Manhattan’s luxury market hasn’t started off the year this slowly since 2012. Here’s why.

There's been about $490M of contracts across 53 properties as of Sunday

From left: 62 Cooper Square, 90 Morton Street, 56 Leonard Street (Credit: Google Maps, Wikipedia and Pixabay)
From left: 62 Cooper Square, 90 Morton Street, 56 Leonard Street (Credit: Google Maps, Wikipedia and Pixabay)

The first month of the year is notoriously slow for real estate deals, but this January is downright pitiful for Manhattan’s luxury market.

As of Sunday, the borough’s luxury market had seen about $490 million worth of sales across 53 buildings, according to reports from Olshan Realty, which tracks contracts signed at $4 million or higher. This has put the market on track for its slowest January since 2012, when it saw about $336 million worth of deals across 40 buildings. In every year since, the month saw at least $600 million worth of deals across more than 60 buildings.

Brokers and analysts pointed to a variety of factors for the luxury market’s slow start to the year, ranging from sellers having unrealistic expectations to the recently-concluded government shutdown.

Olshan Realty founder Donna Olshan said the slow start to 2019 was happening largely because sellers are unwilling to accept that the market has changed, and their properties can no longer fetch the high prices they would have been able to a few years ago.

“The accepted premise that a market changes quickly and dramatically is accepted in the stock market, but for whatever reason, people cannot accept that when it comes to real estate,” she said. “They just are not rational.”

Buyers are now much more likely to pay close attention to whether prices seem too high or properties need renovations, and Olshan described the overall market as “not a very forgiving” one for sellers.

Jonathan Miller, CEO of the appraisal firm Miller Samuel, said he was not surprised by Manhattan’s atypically slow January, as it aligned with the slow fourth quarter. He attributed this to factors including the financial markets’ recent volatility and the government shutdown.

“The fourth quarter just caused people to pause and wait until they’re comfortable,” he said, “and I think the most reactive to that would be the higher end.”

The luxury market in Manhattan has been in a fairly steady decline for years, according to UrbanDigs founder Noah Rosenblatt. He said the drying up of foreign demand and recent federal tax policy changes have both played a role.

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“It continues to be a sluggish market,” he said. “Deals are happening, but they’re just not happening at a brisk pace.”

Multiple brokers maintained that the luxury market was likely to rebound in the near future. Lisa Lippman of Brown Harris Stevens said it had been softening since 2015, but she had started to see activity tick back up in recent months.

“I think we’ve actually bottomed out, and we’re coming back,” she said, “because I have been so much busier in the last couple of weeks than I was in November and December.”

She added that expectations for sellers would soon get more realistic, predicting that the market would see “a meeting of the minds between buyers and sellers again.”

Miller was less confident about this, saying that while it is difficult to make predictions about the upcoming year based on just one month of data, a slow January could signify a slow 2019 in general.

“At least out of the gate for 2019, it looks to be a bit softer than the conditions we saw in 2018,” he said, “which were a lot softer than the conditions we saw in 2017.”

Olshan cautioned against reading too much into anything that happens in January, stressing that it is a notoriously slow month for real estate no matter the year.

“I don’t look at January as a month to make any determination. I consider it a garbage month,” she said. “It’s cold. People are coming back. They’re waiting for their bonuses.”