The Real Deal New York

Boutique firms capitalize on thriving luxury market

Dolly Lenz’s brokerage takes top prize, while other newbie first also make debut on ranking

May 01, 2014
By Katherine Clarke

From left:

From left: Dolly Lenz, Jed Garfield, Mercedes Berk and Adam Modlin

This year’s boutique brokerage ranking was stirred up substantially by the formation of several new luxury-focused companies, which have planted their flags firmly in Manhattan. The cluster of start-ups has more than one root: some were founded by industry veterans, and others by new names leveraging international interest in the New York market.

The most notable of those firms was established last July by power broker Dolly Lenz following her departure from the city’s largest firm, Douglas Elliman. Lenz, whose firm is called Dolly Lenz Real Estate, has since racked up a large number of pricey listings.

The brokerage, which had two active agents as of March 30, ranked No. 1 on this year’s boutique ranking, with six listings worth $156.9 million.

Lenz’s priciest listing is fashion mogul Tommy Hilfiger’s sprawling Plaza Hotel penthouse duplex, which is on the market for a cool $80 million.

Placing No. 2 was perpetual market leader Leslie J. Garfield, which has a large chunk of the townhouse market. The firm had $126.2 million worth of listings, up substantially from $93.8 million last year. Its listings included a $30 million townhouse at 12 East 96th Street. The building, which can be converted to a single-family mansion, was formerly home to a bilingual school.

“On the one hand, we have more institutional business, and those tend to be larger transactions,” said Jed Garfield, president of Leslie J. Garfield & Co., referring to nonprofits and institutions selling their headquarters. ‘But having said that, we also have some huge properties owned by individuals. When people see the prices that their neighbors are getting, they’re like, ‘Well my house is nicer than that,’ and they put it on the market.”

The boutique ranking — which this year captured firms with between 2 and 50 agents — is, not surprisingly, the most volatile of TRD’s three annual Manhattan residential brokerage rankings because just one or two big listings can make a huge difference to a firm’s bottom line.

“We don’t feel as though we’re competing with the large firms,” said Noel Berk, founder of boutique brokerage Mercedes/Berk, which ranked No. 8 this year with roughly $39 million worth of listings. “When you’re a small firm and you’re working only on luxury, you don’t have to have a lot of listings. You can get a phone call from someone out of the blue, and all of a sudden you have a $15 million listing that two days before you had no idea you would have. It can change overnight.”

Click to enlarge. Source: Data was gathered from the OLR listing portal on March 30. Rankings include Manhattan-based brokerages and agents with active Manhattan residential listings updated within the last 360 days. Data does not in-clude listings in contract or listings that have pending offers. Firms that primarily represent one building were excluded. In addition,

Click to enlarge. Source: Data was gathered from the OLR listing portal on March 30. Rankings include Manhattan-based brokerages and agents with active Manhattan residential listings updated within the last 360 days. Data does not in-clude listings in contract or listings that have pending offers. Firms that primarily represent one building were excluded. In addition,

Feeding off foreign buyers

Some of the firms that debuted on this year’s boutique ranking did so by capitalizing on the interest in New York City properties from the international buyer community.

New York Residence, a Midtown-based company founded by Austrian entrepreneur Thomas Guss, is one of those firms. The brokerage, which has offices in Hong Kong, Singapore and Seoul, does 50 percent of its deals with foreign buyers, Guss said. Its listings include an $8.4 million townhouse at 8 Perry Street and several resale listings at the Centurion building at 33 West 56th Street. The Centurion, where the penthouse is asking $39 million, has proved popular with foreign buyers, Guss said, noting that many international buyers like its glassy design by starchitect I.M. Pei.

The company had a total $120.4 million in listings on March 30, placing it at No. 3 on the ranking.

“New York is still cheap in the international market,” Guss told TRD, adding that his company is leveraging that reality with clients.

Domus Realty, a Madison Avenue-based firm that also specializes in dealing with foreign investors, clocked in at No. 5 on the boutique firms list, with $82.5 million worth of Manhattan properties for sale. Its priciest listing, a $48 million 14,000-square-foot, seven-story townhouse at 57 East 64th Street, helped boost that dollar figure. The house is owned by an entity called Valan Realty, which bought it for $6.39 million in 1995. The home was listed by Domus President Giampiero Rispo, a native of Naples, two months ago. It was previously listed by Beverly Cole of Town Residential.

“Buyers are coming from everywhere in the world,” Rispo said. “Lately, we’ve seen a lot of Turkish buyers looking for pieds-à-terre in New York.”

Old guard vs. newbies

Stalwarts of the Manhattan market like the Modlin Group and the aforementioned Mercedes/Berk, firms that have been active in luxury listings for years, are also seeing the benefit of limited inventory and a boom in the luxury sector.

The Modlin Group, which ranked No. 4, had $115.3 million worth of listings, up from $84.2 million last year. The firm, headed by Adam Modlin, is listing a $32 million penthouse at 383 West Broadway in Soho and a $24 million penthouse at 76 Crosby Street.

Meanwhile, Peter McCuen & Associates debuted on this year’s ranking with $79.5 million in listings. (TRD included firms with two or more agents this year, rather than five. And, unlike in previous years when TRD used company websites for agent counts, this year the magazine pulled those figures from OLR.)

Among McCuen’s most eye-grabbing listings is an $18.5 million townhouse at 21 East 94th Street, which is owned by Alexandra Piol, managing director at 4C Ventures Management, according to public records.

Meanwhile, Fox Residential, a well-established Madison Avenue-based boutique firm headed by Barbara Fox, saw a drop in its exclusive listings. The company had $43.9 million, compared with $64.4 million last year.

Despite a drop in listings, Fox said the company is in good shape and has several listings in contract. Fox also recently closed a $30 million deal at One57, the trophy residential tower at 157 West 57th Street, she said.

Kleier Residential, the boutique residential firm featured on HGTV’s “Selling New York,” dropped off this year’s ranking, registering roughly $7 million in exclusive listings as of March 30, OLR data shows. However, Michele Kleier, president of the firm, told TRD that she had several clients holding off until the weather improved before listing their apartments, which have terraces. The company has plans to list a $25 million apartment by the end of April, she said. By press time, its listing tally was up to $11.6 million.

“Terraces don’t look good after the freezing cold snow,” Kleier explained. “Nothing bloomed this winter.”

Meanwhile, several other firms that didn’t qualify under TRD’s guidelines still had impressive showings.

For example, River 2 River Realty, a tiny firm headed by Dan Neiditch that has dominated resales at the Atelier condo building at 635 West 42nd Street. The brokerage had $234 million worth of Manhattan listings, nearly all of them at the Atelier. Neiditch is also a resident of the building as well as being the condo’s board president.

In addition, Trump International Realty had $106 million in listings. The firm, which opened its doors in 2012 with close to 20 agents in four Manhattan offices, has most of its listings in Trump buildings, but did have some others, like a pad asking $7.75 million at 15 Union Square West.

And despite racking up the most listings (and though OLR is seen as a reliable measure of exclusive listings by the industry), Lenz disputed her firm’s figures, saying that she had 67 active listings worth $566 million.

“The firm … never inputs any data into OLR,” she wrote to TRD in an email. “It is therefore not surprising that OLR is under reporting the true figure.”

  • Abi Laoshe

    interesting article – are boutique agencies more efficient than the traditional big brand brokerages?

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