Confessions of real estate junkies

Some agents say it's hard not to get that `falling-in-love feeling'


NEW YORK - Some people in the real estate business never know, when they get up in the morning, whether the uncontrollable urge to buy an apartment will strike during the course of the workday.

"Sometimes when I walk into a place for business, the hair on the back of my neck stands up," said Diane M. Ramirez, the president of Halstead Property. "I can see the finished product, the pearl, and I feel the creative juice of knowing what it could be if I just got my hands on it."

Dolly Lenz, a broker who is executive vice president and managing director of Prudential Douglas Elliman Real Estate, often has the same reaction to properties she is scouting. The yen hit most recently when she sold Andrew Lloyd Webber's apartment in Trump Tower. "I was incredibly tempted to buy it myself but decided that was inappropriate," she said.

Lenz, who has moved 35 times in 29 years, may well be outdone in the pace of her purchases by Michael Shvo, president of the Shvo Group.

"I cannot count the number of apartments I have bought," he said. "It could be as many as 30 or 40 over three years. I buy an apartment in every new development I handle, and it is very easy to become addicted. I am a real estate junkie."

Real estate executives, brokers, sales agents and marketers are constantly subject to temptation. "It is literally like loving chocolate and being locked into a chocolate factory," said Leonard Steinberg, a senior vice president at Douglas Elliman.

Amanda Brainerd, a broker with Warburg Realty Partnership, used a more romantic analogy. "I have seen many wonderful apartments, and every once in a while my heart starts pounding and I get that falling-in-love feeling," she said. "If I had a larger budget, I would be in big trouble."

Still, whatever the budget, real estate professionals are restricted by ethical constraints that curtail the ways they can jump into the market, and conflicts of interest can arise if they become personally interested in buying properties.

Though there is nothing specific written into state law that governs the licensing of real estate agents, "under common law, the broker has the responsibility to tell the seller the maximum they can get for the property," said Peter Constantakes, a spokesman for the New York Department of State. "Trying to get it at a lower price for themselves is a breach of fiduciary duty, so they would be liable for damages from the seller and the loss of license."

There are also proscriptions against entering bidding wars against clients seeking to buy. That does not mean brokers cannot buy for themselves. After all, they must live somewhere and have the right to buy and sell - so long as their actions do not conflict with the interests of the sellers or buyers they represent.

But, as Adrienne Albert, president of the Marketing Directors, which specializes in marketing new construction, put it: "If you're telling someone how to price a product, you should be telling them how to do it for their own good, not so you can jump in and grab a hot deal. By law, the broker must put the interest of the client first."

Agents are not supposed to compete with clients. "I can't say I want an apartment more than a client does; that would be an extreme breach of ethics," said Patricia Warburg Cliff, a senior vice president at the Corcoran Group.

That was not a problem for Steinberg when he and Herve Senequier, his companion and business partner who is also a vice president at Douglas Elliman, signed a contract for a loft in Chelsea last month. "It came through our listing system, but we didn't show it to any clients," said Steinberg, who used to move at least once a year. The listing was placed by the sponsor, and not by any real estate firm. "I ran to see it at night in the pitch dark and liked what I could see in the dark," he said. "I put in an offering at full price and got it."

Some people in the business act on impulse far more readily than others.

Lenz, for example, gets restless after she has been in a home for more than a few months.

About six months ago, she moved into a condo on the 61st floor of the Park Imperial, at Broadway and 56th Street. "Now I am looking to buy again," she said. "I have moved 35 times in 29 years because there is always a better or more interesting neighborhood I want to try, a better view, higher ceilings or it's closer to school or work - whenever there is something that psychologically interests me," she said. "That's why I went into the business to begin with. I do such a good job with selling clients that I sell myself."

If she takes the plunge this time, it will probably be for a townhouse, and her children, Jennifer, 15, and Joseph, 16, have been on the lookout for her. "They are very precocious," she said. "They know more about the market than I do. My son just called about the status of a house he knows about, asking have I gone to see it yet. They like moving; they get to decorate new rooms."

Her husband, Aaron Lenz, a CPA, takes a bit more convincing. "He's a homebody and nester; we are gypsies who like the thrill of the hunt," she said.

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