Staten Island’s A-listers

A look at the top brokerages in the city’s smallest borough

Mimi Neuhaus, founder of Neuhaus Realty, and Robert DeFalco, head of Robert DeFalco Realty.
Mimi Neuhaus, founder of Neuhaus Realty, and Robert DeFalco, head of Robert DeFalco Realty.

While the first-time homebuyer tax credit and record-low interest rates drove home sales in Staten Island and nudged a comeback from the depths of the recession, that uptick has leveled off.

But even in a tough market, somebody has to come out on top.

This month, The Real Deal looked at the top residential firms on Staten Island, ranking them by number of agents, number of sales and listing volume in our first-ever snapshot of the city’s smallest borough. Scroll down or click here to view the chart.

The hands-down winner in all categories was the 129-agent Robert DeFalco Realty, which is headquartered in the Dongan Hills section of the borough.

The firm had 635 sales, or a 10 percent share of the entire Staten Island market, between July 1, 2009, and June 30, 2010, according to data provided by the Staten Island Board of Realtors. It also had $351 million worth of listings as of last month.

Neuhaus Realty, which has 121 agents and did 490 sales, ranked second, while Appleseed Homes Inc., which has four Staten Island offices, came in third with 99 agents and 320 sales. Some of the others firms on the top-10 list were Coldwell Banker Hometime Realty, Vitale Sunshine and Re/Max Metro.

Rayann Besser, a top-ranking broker at Robert DeFalco, said the federal homebuyers’ tax credit, which expired in June, and low interest rates helped push year-to-date sales and asking prices for properties at the firm up 9 percent and 4 percent, respectively. The average sale price for the firm is $530,000.

While the Staten Island market suffered greatly during the downturn, brokers say real estate in the borough — which, with its large stock of one- and-two-family homes, more closely resembles the suburbs or middle America than other parts of the city — has been buoyed in part by a kind of generational continuity.

People who grew up in the borough often buy houses and raise families there. And many of the brokers also mine Brooklyn and New Jersey for business.

“There are quite a few brokers who work in Brooklyn and New Jersey, mostly because Brooklyn is where a large percentage of Staten Island buyers are coming from, and New Jersey is where a large percentage of Staten Island sellers are going,” said Wayne Goldstein, founder of Coldwell Banker Hometime Realty, which ranked fourth on the list with 87 agents and 285 sales.

Besser said DeFalco — which also has a mortgage arm called SI Mortgage, as well as financial planners — redoubled its marketing efforts to stay competitive and weather the downturn, tapping social media sites like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter to spread the word about its listings. She said it also recently invested in a new state-of-the-art computer system that increases sellers’ exposure, posting listings on all major real estate websites.

While the worst of the downturn has passed, there is still distress in the Staten Island market.

According to Mimi Neuhaus, founder of Neuhaus Realty, overall, foreclosures have hurt the higher end of Staten Island’s housing market. Her firm has seen sale prices on larger homes down between 10 and 15 percent. She said many foreclosures her firm has seen involve civil servants like firefighters and police officers who bought homes in the $700,000-to-$900,000 range that were priced above their means.

Meanwhile, a PropertyShark report last month found that residential foreclosure auctions rose by 90 percent in Staten Island in August, a turnaround from a July drop. But with only 38 scheduled foreclosures, that was still far behind the foreclosure leader: Queens, which had roughly 140 scheduled auctions.

Nonetheless, Neuhaus said her firm managed to pick up market share during the height of the recession. She said one of the key reasons the company, with 448 listings valued at $212.8 million, ranked second is because it does a lot of repeat business.

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“We’re one of the oldest companies on Staten Island. We have a very good batting average … [and] our per-person productivity is very high,” she told The Real Deal.

And the tax credit bolstered sales — at least until it expired — for her firm. In June, the last month to close on a property and receive the $8,000 credit, the firm had 83 closings, compared to about 50 in June 2009.

In addition, the average sales price for the firm is between $450,000 and $500,000, off only about 5 percent from its pre-recession height, said Neuhaus.

By comparison, Sandy Krueger, CEO of SIBOR, said the majority of houses on the market are valued between $300,000 and $450,000, down from their 2005 and 2006 peak of $300,000 to $500,000. That, he said, is “not a terrible drop.”

He said this year, both the tax credit and low interest rates helped drive the market. Without that, he said, “we would have been in a hole.”

Indeed, for the three-month period that ended Aug. 31, the median home price borough-wide rose 5 percent to $390,000 from the same period in 2009, said Krueger, citing the Staten Island Multiple Listing Service. The number of sales remained flat at around 790 for the same period, and days on the market dropped by 3.6 percent to 135 days.

But with the tax credit no longer propping up the market, sales gains have leveled off. Krueger said year-over-year, the Staten Island market is seeing a 25 percent dip in properties going into contract.

Still, Neuhaus said, her company has seen signs of improvement in the last month in both its Staten Island and New Jersey offices.

Coldwell Banker Hometime Realty’s Goldstein said the tax credit provided a major boost in business for his firm, too. Between September 2009 and June 2010, sales rose 25 percent from the same period a year earlier, he said, adding that without the tax credit, sales would have plunged 25 percent. While statistics are not yet available, Goldstein said contracts have “definitely dropped off” since the tax credit ended.

To weather the downturn, the firm cut back on marketing and outside training programs. During the worst of it, sale prices slipped 12 percent, and volume fell about 20 percent.

“We tried not to panic; we knew it was coming,” he said. “We had to go to old-school ways of doing things.”

Although before the bust short sales were a rarity, they now account for about 10 percent of the business, Goldstein said.

But, Goldstein said, Staten Island’s strong family roots make it “a little unique. I think that’s kept the housing values a little stronger than [in] other boroughs.”