So Few Properties, So Many Brokers 

Nov 27, 2005

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THE name of the game in real estate is amassing listings, because they mean money. But thousands of brokers have no listings at all - not surprising, when there are far more brokers and sales agents than there are properties to be sold.

The New York State Department of State has licensed about 27,500 brokers and agents in Manhattan. (Although most people use the terms interchangeably, brokers have tougher licensing and education requirements.) But there are only 10,000 transactions in any given year, according to Jonathan J. Miller, president of the appraisal firm Miller Samuel.

A transaction often involves more than one broker or agent. But even so, Mr. Miller said, "there are a lot of brokers not selling any property, because there are many of them who sell dozens of apartments each year."

Though it is certainly possible to make a living without having listings - people who represent buyers for example, do not always have listings - doing so tends to be much harder and less lucrative.

The listing broker is the gatekeeper for the property, able to control viewings and, more important, get a cut of the commission even if another broker brings in the buyer. A listing has marketing and promotional benefits too. The name of the listing broker goes in the ad or on the Web site with the property, meaning potential buyers will start phoning and clicking, making contact with that broker.

A survey done by The Real Deal, a monthly industry newspaper, showed that as of May, the percentage of agents affiliated with the top 10 firms in the city who had no listings at the time of publication ranged from 30.7 to 63.1 percent.

The figures were gathered through searches of the Web sites of each firm, according to Stuart Elliot, the editor of The Real Deal, and did not separate brokers who work with buyers or renters and therefore would not have any listings. Although the survey was done earlier this year, he said the numbers probably still hold. "If anything, the number of agents with no listings would be higher now because the market is moderating," Mr. Elliot said.

The imbalance between brokers and properties available for sale has been made worse by the influx of aspiring agents and by the fact that top brokers like Dolly Lenz, Michele Kleier and Carrie Chiang tend to have dozens of listings at any given moment.

"There is such a disparity in the brokerage community, especially in Manhattan, between the top tier where the rich get richer and the bottom tier, which is really struggling," said JoAnne Kennedy, chief operating officer at Coldwell Banker Hunt Kennedy (where 61.6 percent of its agents had no listings in the Real Deal chart).

"The top brokers now are celebrities, making several million dollars a year," Ms. Kennedy said. "Midrange brokers make a satisfactory income, but they don't have as many connections and are trying to figure out how to get to the next level. The bottom range is usually comprised of new people just building their business."

The Internet has made it easier for buyers to connect directly with sellers or their brokers, keeping brokers without listings from potential clients. "The Web has changed our business for people coming in," said Paula Busch, a managing director at the Corcoran Group (where 46.7 percent of agents lacked listings). "Buyers in the below $1 million market go there first and then directly to open houses, and they say they don't need brokers."

So how does someone attract clients? For those without substantial track records, it is very difficult.

"It is frustrating when you see some agents just rolling with listings," said Elizabeth Marks, an agent with Coldwell Banker Hunt Kennedy who owned a travel agency specializing in safari and scuba diving trips until business was slowed by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Ms. Marks took several real estate courses, including one called Sweat Hogs, which dealt with getting listings. "You must really work for listings," she said. "It is hard because if someone wants to sell an apartment, they are bombarded by brokers. Everyone knows a friend or is loyal to someone they bought their apartment from and don't want to give you a listing because you are new."

She has tried a variety of tactics, even cold calling. "Nine times out of 10, people hang up on you," she said.

But she is not deterred. "I will call a particular building and say: 'Maybe there is a buyer interested in your building. Are you interested in selling?' Then I say: 'Can we set up an appointment. I would love to see your place.' I direct them to my Web site if they want referrals from the last six months."

So far, she has not gotten any listings that way. Nor has she reaped any from the mailings she has sent out, "but that isn't to say it doesn't work," she said.

"It helps when I meet people face to face," she said, "so sometimes I help out at open houses."

Deborah Elias, a sales associate at Prudential Douglas Elliman, who entered the field in April after a career in finance, does not yet have a listing. "That worries me," she said, but she added that she is not discouraged, either. "You need to have patience, and it will come if you do the right thing. A lot of successful brokers are seasoned and have paid their dues. You must be creative, think outside the norm and do a lot of networking. You can't just send out mailers."

Describing herself as a "networking person," Ms. Elias, who does represent several buyers, has found that cultivating a wide variety of interests not necessarily connected to real estate can be a conduit. "If I meet someone who is interested in restaurants, I will call them when there is a new restaurant opening," she said. "It builds rapport and fosters ongoing relationships. "

Indeed, networking is considered the paramount tool and everyone in an individual's "sphere of influence," as brokers like to describe it - all the people with whom they cross paths, no matter how fleetingly - is considered fair game.

"Agents get listings from dinner parties, boards, going to the gym, Weight Watchers, churches, synagogues," Ms. Kennedy of Coldwell Banker said. "I am not above telling my friends to get busy and send me more business."

Anne Touchard, who has been an agent with Dwelling Quest for a year, said, "When I started, I definitely used my personal connections and friends, and I do a lot of networking."

She came here seven years ago from Lyon, France, to pursue a master's degree in business at Baruch College and married Michael Touchard, owner of the restaurant Tout Va Bien. "So I would eat well even if I were broke," she said.

She joined the French-American Chamber of Commerce, where, she said, she found buyers but not sellers. To increase her contacts, she recently signed up for the Breakfast Network, an international networking group that puts people together for professional purposes. Ms. Touchard also tries to convince owners who want to sell their property without a broker (known as FSBO's, short for "For Sale by Owner") that they need her services, and she expects to do better in that arena now than she did in the spring.

"It didn't work at all then," she said. "The market was so insane that FSBO's would have 30 to 40 people showing up at their open houses and they would say, 'I don't need you.' Now they don't have a lot of people showing up, and that is a good thing for us as brokers. It's going well, but I have no listings yet."

Another way into the business is to become a buyer's broker, the route taken by her colleague at Dwelling Quest, Jason Gershon. A partner in his family's jewelry shop on Long Island, he became an agent because, he said, "I plan on acquiring real estate as an income for retirement." For now, he conceded, "This is a great job if you don't have to rely on it to pay your bills."

Mr. Gershon started out by tapping into his immediate circle of friends. "I grew up on the South Shore and went to the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York," he said. "Most of my friends moved into the city. They are making money and are not going to rent. So I approached friends and friends of friends, both selling and renting. But there was minimum supply and large demand, which made it tougher to get listings."

He decided to focus on buyers and narrow his area of expertise. "I specialize in the Upper East Side," he said, "and learned the market there like the back of my hand - where all the banks are, the cheap parking spots, nice restaurants, buildings where the co-op board is easy or located in a place where they can get their money back should they sell."

Susan Forrest-Reynolds, an agent with the City Sites Real Estate Group who worked on set relocations for movie companies, is also concentrating on buyers, at least for now.

"Most people prefer being the seller's broker because they don't have to run around looking and people come to them," she said. "I prefer the energy of the buyer's side. I love watching clients find an apartment they love."

Ms. Elias of Douglas Elliman has turned to another route: rentals.

"They are an opportunity to view a lot of properties and they provide immediate cash because transactions occur in a much shorter period of time than sales," she said. "And then I start to build relationships for the long term."

That approach is endorsed by Fanny Montalvo, director of client services at Fenwick-Keats. "I tell people that a renter will always turn into a buyer and a buyer into a seller and a happy seller will always give you referrals," she said.


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