grandchildren.”
Kirk Henckels, an executive vice president of Stribling & Associates who was once a corporate banker, says he, too, “almost always deals with friends.” He and his colleague Margaret Furniss sold Brooke Astor’s duplex at 778 Park Avenue last year for $21 million. Mr. Henckels said that while he knew the Astor family, “it was Margie who had the relationship, and that’s a big part of it — they know you and they trust you.”
ARE YOU CONNECTED TO A LEGACY? Scour your social circle, and if there isn’t a broker there already, you’re out of luck.
CHOOSING A BROKER
- Ask friends and relatives for recommendations, but get specifics on the broker’s strengths and weaknesses. Someone who was ideal for a Classic 7 on Park Avenue might not make sense for a studio in the East Village.
- Armed with names of prospects, check out the brokers’ Web sites and review their sales.
- Visit open houses to see if the agent is representing the listing the way you would want your home to be represented.
- Traits to look for: familiar with the market, organized, confident, assertive but not obnoxious. All are important for successful negotiating.
- Don’t hire someone just because he or she says what you want to hear.
- For a sales agent, find out how your home would be marketed. What kind of budget is planned for advertising? How often will open houses be held?
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