Buyers’ brokers in demand

Elizabeth Lee Sample and Brenda Powers of Brown Stevens at Time Warner Center
In Manhattan, buyers’ brokers are a secretive bunch. When there’s a high-profile sale, the listing agent’s name is splashed across the headlines: Brown Harris Stevens’ Richard Wallgren, for example, closed the sale of a $37 million penthouse at 15 Central Park West in September; Paula Del Nunzio made news for her record-setting $53 million sale of the Harkness mansion in 2006.

Less well-known are the brokers who represented the buyers. The identities of buyers’ brokers are a jealously guarded secret, never listed in public records and often never revealed. That’s the way many brokers — who pride themselves on their discretion — like it, especially in a market where lavish spending is viewed with disfavor.

Ironically, brokers who represent buyers are taking on a greater significance than ever, even as they’re being asked to keep increasingly quiet about their role. Well-qualified buyers are now scarce, and bringing them to the table is crucial to the transaction. Recognizing this, high-end brokers are spending more of their time representing buyers.

“I definitely have more buyers,” said Wendy Maitland of Brown Harris Stevens. “If you have real buyers who are qualified, you are in a good position in terms of leverage in this market.”

This month, The Real Deal did some sleuthing to find out who the city’s top buyers’ brokers are, and who has represented the purchasers in some of the biggest sales of the year.

The secret specialty

One reason for the secrecy is that in Manhattan, unlike other areas of the country, there is technically no such thing as a “buyers’ broker.” Because the seller usually pays the commission, both the listing agent and the broker representing the buyer are sellers’ brokers.

Still, some agents work primarily with buyers, while others work mostly with sellers. Until recently, it was viewed as preferable to accumulate exclusive sales listings, but that has changed now that it’s a buyers’ market.

“I don’t have a ton of exclusives right now, and I’m glad, because honestly people are showing and showing and getting lowball bids,” said Elizabeth Lee Sample, a senior vice president at Brown Harris Stevens. “It’s a tough time to be representing a seller.”

Instead, she’s been focusing much of her attention on buyers, working not only with individuals, but groups looking to buy entire buildings or blocks of apartments.

“We represent a lot of billionaires,” Sample said. “You [have] a lot of superwealthy people coming in and getting steals.”

The change in focus has paid off. Sample and her business partner Brenda Powers reportedly represented Russian energy mogul Andrei Vavilov in his recent purchase of a $37.5 million, 8,300-square-foot penthouse at the Time Warner Center. Vavilov had previously backed out of a deal to buy a $53.5 million penthouse at the Plaza Hotel.

Like many of the brokers interviewed, Sample, who lives at the Time Warner Center, declined to talk about her transaction. High-end Manhattan brokers have long prided themselves on protecting the identities of their clients, giving movie stars, royalty or divorcées some measure of privacy when they search for a home.

Now that more buyers are trying to be increasingly discreet (see “Shh!! The art of selling quietly“), that’s more important than ever.

“It’s part of our duty as a broker,” said Maitland. “We have official responsibilities to our clients, and one of them is discretion.”

Maitland knows that firsthand. Not only has she recently been doing direct deals at luxury condo One Madison Park, where she and colleague Wilbur Gonzalez are the listing brokers, but she is known to have worked with Madonna for years, and reportedly represented the singer in her July purchase of a $32 million townhouse at 152 East 81st Street.

When asked about that, Maitland was, not surprisingly, mum.

Cagey clients

There are other challenges to working with buyers. Perhaps biggest among them is that buyers are not particularly loyal to their brokers.

“There are some loyal buyers, but you never know when a buyer might decide to call someone else,” said Carrie Chiang, a senior vice president at the Corcoran Group, who in 2007 represented the buyers of two condos at the Plaza that closed for upward of $50 million.

Currently she is negotiating on behalf of the buyer of a $16 million condo. She’s also recently done direct deals at the Chatham at 181 East 65th Street (for $6.5 million), and Trump Palace on 69th Street (for $5.2 million).

Even agents as high-profile as Chiang must earn buyers’ loyalty by demonstrating that they have information buyers can’t find through listings Web sites or other brokers.

“When you’re being hired by the seller, all you have to do is know the building itself and the comps,” Chiang said. To represent the buyer, “you have to really know about each property you’re showing them, the advantage of buying one versus the other.”

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Sometimes, that literally means finding listings that no one else knows about.

“A talented broker will find something that’s not really available on the market,” said Pamela Liebman, Corcoran’s CEO. “You want someone who can call potential sellers and entice them to sell.”

Chiang is particularly talented at doing that, Liebman said. “I put her on a buyer recently, and she showed them six things that aren’t on the market.”

Chiang confirmed that she recently convinced at least one homeowner to consider selling for the right buyer.

Another broker who is skilled in that department, Liebman said, is Corcoran’s Leighton Candler. Candler recently represented the buyer of 640 Park Avenue No. 11, the former home of Lehman Brothers CEO Dick Fuld and his wife Kathleen, which had been quietly available since the spring.

“That took a lot of maneuvering, because it wasn’t on the market,” Liebman said of the $25.87 million deal.

Candler told The Real Deal the transaction was “wonderful for both sides,” but wouldn’t comment further.

Candler has some of the most important exclusives in the city, including a penthouse at 1020 Fifth Avenue listed for $39 million. But “getting to work with buyers is terrific,” Candler said, “because I absolutely love looking at property. I am happy to walk into anyone’s apartment at any time.”

That’s one reason Candler’s good at sniffing out homeowners who may be persuaded to sell: she has a knack for remembering homes that were on the market years ago, but never sold, or parents who decided to put off moving until their children headed to college.

“If it’s an apartment I really loved, I just don’t forget it,” she said.

Calm and steady

Of course, the most important element of working with buyers in the current environment is soothing their fears.

“In real estate, everybody’s anxious,” said Harriet Kaufman, executive managing director at Warburg Realty. As The Real Deal reported, Kaufman represented the buyer in one of the biggest deals of the year: the sale of a $30 million penthouse at 145 Hudson Street that closed in February, at the height of the post-Lehman doldrums. “I try to calm them down,” she said.

Another top broker, Prudential Douglas Elliman’s Dolly Lenz, advises looking at the situation from the buyer’s point of view.

“You have to sit there and think, ‘If I were the buyer, what would worry me about this?’” said Dolly Lenz, a vice-chairman at Prudential Douglas Elliman. “Then you can be ready with all that information.”

Lenz recently represented Leslie Alexander, the owner of the Houston Rockets, in purchasing a penthouse at Robert A.M. Stern-designed Superior Ink for $25 million. Unlike many buyers who have walked away from deposits, Alexander closed on the unit in September at the same price he’d agreed to pay when the listing was negotiated more than a year ago. But as soon as he closed, Lenz put the unit back on the market for $39.5 million.

She wouldn’t discuss his reasons for re-listing it, but said the sale “says so much about the health of Downtown.”

Elliman’s Suzanne Sealy said, as she sees it, empathy is key to working with buyers.

“I would never put anybody into an apartment that I wouldn’t personally live in, or that I couldn’t get them out of whole within two years,” said Sealy, who once secured a dream home for a customer even though it already had an accepted offer.

Initiative helps a lot when it comes to working with buyers. Kate Meckler, a senior vice president at Sotheby’s, recently represented the buyers of a 4,000-square-foot Manhattan loft for around $4 million. The sellers had been dragging their feet because they planned to move to Brooklyn but hadn’t found a new place. To help speed things along, Meckler recommended a good Brooklyn broker she knew. In no time, the sellers had found a place there and the sale went through.

The other broker “just didn’t think of that,” Meckler said.