Buying & Selling Manhattan Real Estate in an Age of Marketing 

Jul 06, 2010

Return to news

Michele Kleier Describes how Real Estate Marketing has Changed Over the Years

When Michele Kleier wanted to sell a nine-room apartment at 1125 Park Avenue in 1977, her brokerage firm paid for a one-and-a-half-line classified newspaper advertisement that offered the rough location (“Park Ave. — Low 90s”) and succinctly read “Superb condition. Sun filled. Excel. maint.” With that ad, she found a buyer willing to pay $145,000, today’s inflationary equivalent of $522,000.

This spring, when Ms. Kleier wanted to sell her 45th apartment in the same building, she invited 75 brokers to the eight-room apartment for an open house and seafood lunch catered by the Atlantic Grill restaurant. She featured the apartment on the HGTV television program “Selling New York” and paid to have the listing prominently displayed on several influential real estate Web sites.

“Now everybody wants to see the pictures,” Ms. Kleier said. “They want to know all about the building. They want to see everything. Believe me, life was a lot simpler then.” A lot cheaper, too: On Thursday, she closed on the apartment for $4 million.

Although New Yorkers have obsessed, haggled and boasted about Manhattan real estate since its controversial and possibly apocryphal exchange for a handful of beads four centuries ago, it is fair to say that the promotion of Manhattan apartments has exploded over the past few decades.

Yes, there are more apartments to sell since the conversion of thousands of rental apartments to co-ops and the creation of the condominium market. Still, many brokers remember when apartments were bought and sold without a retinue of real estate stagers, photographers and writers fussing over these homes before their appearances on Web sites and television.

“That big marketing and presentation of properties was not done,” said Hall F. Willkie, president of Brown Harris Stevens. “Back in the mid-’80s, in the residential real estate world, people didn’t know how to spell ‘marketing.’ ”

That is partly because residential real estate used to be a far smaller industry. Barbara Corcoran said that when she started her brokerage firm in 1973, she tracked the city’s apartments on 4-by-5-inch handwritten index cards that her brokers kept next to the coffee cart. They organized these cards by color: studios were yellow, one-bedrooms were pink, two-bedrooms were blue, and three-bedroom or larger apartments were orange.

She added that there were far fewer apartments available through her agency, most of them rentals. As a comparison, 262 apartment sales closed in Manhattan in the past three months.

In those days, sales were designed so that brokers had far less incentive to advertise and promote properties. Sellers gave their apartments to multiple brokerage firms because only the broker who delivered the buyer received a commission.

“When you didn’t have an exclusive, you didn’t want to commit resources to it,” said Kirk Henckels, the director of Stribling Private Brokerage. “There’s no certainty you’re going to make money.”

Of course, Manhattan apartments did not carry the profits they carry today.

When Elise Ward, a broker now with the firm Core, started selling TriBeCa lofts to artists in 1981, so few buildings had been renovated or had soundproofing that she used words like “fireproof” and “steel and concrete structure” to mean quiet. Now, selling these apartments to the present-day TriBeCa clientele, she said, requires “several cocktail parties” and “brochures, you name it.”

Even in the late 1980s, when brokers started accepting co-brokerage agreements and investing in advertising, their efforts were far more modest.

In 1989, Pamela Nichols, a broker who now works for Prudential Douglas Elliman, received an exclusive listing to sell a one-bedroom penthouse at 2 Sutton Place South for $725,000 (the equivalent of $1.275 million today). On Oct. 8, 1989, she published a single four-line advertisement and did not provide prospective buyers with photographs before they visited.

“You literally described the apartment to them on the phone,” she said. “Until you met them at the building, they didn’t see anything.”

Now she is reselling the apartment for $1.65 million. After Ms. Nichols put it on the market in April, she drafted a 10-line advertisement, hired a professional photographer, designed a full-color handout and promoted the apartment in luxury publications like a Hamptons magazine.

Ms. Nichols added that in many ways, selling apartments has not changed.

In 2001, when she renovated her Westhampton beach house, she discovered that a past owner had left her a real estate time capsule beneath the porch: perfectly preserved real estate pages from a Nov. 1, 1925, issue of The New York Herald Tribune. Even then, the newspaper included advertisements for buildings like 31 East 79th Street and 1020 Fifth Avenue that emphasized that the apartments offered “every convenience and service luxury.”

“You’re still using the same words,” she marveled. “It’s just the vehicle.”


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.