Foreign interest in New York real estate is at an all-time high, thanks in part to the continuing debt crisis in Europe and growing wealth in countries such as Brazil. But for foreigners, navigating the New York City market alone can be daunting.
Instead of going it alone, international buyers often enlist New York brokers with ties to their home countries to help in their search for the perfect property. Brokers say many buyers prefer to work with a professional who speaks their language, knows their customs and understands how business is done both at home and in the U.S.
In July, The Real Deal looked at the dos and don’ts of working with some of the most active groups of international buyers. This month, we look at some of the new New York City brokers who have become go-to agents for specific groups from around the globe.
Sherri Xiaolan (Shang) and Michael Chen
When it comes to dealing with Chinese buyers, no broker is better known than the Corcoran Group’s Carrie Chiang.
Chiang, a Shanghai native fluent in all major Chinese dialects, famously arranged the $100 million financing with a Hong Kong consortium that enabled Donald Trump to purchase the land for his Trump Riverside South project.
But several other brokers have been looking to follow Chiang’s example, including Douglas Elliman’s Sherri Xiaolan and Bond New York’s Michael Chen. They are both carving out a niche among Chinese buyers, who reportedly spend $9 billion on residential real estate in the U.S. each year.
Xiaolan first came to New York to become an opera singer 18 years ago after studying at the Chinese Conservatory of Music in Beijing. “I had the dream of singing opera at the Metropolitan Opera House,” she told TRD, but found that “there was too much competition.”
Xiaolan, who is fluent in Mandarin and Cantonese, started as a rental agent and commercial broker at Dwelling Quest, the brokerage that merged with Century 21 New York Metro in 2006, but soon began concentrating on residential sales. She joined Elliman three years ago. Today, over 90 percent of her clients are Chinese.
Xiaolan said she has connections to some wealthy Chinese buyers. Her former music school classmate is Peng Liyuan, the wife of Xi Jinping, who took over as China’s new leader last month. Her buyers often purchase apartments in bulk, she said.
She has done deals with Chinese buyers at the Setai Fifth Avenue at 400 Fifth Avenue and at the Sheffield on West 57th Street, where some of her clients have purchased several units.
A lot of the buyers she’s represented are investors who don’t even show up for the closing.
“I take a picture and send them the floor plan,” she said. After the purchase, Xiaolan procures a tenant to rent the unit. “I am a full-time nanny,” she joked.
Meanwhile, Taiwan-born Chen has been busy developing Bond’s connections to Asian buyers. Last year, he spearheaded the launch of a Chinese-language section on the brokerage’s website and embarked on a campaign to introduce the brokerage and the New York market to Chinese-speaking buyers overseas.
As a result, Chen said 70 percent of his business now comes from Asian clients, the majority of whom are Chinese.
Chen came to the U.S. in the 1980s when he was in his early twenties. For six years, he packaged mortgages on behalf of housing lender IndyMac to sell to small-size banks and mortgage brokers.
Then he was approached by a friend who runs a real estate firm in the city and “was looking for a bilingual Asian to work with him to capture the Asian market,” Chen said. But in 2008, Chen moved to Coldwell Banker Commercial, and roughly two years ago he switched to the residential side of the business.
These days, he travels to Asia regularly and hosts groups of Asian apartment hunters in New York to drum up business. He recently closed a deal for a two-bedroom apartment at 322 West 57th Street on behalf of a Chinese buyer for slightly over $2 million.
One broker widely known for his Rolodex of Italian clients is Corcoran’s Milan-born Richard Nassimi, the head of sales at the W Downtown and the son of a well-known Italian diamond trader.
When Nassimi first came to New York 15 years ago, he worked in the diamond business, “selling pieces to Cartier and to Bvlgari and Tiffany,” he recalled.
And since he started in real estate in 2007, Nassimi said his family’s wealthy Europeans contacts have proved useful.
“A lot of my clients are from Europe, and especially from Italy,” he said. “A lot of people in the stock market or in the government know me and know my father.”
