The Real Deal New York

The top Hamptons firms

East End firms jockey for position amid stabilizing market
By Peter Kiefer | June 01, 2011 05:31PM

From left: Star brokers Tim Davis and Susan Breitenbach of Corcoran, and Harald Grant of Sotheby’s

After edging past Corcoran in 2010, Prudential Douglas Elliman this year hung on to its title as the largest residential brokerage in the Hamptons.

Over the past 12 months, Elliman’s total head count fell by one — giving it 319 agents. But that was still enough for the firm to maintain its position as the top residential real estate player in the Hamptons, according to The Real Deal‘s annual ranking of the biggest East End firms by number of agents. (Meanwhile, the firm is facing challenges in the city. (See “Elliman’s Challenges”)

Corcoran remained in the No. 2 spot with 312 agents, but closed the gap somewhat, with six more agents than it had at this time last year. (Corcoran executives said the company has more than that number of agents, because some do not appear on the firm’s website, which The Real Deal uses to tally head counts for all firms because it’s more up to date than state licensing filings.)

In fact, rankings of the top five brokerage houses remained unchanged from last year — evidence of what brokers say is an increasingly stable market following a roller-coaster-like four years.

Brown Harris Stevens came in at No. 3 with 146 brokers. The No. 4-ranked firm, Town & Country Real Estate, added 21 agents, most of whom joined the firm through its acquisition of the Westhampton brokerage Phillips Beach Realty in March, bringing its total to 119. Sotheby’s International Realty rounded out the top five with 88 brokers and, along with Corcoran, dominated The Real Deal‘s ranking of the priciest listings.

Meanwhile, three-year-old Saunders & Associates also continued its forceful pursuit of greater market share. The firm added 15 new brokers and jumped up a spot to No. 6. As The Real Deal reported online last month, it recently opened a new office in Southampton, and will be adding 13 more brokers there.

As a result, Saunders overtook Century 21 Albertson Realty, which saw its agent ranks drop to 45 from 57 last year.

The remaining firms on the top-10 list included Devlin McNiff, Daniel Gale Sotheby’s International Realty and WHB Real Estate.

While Town & Country had more new agents than any other firm on the list, its CEO said the company is “not aggressively recruiting. It’s more a function of whether it is a good fit,” said Judi Desiderio, who founded the firm in 2007. “It is really all about ‘who,’ not ‘how many.'”

Most of the brokers interviewed by The Real Deal said despite a recent dip in median and average sales prices, the market has been relatively healthy.

“The market seems to be moving in the right direction,” said Aspasia Comnas, executive managing director of Brown Harris Stevens for the Hamptons and North Fork.

“Revenue [for BHS] is up over last year, which in turn was up over the year before that,” she continued. “It is not back to the levels of the boom years, but then, I did not expect it to be in the Hamptons.”

To be sure, the general health of the market in the Hamptons has improved since the dark days of 2008 and 2009.

The average sales price in 2010 was $1.7 million — still off the 2007 peak of $1.8 million, but up from $1.5 million in 2009, according to the appraisal firm Miller Samuel. The number of sales in 2010 also rebounded to 1,632, up from 1,124 in 2009 and gaining ground on 1,917 in 2007, when the market was still roaring.

But the rankings come amidst a significant drop in sales prices and sales volume in the first quarter of 2011.

According to Elliman’s latest market report, the average sales price in the first quarter of 2011 — $1.2 million — represents a drop of 22 percent from the same period last year. And, perhaps more important, the number of sales was down almost 22 percent from the first quarter of 2010.

Anecdotally, many brokers said they were not seeing that kind of pain on the ground — so it might be a quarterly blip in the data, or it may be because those brokers made the biggest-brokerage list and are expanding their businesses.

“We are doing an awful lot of business and I can’t imagine that we are the only ones,” said Andrew Saunders, president of Saunders & Associates. “It doesn’t feel to me like we are down. It seems like there is more balance, and things are selling. This is not a declining market.”

But Town & Country’s Desiderio said there is still some noticeable slack in the marketplace. “After 29 years of monitoring our market in the Hamptons and on the North Fork, I can honestly say the great recession was the worst I’d ever experienced,” she said. “We are off the bottom, but it will be a long and arduous climb back up to the top.”

Meanwhile, eight-figure sales continue to dominate the headlines in the Hamptons.

Last month, a 55-acre waterfront North Haven estate known as Tyndal Point sold to real estate investor Jeffrey Greene for $36 million, making it the largest sale on the East End this year. The Corcoran Group’s Gary DePersia, who had the listing as a co-exclusive with Scott Strough of Strough Real Estate Associates, said it was the largest-ever residential sale north of the highway (Route 27).

And the market is still rife with eye-poppingly expensive listings, though some have seen major price chops and have lingered on the market. The priciest home currently for sale in the Hamptons market is Bridgehampton’s Three Ponds Farm, listed for $68 million with Susan Breitenbach of Corcoran. Harald Grant of Sotheby’s International Realty is marketing a four-acre estate on Hayground Cove in Water Mill for $58.5 million. Other high-priced listings include an oceanfront Wainscott property listed with Sotheby’s Ed Petrie and Julie Wolfe for $55 million, and a Southampton estate listed with Corcoran’s Tim Davis for $49.5 million.

Properties priced in the low- to mid-seven figures are also moving at a nice clip, according to several brokers. But in this still-shaky market, brokers echo their Manhattan counterparts and say that realistic pricing is still the key to getting a house sold.

“In 2005 and 2006, it was less about pricing and more about supply. Things were selling close to their asking price,” Saunders said. “Today the buyers are so educated and people know when they come into a house what similar houses traded for over the same period, so things have to be priced properly — whether that is $500,000 or $35 million.”

In addition, because it takes more work to get a house sold, the competition among brokerages in the Hamptons remains fierce.

Corcoran representatives refuted The Real Deal‘s ranking, claiming that they were, in fact, the largest brokerage firm in the Hamptons. The last time they held that title, according to The Real Deal data, was in 2009.

The firm’s regional senior vice president for the East End, Rick Hoffman, said Corcoran has a “Referral Director Program,” which includes less active but legally licensed brokers who are not listed on the website. If those agents are counted, Corcoran would have 361 agents, surpassing Elliman (whose operations in the Hamptons are led by regional manager Paul Brennan).

Hoffman also claimed that Corcoran was involved in more than half of the transactions of $10 million and above in the past year, and that his firm had more listings and open houses than any other company.

One thing is for sure: With more seven- and eight-figure deals closing, the Hamptons continues to stand out as a welcome anomaly to a national housing market that has struggled to rebound. “I’ve been impressed and relieved,” said Hoffman. “It came back quicker than what a lot people predicted.”

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