Conquering the market in Queens

A mix of major Manhattan firms, long-time local companies and newer, boutique players dominate borough’s residential firm ranking

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.

New York City’s institutional money has long been active in Queens — and it’s been pressing deeper and deeper into the borough for some time now.

While Long Island City, Astoria, Jamaica and Flushing have all been booming for a while, developers and investors are now also making inroads into less-developed neighborhoods such as Sunnyside, Woodside, Elmhurst, Jackson Heights and Corona, where the housing stock is older and there is less space for monster projects.

Last year, the borough saw $5 billion in investment sales, up roughly 26 percent from 2015’s total, according to Cushman & Wakefield. That was even as the city as a whole saw its investment-sale dollar volume drop by 25 percent, suggesting that investors see a major upside in Queens. And many of them are looking to squeeze out profits with major residential projects. More than 10,000 new residential Queens units are slated to hit the market this year alone, according to data from Nancy Packes Inc., the new development marketing firm.

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In addition to the Durst Organization’s 2.4 million-square-foot Hallets Point project in Astoria, which is set to include 2,400 rental units, there’s also the 1.1 million-square-foot mixed-use Flushing Commons and Chris Jiashu Xu’s 660-unit Long Island City tower currently in the works, among others.

This month, The Real Deal looked at which residential firms are closing the most sales in the Queens market — which is further along in its evolution than the Bronx, but not quite as mature as Brooklyn.

The ranking found that the brokerages doing business in the borough are just as mixed as the population itself, with major Manhattan firms, long-time local companies and newer, boutique players all competing for different pieces of the market-share pie.

Related: Battling it out in the Bronx

Keller Williams Realty Landmark led the pack with $317.2 million in sell-side sales between April 1, 2016, and March 31, 2017, according to a TRD analysis of data from the Multiple Listing Service of Long Island and StreetEasy.

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It was followed by Manhattan brokerage giant Douglas Elliman, which closed $254.6 million in listings, and by boutique firm Modern Spaces, which closed $240.2 million. Modern Spaces is currently representing the Grand at Sky View Parc, which is part of Onex Real Estate Partner’s multi-tower project in Flushing.

Rounding out the top five were Flushing-based brokerage Winzone Realty (see related story), with $191.1 million in sell-side sales, and East Coast Realtors, with $167.6 million. Winzone, the largest firm in the borough by agent count, works largely with Asian clients, according to company owner Ben Pan, who launched the firm in 2002.

Following that batch of firms were Charles Rutenberg Realty, Realty Executives Today, Century Homes Realty Group, RE/MAX Team and Century 21 American Homes.

Not surprisingly, the dollar volumes among the top 10 firms in Queens were far greater than what brokerages closed in the Bronx. In addition, mega-firms Elliman and Corcoran are doing significant business in borough, speaking to just how much money there is to be made there. Corcoran didn’t make the Top 10 because it doesn’t have an office in the borough, but it still closed roughly $89 million in deals there.

Modern Spaces CEO Eric Benaim said his company is seeing transplants from Brooklyn, Manhattan, New Jersey and Long Island looking to move to the borough.

“I guess Queens is just more on people’s radar now than it used to be,” he said. “In the past, it’s probably been more Brooklyn, and I think people are more accepting of Queens and more open to coming to Queens now.”

The latest statistics show that the Queens market is, indeed, going strong. Prices jumped 21 percent in the first quarter and sales activity shot up nearly 35 percent year over year, according to data from appraisal firm Miller Samuel. Charles Rutenberg’s Ruth Pfeffer said that in addition to neighborhoods like LIC, lesser-trafficked areas like Forest Hills and College Point are hot right now. “We’ve seen a tremendous number of people who are downsizing into co-ops and condos in Forest Hills because there are all the amenities, and it’s less expensive than Manhattan,” she said, noting that many of them are seniors.

Keller Williams broker Shameer Fazal said Long Island City, Astoria and Jackson Heights are all seeing sales above asking prices. “Because of demand, there will be a fast turnaround,” said Fazal, who last month had a co-op listed for $419,000 in Jackson Heights.

Fazal also said buyers are looking to get into the Jamaica market before the neighborhood shoots up in value even beyond its already-logged gains.

Despite the significant amount of interest in Queens, Benaim maintained that it had not yet hit a tipping point. Developers, he said, are just now starting to venture into the outer parts of the borough. “Once the rest of Queens starts developing,” he said, “then will be the tipping point.”