Battling it out in the Bronx

Ranking the under-the-radar residential firms that have closed the most sales in the burgeoning borough

Real estate news about trophy penthouse sales in Manhattan and new high-end condo projects in Brooklyn has become virtually inescapable. And in many cases, the agents who broker those deals are industry mini-celebrities.

But this month, The Real Deal looked at the brokerage landscape in the city’s two more emerging boroughs — Queens and the Bronx — to see which firms are closing the most residential deals and what kind of dollar volume they’re pulling in.

The rankings in both boroughs were largely dominated by a mix of old-time local firms and franchises of major national companies. But major Manhattan firms and boutique shops are also snagging a large piece of the pie and are poised to push deeper into both areas as the markets continue expanding. Read on for a closer look at which firms are on top and which neighborhoods brokerages are chasing to lock in residential deals.

It’s no news flash that developers have discovered the Bronx: New projects — many of them residential — are growing taller in the South Bronx by the minute.

Major Manhattan players like the Chetrit Group and Related Companies are among those who’ve been pouring cash into the borough with abandon over the last few years, banking on the fact that they are getting in on the ground floor of a real estate market that’s on the brink of a major surge. 

Last year, the borough saw $3.3 billion in real estate investment — with $1.7 billion of that going to erect residential projects. That overall number is up 37 percent from 2015 and a massive 199 percent from 2014, according to data from Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.’s office.

Related: Conquering the market in Queens

But few in the broader New York residential brokerage world would be able to even name the firms selling the most units in the borough.

This month, The Real Deal set out to shine a light on the under-the-radar companies racking up the most sales there. What we discovered is that Exit Realty Search — a franchise of the Toronto-based firm Exit Realty — closed more residential deals than any other firm in the borough between April 1, 2016 and March 31, 2017, according to an analysis by TRD of MLS data for the Bronx.

The Throggs Neck-based brokerage, which has 164 agents at four offices, closed $95.2 million worth of sales during the year-long stretch, concentrating on northeastern neighborhoods such as Pelham Bay and Morris Park.

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Keller Williams Realty NYC Group, a franchise of the Texas-based firm, nabbed the No. 2 spot with $87.5 million in sales, while Halstead Property — one of the few major Manhattan brokerages with a significant presence in the borough — took the No. 3 spot with $58.9 million in deals. Besmatch Real Estate and Elite Real Estate Group rounded out the top five with $49.2 million and $47.4 million in closed sales, respectively.

The dollar amounts these firms are brokering is minuscule compared to what’s closing in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens. And unlike the other boroughs, where TRD ranks firms based only on their sell-side transactions, we included both buy- and sell-side deals for the Bronx to give a fuller picture of the market there. For comparison’s sake, the top Manhattan firm by closed sales in 2016, the Corcoran Group, brokered a monstrous $6.3 billion in sell-side deals, according to TRD’s latest brokerage ranking.

The low dollar figures can be attributed to two key factors: Bronx prices are a fraction of what they are in Manhattan, and while developers are rushing to build in the borough, so far much of the new product is rental.

“You’re typically not going to come into a new area with condos right off the bat,” said Andrew Gerringer, managing director at the Marketing Directors.

South Bronx neighborhoods have undoubtedly attracted the lion’s share of attention thanks to high-profile projects like the Clock Tower Lofts — a former piano factory that was converted into rentals back in 2002 — and the massive mixed-use waterfront project from Somerset Partners and Chetrit, which is slated to include six (mostly rental) residential towers.

But according to Exit Realty Search owner Benny Diasparra, sales of multi- and single-family homes dominate in the northeastern Bronx. “We’ve just seen more buyers coming into the area and not enough houses for sale, which has created a seller’s market,” he said.

But he noted that rentals have seen more demand lately, too. “There is demand for apartments because people are getting shut out because of the prices,” he said.

Besmatch founder Harry Baksh, who launched his firm in the 1980s, has had a front-row seat for the Bronx’s transformation. Not only has the borough become a magnet for big-box shopping centers once reserved for Westchester County, he noted, but many New Yorkers used to be afraid of the South Bronx. “Long term, I’m expecting the same thing that happened in Brooklyn to be happening in the Bronx,” said Baksh. “It’s started for a little while, but now it’s actually moving very rapidly.”

He said the brokerage scene in the borough has also become more competitive. In the last two years, he said, about eight of his agents have left to start their own companies, perhaps sensing an opening in the market. “There are a lot more mom-and-pop, smaller companies out there today,” he said, “but more importantly, a lot of the commercial companies from Manhattan, they’re actually focusing on the Bronx now.”

Elite Real Estate Group Principal Musa Balidemaj, whose company largely works in the northern Bronx, said he’s more skeptical of the South Bronx’s recent surge than some. “It’s no Long Island City or Downtown Brooklyn, but we’ll see with time what happens,” he said.

And while the attention the borough is getting could make it more attractive to the city’s larger residential brokerages, Balidemaj said he’s not intimidated by the prospect of competing with them. “I honestly feel that I have no competition,” he said.