Stephen G. Kliegerman
President of Development Marketing
Photo Illustration by Tony Cenicola/The New York Times and Robert Caplin for The New York Times
By Samantha Storey
KNOWING what your neighbor paid for his apartment is a juicy morsel of gossip, and in New York, gossiping about real estate is an obsession. It is so captivating that an entire niche of blogs was created to cover it.
In the past four years, sites like Curbed.com, Brownstoner.com, UrbanDigs.com, TrueGotham.com and The Matrix have been scrutinizing the housing boom with pithy observation and, in some cases, snide commentary.
For readers, it was fun to pillory the design flaws of new offerings and to read about how one broker had trashed another in an overheard conversation in an elevator.
But with the recession in full swing and the housing market waning, what will these blogs write about now? It’s not entertaining to skewer a market where property values are falling and scores of people are losing their homes to foreclosure.
The guiding lights behind these blogs say that they are evolving, becoming more serious and focusing on the nuts-and-bolts details of the market. True Gotham, for instance, is writing about how long transactions are taking. Others are becoming more general sites for neighborhood news. Curbed’s tip line once passed on information from a reader who said that there was a truck in the neighborhood giving out free meat.
For some blogs, the real estate slowdown has led to a leveling off in readership. But all of the bloggers say they are confident their services are not only in demand, but will be increasingly valuable as the market gets trickier.
The reader community that formed as a result of these blogs is a fundamental part of their success. “These sites are fulfilling the needs of people to connect with each other and stay on top of the ever-changing market,” said Sarah Rotman Epps, a media analyst for Forrester Research. “Real estate is a topic ripe for discussion — it is competitive, emotionally charged and fast changing.”
Nevertheless, the blogs’ founders worry about declines in page views and advertising, and like the owners of other forms of media, they are trying to find strategies to deal with the recession.
Jonathan Butler, the founder and owner of Brownstoner, said he laid off his sole employee in December and had gone back to writing the entire site himself. Profits have not gone down, he said, but he fears that with the economic downturn, they might. “It is somewhat pre-emptive,” he said. “But I’d rather be safe than sorry — I have two kids.”
Curbed, the most popular of the New York City real estate blogs, with two million page views a month, has not had an increase in page views since September.
Traffic on Curbed has been flat,” said Lockhart Steele, the president of the Curbed.com media company, speaking from a coffee shop in the East Village. “I think we are seeing a little of the ‘401(k) syndrome,’ ” Mr. Steele said, referring to people who are ignoring recent financial statements because they know they will present bad news. “There are probably people who are thinking, ‘I am not going to look at that for a few months.’”
Although not radically so, the blogs are also becoming more tasteful. Curbed has a feature called Price Chopper that before the downturn was illustrated with a bloody ax. Now that some sellers are taking a bath, the ax has been axed.
In the spring of 2004, when Mr. Steele started Curbed.com, many of his posts picked up information about new buildings and commercial real estate from other publications, with links to their articles at the bottom. But as the site grew in popularity, Mr. Steele started to receive news tips from his readers and posted those.
“The thing that happened is the readers took over,” said Mr. Steele, 35. “I think what makes the site vital is the fact that we cannot be everywhere, but readers are everywhere, and people love to participate.”
Mr. Steele said reader involvement had not declined even with the faltering market. He continues to get tips from readers; these are followed up by two full-time editors.
Mr. Butler, who used to work in marketing for a hedge fund, is also optimistic about the future of Brownstoner and other blogs. “I think real estate is the topic in New York,” said Mr. Butler, 39, speaking from an architecture firm in the Dumbo neighborhood of Brooklyn where he rents cubicle space. “You have plenty of people who couldn’t tell you what the S.&P. 500 is, but they can talk about real estate values.”
Brownstoner, which gets 1.2 million page views a month, was started in 2004. Initially, Mr. Butler wrote about brownstone homes on the market in Brooklyn, and linked to resources about renovating them. This was mainly because he was renovating a brownstone that he had bought six months earlier.
The posts were so well received that he started a forum specifically to discuss renovation of historic homes.
