Pitch Perfect: Brokers on the art of winning resale listings

Prices are softening, and winning sellers over is no picnic

New York /
Sep.September 25, 2017 10:00 AM

From time to time, Lauren Muss flips open a folder on her desk called “lost exclusives.” The Douglas Elliman broker, who was among the top 10 agents in The Real Deal’s most recent ranking, said she likes to track how the ones that got away are doing.

“Many brokers give a price to get the listing,” said Muss, who is marketing a co-op at 941 Park Avenue for $17 million and a townhouse on East 64th Street for $16.5 million. “I used to walk [into a resale pitch] with nothing, they’d say ‘let’s put it on’ and I’d get the exclusive. Now I’m up against at least two to five competitors.”

Winning new development listings is notoriously cutthroat, and brokerages pull out all the stops to lock down lucrative exclusives that can keep them going for years to come. But the resale world remains a prime business, and there are now so many brokers competing in the luxury space that it’s become even more challenging to lock down exclusives. With buyers having more variety to choose from, and sellers having more information than ever more, a resale pitch can now be just as demanding as a new development one. Brokers are ramping up their pitches, bringing along their photographers, public relations executives, social media specialists and in some cases, the presidents of the firms, in an attempt to dazzle potential clients.

All the feels

The biggest difference between winning new development and resales, brokers said, is the emotional element: Sponsors tend to focus on the bottom line and metrics such as price per foot, and can be ruthless about replacing brokers if they aren’t happy with their performance. On a resale pitch, emotions and personality play a much bigger role.

“[Sellers] are going to interview four to five people… they are going to be skilled rock stars, so it’s going to boil down to likeability,” said the Corcoran Group’s Vickey Barron, who said she never gives a price on the first pitch and spends most of the time trying to ask questions rather than selling herself. “If I just show Corcoran stats and talk about how great Corcoran and I are…. then I can’t talk about them and the property,” she said.

Stribling’s Christine Miller Martin, who has carved out a niche in estate sales, said that in her business, a broker is either pitching the beneficiaries, a private wealth manager or a trust attorney.

“In the latter case it’s generally competitive — in order for them to fulfill their fiduciary duties as the adviser they are basically meant to get three names,” said Miller Martin, who networks with trust lawyers and pushes her own background as an estate lawyer in order to secure listings.

Elliman’s Lisa Simonsen, who is marketing a resale at 10 Madison Square West for $16 million, said pre-pitch reconnaissance is key.

“We do a lot of background investigation into our clients,” she said. “Perhaps I’ll invite someone to train with me for a marathon, or go to spin class….. if they collect artwork I invite them to go on a private viewing at the Met.”

Know your lines

Many brokers likened the pitch to an audition, with everyone taking a different approach to win the part.

Some like to focus on generating rapport, while others think it’s important to highlight the resources you can bring to the table. Elliman’s Scott Klein, who is marketing a Park Slope townhouse for $5.6 million, will usually bring a photographer to a pitch, and will walk the seller through his approach to staging and the bidding process. He’s even brought Elliman’s director of marketing, Teddy Baxter, with him to meet sellers who he is wooing.

“[I think bringing Baxter] was very helpful, both for the expertise and showing the commitment of the firm to marketing a property,” Klein said.

Others take a wonkier route, arming themselves with price comparables and datasets in order to impress sellers with their market knowledge.

“Everyone who is not in real estate is still very savvy,” said CORE’s Matthew Cohen. “[Sellers] know the market now….it’s challenging. But I love that they can see through BS.”

While some top brokers like to be alone with the client in order to highlight the personal touch, others come with an entourage of experts. “When you know you are in a multiple bidding situation, you want to go into the meeting with the leverage,” said Brown Harris Stevens’ Paul Anand, who noted he has had the firm’s president, Hall Willkie, accompany him on pitches in the past. (Wilkie isn’t the only chieftain who’ll attend a pitch. Elliman’s Howard Lorber has sat in on important resale pitches in the past, according to Muss.)

Stribling’s Kirk Henckels, who has sold pricey co-ops on the Upper East Side for 35 years, said brokers from his firm now usually bring a team of between three and five people, including a PR and social media specialist, the head of sales and other experts, to a pitch.

Older sellers, according to Henckels, often need a broker to explain the social media element.

“Everybody of a certain generation is bemused by all of this,” he said. “It is rather like when we first started dealing with the internet…. It’s not like showing a copy of an ad in the New York Times.”

But there is such a thing as trying too hard.

“People bring pitch books the size of the yellow pages,” said Elliman’s Evan Shaffer, who bemoaned the “gimmicky” approach that some take when pitching resales. “[Sometimes] virtual reality glasses…. I think those things are distracting.”

The power of no

Many brokers said they’ve lost out on resale exclusives because a competitor was willing to indulge a seller’s unrealistic price.

“Brokers get excited by the big numbers and become yes-men,” said Shaffer, who like many brokers interviewed for this story said it’s worthwhile to turn down a listing if the sellers don’t heed pricing advice.

“There’s too many brokers who say yes [and] those are the brokers who end up a lot of broken relationships and apartments that are sitting on the market,” he added.

Sotheby’s International Realty’s Mara Flash Blum, who is marketing a loft on Greenwich Street in Tribeca for $5 million and took the no. 20 spot in TRD’s resale ranking, said some brokers will offer lower commissions just to score business. But, she cautioned, sellers would be wise to avoid that trap.

“If you have a broker willing to negotiate everything and the kitchen sink, you just wonder how they would be representing your interests and your deal,” she said. “Would you go in and negotiate with a guy who’s doing surgery on your shoulder? If you want the best, you need to pay for it.”

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