Nassimi — who is marketing the 21 available apartments at the W at 123 Washington Street as well as several apartments at the Cipriani Club Residences at 55 Wall Street — said he frequently hosts groups of buyers from Italy in New York.
When it comes to planning these visitors’ New York itinerary and, of course, making purchases, he said, “My team organizes everything, from A to Z — every single detail.”
Luca Paci, an Italian native and former management consultant, is a more recent arrival to international sales.
In 2010, Paci, who was born just outside Florence, joined Manhattan-based firm Domus Realty, which has a reputation for representing international clients.
In July, Paci left Domus to establish his own firm: Platinvm.
The Manhattan-based brokerage, which currently has just three agents, deals primarily with Italian buyers. Its website displays in English, Spanish and Italian, and gives all asking prices in both euros and dollars. Paci is deeply connected to a network of wealthy Italians planting roots in New York and can regularly be found lunching and networking with Italian-born attorneys and CPAs, who also work with Italian buyers.
In the last year, Paci has represented Italian clients at 75 Wall Street, the Edge in Williamsburg and the Jade condo on East 29th Street. These purchasers often fork over significant cash for down payments, he said, regularly buying multiple units. Paci’s current listings range from a $715,000 loft at 15 Broad Street in the Financial District to a $3.95 million pad at Trump World Tower.
Town Residential broker Sofia Falleroni comes from a similar background. She moved to the U.S. from Florence eight years ago, after brokering deals for short-term Italian villa rentals on behalf of American tourists.
She started her New York brokering career in 2008 at Manhattan Apartments, but was later recruited to Brown Harris Stevens, where she worked for two years. Last year she joined Town. Falleroni estimates that around 20 percent of her clients are Italian.
“I travel to Italy a lot,” she said. “When I travel, I do road shows. I set up appointments to meet with [Italian] attorneys, financial planners, accountants, CPAs, wealth managers — people who could potentially have access to investors.”
She also networks at the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce on Fifth Avenue. She recently closed deals with Italian clients at 106 Central Park South for $1 million and at 147 West 142nd Street for $340,000.
Marcos Cohen, Gisela Vergara and Daniela Sassoun
Eighteen-year Elliman broker Marcos Cohen, who originally hails from Rio de Janeiro, said Brazilian clients make up 50 percent of his business. But unlike other brokers who specialize in international clients, Cohen rarely travels for work.
“I don’t believe in traveling abroad [to meet clients,]” he said. “When they come to New York, they’re in the right frame of mind for buying. You can’t go into somebody else’s environment and offer a product that is not immediate. You can go to plant a seed, but sales don’t get made overseas.”
Instead, Cohen relies on his long-standing network of Brazilians based in New York.
“At the beginning of my career, there were a lot of diplomats that were being relocated, a lot of bankers,” he said. “That was the main [source of] business. Now, all classes of Brazilians want to have an apartment in America because of the currency exchange. The Brazilian market is so big that now even American brokers deal with Brazilians.”
Indeed, brokers say Brazilian interest in New York real estate is at an all-time high. In one recent high-profile deal, Brazilian-born business man Silvio Luiz Reichert bought Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter’s bachelor pad at Trump World Tower. (It was not immediately clear who represented Reichert in the deal.)
While Cohen would not comment on any specific deals he’d done, the real estate listings website StreetEasy shows he brokered the $8.1 million sale in 2007 of 238 East 62nd Street, the former home of deceased Brazilian art collector Eduardo Paulo Klabin.
Like Cohen, Elliman’s Gisela Vergara also grew up in Rio. She was a trader in equities and derivatives (working the financial markets both in Brazil and the U.S.) before becoming a real estate broker at Elliman 10 years ago. She moved to the U.S. in 1996 after her then-boyfriend, a hedge-fund chief, was transferred to New York.
Approximately 70 percent of Vergara’s business in the last year has come from Brazil, thanks to the booming economy in the South American country. “I sell to a lot of people who have worked in the financial markets,” she said. “They either used to be my clients or they were friends of my clients.”
