Which resi brokerages grew and shrunk during the pandemic

Half of New York City’s largest firms have fewer agents today than before Covid

Corcoran CEO Pam Liebman, Douglas Elliman Executive Chairman Howard Lorber and Compass CEO Robert Reffkin. (Unsplash, Corcoran, Compass, Douglas Elliman)

The following is a preview of one of the hundreds of data sets that will be available on TRD Pro, a one-stop real estate terminal with all the data and market information you need in one place. Arriving summer 2021.

Residential brokerages scrambled to keep their businesses intact as Covid-19 flipped New York City upside down. Some doubled down on recruiting and M&A while others made big staff cuts to stay afloat. Now, several top firms that pared back are finally seeing their agent headcounts bounce back.

Just over half of NYC’s 15 largest residential real estate brokerages have seen net growth in licensed agents between March of last year — when the city locked down — and May 2021, according to TRD’s analysis of Department of State data.

Compass, which led residential firms with just over 2,400 licensed agents as of May 1, has enjoyed steady growth, with agent count increasing by 18 percent since the pandemic started. Despite the Softbank-backed brokerage’s deep cuts in March 2020 when in-person home showings were suspended, Compass saw about a 12 percent gain in agent headcount the following month, which Compass CEO Robert Reffkin attributed in part to onboarding agents virtually.

Reffkin has also bolstered the company’s headcount with as much as $300 million in acquisitions since 2018 and a hiring spree in the latter half of 2020.

Brown Harris Stevens responded to the market instability created by Covid by merging with sister company Halstead under the BHS banner. The move by Terra Holdings helped consolidate two powerhouse brands when the pandemic exacerbated already thin margins in luxury real estate.

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BHS Regional President Richard Grossman said in a phone interview that the two firms were in merger talks before the pandemic, but that the coronavirus added incentive to act on the plans. “This really brought home that this was the best thing for the company, which was to be together,” said Grossman. “We’re stronger than we were as two separate firms.”

The strategic merger gave BHS the largest percentage gain in headcount, as its agent total more than doubled. The big jump occurred in September and October, when BHS started transferring agent licenses from Halstead, according to Grossman.

Keller Williams NYC also grew substantially — by 55 percent — via a merger. The franchise combined its Midtown and Tribeca locations under the new ownership of Richard Amato.

Keller Williams NYC CEO Lauren Balbuena said the brokerage’s relaunch gave it the opportunity to grow despite the uncertainty in the industry. “We’re speaking to a lot of people who may have left Keller Williams under the former ownership,” said Balbuena in a phone interview. “[But] we homed back in on those relationships.”

While all of the large residential firms in New York City dealt with coronavirus challenges including layoffs and furloughs and a dramatic drop in listings, stalwarts Douglas Elliman and Corcoran took the biggest hits to their workforces. Elliman reduced agent count by almost 14 percent and Corcoran by more than 4 percent. Overall, seven of the 15 biggest residential firms in the city have fewer agents today than before the pandemic.