April 13, 2008
By JOSH BARBANEL
REPORTS of a decline of the Manhattan real estate market may have been premature.
Since the release of first-quarter sales results on April Fool’s Day, brokers have been ruminating on the extent of a slowdown in the property market. One report prepared for Prudential Douglas Elliman by Jonathan J. Miller, an appraiser, showed a 34 percent drop in quarterly sales, compared with the corresponding period in 2007, the steepest decline in sales in memory.
This finding, however, was called into question by higher sales figures recorded by other brokerage firms. And even one of Elliman’s top-selling brokers, Dolly Lenz, said in an e-mail message to fellow brokers, “Something is very wrong somewhere and I need a plausible response, as will we all.”
In a later e-mail message to a reporter, she said that despite some stress “here and there due to overbuilding,” the “market is really quite good over all.”
Last Wednesday, Gregory Heym, the chief economist for Halstead Property and Brown Harris Stevens, sent an e-mail message of his own to brokers at those firms. He said that while each company’s sales figures were only estimates, the Douglas Elliman report was incorrect and “missing almost 600 sales, which were available for anyone to view” in the city’s online records.
Mr. Miller, the president of Miller Samuel Inc., said he used the same methodology that he has been using for 14 years, based on a variety of public and proprietary sources, and that differences in firms’ reports could be caused by the timing of data collection. “I stand by my numbers and the methodology used to compile them,” he said.
Because there is often a lag of several weeks in reports of property closings, each firm tries to capture closings filed in public records up to a few days before the end of the quarter, as well as additional reports of closings from managing agents and other sources.
But a review of closing documents filed by last Wednesday, nine days after the end of the quarter, showed that the number of sales was roughly flat compared with the same quarter a year ago. They fell, but by less than 1 percent, or a decline of 11 sales out of nearly 3,500 sales reported in April 2007.
Last spring, the number of closings rose to record levels, but with contract signings lagging lately and uncertainty on Wall Street, few brokers are predicting a similar surge this spring. Yet who would have thought that Manhattan apartment prices would hit record highs in the first quarter, while prices fell across the country?