And when it comes to Brazilian clients, it helps that she speaks Portuguese. “You speak the same language, you share the same culture, you maybe went to the same school or university,” she said.
Vergara recently sold two three-bedroom apartments at 2 River Terrace to Brazilian families for $2.29 million and $2.3 million apiece.
Meanwhile, at Corcoran, Daniela Sassoun leads the pack in dealing with Brazilian clients, the firm said. The São Paulo–born broker moved to the U.S. at age 18 before doing a stint in private banking in Switzerland.
In private banking, Sassoun helped clients decide which investments were worth their attention, including the purchases of homes all over the world. Then in 2005, she decided to take up residential brokerage full time. Brazilian clients account for approximately 40 percent of her business.
“I didn’t go out specifically to get Brazilian clients,” she said. “It just happened.”
While Sassoun doesn’t host buyers’ groups from Brazil in New York, she’s given presentations and helped host seminars for prospective buyers in Brazil, she said.
Sassoun is currently listing a one-bedroom apartment at Chelsea’s London Terrace Towers owned by Brazilian journalist and publishing magnate Joyce Pascowitch. The unit is asking $965,000.
Gilad Azaria and Ariel Tirosh
There is no shortage of Israeli brokers in New York who work with buyers from the Land of Milk and Honey. For example, Israeli super broker Ilan Bracha two years ago spearheaded the high-profile launch of the first New York City franchise of Keller Williams.
A roster of young brokers have more recently made a name for themselves when it comes to working with Israeli clients, including Elliman’s Gilad Azaria, a former partner of Bracha.
Israel-born Azaria, now 37, moved to the U.S. at age 21 after serving in the Israeli army. He worked as a motorcycle mechanic and later owned a car dealership before becoming a broker 10 years ago.
He started his real estate career at the now-defunct Queens firm called Enterprise and then moved to MLBKaye, the firm where Elliman star Dolly Lenz cut her teeth, before joining Elliman in 2004.
In addition, Azaria also develops single-family homes in Israel. He has built eight houses in the last three years, which he rents out with the help of his parents.
A large portion of Azaria’s listings are owned by Israeli clients, including a three-bedroom home at Trump World Place asking $6.75 million, a $4.53 million spread at Trump Place and a three-bedroom home at the Ritz Carlton on the market for $7.4 million.
“It’s a small community, and I proved myself,” Azaria said. “I get phone calls from people I’ve never heard of saying, ‘We’re in town, what can you show us?’ ”
Jerusalem native Ariel Tirosh is also a motorcycle lover. He and his best friend rode their motorcycles across the U.S. in the ’90s after completing their service in the Israeli army.
Post-trip, Tirosh became a rental agent with the now-defunct Checkers Realty.
“It was open listings,” he said. “Back then, some management companies said that the first person to come with the full package — checks and signed leases and all the credentials — gets the apartment. The competition was pretty fierce. You ran your butt around the city. It was the best way to learn the business.”
Tirosh later moved on to Peter Ashe Real Estate, then in 2007 to Elliman, where he now works out of the company’s Madison Avenue office. Up to 20 percent of his business comes from Israeli clients he meets through connections in Jerusalem. He also works regularly with U.S.-based Israelis.
Israel is “not a big country, but relative to the population, there’s a lot of them here,” Tirosh said.
Elissa Burke, Kane Manera and Tim Kass
When Australia-born Halstead Property broker Elissa Burke walks into an apartment for the first time, she can tell right away if it’s owned by a fellow Aussie.
“I always look at the bookshelves, and there are always at least two books that every Australian has,” she told TRD. “One of them is Robert Hughes’s ‘The Fatal Shore.’”
Before transitioning into real estate in 2005, Burke worked in her native Queensland as a research pharmacist for companies such as Bayer HealthCare, Sanofi and Sterling Winthrop. The job took her to New York, where she met her husband. After marrying and moving to the city, Burke started a career in real estate. Now, she told TRD, Australian clients constitute almost 75 percent of her business.
