Ryan serhant wanted to elevate. On an unseasonably beautiful winter morning, the real-estate broker was gliding around the rooftop terrace of a penthouse in Soho, trailed by a woman camera crew and sizing up the angles. He hoisted himself above the terrace wall, placing one Prada boot on a planter, the other on a piece of wicker furniture. “This way,” he said, “I’m in the sun.” Serhant wore a light-blue pin-striped suit, a baby-blue Hermès tie, and a brilliantly white smile, which I could see because he had stripped off his navy-blue mask, which was branded with an S. From the knees down, he was contorting to hold himself steady. But his upper half was bathed in light, with the Empire State Building framed over his shoulder.
Serhant, who is 36, makes his living selling luxury apartments, and he does it through the force of his personality, which flows like a torrent through many channels. A longtime star of the Bravo series Million Dollar Listing New York, Serhant has 1.5 million followers on Instagram and a million subscribers on YouTube. He is into video production and motivational speaking. The self-promoting performance is all meant to support his new brokerage, Serhant. (that’s not the end of this sentence—the period is an emphatic part of the brand). He calls it “the future of where real estate, tech, and media collide.” Launching a firm to cater to a tiny, ultrawealthy stratum may sound counterintuitive at a time when spindly new condo towers stand empty and swaying and the city’s status as the global center of culture and wealth is uncertain. But Serhant knows how to create his own reality.
“Rolling,” said one cameraman, who was perched above him on the building’s roof.
“Rolling,” said the other.
Serhant breathed deeply and composed his face. He has the perfectly proportioned features of a soap-opera actor, which he once was, and a prematurely silver shock of hair.
“Boy oh boy, do I have a surprise for you,” he began, eyes widening. “You don’t even know what’s below my feet right now. Like, you have no idea. Right now, you see me on this terrace. Maybe you know where I am. If you tilt it a little bit this way”—he paused as one cameraman panned to the water tower on top of a neighboring cast-iron building— “you can see that I’m actually in the heart of Soho, and what I’m standing on is 1,163 square feet of private roof space in Soho in a brand-new penthouse that we’re going to be bringing to market very, very soon. It’s 4,270 square feet interior, four beds, four and a half baths, amazing outdoor space, private hot tub, outdoor TV, fireplace, everything! I am going to blow your mind. Here … we … go!”
The sellers, a California couple, had purchased the penthouse as a pied-à-Terre in 2018. “I sold it to them for 14,” Serhant told me when the camera was off, “and now they’re not here anymore.” With the exception of a few personal accents—the model of a private jet, a framed photo of the couple in front of the actual jet—there was little to suggest the place had ever been inhabited. Serhant said he thought he could sell the apartment for around $15 million, which seemed optimistic considering the pandemic had driven away foreign investors while pushing wealthy New Yorkers to out-of-town retreats. But Serhant claims he can still find buyers where they really live: on their phones.
The property in Soho had not been officially listed for sale. “Nobody knows about this yet,” Serhant told me. But once it did go up, the broker intended to blast out the video to his many millions of fans and followers. The tour continued down to the living room, with its wraparound windows, through a pair of pocket doors, which he opened with a stagy flourish, and into the kitchen, which was clad in white marble. The owner had “completely ripped it apart,” Serhant said, “because he wanted to create the greatest chef ’s kitchen in the world here in Soho.”
Serhant continued down to the apartment’s lowest floor, where there were three bedrooms, including one that was outfitted as a mini-gym with a Peloton, and another terrace with a green wall. “We gotta go, gotta go, gotta go,” he said, urging on the cameramen as they set up the shot. Serhant was late for his next appointment. He finished up in one fast, extemporaneous take. Before he left, though, he pulled out his camera and shot another bite-size video clip to post to his Instagram Stories. “So beautiful, so big,” he said, as he walked through the bright living room.
“Where’s that emoji?” Serhant asked. He found the one he was looking for: a yellow face holding up a shushing finger. coming soon, the text over the video read. dm for details.
