Typically focused on one building, ‘broker specialists’ start to diversify

New York City real estate agents have long vied for the informal but coveted status of “broker specialist” in pricey apartment buildings. The spoils of becoming a go-to broker for a given building include a loyal customer base, inside knowledge of units coming on the market, and familiarity with the co-op board.

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Becoming a broker specialist takes work, but once achieved, it’s “like a secure nest egg,” explained Elayne Reimer, an executive vice president at Halstead Property who said that over the past eight years, she’s sold some 200 apartments in the Excelsior at 303 East 57th Street.

Still, these broker specialists have faced unique challenges during the downturn and its aftermath. When sales — particularly those on the high end — slowed at the end of 2008, many were especially vulnerable because of their dependence on one building. At the same time, they found themselves fending off competition for listings in those buildings from other agents hungry for business.

Left: Metropolitan Tower at 146 West 57th Street. Right: the Excelsior at 303 East 57th Street
Brown Harris Stevens Senior Vice President Howard Morrel has focused on doing business at Metropolitan Tower at 146 West 57th Street for the past 17 years.

“The downturn compelled us to redouble our efforts in other areas, without giving up time to Met Tower,” said Morrel, who handles around 70 percent of the sales at the white-glove condo. “If we had just stayed at Met Tower, it would have been disastrous; it would have been mayhem for us, because there weren’t enough trades.”

But even as the market has started to rebound and activity in their buildings has increased, many broker specialists have begun branching out so that they are more prepared for the next drop in the market.

“You have to have a diversified real estate practice,” said Fern Hammond, a senior vice president at Halstead, who estimated that she’s sold 80 to 90 resale units at 1175 York Avenue over the last two decades, as well as multiple units at 325 East 77th Street. “And to get yourself pigeonholed into one building, although it could be convenient for people, I think there’s a big danger to it in many ways.”

Your own ‘storefront’

Years ago, when New Yorkers needed to sell their apartments, they often looked to their building’s managing agent to do it for them.

“If Elliman managed the building, more than likely, their agent would get those listings,” explained Jonathan Greenspan, the president of listings platform Online Residential. “That’s the way it was done.”

But that’s changed over the years as firms without management divisions — like the Corcoran Group — have grabbed an increasing amount of Manhattan market share. These days, a seller might interview three to five brokers before choosing one.

While some buildings have formal broker specialists retained by the management company, it’s now common for an outside agent — who has no formal relationship with the building — to handle the majority of resales in a given building.

Often, these are agents who live in the building themselves. Reimer, for example, moved into the Excelsior 12 years ago, at around the same time that she began working at the now-defunct Coldwell Banker Hunt Kennedy. She ended up getting a number of listings in the building, she said, though the managing agent is Prudential Douglas Elliman.

But go-to brokers don’t all live in the buildings they’ve looked to for their bread-and-butter deals.

Jessica Ushan of Brown Harris Stevens at the Sovereign on East 58th Street, where she has sold 150 apartments since 1994
Jessica Ushan, a senior vice president at Brown Harris Stevens, has sold more than 150 apartments at the Sovereign at 425 East 58th Street since 1994. Originally she was assigned as the broker specialist in the building by the management company, but two years later, she left to work at Brown Harris Stevens. She maintained her relationships at the building and has now sold some of the apartments there three or more times.

Morrel took a slightly different approach to become a broker specialist at Met Tower. He started cultivating relationships there after the initial sellout of the condo in 1987, cold-calling “every owner in the building,” he said.

In some cases, winning over residents in a building requires a willingness to work for free, Ushan said. That can include anything from advising the co-op board to recommending a good housekeeper to a new owner. The idea, she explained, is to build up good will so that owners will stay loyal and recommend her to others.

“My approach has always been to give very good service and take care of shareholders, even if it has nothing to do with a sale,” she said.

Not all brokers are willing to put in the time required to gain residents’ loyalty, but if they do, the rewards can be substantial, especially in a high-end building.

“It’s almost like having a storefront,” Greenspan said. “People know you.”

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Clients coming back

Reimer said that when CBHK folded last year, she was courted by a number of firms, in part because of her strong position at the Excelsior. “When I had to leave Coldwell, everybody was calling me for that reason,” she said.

Lately, however, brokers who focus heavily on particular buildings have faced considerable challenges.

When the downturn hit, sales at high-end buildings like the Excelsior ground to a virtual halt. To make matters worse, the land lease at the building was renegotiated last year, Reimer said, resulting in a substantial maintenance increase. The combination made units in the building particularly difficult to unload.

“There was a three-month period of absolute stalemate between the buyers and the sellers,” Reimer said. “Nothing was selling.”

To compensate, she said she has done her best to focus on listings in other buildings. Still, “I didn’t have as good a year as I’ve had,” she said.

Morrel said the downturn also hit hard at Met Tower, where one-bedrooms start north of $1 million. Luckily, he said, he had already started trying to expand his business to other buildings in Tudor City and Sutton Place.

He has discovered that while becoming a broker specialist has its advantages, it also carries risks. “Our challenge is to have [clients] see us as the key person for Met Tower and a viable broker for their apartment at 15 Central Park West or their townhouse,” he said. “That’s what we’re working on now.”

Hammond noted that if a broker works in only one building, “they don’t keep in touch with what’s going on in the market.”

“It’s like tunnel vision,” she said. “Things can be changing in the marketplace and they could be mispricing their apartments.”

Hammond handled sales at 1175 York when the building went co-op in the late 1980s, and has sold several apartments there every year since then. She’s also sold nine apartments at 240 East 79th Street in the past five years. But she also makes a point of working in other buildings, including the Majestic, the El Dorado and 1010 Fifth Avenue, she said.

Of course, a number of agents who previously focused on new developments are now shifting their efforts to resales.

For example, Ariel Cohen, an executive vice president at Elliman, first started doing deals at 15 Broad Street before the Financial District tower was built, flipping contracts for the developer. Then he moved into the building himself and started convincing his neighbors to market their homes to facilitate combinations.

“Before the downturn, everyone wanted new development,” said Cohen, who now has 12 listings at 15 Broad. “Right now, resales are great.”

Morrel said during the worst of the downturn, the competition at Met Tower intensified. “Brokers had a lot more time on their hands because they weren’t running around with clients,” he said. “They would inundate the building with phone calls and mailings.”

With apartments taking longer to sell than they did in the past, these outside brokers have an opportunity to swoop in when exclusive listings expire, Reimer noted.

“Once something sits on the market long enough, the seller is getting antsy and is a little more receptive to somebody calling and saying, ‘Why don’t you try me?’” she said.

However, Reimer noted, some listings that she lost during the worst of the downturn are now coming back to her. “People are calling me and saying, ‘Would you take me back?’” she said.

Morrel currently has 12 listings at Met Tower.

“When the market came back, everybody called us,” he said.