John Burger: how tech makes real estate “more professional”

VC-backed rivals. A new mansion tax. And the proliferation of listings platforms. The Real Deal talked to six players in New York City’s residential space about the new pain points they’re feeling in a sector that’s getting squeezed from all sides. Below John Burger shares his take on what has changed — and what’s remained the same — as technology has permeated the brokerage landscape. 

Read the full story — “Tales from the front lines” — here.

John Burger
Brown Harris Stevens

He’s one of the country’s highest-ranked brokers, with a string of A-list clients reported to include Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. In more than 30 years in the business, Brown Harris Stevens’ John Burger has seen a lot of change. The typically media-shy agent, who closed $152.6 million in New York residential sell-side deals in 2018, discussed the influence of new technology — and its potential to disrupt the industry — with TRD’s Sylvia Varnham O’Regan.

John Burger

John Burger

When I joined Brown Harris Stevens as a young man 30 years ago, we were an office with 32 people, right in Midtown.

The office was just becoming computerized. Listings were on index cards. That was an era when it was critical for the residential broker to be aligned with the managing agent. They had all the information at their fingertips: all of the sales information, all the historical information, all the floor plans, all the comparables, all of the requirements.

The knowledge that came by learning the business in a more traditional way — pre-internet — gave us a different set of tools. It’s sort of like being good at math before there was a calculator.

Our business is the most personal service business of any service business. I don’t have a team. When you don’t handle the client personally, you dilute the quality of the service. I answer my own emails and my own telephone.

Of the clients that come to me, I probably take on 50 percent. The other 50 percent I refer to other individual brokers.

I am very, very pro-technology. We as a brokerage community need to embrace technology. It helps us do our job more effectively. It’s forced us to become more knowledgeable, and in some respects it’s made our industry more professional.

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In the old days, when a listing came on the market, you had to gather all the information, photocopy things, write a personal note, give the note to a messenger, and then that messenger would carry it to the client. Now all the listing information comes together in a link.

Technology definitely has the potential for disrupting the traditional brokerage business, but I don’t think it’s disrupted it yet. StreetEasy is the main go-to website for the Manhattan real estate consumer today, and they’ve built a very good website. But I still think there’s a lot of room for the broker’s input, because the single most important thing a broker does for their client is they tell them what not to buy.

When you look at the internet, everything will just say, “Buy this. Buy that. Buy this. Buy that.” It will never guide you on what not to buy. If all you do is replicate the internet and tell somebody, ‘This is good. This is good,” and use superlatives, it invalidates your role as an adviser.

The concern I hear from colleagues is that sometimes they will be contacted by a broker that really has no knowledge of the market and the property, and that broker has obtained a buyer lead through the internet. I have not had that, honestly; I have not been contacted by many Premier Agents.

It’s interesting how many clients come to me because they’ve Googled “Manhattan top broker.” It’s no different than when someone has to make a choice of a mutual fund and they Google “top mutual fund.”

It’s hard to predict the technology coming our way. Many buyers may choose to work with a listing broker rather than having a buyer’s broker. I’m seeing a pattern of that. Certainly StreetEasy has provided the technology whereby the buyer has the listing information and easy access to listing brokers.

The data that’s on a website like StreetEasy is so precious to the buyer. To the best of my knowledge, there’s not a single brokerage-house website that gives the historical data of the entire building.

Will we be charged more money eventually to access that data? Of course we will. This chapter in the history of StreetEasy has been one of building a great website and getting people to use it. Stage one has been charging the rental brokers to list each listing. It will be very interesting to see if stage two is charging the for-sale listings a fee to be there.

What I do, when I send my buyers links, I never send them through StreetEasy. If it’s a Corcoran listing, I send them the link from Corcoran; if it’s a Stribling listing, I send them the link from Stribling; if it’s a Douglas Elliman listing, I send them the Douglas Elliman link. It’s my way of telling my buyer that I’m covering the entire marketplace on their behalf.

I think Compass has made very impressive inroads. They are today what Corcoran was in the 1980s: the young, energetic new firm. I have looked carefully at their technology, and it’s really no different than anyone else’s. So the concept they’re a technology company is not accurate.

Technology has made our profession much more efficient, and I embrace it. But the basic service that I provide has really not changed in over 30 years — and that is guiding buyers and sellers to make the right decision.