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Six years ago, Compass agent Phillip Salem — lovingly known as Agent P — was closing the door to a dream 17 years in the making.

The Ohio native moved to New York City in 2006 to pursue a degree in fashion merchandising from the Fashion Institute of Technology and shortly before graduation opened their first designer boutique, OWEN. As one of the only family-owned stores in the city’s famous Meatpacking District, OWEN gained recognition in Refinery 29, Elle Magazine, The New York Times and WWD. 

However, Salem’s fashion career was cut short after their landlord got permission to tear the building down and rebuild a new commercial space. Not one to be discouraged for long, Salem took their husband’s advice and turned their entrepreneurial energy to real estate — finishing their licensure in four weeks and gaining their footing at Triplemint before moving to Compass in 2020.

“I say the rest is history, but the rest is a ton of hard work, a ton of dedication, a ton of marketing and a ton of putting myself out there for clients,” they said of their transition from fashion to real estate.

Ahead of their first-ever Inman Connect New York appearance, Salem shared the connection between fashion and real estate, the power of authenticity as a nonbinary person and how they’re helping buyers and sellers navigate one of the zaniest market shifts in recent history.

Before our chat today, I read your biography on our ICNY homepage, and you took an unconventional route from fashion to real estate. Tell me more about what led you to leave the fashion world and start selling homes.

Salem: Right after I graduated college, I opened up a multi-brand boutique in [New York City’s] Meatpacking District. I’ve always had this entrepreneurial spirit, and the store had an amazing run for about four years. We were the only family-owned boutique in the District at that time, but unfortunately, the landlord got landmark approval to tear down the building and build an eight-story commercial space. I was like, ‘Oh my God, my career is over. What am I going to do with my life?’

My husband said, ‘Phillip, you already have a client base. You have the personality. You have the spirit. Why don’t you just sell real estate instead of clothing? Instead of selling clothing, sell a lifestyle. Sell apartments.’ I took his advice, and I did the fast-track program. I went in person to do my coursework, and in four weeks I was licensed.

Four weeks?! I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to someone who has gotten their license that quickly. What was that process like for you? I can imagine it would be a massive shift, especially while dealing with the closure of your store.

I went to the New York Real Estate Institute. I went every day, and I was dedicated to getting my real estate license as soon as my store closed. I think the struggle for me was having people believe that I was an agent. I was known as fashion Phillip; I wasn’t known as real estate Phillip. But now that I’ve been in the business for five-and-a-half years, I’ve really branded myself as ‘Agent P,’ and everybody knows me now as the real estate go-to person that is also fashionable. I mixed all my worlds together — my love for fashion and my love for real estate and I’m helping clients that used to shop at my store.

Let’s touch on your transformation from fashion Phillip to real estate Phillip. Branding is a huge undertaking for new agents, and it can be challenging to find your footing, especially when you’ve spent the majority of your life being dedicated to something else. What did it take to make that shift?

When I got into the business, I saw how agents looked on TV and their attitude, and I was the opposite — I don’t wear a suit and tie. I’m very flamboyant. I don’t really have a filter. I say what’s on my mind. I’m not mean.  I mean, those were just the kinds of things that I was seeing. As a nonbinary person, I had these insecurities about not fitting in. So, I went to Barneys, and I went to buy a tie and I went to buy a suit jacket, and I was like, ‘This is how I should be.’ But then I realized, ‘You know what, this is not me. This is not who I am, and this is not my brand.’

So, I started being more myself and expressing myself through fashion, the way that I showed houses, the way that I helped clients and I didn’t hold back my flamboyancy. That really helped brand me as what we say, #notyourbasicbroker. It really helped me really solidify myself in the business with my fashion clients as well as my friends. But it isn’t just about clothing and fashion and so on — it took a lot of hard work.

I started taking any deal that I could take. I was doing $1,400 rental deals in Queens and $1,800 rental deals up in North Harlem. I was taking anything I could, and I started posting everything that I possibly could to show people that I was in real estate. That credibility just built and built and built until I started doing bigger sales, and I just had no shame in publicly displaying my accolades and publicly displaying my success. Because, to me, success means a lot more than the money that I make or the deals that I close.

