If you ask New York City real estate agent Brian K. Lewis, the people in his industry are like thoroughbred horses: “Right now, we’re not able to run. We are all at the gate at the Kentucky Derby and we are waiting and we’re biting at our bits.” Though movers are considered essential workers in the city that was once the epicenter of the country’s outbreak, shelter-in-place orders and new restrictions on real estate transactions have thrown a wrench in the process of renting and buying property. According to Compass, the brokerage where Lewis works, the market in New York City hit bottom around April 12. However, by the end of that month, the average number of Compass listings going into contract were 24 percent higher than before the shelter-in-place order went into effect, as some residents—now more intimately acquainted than ever with the shortcomings of their current living spaces—sought a change.
In a city where nearly two-thirds of the residents rent, buying property is out of reach for most. For the privileged few who can, doing so safely now presents a logistical hurdle. In some ways, Lewis was ahead of the curve: For the past decades, he has offered what he calls “movie tours”—produced videos that feature Lewis lounging on a couch in his socks or multiple Lewises hanging out with each other in a living room. Unable to get a camera crew into his clients’ properties since shelter-in-place began, he’s had to settle for asking a willing doorman or superintendent to film as he virtually shows guests around. He’s had five closings during the pandemic so far, but they were all contracts that had been signed pre-COVID. Lewis says his main task is keeping buyers interested for when things return to some version of normal. “We’re trying to keep people ready to go so when the gates open and the horses can run again, we can get it done.”
We asked Lewis to send us the properties he’s seeing the most interest in during this strange and unprecedented period—and to explain what each of those properties reveals about how the pandemic is affecting his corner of the marketplace.
One bedroom, one bathroom
Why did you choose this listing? What are the features of this specific place that you think make it particularly appealing to buyers in a pandemic?
A buyer has the ability to explore transforming two adjacent, oversized closets into one bonus space—creating an office, a den, a special nook that will give this home a bit of extra. Not every home offers that flexibility. There is a pool of buyers out there dreaming of having a bit more flexibility in their home space right now. [For this listing, the seller even attached a personal letter emphasizing how easy it is to convert a walk-in closet to an office in a full-time work-from-home scenario, and how great the kitchen is for cooking “three meals a day.”]
Speaking of that “bonus office” shown on the floor plan, are you generally thinking about how to pitch floor plans differently now that many people have been forced to work from home?
We have another place, 50 Riverside Drive, it’s on the market for $4.5 million. It’s a fantastic four-bed, four-bath beauty. It’s beautiful, and it didn’t get its deal done before COVID. But what I said to the stager is, “Let’s create little working environments in each bedroom. Let’s really show that laptop open at a desk. Let’s have a laptop on that kitchen counter, because wherever you see a laptop, you know you can work there.”
Do you worry that photos of the shared gym here might give people the heebie-jeebies right now?
I’m absolutely sure of it. Right now, we are all hyperaware about shared space of any kind, particularly a gym. However, [we decided to keep the photo because] this too will pass—this moment is not forever. Amenities such as this may be having a bad moment given our current situation. But the desire for amenities like this will resume and return.
One of the buildings I was selling in, 250 West 81st Street, I have a celebrity client who closed in it. He closed in an LLC, so I can’t give his name, but he’s a good friend of mine. Before COVID, I was walking the space, and I went down to the amenity floors, which are amazing. Basketball court, recording studio—and this particular celebrity does podcasts, and so that’s going to be so perfect for him. He lives in Los Angeles, but this is his New York pad. It has a great gym and a roof deck. But I noticed in the gym they had Purell everywhere and Lysol wipes and they were trying to keep one person at a time in here. I thought, That’s incredibly smart. The way buildings respond to the safety and security of their residents is definitely something I highlight to customers. I think some of the big glass towers that you see in midtown or Hudson Yards that have been touting these very social environments that feel like WeWorks have got to rethink, because the things that people paid up for may not be priorities right now.
Four bedrooms, four bathrooms
So you’ve seen particular interest in this $15 million place during the pandemic?
Who needs a house in the Hamptons when you have a private, 4,000-foot sky yard with a private pool right here in NYC? It’s a building with only six units in it. They’re huge, approximately 6,000 square feet, and there’s an elevator, but not many people are using it because there are only six homes in the building. It’s a low-rise Flatiron loft. The developer who owns it, he did such a good job. He put a pool. He’s got a grilling station. What people who have means are attracted to there is the fact that you can live a very secluded life, almost like having a house in the Hamptons. If you have to shelter in place or stay at home, you’re really living high there. If this place were in a big glass tower on the 70th floor in a neighborhood with lots of doormen and crowded elevators and a building chock-full of amenities, I wonder if it would get as many eyeballs and interest as it’s gotten. This place is perfect for a socially distanced lifestyle without compromising anything. It gives buyers a chance to stay at home in style.
