Prudential Douglas Elliman’s Laura Cao in her apartment at 101 Warren Street, where she does the majority of her business.
When Fabrizio Uberti Bona bought a two-bedroom apartment at Williamsburg’s Edge condominium in 2008, he wasn’t just looking for a place to live; he also saw a business opportunity.
Since moving into the Edge last spring, Uberti Bona has sold two apartments in the building and currently has five listings there, including a two-bedroom unit listed for $1.25 million.
Uberti Bona is one of many New York City real estate agents whose business model involves moving into buildings with the goal of brokering deals there.
Recently, this strategy paid off big-time for Brown Harris Stevens’s Kyle Blackmon, who famously sold an $88 million apartment at 15 Central Park West, where he lives.
In the increasingly competitive post-downturn market, brokers say this strategy helps give them an advantage over competitors.
These days, “the inventory is low and there’s a lot more competition,” said Prudential Douglas Elliman’s Laura Cao, who moved into the Tribeca condo 99–101 Warren Street in 2009. When she first moved in, she did about 40 percent of her deals there and at 200 Chambers Street, the building across the street, she said. Now, those two buildings comprise about 60 percent of her business (note: correction appended).
Cao, who is currently marketing a two-bedroom duplex at 101 Warren for $2.85 million, said living in the building helped her beat out three other brokers to get the listing.
When Cao met with the seller, “I presented him [with] the work I’ve done in the building,” she said. “I have a roster of people looking to buy in the building.”
Owning a home not only helps land listings, but can make it easier to sell them, said Uberti Bona, who previously lived at the Atelier on West 42nd Street and did “countless” sales there, including one that set a record for highest price per square foot in the building.
It’s easier to tap into people’s emotions as a future neighbor, Uberti Bona said. “I really don’t talk about real estate,” he said. “I sell them on my lifestyle.”
Plus, brokers who live in the building have access to more information than outside brokers.
“When I show an apartment in 101 Warren,” Cao said, “I’m able to tell people about the little idiosyncrasies of the building — like the running group that meets every Saturday morning.”
Socializing to succeed
For years, brokers have purchased apartments as a way to break into certain buildings.
For example, Lynda Deppe, head of the Site Realty group at City Connections, bought an apartment in Union Square’s Zeckendorf Towers in 1989, when it was newly built. Since then, she estimates, she’s done more than 500 deals in the building.
That’s no accident; Deppe carefully selected Zeckendorf Towers because of the business potential she saw in the luxury building.
“I knew [Zeckendorf Towers] would be a good place to hang my hat as someone who was looking to develop my real estate business,” Deppe said.
But brokers said the strategy is especially helpful in today’s competitive market.
“To compete with me, you have to know my building really well,” Uberti Bona said. “When someone comes to the Atelier or the Edge, you have to really know the building well to out-sell me. It’s not so easy. I live there, I study it. I know everything about it.”
Brokers said having a personal stake in the building gives clients confidence.
For example, Elliman managing director Jan Hashey, who sells and lives at the West Village’s 140 Perry Street, said buyers know she’s “not running away.”
“They’ll see me again for at least the next several years,” she said, “so they know I’m bound to be telling the truth.”
Of course, buying a unit in the building is just the first step to boosting a broker‘s bottom line. If they want to get clients and referrals there, they have to make an effort to get to know their neighbors. That often means creating social situations that would otherwise not exist.
At the 565-unit Edge, for example, Uberti Bona started a “foodie” group that hosts monthly meetings with cuisines from different regions. At Zeckendorf Towers, Deppe has sponsored wine and cheese parties, curated rotating art exhibits and sent out Christmas magnets with convenient delivery restaurant numbers on it.
Others say they focus on being a real estate resource for the building.
Cao, for example, said she sends postcards to residents alerting them to deals she’s done in the building. “It’s about keeping people up to date with what’s happening in the building, what things are selling for, price per square foot, the timeline at which things are renting,” she said.
Citi Habitats’ Brian Morgan, who lives and works at the Gramercy Starck on East 23rd Street, agreed. “People recognize me in the elevator and stop me and ask about the building,” he said. “If they want to go out and grab a cup of coffee and just talk about the building, even if they’re not interested in selling, I’m a resource that they can use.”
But while brokers say they establish relationships at parties and over coffee, deals often come to them when they least expect them.
“I was throwing out the garbage and my neighbor Maria pulled me aside and said that she and her husband had been thinking about renting their apartment out and getting a bigger place,” Cao said. “I talked to them for an hour. I was in my pajamas.”
As The Real Deal has reported, Elliman’s Melanie Lazenby scored an exclusive listing for an apartment owned by billionaire Leslie Alexander — and ultimately sold it for $31.5 million — while riding the elevator in her apartment building, the West Village condominium Superior Ink.
Buildings that backfire
Of course, living and working at home isn’t always easy, and some brokers avoid it for that reason.
The Corcoran Group’s Matt Berkson lived in the Impala on East 76th Street for two years. But he had a lot of clients in the building and ultimately moved because he “didn’t feel comfortable pushing business with neighbors who could be my friends.
“I also just don’t want to be ‘on’ all the time, if a curse slips out of my mouth when I stub my toe, you know?” he added.
And sometimes the strategy can backfire, especially if brokers choose the wrong building to buy in.
Elliman’s Robin Greenbaum lived and worked for years in the Harmony at 61 West 62nd Street, even creating an iPhone application for the building, with layouts and building information. Then in 2008, she sold her apartment and bought a studio at the Sheffield condo at 322 West 57th Street, thinking it would be a good investment in her business.
“The apartments were great and I was very confident that it was a great buy,” she said.
But the Sheffield, of course, ran into serious financial difficulties, and sales stalled as original developer Kent Swig lost the building to foreclosure. In the face of these problems, Greenbaum moved out and found a tenant to lease her apartment.
“It was a big mess,” she said.
Luckily, the relationships she built at the Harmony sustained her — even once she moved out. “The Harmony’s still my bread and butter,” she said.
Indeed, brokers say that even after leaving a building, the business often keeps coming. Uberti Bona said he has all three listings at 430 East 77th Street, where he lived years ago, and regularly works at the Atelier, too.
Many brokers find they do so well in buildings, they’re hesitant to leave. Deppe said she’d enjoy moving to a different building for a change of scenery, but she won’t leave because of the solid business flow.
Uberti Bona said he likes the Edge so much he’s unlikely to leave. Luckily, he doesn’t see any real need to.
“If I can get half the business that happens here each year,” he said, “I’ll have way more than I need.”