The more things change, the more they remain the same. Ten years ago, I concluded in a column, “Some sellers get no respect.” Homeowners who set unrealistic values on their homes—who fail to heed conservative pricing advice from experienced agents—lose valuable time and ultimately money. That message is worth repeating, particularly in today’s climate where price drops abound and where activity has slowed.
Three years ago, several weeks into the start of 2013, I reflected on the Wall Street adage “As January goes, so goes the year.” At the time, impressive financial gains were scored with both the S&P 500 and the Dow which were up in the month of January 2013 by 5.05% and 5.77% respectively, signaling the best start to the year since 1987. In residential Manhattan real estate, January 2013 witnessed a jump of nearly 28% in signed contracts over January 2012 (2,888 vs. 2,265). Sofia Song, at the time StreetEasy’s Head of Research, called it “The Year of the Frustrated Buyer.” I termed it “The Year of the Smart Seller.”
With the exception of well priced apartments under $2M which continue to attract multiple competitive bids and top sales dollars, price increases of Manhattan homes have abated. Sellers have relinquished their upper hand as buyers find more balanced footing in a market that seems to be heading back slowly to equilibrium. Throughout this year, new development options have come to market steadily yielding more than two and a half times as many choices for buyers than in 2014: approximately 6,500 units in 100 new buildings compared to roughly 2,500 units in 59 buildings last year. At the ultra high end, sales are stalled. In 2015, Manhattan’s residential real estate market shifted in more ways than one.
The allure of a penthouse or for that matter any apartment with a setback terrace is irresistible. A precious and highly coveted commodity, terrace ownership connotes a certain quality of life with bragging rights. To the urban dweller, outdoor space offers oases of air, light, sky and ultimately status. Outdoor space sells at a premium in New York City, and for the purchaser, caveat emptor reigns supreme. It’s critical for a buyer to understand the governing Proprietary Lease and House Rules which will vary from building to building and also to consult with an attorney regarding local ordinances and building codes as they relate to what can and cannot be done, placed or built on a terrace.
Combining apartments to create larger residential spaces is not a new concept, but it’s also not an everyday occurrence. Despite Mayor Bloomberg’s advancement of affordable pint sized micro units, the demand for large properties continues as does the practice of putting together multiple units. Even developers of new condo products are going back to their drawing boards to combine apartments to capture higher price yields per square foot. Given the current shortage of sizeable properties, one wonders whether we will be seeing more combinations.
There’s plenty of data available to support a U.S. housing recovery even in areas that were hardest hit by the downturn like Miami and Phoenix. New residential construction is on the rise nearly everywhere, and home builders like Toll Brothers, DR Horton and Lennar have been posting significant gains monthly since October 2011. While the housing market indeed is improving across the nation, New York City continues to dazzle as it attracts not only foreign buyers who have found safe haven for sovereign money, but the brightest and the best who make NYC their home.
We’re at an interesting moment of time in the current residential marketplace. On the one hand, an already thinning inventory of apartments has been shrinking steadily since the second quarter of this year. According to analytics provided by Noah Rosenblatt’s www.urbandigs.com, as of this writing, a total of 5,659 apartments are on the market in Manhattan—the lowest number in more than four years. At the same time, there are 3,012 pending sales—just 189 deals short of the highest number of signed contracts achieved during this same period on June 14th of this year. Properties in all price ranges are being absorbed at a faster rate than new properties are coming to market. With supply dwindling and demand rising, sellers who price realistically have the edge today.
Last December as the year was coming to a close, the New York Times characterized 2011 as “The Year of the Turndown.” In addition, the reporter acknowledged that it was becoming more common for co-op boards to grant provisional consent to buyers, requiring that significant sums of money be held in escrow to ensure that monthly charges would be paid on time. This year, co-op board rejections and conditional approvals have not diminished; in fact, they are on the rise.
Five years ago on 4/30/07, I wrote a column about Best and Final offers. The real estate market was at its peak, and competitive bidding was commonplace in all price ranges and categories. Discretionary Wall Street bonus money jingled with frothy cash payments, interest rates hovered at 6%, buyer demand was high, and quality inventory was tight. Open houses were crowded with as many as 30 people showing up in an hour, and activity was brisk. Apartments were not staying on the market very long, often trading 10-15% above asking prices.
