Broker brothers Tal and Oren Alexander set a record last August for the most expensive house sale in Miami-Dade County history with this 30,000-square-foot-residence—developed by their dad—on the exclusive magnate retreat of Indian Creek Island.
It's early on a Tuesday morning in June, and the temperature's rising fast as Tal Alexander struts into the New York City bistro Balthazar dressed in a charcoal linen Armani suit, his white shirt unbuttoned halfway down his chest. Tal removes his sunglasses, stops at several tables to press the flesh, and joins me for a pre-viewing breakfast. "I'm showing some major homes today," the 27-year-old real-estate broker says. "A penthouse. A townhouse. A little over 40 million in property." That's hardly new territory for Tal and his brother and business partner, 26-year-old Oren—last August they sold the most expensive house in the history of their hometown, Miami, to a buyer they "found in Moscow," Tal says. "He initially showed interest in trophy properties in New York. It was only after we went for a weekend of fun in Miami that we were able to present him with the opportunity to purchase 3 Indian Creek." That 30,000-square-foot, 10-bedroom property on a private island in Biscayne Bay was developed by Tal and Oren's father, Shlomi Alexander. The brothers worked both sides of the deal, closing it for 47 million. "You've gotta go out there and take it," Tal explains. "We've been to Russia twice in the last year. We want to go four more times. You have to be in Saint-Tropez in July. Aspen in the winter. Hong Kong for Art Basel, Cannes for the film festival, Monaco for the Grand Prix."
Such globe-trotting tours are increasingly common for upper-echelon brokers, both the cause and the effect of a skyrocketing market for eight-figure properties. "We've uncovered a new pool of buyers," says Horacio LeDón, a development-marketing executive at Douglas Elliman, where Tal and Oren lead a seven-person team, "who will buy what they want, for whatever they want, just as long as it checks all the boxes." That can mean anything from a New York City penthouse with hallways the length of a city block to a Miami Beach condo with Jean-Georges Vongerichten room service to a Hollywood Hills estate with monogrammed gates and a CIA-grade security system. Ultra-luxe amenities run the gamut: exterior lighting conceived by NASA, lobby art that rivals museum collections, even starchitect-designed bidets. Beverly Hills broker Branden Williams, 38, says that he and his peers in the premium-real-estate game are "dealing with more millionaires, more hundred-millionaires, and more billionaires than ever before." And this new global superclass has begotten a new breed of broker cast in its image—alternately aristocratic and audacious, collegial yet cutthroat, and unapologetically status-driven.
Bottom, right: The record-setting mansion on Indian Creek Island, Miami.
"We're talking about guys who are above the economy, beyond care," says Michael Gross, the author of Unreal Estate: Money, Ambition, and the Lust for Land in Los Angeles and the upcoming House of Outrageous Fortune: 15 Central Park West, the World's Most Powerful Address. "Really, these people are riding on the bankbooks of the mega-rich, but that's where the money is. They earn rock-star salaries, look like rock stars, fly private jets, hobnob not necessarily with the greatest but with the richest. High-end real estate is the sexiest thing going. Maybe it's not coke and blow jobs, but it's certainly the finest cars, the best restaurants, and the most beautiful women."
If it sounds like something that attracts a certain type of hard-charger, it does. "You're getting more guys analogous to Hollywood agents," says Clayton Orrigo, a 30-year-old broker at Town in Manhattan, who fits his own description of this new strain—"young, well-dressed, educated, tech-savvy, and good-looking." Just one year into the game, Orrigo has used his deep network of contacts from previous employment stints in finance and tech to land coveted listings like a 28.9 million townhouse adjacent to Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village. "It's hard work," he says, "but it beats the shit out of sitting at a desk." He's hardly the only Wall Street refugee cashing in: Noble Black, a 37-year-old securities attorney turned Corcoran agent, sold a 12,000-square-foot duplex penthouse on upper Fifth Avenue to David Geffen last November for 54 million—the highest price ever paid for a New York co-op. "Corporate America owned the 18 hours a day that I worked," Black says. "I own those hours now, and I couldn't be happier." The latest elite brokers include celebrity spawn like Raphael De Niro (son of Robert), who closed 180 million in sales last year, and also-ran actors such as Williams, who amassed bit parts on TV shows like Party of Five, Will & Grace, and Entourage before turning full-time to real estate. Williams and his partner and fiancée, Rayni Romito, sold nearly 250 million in properties last year, making them the top-grossing team in the Los Angeles area. "Every year," Williams says, "my business explodes."
