Hamptons and Palm Beach agents vie for business during luxury circuit’s summer season

Turf wars threaten referral business as market dynamics shift

(Photo-illustration by Ilya Hourie/The Real Deal; Getty Images)
(Photo-illustration by Ilya Hourie/The Real Deal; Getty Images)

On the island of Palm Beach, seasonal residents pulled their shutters closed and shipped their cars to the Hampton of their choice. While some of this moneyed crowd typically linger into June, a heat wave that hit South Florida at the end of May had them packing their bags early.

It was that time of year again. As the heat index rose, the well-heeled headed north, swapping Mediterranean Revivals and bougainvillea for wooden shingles and hydrangea blooms. 

Much like migratory birds, the American affluent have followed this pattern for more than a century. Their movement ties together the country’s top luxury residential markets fed by East Coast buyers — Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard and Aspen, in addition to the Hamptons and Palm Beach — and the real estate brokers who serve them. 

Hamptons-Palm Beach dual residents include hedge fund billionaire Scott Shleifer, who owns oceanfront estates in both locations. (When he bought his Palm Beach mansion for $122.7 million in 2021, it was the most expensive home ever sold in Florida.) Billionaire Blackstone CEO Stephen Schwarzman also keeps homes in both markets, as does Michael Bloomberg. 

This highly mobile clientele has created a web of geographically disparate but intrinsically intertwined ultra-luxury residential markets, with the Hamptons and Palm Beach at the center. For the brokers and brokerages that service the markets, it’s good business to know and refer deals to one another. 

“It’s pretty obvious that all these markets are attached to each other,” said Gary Pohrer, a Douglas Elliman agent in Palm Beach. “It’s more important now than ever to maintain and create relationships in each market.”

That’s because changes in the market dynamics in recent years mean there’s more money to be made across this luxury landscape. As remote work habits, corporate relocations and surging home prices transform markets, brokers and brokerages alike want bigger slices of these bigger pies. But when they move into new luxury turf, agents can jeopardize long-held social ties with other agents, as well as the referral profits from those relationships. Some are choosing diplomacy, while others seem primed to battle for market share as they tee up for the summer’s events.

More is more

For agents who want to build up business on the circuit, a first and crucial step is advertising in both South Florida and the Hamptons. The next is building referral relationships with players in the other market.

A call from a friendly agent is essential: Pohrer estimates 30 percent of his annual sales come from referrals. 

Typically, the agent who referred the client earns 20 percent of the commission, he said.

Landing referrals requires attending events and building connections outside of their main territory. (It’s not just agents doing this; South Florida developers regularly host parties and luncheons in the Hamptons in the summer months to sell their condo projects.) Agents head to the signature seasonal fetes in each market to nurture their relationships. Enzo Morabito, a top Elliman agent in the Hamptons, throws a party at Art Basel in Miami every year, and he hosts agents from South Florida at the Hampton Classic. 

“I used to play polo, and I competed in the jumpers,” he said. “Up here, I have a table, and I host people from down there.”

Brokers tend to host their out-of-town colleagues in more casual settings as well, over lunch or on the green.

”I’m of the golf background, so that’s what I try to do,” Pohrer said. He recently played a round with an agent in town from Aspen. “It’s just creating those relationships over time.”

Getting acquainted with these other agents isn’t just about befriending them. One is evaluating the other to see if this is someone he can entrust his clients with. 

They look for certain tells.

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“You have to be doing what I’m doing, advertising all year long, having a track record of being a top broker in the area,” Pohrer said. “The thing about real estate is there’s a lot of people who may say they’re selling real estate, but they’re not trying.”

Agents don’t usually work with just one other broker in a complementary market; often, they have a rolodex of options and try to find the right match for the clients they’re referring.

“Within a given market, I have some people that I work with that I’ve been working with for a long time,” Morabito said. “They’re competent, loyal and they’re not going to embarrass you.”

Susan Breitenbach, an agent with Corcoran in the Hamptons, said she has a network of brokers across South Florida, including Suzanne Frisbie in Palm Beach. 

What’s yours is mine

Breitenbach said she has increasingly been seeing people attempt to insert their own businesses into secondary markets.

Luxury markets were transformed in the aftermath of Covid, none more so than Palm Beach. With the widespread adoption of remote work, white collar professionals were no longer tied to strict office schedules, giving them more flexibility in where to live. This, coupled with a rush of companies setting up shop in South Florida, resulted in a massive wealth migration to the region, particularly Palm Beach, which is now home to 59 billionaires, according to the Palm Beach Daily News. 

Prices naturally surged. 

The Hamptons did not see quite the influx of riches, but its constricted supply has also led to a spike in prices. 

For some brokers, the moment seemed right to expand rather than send business over to someone else.

“There are a lot of brokers coming, not just from South Florida, but from all over … and trying to do business in the Hamptons. They don’t really know this market,” Breitenbach said. “Everybody’s trying to do business all over, you know, and I kind of understand that.”

Among those looking to conquer new turf is Elliman’s Michael Lorber, a longtime Hamptons broker who added a Palm Beach branch to his team earlier this year. Tal and Oren Alexander’s Official operates in Manhattan, the Hamptons, Miami Beach and Aspen, and it’s looking to move into Palm Beach. 

There are downsides to spread, agents say. 

“There are some brokers from here who have moved down to Florida to do business, but… you can’t be in two places,” said Saunders & Associates’ Mark Greenwald, a top broker in the Hamptons. 

“If you’re down in Florida, I do not think that you’re serving your customers by trying to service this market. And I believe that the reciprocal is true, too. I would not go down to Florida and try to work with a buyer or a customer or seller. It’s not my expertise,” he said. “I would [look] for somebody who’s there all the time.”

Referral relationships are big enough business that they’re unlikely to unravel neatly. 

Agents without a manifest destiny mindset are trying to make collaboration look more appealing to their referral partners, perhaps to prevent infringement. Pohrer, for one, said he will up the bounty for agents bringing him clients. 

“I’ll work a higher split in order to get their business,” he said. “To incentivize people to work with you, sometimes it requires offering to pay them more.”