It was showing myself that as a queer person, I was worthy of having a place in this business, and I was worthy of making my footprint in the sand.

Thanks for sharing that with me. One thing I’ve learned over time from agents is that authenticity always wins in the long run, and I can imagine that has helped you navigate this market shift. Buyers and sellers are always looking for someone they can trust. With that in mind, what was 2022 like for you? How did NYC real estate change?

The beginning of 2022 was an epic year. It was what agents thought it was going to be — the benchmark of how the entire year would play out, but we were obviously wrong. I had listings that were exclusive on Compass that didn’t even make it to the public market and had three offers within two hours. The shift definitely started once the [Federal Reserve] started increasing the interest rates around May and June. That’s when a lot of sellers noticed the listings weren’t as busy and offers weren’t being made the first weekend. Then things started getting a little bit more dry toward October, November and December and things started staying on the market much longer.

So obviously, it started shifting into a buyers’ market. One of the things that I do for my buyers is show them data, because a lot of data out there casts such a wide net. But when you’re speaking about New York City, each neighborhood, each block and really each building is literally a city of its own. So when you’re talking about days on market and listings not selling, I like to educate my buyers about how we can approach putting a competitive offer on a listing.

A lot of buyers, they’re seeing news [about the shift], and they think they can get big discounts, but that’s not always the case. A desirable listing will always sell, and a desirable listing in New York has a lot of outdoor space, high ceilings, is recently renovated and is on a great block. So it’s about educating buyers and really strategizing with them on crafting the right offer.

It’s also very important to set expectations for sellers. If they are priced too high, they’re not going to get offers. I always recommend pricing at the market or under the market to draw attention. But, a lot of sellers are very unrealistic right now because they’re thinking they’re going to get a price from a comp from 12 months ago. That is just not the case.

Setting expectations is a recurring theme, and as you said, buyers and sellers are coming into transactions with a lot of general information when what they really need is hyperlocal insight. What kinds of data are you relying on to help clients?

It’s super hyperlocal in New York City. It’s even down to like the building floor. You can have a listing that’s sold on the eighth floor for $2 million and then a listing on the ninth floor being listed for $2.5 million because it clears the other building, and you have a full view of the waterfront below. Sometimes it’s just even the direction of the apartment on the floor that makes the difference.

The way that I provide data to both buyers and sellers is so important and making it very clear and easy for them to read. I make it easy for them to see pictures, see finishes and see the date that it was sold. And I even go as far as getting comments from listing agents on how the activity was, how many offers they had, how many people bid over, how many [offers] were all cash, how many were financing. Getting as much data as possible in front of your buyers and sellers is extremely important.

And know what you’re talking about — don’t BS your way through things because buyers and sellers know when you’re faking it. So my biggest advice is, don’t fake it, get the data presented in real-time, and don’t beat around the bush. Say it how it is.

We’re only a few weeks into 2023, but what are your predictions for NYC real estate this year? 

I always tell my clients, both buyers and sellers, if I had a crystal ball I would be a billionaire. But, just looking at my own data and experiences, obviously, the market is shifting into a buyers’ market. I do believe that sellers who do not need to sell are going to hold on to their property. I do believe that sellers who do need to sell because of work or family planning, will sell.

Desirable apartments in New York will not have a difficult time selling and when I say desirable, I still think a lot of the hot neighborhoods in Brooklyn, like Cobble Hill, Fort Greene, Brooklyn Heights, Williamsburg and Greenpoint. In a lot of the newer developments that have many listings, like over 50 to 60 listings in them, sponsors and sellers will have to start being a little bit more realistic and giving more price discounts and negotiability providers.

Overall, we’re not going to see such activity as we did at the beginning of 2020 and mid-2022. I think it’s going to be a little bit slower. I think buyers are going to be more weary and if sellers don’t need to sell they’re not going to sell.

Email Marian McPherson

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