New York Residential Specialists stand out above the crowd. The new credential—the highest offered by the Real Estate Board of New York—encourages the best among us to step up to be recognized for our commitment to professional excellence and advanced education. The designation—or its acronym NYRS—identifies those who meet qualifying criteria and complete an eight week educational course with renewal classes biannually. For the industry, the new designation is all about raising the bar and maintaining high standards of professionalism, ethics and leadership. For brokers who achieve the new title, a certain competitive edge is gained. For consumers, the credential is the industry’s quality control and veritable seal of approval.
A dateline is essential when faced with a 2 month advance deadline for an October publication issue—especially when it’s 3 days after Standard and Poor’s downgraded the credit rating for U.S. Treasuries from AAA to AA+. The Dow plunged today 635 jaw-dropping points, the biggest stock market decline since December 2008. It will take time to absorb the full impact of this unprecedented measure, and all eyes will be watching as events unfold.
In mid July, Fred Peters posted a blog about the complexities inherent in a broker’s job “as well as the multiple pleasures.” He mused, “Our business involves strategizing . . . relationship management . . . aesthetics . . . negotiating skill, and it often involves being a strong hand within the softest velvet glove,” concluding, “There is no other work quite like it.”
In a previous column I posed the question: Isn’t it time to drop SoHo’s AIR requirements? Several brokers wrote to say they would welcome an opportunity to join in a concerted effort to accomplish this. A number of attorneys said they were actively involved with clients to effect a change. A handful of non-SoHo homeowners were astonished that such outdated laws were still on the books. One reader expressed regret that artists were being displaced and that the area “has turned into a mall.”
Selling a prewar loft in SoHo has become problematic of late because of renewed attention to AIR—artist in residence—zoning requirements. Though the law has been in effect since the early 70’s, it’s been virtually ignored—until now. Although the reasons behind the new focus are sketchy, it’s clear that if the zoning rules currently on the books for SoHo were enforced strictly, real estate values would be undermined. It’s time to amend the outdated ruling and acknowledge that SoHo is a different place today than 40 years ago.
Remember the game “52 Pickup”? It’s the “trick” played by a practical jokester on an unsuspecting victim who must pick up 52 cards that have been scattered willy-nilly on the floor. “That’s what the board packages we get look like sometimes—especially from the larger firms where there seems to be less supervision,” says Jane Bayard, Warburg’s Executive Vice President. She’s describing how sometimes what we get from our co-brokers makes no sense. “It looks like the papers have been literally dropped on the floor, then picked up totally out of order and reassembled haphazardly with no thought to logical sequencing of information and with numbers that just don’t match up.”
In late June, Fred Peters wrote in the Warburg Blog about how real estate brokerage has changed since 1980 when he first got started in the business. I began as a broker in the same year, and Fred’s musings got me thinking about how remarkably different our business was then, and how it has evolved.
“Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it…” I’m talking about negotiating, not falling in love. Everyone does it, and we do it all the time—with our partners, our children, our friends, our bosses, our clients, and even with ourselves. Some do it more skillfully than others.
Volumes have been written on the subject, and master classes continue to be offered on negotiating skills and principles. Recently I was reminded of an excellent REBNY NYRS course taught by Dr. Alon Ben-Meir who insisted that brokers consider themselves “not merely as a messenger conveying information from one party to the other, but as an architect with a clear vision of the structure he or she wants to create.”
In an ever-changing real estate market, a seller needs to seize every available advantage. Experienced brokers are adept at advising clients how to prepare their properties for showing, and we have been providing this service free to our sellers for years. We are grateful to the professional stager to whom we can turn to as a third party for objective guidance. Much like a stylist, the stager is a design professional who is hired for a fee to present a property for maximum visual and emotional appeal.
Are sales prices on the verge of stabilizing? Probably yes. Is the worst behind us? Almost certainly yes. We’re about 33% down from the highs of 2007—less perhaps for mint condition apartments—with not much further to go to hit ground level, if we accept the prediction made some months ago by JPMorgan Chase of a 40% decline from peak to trough.
On the first days of April as I write this column for May publication, it’s important to acknowledge that we’re in a much improved position than last fall when overwhelming uncertainty gripped the Manhattan marketplace. With the tipping point of the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy in mid September 2008, real estate activity came to a near halt until the end of last year. Open houses were quiet, some buyers who were already in contract renegotiated prices, while others walked away from deposits, leaving everyone else on the sidelines waiting to exhale.