I was still with him a couple of hours later, when he looked at his phone and told me he had just gotten a message: A former client had forwarded the Instagram post to a couple that was looking to buy in Soho, and they wanted to see the place before it listed. A few days later, he would tell me, the interested party had taken a tour and, shortly after, had made an offer. The penthouse has never hit the market.
“I mean, 2020 was the greatest opportunistic market I’ve ever seen,” Serhant said. “It’s about finding good deals and presenting them to people who are looking for good deals, and I’ve kind of become, like, the billionaire go-to when it comes to real estate.”
YOU SHOULD NEVER totally believe your eyes when you look at reality television or social media or, perhaps most of all, New York real estate. While the sales on Million Dollar Listing are real, I was told by people who have appeared on the show that some of the negotiations are reenacted with the treachery amped up. And the world of luxury real estate—where no one ever seems to be at home, everything is owned by anonymous shell companies, and figuring out transactions is like following the coin in a magic trick—is itself a realm of illusion.
It would, however, be wrong to assume Serhant. is just an act. “It’s definitely performance art,” says luxury residential developer Michael Stern, who is friendly with the broker. “But there’s a seriousness underpinning it.” And real-estate opportunities really do abound in New York City right now— although, as always, there’s a catch.
According to the most recent market report from the brokerage firm Douglas Elliman, more than 8,000 properties were for sale in Manhattan at the beginning of this year (more than double that if you count unlisted shadow inventory), a glut comparable to levels last seen in 2008. But the excess of supply hasn’t brought down the cost, in part because most affluent people are doing fine financially. If you have a classic six on Park Avenue or a condo in Battery Park City on the market, you’re probably not selling at a discount right now unless you’re leaving the city for good or going broke. Consequently, the median sale price of a Manhattan apartment in the fourth quarter was a little more than $1 million—actually higher than what it was during the same period in 2019 and not too much below the record of a few years ago. In most segments of the real-estate market, it’s not a bloodbath. It’s just blah.
The exception lies in the luxury market, which is generally defined as the top 10 percent of any property class. The reasons stretch back more than a decade before the pandemic. After the 2008 crash, there were more than 10,000 co-ops and condos on the market, many of them in new developments started during the debt-fueled speculative mania. But the real-estate industry was rescued by a great flood of investment capital, much of it from overseas sources. A new global plutocratic elite was emerging, and it wanted to buy in New York, which was perceived as a safe haven for wealth. Developers erected skyscrapers like One57 and 432 Park Avenue, and they were marketed to an absent superrich clientele so successfully that the title Million Dollar Listing would come to seem as quaintly dated as Dr. Evil’s ransom demand.
No one saw fit to stop and ask whether there were enough billionaires out there to absorb all the ultraluxury product. Eventually, reality intruded. Sellers began to outnumber buyers. New developments, which have to sell out quickly before developers’ loans start coming due, were especially imperiled. At the end of 2019, the median sale price of a Manhattan luxury unit, $4.8 million, was 30 percent off its high. And that was before the lockdown, which sent the entire market into paralysis. Manhattan sales activity saw its steepest decline in 30 years during the second quarter of 2020 and remained at that level through the summer. This created an opening, though, for a very specific type of New York buyer—the luxury-deal hunter. As usual, the people who have the most money are getting the bargains.
After he finished his video shoot in Soho, Serhant climbed into a chauffeured SUV and was off to his next stop, 565 Broome Street, a new luxury-condo development designed by Renzo Piano. “I just sold the penthouse,” Serhant said, “and apparently I have to check and see if the pool’s been winterized.” He represented the buyer, whom he identified as a “New York finance” person. (Property records indicate the buyer was an entity called Feynman Point LLC, which appears to be associated with the manager of a New York-based hedge fund.) The penthouse next door sold for $36.5 million in 2019 to Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick. This one listed at $30 million before the pandemic. Serhant’s client knocked the price down to $22.5 million.
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