Burke previously served as a board member for the American Australian Association, a networking organization founded by Keith Murdoch, father of News Corporation mogul Rupert Murdoch. She can also be spotted at events hosted by AAA’s hipper equivalent, the not-for-profit Advance Global Australian Professionals. At least once a year, Burke conducts a seminar for prospective property buyers at the Australian consulate in New York.
“I’m always connecting with Australians,” she said, noting that her countrymen tend to be “great travelers, always ready to move and relocate to America or have a home here,” she said.
Burke is not the only New York City broker running in Aussie circles. Perth native Kane Manera recently hosted a breakfast at the Mark Hotel for a group from Australia. While the group came to New York to buy art, Manera took the chance to plant a property-buying seed, too.
Manera can also be found mingling at alumni functions at the Harvard Club. The Ivy League university is a sister school to the University of Western Australia, Manera’s alma mater.
Manera, who now works on a team with Herve Senequier and Leonard Steinberg at Elliman, started his U.S. career as an actor, starring in the soap opera “Guiding Light.”
“I was on it the year it got canceled,” he said. “It was the beginning and end of my acting career.”
But he decided to stay in New York after a pigeon defecated on his head at a Yankee game. He took it as a sign — and a positive one at that. He got into real estate in 2009, and his Australian connections have served him since.
“There are only 22 million of us [in Australia.] Friends, acquaintances, people I went to college with will pass my information along to people they know,” he said. “I also try to go through Sydney every year to meet with clients.”
At the Corcoran Group, Australia native Tim Cass is considered the resident expert on the land Down Under. An Australia native, Cass has lived in the U.S. for 23 years. Before becoming a residential broker in 2002, Cass was a bartender and then a partner in a retail fashion business. He spent 18 months at Citi Habitats before joining Corcoran.
Cass is perhaps best known for brokering the sale of Icelandic businessman Jon Asgeir Johannesson’s 15 Gramercy Park North spread for $22 million last year, but he said at least 15 percent of his business comes from Australian clients. He recently represented an Australian seller in a transaction for a Tribeca penthouse at 48 Laight Street, which was asking $4.25 million.
Cass keeps in contact with his Australian friends and client base via a newsletter in which he talks about New York’s theater and art offerings as well as real estate.
Edward Johnston III and Charlie Attias
Some of the New York brokers who work most frequently with French clients are not French themselves.
Edward Johnston III traveled to Paris and the south of France regularly while working for a New York–based textile company. During that time, he cultivated a network of contacts that he’s drawing on now that he’s a broker at Brown Harris Stevens. French clients constitute up to 15 percent of his business, he said.
Johnston studied at a French school in Villefranche-sur-Mer and can “get by” speaking French, though most of his clients speak a good amount of English, he said.
Johnston is an active member of the Alliance Française, a not-for-profit organization promoting French arts and culture in New York.
He is currently listing a 25-foot-wide former carriage house on East 64th Street. Asking $17.4 million, it is owned by a client who lives in France, he said. He is also marketing a five-bedroom condo at Chelsea’s Prairie Lofts, asking $10.25 million.
Another broker with French connections is Corcoran’s Charlie Attias. Originally from Morocco, Attias’s first language is French and, as such, a large majority of his clients are from Europe’s three French-speaking countries: France, Belgium and Switzerland. Attias studied math and computer science in France and Israel before finally moving to New York to become a financial trader. He has been a broker since 2000.
Attias regularly travels around Europe to meet with clients. He also conducts presentations for buyers at conferences organized by French banks and attorneys. He is currently listing seven apartments at the Upper East Side condo conversion 1200 Fifth Avenue, totaling more than $13 million.
Attias said a large chunk of his business comes from French-speaking investors.
“I have some investors who are buying one or two properties every six months to a year,” he said. “We hold the whole portfolio for them and rent them out and do the management for them. If they decide to sell, we will sell them for them.”