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With its primary headquarters based in New York City, luxury brokerage Brown Harris Stevens was able to ride the return of Manhattan real estate in 2021 as the city saw a record year.
Inman recently caught up with the company’s CEO, Bess Freedman, who said the market is still looking great. Freedman also said agents are returning to office life, and new development and millennial homebuyers are top of mind — when agents aren’t preoccupied with the atrocities occurring in Ukraine.
What follows is a version of that conversation, edited for brevity and clarity.
Inman: Manhattan real estate and Brown Harris Stevens ended 2021 on a strong note. How are things going for you now?
Bess Freedman: Things are going really well. We just signed a lease a few months ago for a new office in Rhinebeck, New York, so we’re expanding our Hudson Valley reach, which for us is really exciting. We have a lot of people who have homes there who live in New York City.
Rhinebeck is different than the Hamptons, it’s a different vibe. We have lots of offices in the Hamptons, but Rhinebeck is more of an art colony and it’s kind of like a hippie haven for people. It’s near Woodstock, a lot of New Yorkers have homes there because it’s got great restaurants, great culture. My brother actually has a farm there so obviously I’m a little biased — my mom lives there [too] — but we’re very excited about having a flag in Rhinebeck, New York.
So that’s really something new that we’re doing and we have some new office spaces opening in New York City, too, which is exciting for us coming out of the pandemic. The fact that we’re doubling down on office space I think is quite a statement.
Have many agents been working regularly out of offices now?
More and more we’re seeing people come into the office. Today, just for example, I’m at the corporate headquarters and the floor is fairly full. We’re not at max capacity, but I would say we have a good amount of people that are here working, busy. We’re kind of done with dialing it in. The employees are now coming in almost full-time and agents are now committing more to come in. Some are deciding to wear a mask — they can, we’re not requiring it unless you’re unvaccinated.
We’ve learned how to live with the pandemic, we’ve learned how to function, I’ve been traveling a lot. Before we didn’t know what it was, but now we have vaccines and we’ve adjusted. So life is continuing and I think that’s why people are coming back and back to traveling and hopefully tourism will go up, so we’ll have to see how that all plays out.
But real estate, the market is really strong. I don’t expect that it’s going to go down anytime soon. Also, because of what’s going on with the war, I don’t think the Fed, I think with rates, they’re going to be very careful not to raise them further. The one challenge is inflation, obviously, as we’ve seen. But it’s not deterring people from wanting to buy.
Thinking about Ukraine and Russia, do you have many foreign clients who might be impacted? How is that affecting you or how do you think it will in upcoming weeks?
I do have some agents who are from that area. I have an agent I spoke to the other day who’s actually from Kyiv, and there’s a lot of intensity and emotion and upset. It’s a highly charged topic. So more than the business side, how we’re looking at it is, it’s more of a human issue that we’re seeing and it’s that impact. The Russian buyer hasn’t been a part of our discussion for a long time, so I don’t see it impacting us very much in that regard. It hasn’t been a part of our narrative here in New York or other regions for quite a long time.
What people are saying to me is, how do I just order my coffee and go on with life when I see on TV people are being slaughtered? Already we have raised almost $30,000 in one day for the crisis. Yesterday, I sent out an email and I’ve never seen agents donate more money. We’re partnering with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and we’re raising money for them. [Those who want to contribute to BHS’s fundraiser for Ukraine can donate here.] It’s crazy. This is touching a thorn for people. Everybody’s kind of watching this.
What kind of market trends are you noticing?
A lot of the buyers seem to want to be able to move in [immediately] — there’s not a lot of appetite for a [long-term] renovation … and we’re seeing the appetite for new development and expensive new development throughout the city, that appetite is crazy. People want to buy these expensive, big, beautiful, luxurious apartments, and they’re buying them.
Another trend is the millennial buyer is here. There was a time when the millennial buyer was not here, when they were off doing Burning Man maybe, I don’t know. But now the millennial is committed to the process of homebuying because they understand that they can potentially work from home, so they’re making it a real part of their life.
Do you have any fun Inman Connect memories you’d like to share as we approach the 25th anniversary of ICNY?
One of my favorite all-time real estate moments was at an Inman event and you guys had Will Guidara (the restaurateur who opened Eleven Madison Park) [speak] and it was my favorite-ever event. I stood up in my seat because what he said was so powerful and what he talked about, about hospitality and taking care of people, which is what we do in real estate, it so jived with me that I chased him out of the room afterwards and we became friends. But it was the best ever, and I had him speak at our company meeting the next year. But that to me was like transcendent and it was fantastic.