New Web site looks to become Zagat’s for residential real estate

By Candace Taylor | November 16, 2009 06:22PM

From left: Kathy Braddock and Paul Purcell of Charles Rutenberg Realty, and Jonas Lee, who has founded several internet startups, have launched TopAgentGuide.com

Ask any Manhattan resident how to go about finding the right real estate agent, and you’ll likely get a flood of horror stories about high-pressure sales and terrible apartments.

A new Web site is trying to change that.

TopAgentGuide.com, newly launched by the founders of real estate consultancy Braddock + Purcell, aims to function as a kind of Good Housekeeping Seal for real estate, by prescreening agents and pointing users to the best ones.

“We’ve got thousands of agents in New York, but there’s really no way to find the best one,” said Kathy Braddock, executive consultant at TopAgentGuide.com. “Hopefully the site will make the consumer more aware of the fabulous agents out there.”

But Braddock has even loftier aspirations for the venture.

“I believe it will raise the bar for professionalism to this business,” said Braddock, who founded TopAgentGuide.com along with Internet entrepreneur Jonas Lee and with Paul Purcell, her partner at Braddock + Purcell and at the brokerage Charles Rutenberg Realty in New York.

TopAgentGuide.com features profiles of some 100 hand-picked Manhattan real estate brokers from a variety of different companies. Each profile includes reviews from former customers, a video interview with each agent, and “vital stats” such as the agent’s sales figures for 2006 through 2008.

Potential clients browse the site and when they find an agent they like, they contact the TopAgentGuide.com staff, who pass them along to the agent, or recommend another agent on the site who is a better fit. The customer can choose to interview several agents before selecting one. The service is free to the consumer; and the site’s founders plan to make their money by receiving the industry-standard referral fee at closing.

Braddock + Purcell spent a year screening each of the agents through interviews and peer and client recommendations. Braddock said they chose only the agents who are truly outstanding; those that didn’t make the cut weren’t included. Agents cannot pay to be featured on the site.

Some top-earners — Prudential Douglas Elliman powerbroker Dolly Lenz, for example — are not on the site.

That’s because the city’s most successful — and busiest — brokers aren’t always the best choice for a new customer, and especially a first-time buyer, Braddock said, noting that the agents on the site were selected on the basis of customer service and other qualities in addition to sales figures.

“Just because they’re making the biggest dollars doesn’t mean you have the qualities that we think are also important,” Braddock said.

When asked for her opinion on the new site, Lenz said she most likely would not have agreed to participate in it, since she gets almost all of her clients from referrals and already has more business than she can handle.

Moreover, she said she’s not sure how successful the site will be, since buyers often prefer to get referrals from friends or family members, or go to a property-driven site like Streeteasy.com rather than sites that promise to pair them up with a good agent.

“If they’re looking for an agent, they’re looking for a personal friend,” she said. “This type of thing with a site that tells you who is the top agent, that’s not going to be what sticks.”

The founders are optimistic that the site will not only take off, but engender more accountability in the industry, changing customers’ perception of real estate agents as “a step above a used car salesman,” Braddock said.

“I think the real estate business is the last business to finally get some kind of vetting mechanism,” she continued. “I am hoping it will elevate the whole brokerage industry.”

The site is currently limited to sales agents in Manhattan, but the founders hope to expand it to Brooklyn, then the rental market, and ultimately to other areas of the country. Braddock said she and Purcell will continue their consulting business for the time being, though if the site takes off they may merge the two ventures.

The idea for the site came from Lee, who has founded several Internet startups, including Giftcertificates.com. Most recently, he co-founded Redbrick Partners, an investment management firm that specialized in renovating and renting single-family homes.

The idea for a business sparked about a year ago, when he decided to sell his Manhattan apartment but didn’t know where to look for an agent, despite his experience working in real estate.

He immediately thought of his longtime friends Braddock and Purcell. Purcell is the former president of Elliman, which has since become the city’s largest real estate firm, and Braddock was previously Elliman’s executive managing director and general sales manager. But both had gotten their start in the relocation segment of the business, gaining experience in matching agents with customers. Several years ago, they founded Braddock + Purcell, which does just that, but in “an off-line, white-glove way,” Lee said.

He thought their knowledge should be made available to a wider audience.

“This information should be out there on the Web,” he said. While there are other sites out there that match agents with customers, like NYRentClub, Flyrig.com, or rateyourbroker.com, most charge users a fee or ask for contact information, which TopAgentGuide does not do, he said. Other companies are national in scope and have only a few Manhattan agents.

“The reason I started this is because there was nothing like this,” he said.

Lee provided the fundraising prowess, and Braddock and Purcell set to work selecting agents to be featured on the site. In the process, they focused on identifying the brokers’ particular strengths. In Purcell’s view, incompatibility between client and broker — often the result of customers picking their agents at random — is often the reason transactions go awry.

“Sometimes, it’s just the wrong person for the job,” Purcell said. “When you get the right person, it just makes the transaction so much easier.”

To determine that, he and Braddock asked the agents detailed questions about their specialties, as they do with their off-line business. “All agents say they work all neighborhoods,” Purcell said. “I said, ‘tell me your sweet spot. Tell me where you cannot be stumped. What I want to do is hit a home run — I want you, the agent, to look brilliant.'”

On the site, Glenn Norrgard, a senior vice president at Sotheby’s International Realty, is called “a cultured and savvy Downtown agent,” while Rutenberg agent Douglas Heddings is billed as “Mr. Westside.” Amanda Brainerd, an executive managing director at Warburg Realty, is “an uptown co-op expert with a focus on higher-end properties.”

“I thought it was a wonderful idea,” Brainerd said of the site. “I thought it was a way that potential clients could look at several testimonials from different people rather than just getting a referral from one person — sort of a one-stop-shop for referrals.” Of course, the site’s selectiveness is likely to be controversial among agents who are not included, especially if the venture is successful.

“The more of a success it is, the more hurt feelings there will be,” Brainerd said.

But Braddock makes no claim that the site is exhaustive, and said agents can ask to be considered for inclusion.

“It would be impossible for us to know everybody,” she said. “The more people that present themselves, the better.”

The site will eventually top out at 200 Manhattan agents to maintain its exclusivity, Lee said.

Braddock and Purcell may also field accusations of bias because they themselves are the heads of a real estate firm.

There are five Rutenberg agents on the site. Braddock said there isn’t a conflict of interest because of Rutenberg’s business model, in which the firm makes its money on monthly fees rather than commission splits, receiving only $1,000 to $2,000 for each transaction.

“We are not financially incentivized to do a deal [with] a Rutenberg broker,” Braddock said, because each transaction fee is “a very small amount of money.” She added: “I couldn’t do this business this way if we were a traditional firm — I would be sort of double dipping.”

Brainerd said while she likes the idea of the site, it’s unlikely to become gospel overnight.

Much like the Zagat’s restaurant guide, “you take into account what’s in the pages, but you also listen to friends,” she said. “It’s just one more resource for buyers and sellers.”