New program aims to give agents street cred

By Patrick Egan | October 26, 2010 04:00PM

From left: Jessica Milton, Greg Mims and Ann Baldinucci

New York City real estate agents have yet another Internet forum on which to establish a brand.

NabeWise.com wants to point its users — people interested in particular neighborhoods, possibly to move there — toward featured real estate agents. The company is soliciting agents who claim knowledge and experience in a particular neighborhood, and are willing to pay for a title that promises such. (note: correction appended) But the pay-to-play element is drawing skepticism.

Earlier this month, NabeWise, which creates a neighborhood profile through demographic statistics, area features and user-generated reviews, launched its Neighborhood Specialist Program for real estate agents. Firms can pay the website for its agents to be pegged as one of four housing experts in a particular area. For a monthly fee, brokers can write reviews, upload content and link to their sale and rental listings back on their agency’s website. They cannot post their listings on NabeWise.com.

The Neighborhood Specialist title isn’t so much a coronation.

“We’re certainly not trying to say these are the best experts out of all the agents that work in a particular neighborhood,” said Ann Baldinucci, NabeWise’s CEO and founder. Rather, Baldinucci said, they’re looking for agents who will answer readers’ real estate questions.

Currently, NabeWise is targeting small and medium-sized firms, asking management to identify their best agents in particular neighborhoods. If the agent and firm so choose, they can secure one of the four neighborhood specialist slots, at a price of $49 per month.

NabeWise, which launched in January, counts on its client firms to put forth the best candidates for a particular position. If NabeWise feels that an agent isn’t living up to the title, it will let the agency know that that person is unacceptable. “We want to make sure that the people we’re putting on are true specialists,” Baldinucci said. Several popular neighborhoods, like Soho and the Upper East Side, already have agents on a waiting list, she added.

NabeWise allows users to determine which agents best represent a neighborhood. Users can weigh in on agents’ reviews, and if they consistently find fault with an agent’s point of view, that agent could lose his or her designation.

In addition to viewing user and agent reviews, visitors to the site, which covers other major cities, including San Francisco and Boston, will find a map showing a neighborhood’s restaurant and bar locations, with links to Yelp. NabeWise also provides school information and neighborhood rankings based on a variety of demographics and attributes.

Some in the real estate community are warming to NabeWise’s program. The company has identified about 300 neighborhoods in New York City to start, Baldinucci said. Four slots per neighborhood translate into 1,200 neighborhood specialists, with potential monthly revenue of more than $58,000. About 170 agents have claimed spots so far and are paying the subscription fee.

Mark David, whose firm has more than 70 people on staff, has paid for several neighborhood specialist slots, including an East Village one for Jessica Milton.

“With NabeWise, it gives a general feel for how the neighborhood is,” Milton said, as opposed to Yelp and its more extreme love-hate opinions.

While the program does connect consumers with agents, skepticism exists about how well an agent matches with a neighborhood, especially if the agent is paying for the privilege.

“Word of mouth and references are monumental,” more so than a presence on the Web, said Lynn Donawald, who leads Donawald Realty, and has worked in Park Slope for over 20 years. “It’s no longer cost effective when you pay for seven websites that claim to have you as the number one specialist.”

The concept of paying for a title bothers Steven Spinola, president of the Real Estate Board of New York.

“We take our designations seriously. We think it means something,” said Spinola, citing the additional training and classwork professionals undertake to earn national and state designations. “It’s totally inappropriate for anyone to sell a designation,” he said, adding that based on the little he knew about NabeWise, he didn’t think it was trying to mislead consumers, but what he doesn’t want is for the “industry to get a black eye.”

The program offers agents cheap advertising, but there’s a downside for agents and NabeWise.

“Just because you’re a neighborhood specialist doesn’t mean you’re going to be the best,” said Greg Mims, an Upper West Side agent at Brown Harris Stevens. He said that NabeWise should probably exert some editorial oversight, “because in this business, you can’t always take people at their word.”