A year ago this month, New York’s real estate community experienced one of the darker moments of the recession when Coldwell Banker Hunt Kennedy — one of the city’s largest and most established firms — announced it would close.
However, CBHK turned out to be the only major firm that disappeared. Business, meanwhile, has steadily improved for months. “New York has had a very good rebound,” said Pamela Liebman, CEO of the Corcoran Group.
Indeed, things are looking up for Corcoran, which is gaining on its archrival, Prudential Douglas Elliman, according to The Real Deal‘s seventh annual survey of the city’s biggest brokerages. (Click here or scroll down for links to all of this year’s rankings.)
With 1,047 agents, Corcoran still trails Elliman in size, but it narrowed the gap by adding agents, according to the firms’ Web sites and the OLR residential listing portal. Elliman, meanwhile, lost agents, dropping from 1,513 to 1,462.
Elliman CEO Dottie Herman said she’s not concerned about losing ground to Corcoran. For a firm of Elliman’s size, 50 agents “is not a significant number,” she said.
Especially in such a tough year for the industry, “you’re always going to have some attrition,” Herman said.
She added: “It’s not just about numbers. It’s about having good agents. Just having licenses doesn’t mean a lot.”
Liebman agreed. “It’s irrelevant to me as to who has the most agents,” she said. “I want to be number one in terms of sales.” She even issued a challenge to Elliman: “If [everyone] wanted to open their books, I think we’d win.”
Herman fired back: “If everyone’s willing to open their books, so are we. ”
Like last year, Corcoran bested Elliman in the total value of its Manhattan listings and the median price of its listings. Elliman, meanwhile, topped Corcoran in the total number of Manhattan listings. Its listing volume, however, fell further than Corcoran’s.
Liebman said Corcoran picked up 49 agents from CBHK, including company cofounder JoAnne Kennedy. (NRT, Corcoran’s parent company, operates Coldwell Banker franchises such as CBHK.) In addition, Liebman said, the firm hired a number of former Wall Streeters set adrift by layoffs in the financial sector.
“We took advantage of a very talented pool of people who were looking to enter real estate,” she said. “We had some rising stars come into the business in 2009.”
Not every firm saw its workforce swell, though. Repeating a pattern from last year, four of this year’s top 12 companies saw a year-over-year drop in agents.
In some cases, firms that lost agents last year (like Corcoran) are those that gained them this year. In part, that’s because firms weeded out nonproducing agents in the worst of the downturn, and are now hiring again.
“If I feel that the market is a little daunting, I’m going to try to keep the numbers down,” said Neil Binder, the cofounder of Bellmarc Realty, which lost 3 percent of its agents between 2008 and 2009, then gained roughly the same percentage this year. Now that things are looking up, he plans to add another 20 or 30 agents.
Brown Harris Stevens and Halstead Property, both subsidiaries of privately held Terra Holdings, have steadily added agents for the past few years. Halstead recruited roughly 25 agents from CBHK, while Brown Harris absorbed boutique brokerage Edward Lee Cave, and has also continued adding to its ranks since then.
Hall Willkie, the president of Brown Harris Stevens, said being a privately held company “with no debt” helped lure agents during a scary economic time. Just before press time, the firm scored a coup in the Hamptons by hiring two top managers, Cia Comnas and Ed Reale, away from Sotheby’s International Realty.
Still, the luxury market — the firm’s bread and butter — saw a drop in activity in 2009, as evidenced by a 41 percent drop in the firm’s number of listings and a 33 percent drop in the number of agents with listings over $10 million.
Charles Rutenberg Realty, meanwhile, grew dramatically in 2009, with a 52 percent increase in Manhattan agents since last year, including former Elliman agent and well-known blogger Douglas Heddings.
Firm cofounder Paul Purcell is not shy about his ambitions for Rutenberg, which allows agents to keep nearly all of their commissions, and makes money instead on monthly and transaction fees.
“I want to be the market leader, the largest firm in Manhattan,” said Purcell. Rutenberg is adding three to five new agents a week, he said, predicting that it will grow to 500 agents by the end of 2010.
Bond New York also saw its ranks swell by some 29 percent. The company is adding 5,500 square feet of space to its Columbus Circle office, said Bond principal Bruno Ricciotti. Because many of the firm’s agents focus on rentals and also represent buyers, “we’re good at these kinds of markets,” said Ricciotti.
Perks — like two free Craigslist ads per day to any agent who arrives at the office by 9:15 a.m. — also give Bond an edge, he said.
Eight-year-old firm Nest Seekers also appeared to gain ground this year, growing from 127 agents to 168, according to its Web site. Company founder Eddie Shapiro said that’s due in part to several high-profile new projects the firm is marketing, including TF Cornerstone condos 99 John Street in Lower Manhattan and the View in Long Island City.
Still, the firm’s growth may not be as dramatic as it seems. Some agents listed on the company’s site do not appear to be active, and former Nest Seekers agents have complained that their information was not taken down from the site after they left. Shapiro said that isn’t a widespread problem.
“Maybe there was some technical error,” he said. “But we’re somewhere in the 160 range at all times.”
Like last year, The Real Deal‘s rankings include the largest Hamptons firms and the top boutique firms in the city. In the Hamptons, both Elliman and Corcoran are getting competition from upstart local brokerages like Saunders & Associates. Back in Manhattan, many of the city’s small boutique firms got even smaller, but several of them still saw the dollar volume of their listings rise. Leslie J. Garfield & Co., which specializes in townhouses, continued to best its competition in listing value.