The market for rarefied properties has soared because supplies are limited and demand is insane. In Manhattan, inventory across the board is at a 12-year low, while sales have risen to their highest levels since the 2008 crash. The action in the loftiest stratum is particularly heated. "It's everybody's dream to have a piece of New York," says Tal Alexander, "and in this market, they'll overpay." That's especially true of moguls, heirs, and newly rich Chinese, Russians, and South Americans. "If you're a Brazilian billionaire, moving money offshore into a Manhattan apartment is a good idea," says Stijn Van Nieuwerburgh, the director of the Center for Real Estate Finance Research at NYU Stern School of Business. "The market hasn't peaked yet. It's a stable currency. And these foreign investors aren't looking for a 5-to-7-percent return on their investment. It's a trophy asset, a luxury good."
Left: Restored 1839 townhouse with three outdoor spaces in New York's Greenwich Village. Listed at $28.9 million.
Bottom, right: Duplex penthouse with 16-foot-high brick ceilings in New York City's NoHo neighborhood. Listed at $23 million.
For those on the outside of this exclusive world looking in, there's always television. As brokers become boldface names in their own right, reality TV has hitched its star to them. Perhaps the biggest—and most outlandish—example is 36-year-old Fredrik Eklund, the perma-tanned Swedish star of Bravo's Million Dollar Listing New York. Eklund, whose on-air persona can be manipulative, bitchy, and cruel (he once doused another broker with a glass of green tea), says he's using the fame game to augment his bottom line: 220 million in sales last year. Mention Eklund's name to other brokers and it becomes clear that he's a polarizing figure. It's either all praise: "Fredrik is one of the few guys who has built a machine," Orrigo says. "He's huge." Or it's an eye roll and a head shake followed by a telling silence that can be read as: I have things to say about that guy, but I can't. That is, they can't afford to. "The only way to make top money is to be in new development," Eklund says. "Not selling one unit but selling all of them." He should know: He's sold out 23 buildings in Manhattan with partner John Gomes and landed exclusive sales and marketing rights for 16 others, including top downtown loft conversions like the Schumacher and 111 Mercer, both of which feature eight-figure penthouses. Eklund's will to real-estate power dovetails nicely with his hunger for the spotlight. "If I get even one call a year to do a building because of the show," he says, "it's a big deal—it's millions."
Even the Alexander brothers are exploring television, albeit in a gray-flannel way that would target the titans of industry, not the housewives of New Jersey. Tal describes their strategy, based on a pitch he recently received from a producer, by invoking the four most boring letters known to man: CNBC. "We'd be on in every office on Wall Street," he says effusively, "every place in finance, all of the hedge funds." The Alexanders see it as a novel form of direct marketing to the excessively moneyed. In the meantime, their social lives—and social-media personae—are anything but buttoned-up. Oren recently Instagrammed a picture of himself posing with the artist Takashi Murakami. In another one, he's standing in a Kiton suit atop the Opus, the most expensive residential development in Hong Kong. Hashtag: TakeOver.
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"There's a lot of ego in this business," says Marcos Cohen, speaking in Portuguese-accented English. "I don't have ego." Instead of jet-setting, screen-testing, and publicly advocating for his own awesomeness, this 48-year-old broker from Rio de Janeiro—who arrived in the U.S. in 1987 and worked as a clerk at an electronics store—attends to his clients in the manner of a white-gloved majordomo whose household happens to be that of the global rich. Impeccably dressed (Gucci blazer, custom buttons), Cohen has the kind of old-world manners that seem elegant to the point of myth. His signature touches include sending flowers arranged by Madonna's florist, celebrating closings at new but refined New York eateries like the NoMad, and writing a monthly newsletter (in Portuguese) that's full of reports on market trends, as well as listings of new art exhibitions and restaurant openings, for his 5,000 most important potential buyers. "It makes them not forget me," Cohen says.
His South American roots also helped: Cohen tapped his growing client base of wealthy Brazilians to become Douglas Elliman's top individual Manhattan broker (out of 4,000) in 2012. True to form, Cohen refuses to reveal his sales haul. "This year is going as well as last year," he says, adding that it could be even better, except "I'm having a big problem with the lack of inventory. It's frustrating."
Left: Midtown Manhattan duplex with 4,100 square feet and 51st-floor views of Central Park. Sold for $14 million.