There was a major price reduction. Are you generally seeing a lot of price reductions because of COVID?
I can tell you the story on that one. We had a buyer. It was in contract. The asking price was $17 million, and before COVID the buyer failed to close. Let’s not forget, when the story’s told, that in New York City we have been slowly coming down in prices since at least 2016. I don’t want anybody to rewrite history and say it was all great and then COVID. In 2017, you were getting $17 million for that loft, and pre-COVID you were not getting that unfortunately, even though I think it’s worth $20 million. But the sellers adjusted the price after this buyer failed to close. The owners, they’re not desperate. They don’t owe on this place, and they’ll wait it out. If the market fails to get them what they want, they will maybe move in themselves, it’s so great. I wish they’d give it to their broker.
In the listing you mention a “private sky yard” and a private elevator entry. Have you been leaning on any specific phrasings as you write listings right now?
I’m sort of the Danielle Steel of real estate. I do enjoy turning a phrase. I was raised in Georgia, Virginia, North Carolina, sort of in the rural suburbs. Coming from that world to New York City was so jarring that I’ve always identified with needing to have an oasis. I don’t care if that’s a studio or a place like this one, you still have the same needs as a human being. You want to shut the door, and you want to decompress. You want to feel safe. You want to feel at peace. There’s a lot more we’re going to require of our homes than just a place to lay our heads and hang out, in case this ever happens again, God forbid.
One bedroom, one bathroom
Why do you think this property is generating special interest right now?
A working fireplace, exposed brick, a private terrace, treetop views, bright and airy exposures, and a supreme location—in a boutique building where one can gracefully socially distance and work from home—are all qualities that stand out for good reasons right now.
This one has a washer-dryer in the middle of the kitchen. Is that a recent addition?
In New York City, a washer-dryer is a Ferrari. It is a supreme luxury asset for New Yorkers and a social distancing dream machine for those lucky enough to have them. I think washer-dryers will forevermore be regarded as the ultimate healthy must-haves for any New Yorker who has lived through this strange stay-at-home moment. This particular home had it already, but co-op boards who currently don’t allow in-home washer-dryers will likely be revisiting their rules around this since this asset will be in higher demand.
I know these listings were staged pre-COVID, but do you plan to start staging spaces differently now?
Real estate is “show me, don’t tell me,” so there’s going to be a lot more of that. Places will also have a little mat out with books, showing a little play space for the kids. I’m going to show how versatile a space can be. We’re not allowed to market demographically to a certain subset and rightfully so. I can’t talk about a perfect home for home-schooling our children because that’s targeting an audience and familial status that is a protected class in New York. It’s not fair to people who can’t have kids. But I can show it and not talk about it. Having a mat with books and dolls and some toys out, a play space in the apartment. Maybe one of the bedrooms we’re going to make into a big office to show [that] whoever does the primary work, he can have that office space.
What kinds of price ranges are you seeing the most movement in right now?
I’m very fortunate that I have listings that range from $799,000 all the way to $19.5 million. I’ve got something coming up in Brooklyn, a whole house, which is going to be the new sexy. You can walk to everything, and you’ve got your backyard. That’s the new sexy because it has autonomy, safety, beauty, history, location, light.
Besides that $14.5 million penthouse, all the listings you chose are one-bedroom, one-baths. Is there a reason for that?
When the market restarts, buyers in studios will reach up to one-bedrooms. Two-bedroom folks are going to be spreading their wings to the three-bedrooms. Cash buyers will feel emboldened by their sexy cash position and will be looking for a good deal. At every price point, buyers will be looking to expand their footprint.
I do think the sub–$1 million homes will be very interesting. Call them the starter homes in New York, because it’s so expensive to live here. I think those are going to be popular because I think that a lot of the workforce, the people out there in that price point, it’s going to be more necessary for them to be in the city. The senior, senior people might be able to do their telecommuting from afar, but the people who can’t leave New York, who need to be here, those are the people who are going to be buying those entry-level homes. They’re going to have opportunities. The same way I look at people who I hear bought in 1989 after the crash of Wall Street, Black Tuesday when everything plunged. You know those stories: “You won’t believe what I paid for this place 20 years ago.” We’re going to be able to say that.