NYC brokers wrestle with new state title rules

Firms have taken different approaches to the loss of honorifics, from periodic email signature checks to offering alternative designations

From left: Diane Wildowsky, Frederick Peters and Jill Gullace
From left: Diane Wildowsky, Frederick Peters and Jill Gullace

UPDATE, July 17, 6:05 p.m.: Shortly after the New York State Department of State announced that brokers could no longer use honorary titles, Diane Wildowsky fired off two emails to her brokerage, Sotheby’s International Realty, to quell her anger.

Wildowsky has been an associate broker for about 10 years. In lieu of a raise, she was promoted to vice president at Sotheby’s in 2006 after closing a string of big deals, she said. But in April, that title was stripped away because she did not own shares in the firm.

“The state and the Real Estate Board of New York disrespected us by not including us in the conversation,” Wildowsky said. “I pay [REBNY] dues every year. I want to know who defended us. … It all happened behind our backs.”

The state department sent a letter to REBNY legal counsel Neil Garfinkel, stating that brokers can only use titles that correspond to their licenses — such as broker, associate broker or salesperson — and not the more fanciful titles that firms sometimes bestow on their agents, such as vice president, senior vice president and director. (The new rule does not apply if agents have an ownership stake in the firm.) The DOS also issued new rules for how agents describe teams, barring them from using any name format except “The Agent Name(s) Team” at the start of next year.

In response to REBNY’s request for an opinion, the DOS clarified provisions of Article 12-A of real estate license law. The clarifications in the letter, drafted by attorney Whitney Clark, stand “to protect consumers from deceptive advertising practices in the brokerage industry,” a state spokesperson said.

In the months that followed, the loss of most vice president and director titles has had a mixed impact on the hierarchy of brokers across the city. Although the defunct vice president titles remain on many LinkedIn profiles, according to The Real Deal’s review of agent pages, several firms have cracked down by removing titles from business cards and individual broker pages on their websites. Sotheby’s periodically checks automated email signatures as well, Wildowsky said.

When clients have questioned the change, Wildowsky said she explains the title was taken away. Clients are confused at first, but they usually accept it and move forward, she said.

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To appease some brokers, Sotheby’s has established the title of “senior global real estate advisor.”

Warburg Realty, meanwhile, has no plans to create alternative titles. The brokerage’s president, Frederick Peters, said he is advising brokers to include the year of licensure on their materials, and to apply for a New York Residential Specialist designation from REBNY. To achieve NYRS status, a broker must have taken an extra course of study; worked in city real estate for at least five years; and negotiated more than 50 deals in the city totaling at least $50 million in sales.

Not including Peters, eight agents at Warburg have an ownership stake, and most of their titles were — prior to the letter — senior or executive managing director, he said.

“Nobody likes to have something taken away,” Peters said. “But I don’t think the long-term impact is going to be significant in any way.”

In a letter to brokers, Corcoran Group Sales Director Tresa Hall suggested adding a tagline to business cards such as “Ten Years in Real Estate” or “Million Dollar Circle.”

Some brokers, however, are not fazed by the new playing field, in which novices and veterans are on the same level. Jill Gullace of Douglas Elliman worked in investment banking before switching to real estate eight years ago. She went from director of sales at Leslie J. Garfield & Co. to vice president and associate broker at Elliman.

“The only folks focused on titles are other brokers,” Gullace told The Real Deal. “My clients simply know me as the townhouse lady. They could care less if my title is president, minion or ruler of the universe.”

“It is not about your title,” she added. “It is about results.”