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REB on the Web

When it comes to real estate, New Yorkers have been known for the past four centuries or so as people who drive a hard bargain and then protect their turf.

One of the earliest results of this tendency was that 17th-century Dutch settlers managed to buy Manhattan from the natives for the rock-bottom price of 60 guilders. A more recent result, in the computer age, has been that anyone hoping to buy, sell, or rent an apartment has had to navigate a dizzying sea of competing websites.

The reason, quite simply, is that individual brokerage firms have developed their own websites – some of them quite elaborate – and they wanted to protect their exclusive listings from interlopers and competitors. Unlike other cities, which feature multiple listings services, in New York real estate protecting one’s turf has always been more important than sharing the wealth.

Now, however, to the relief of many foggy-eyed potential buyers, sellers, and renters, that is changing. On September 27, the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY), a century-old trade association of builders, property owners, managers, attorneys, architects, brokers, and financial institutions, launched a website that marked a new level of cooperation and sharing among the city’s real estate brokers. The website (www.residentialnyc.com) already has nearly 4,000 exclusive co-op and condo listings, mostly in Manhattan and Brooklyn, from 60 brokerage firms. There are additional listings in Queens and the Bronx, as well as more than 600 rental listings. Those numbers are likely to grow as word of the fledgling website gets out.

“This is the next step in what’s been developing in New York,” says Steven Spinola, the 58-year-old Brooklyn native who has been with REBNY for the past two decades and now serves as its president.

Why now? “For years, the process of finding a new home has been unnecessarily complicated and frustrating for [New York City] consumers,” explains Sean Lindstone, director of ResidentialNYC.com for REBNY. “They’ve had to battle brokers and third parties advertising listings that never existed. With ResidentialNYC.com, consumers now have a search engine of bona fide listings, legitimized through brokers that adhere to the highest standards of conduct and ethics.”

“A lot of consumers start looking on the internet,” Spinola adds, “but there are a lot of for-profit websites and individual brokerage firm websites. It’s confusing. But probably the most important thing about this new website is that it’s accurate. There are no bait-and-switch listings. The public sees the listings the brokers see.”

As Spinola puts it, the new website is a revolutionary break with a deeply entrenched way of doing business. “New York brokers have always been reluctant to show their competitors what their exclusive listings were,” he says. “They wanted to keep the commission to themselves. But this website is geared toward helping the consumer, and ultimately it drives the consumer to a broker.”

The free website is billed as the city’s “largest repository of exclusive listings,” and it is powered by Thulia.com, the leading national real estate search engine. Participating members of REBNY’s Residential Listing Service, which was launched in 2003, broker all listings. Anyone navigating ResidentialNYC.com will instantly see that pains have been taken to make it user-friendly and comprehensive.

Most listings include multiple photographs of the property, plus floor plans and broker contacts. The website also offers a profile of each apartment’s surrounding neighborhood, average prices in the neighborhood, amenities such as nearby restaurants and theaters, recent sales, and the nearest public, private, and parochial schools. There are maps, a glossary of real estate terms, even a mortgage calculator. If a property is under contract, that is mentioned. While no sign-in is required, apartment hunters can sign in so that they’ll be notified when new listings are posted that match their search criteria in terms of price, size, location, and whether they’re seeking a co-op, condo, or rental.

“We saw it as an opportunity to cast a wider net and give our clients a better opportunity to sell their properties at the best price,” says Stephen Kliegerman, executive director of development marketing at Halstead Property, a brokerage that enthusiastically posted its listings on the new website. A key advantage of the website, he adds, is that brokers are in control of the information that reaches the public.

There is a potential downside. By sharing their exclusive listings, Halstead and other participating brokerages open themselves up to splitting commissions 50-50 with brokers who discover their listings online and then bring a buyer to the table.

“But, in the end,” Kliegerman says, “we stand to gain by having our sellers represented in every venue possible. As consumers become aware of this website, they’ll realize there’s an advantage to going with a broker who’s casting a wider net.”

There are still some holdouts, including two of the city’s biggest real estate brokerage firms, The Corcoran Group and Prudential Douglas Elliman. The former has adopted a wait-and-see attitude.

“We applaud the effort to create a public portal, as we think it will enhance the exposure of many of REBNY’s members,” says Pam Liebman, president and CEO of Corcoran, in a statement. “At this time, Corcoran has chosen to continue to focus its efforts on our own website. However, we have not excluded the possibility of future participation in the REBNY website.”

Nonetheless, there is no shortage of optimists who believe the new website is an idea whose time has come. One of them is Diane Ramirez, Halstead Property’s Residential Committee co-chairwoman.

“I expect ResidentialNYC to quickly gain traction in our industry,” she said when the site was launched. “While the number of listings is already impressive, I’m confident listings will increase exponentially as more and more member firms see the benefits of being part of ResidentialNYC.”

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