Aug 01, 2013

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Kleiers on Front Page of Wall Street Journal Today. Big Feature on Celebrity Brokers.

Michele Kleier, a broker in New York who has co-starred on HGTV's "Selling New York" with her daughters, Sabrina Kleier-Morgenstern and Samantha Kleier-Forbes since 2010, say they were initially "horrified" when approached to appear on a reality show, fearing they'd lose clients and embarrass themselves on TV. "We have children in private schools. We have clients concerned about privacy," says Ms. Kleier-Morgenstern.

Eventually, though, the trio decided it might be fun and good for business, and they trusted the producers. Seven seasons later, they say they've gotten used to getting recognized around town and answering fan mail. "We have a big tween audience," says Ms. Kleier-Forbes. One downside: The show's shooting schedule often doesn't allow time for a high-end listing to sell before an episode goes into editing, so audiences don't always see them making the sale. Still, the Kleiers say the exposure has increased the number of inquiries from potential buyers moving to the city. Ms. Kleier says their biggest deal last year was representing a buyer on a Manhattan home that sold for just under $25 million.

As with most programs of this kind, the reality presented on these real-estate shows has often undergone some tweaking. Scenes on some shows may be reshot if they aren't captured on camera the first time around. Deals and negotiations that drag on for weeks, and mostly take place via email and phone, are often left out. "As you can imagine, most of it happens via email, which is not good TV content," says Kathleen Finch, senior vice president and general manager for HGTV. Occasionally, particularly camera-shy sellers have a representative handle their part of negotiation on camera. Some New York City co-op boards won't allow film crews to shoot there, omitting a big part of the Manhattan real estate market from certain shows.

Celebrity agents and network executives point out that the shows strive to show real deals and listings, which is why shooting often spans longer than the typical two-to-three month reality show schedule. Producers on "Million Dollar Listing," which has a nine-month shooting schedule, vet all deals portrayed on the show through public records. Bravo says producers shoot as many parts of a real estate transaction as possible, regardless of entertainment value, and that all deals presented on the show are real.

The public's appetite for reality real estate doesn't appear to be slackening. Bravo now has five real-estate-themed shows, up from three in 2011. "There's a voyeuristic aspect to it," says Shari Levine, Bravo Media's senior vice president of current programming and production. "Real estate is big money, it's exciting, dramatic and it's highly relatable." "Million Dollar Listing LA" averaged 1.28 million viewers per episode in its fifth season, up 10% from the previous season. Ms. Levine says production managers look for successful agents who are "big, bold, unapologetic," and willing to open up their personal lives to viewers.

Producers at HGTV, a network dedicated to home design and real-estate shows like the recent hit "Power Broker," regularly post ads for open casting calls in cities around the country to find telegenic agents. "They have to have what I like to call the 'surf factor,' " says Ms. Finch. "If you're sitting on your couch channel surfing, does this person make you stop?" The network tends to prefer agents who haven't had past acting or on-camera experience, but are self-assured and speak authoritatively about real estate and home design. "We can teach them how to be on camera," she says. "We can't teach them how to be real."

After seven interviews and screen tests, Josh Altman, a 34-year-old Beverly Hills-based broker, was offered a part on "Million Dollar Listing LA." Much of last season's drama centered on Mr. Altman dating the assistant of his co-star, a Malibu-based broker he spars with frequently with on the show. "Nobody wants to see the guy who just sells houses every week," says Mr. Altman. "They want to see that drama between the Realtors." Last year, he represented the buyer of a $20.1 million Los Angeles estate of Hollywood producer.

Mr. Serhant admits that his TV persona, often depicted through his on-camera dates, has some downsides, including awkward conversations with his parents. A recent episode featured him taking off his shirt and jumping into an indoor pool at a competing agent's open house. In another, "I was buck-naked in the shower," says the former soap-opera actor and hand model. "It took my dad a week to get over it."

Another challenge for brokers: dealing with newfound fame while making themselves, their listings and their contact information highly visible to potential clients. Mr. Altman, who lists his cellphone number on his website, says he has fielded about 10 prank calls a day, including callers who pretend to be potential clients and "people who just want to hang out with me and look at mansions." Madison Hildebrand, who has starred in "Million Dollar Listing LA" for six seasons, says a receptionist now answers all his calls.

Some calls pay off. Todd Kenig, the former CEO of Ricky's, a chain of beauty and costume stores, had his home on the market for nearly six months. A fan of "Million Dollar Listing," he decided to hire Mr. Serhant, whom he had seen on the show, to take over the sale of his Gothic revival style home, on the market for $3.9 million. The home is currently in contract to sell for close to its asking price. "On TV he can be a little obnoxious," says Mr. Kenig. "But [in person] he's very pleasant and very easygoing."

When Kyle Richards, an actress and an aunt of Paris Hilton, was cast on "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills," her husband, luxury broker Mauricio Umansky, who also makes appearances on the show, became a reality star by association. Paparazzi often take his picture as he sits down to business meals with potential buyers and sellers. Some clients, he says, are surprised he actually works as a real-estate broker and isn't just playing one on the show, which averages 2.84 million viewers per episode. "A lot of times people are shocked that I'm actually the one who comes out and does the showings," he says. "But this is how I pay for my kids' universities, not from 'The Housewives.' "

Mr. Umansky says his greater visibility helped him launch his own firm, the Agency, which currently has 75 agents and offices in Beverly Hills, Marina del Rey and Las Vegas. Mr. Altman says about 20% of his business today is a result of the show; so far this year he's sold $142 million in real estate. Last fall, the Kleiers renamed their firm, previously called Gumley Haft Kleier, as Kleier Residential, to capitalize on their increased visibility.

Mr. Hildebrand says his receptionist keeps signed headshots of him at the front desk for fans who stop by, and he's recently launched a line of scented candles, sold in a few high-end L.A. boutiques and on his website. "It's another branding and marketing tool," he says. He currently has about $100 million worth of listings, and last year handled the sale of Tori Spelling's Malibu home. "For me, these two careers go hand in hand."

Mr. Serhant says the show has helped propel him from an agent selling midrange condominiums when he started in the business five years ago to selling over $200 million in real estate so far this year. "All exposure is good exposure, I think."


Hot Property Book

The stars of HGTV's “Selling New York” let fans step inside the high-profile world of Manhattan real estate in a wild and one-of-a-kind novel of stormy egos, sumptuous homes, and staggering fame and fortune. Written by Michele, Samantha & Sabrina Kleier.