These days Brownstoner has around 15 to 20 posts a day, covering community news, market analysis and new developments. But Mr. Butler still links to listings for interesting Brooklyn properties, and sometimes follows the entire selling cycle, from when a home is listed, through price cuts and the contract, to when the deed is transferred, giving the reader a sort of real-time play by play.
Despite a shaky housing market, advertisers say that Curbed and Brownstoner are vital ways to find buyers.
“You will see us moving toward more Web-based, cost-efficient advertising,” said Stephen Kliegerman, the executive director of development marketing for Halstead Property, a Manhattan brokerage firm that advertises on Curbed and Brownstoner.
“Blogs, in particular, have buyers and sellers who are sharing their stories,” he said. “As more people come to their sites to read about the market, we feel like we will reach more potential buyers than ever before.”
Halstead started placing banner advertisements on both sites about nine months ago. “We have backed off on the number of print ads we are doing,” Mr. Kliegerman said, adding that Halstead would continue advertising on blogs at the same level this year.
Although some people go to the blogs only when they are hoping to buy, sell or rent, for others they become a habit.
Louis Rosenfeld, who lives in Park Slope, started visiting Brownstoner last summer when he was looking for an apartment. He closed on a co-op in the fall, but is still reading the site.
“I find it interesting to use as a lens for what’s going on in the borough,” said Mr. Rosenfeld, a book publisher.
He said he liked the site’s broad approach. “I can find out what is happening with the Atlantic Yards and in neighborhoods like Ditmas Park and Flatbush.” He also said it was difficult to find news about these smaller neighborhoods in mainstream media.
Some see the chance to comment as a way to promote their neighborhoods. On Brownstoner, one commenter used the log-in name Crown Heights Proud.
“I would talk about the good things about Crown Heights and Bed-Stuy,” she said. “I liked to talk about the positive aspects of living in the community, the years of middle-class black people who raised their families there and were not afraid to go out on the streets. There is a history.” Crown Heights Proud, who did not give her real name because she wants to protect her privacy, now posts as Montrose Morris.
While Curbed and Brownstoner are run by real estate entrepreneurs who derive income from the blogs, several are put out by people who have day jobs in the real estate business.
They are less interested in gossip and more oriented to exposing the wizard behind the curtain. Jonathan Miller, the president of Miller Samuel, a Manhattan research and appraisal company, said that the blog genre had given the industry a great deal of transparency.
With so much property information available online, “most people do an extensive amount of research before they even call an agent,” he said. “The blogosphere has brought an in-your-face approach to housing, and as a result, the agent’s role has changed from information provider to adviser.”
He writes a blog called The Matrix (matrix.millersamuel.com), which has the tag line “Interpreting the Real Estate Economy.” He said his goal was to filter “a lot of the spin consumers are given.” He may write about what a change in federal policy could mean to housing demand, for instance.
“I learn a tremendous amount by researching topics, which makes me a better appraiser,” he said. “This is purely a selfish endeavor because it’s like doing homework you like to do.”
He doesn’t think interest in blogs will wane. “I think the influence of real estate blogs will continue to grow in this downturn,” Mr. Miller said. “I think they will become more and more mainstream. If you are a passionate real estate follower, people are craving quality and relevance, and these blogs are very fun to read.”
Mr. Miller’s blog receives around 60,000 page views a month, which is double what it got a year ago, he said. “I have no way of correlating it to the financial crisis,” he said, “but it might be because of a thirst for information.”
Douglas Heddings, a senior vice president of Prudential Douglas Elliman, started his blog, TrueGotham.com, in 2006, to burnish the image of real estate agents.
“I really wanted to fight the used-car-salesman stigma that real estate brokers have,” said Mr. Heddings, who has been a broker since 1992. “I was so sick of going into a relationship with a potential customer and having them be defensive the moment they met me because of the bad reputation of agents.”
He started to write about the day-to-day intricacies of brokers’ jobs and the things they should be doing for the buyers and sellers they represent. Initial posts had titles like “A Broker’s View of Unscrupulous Real Estate Brokers” and “Things You Can Overhear in a Real Estate Office.”
But being forthcoming backfired, he said. “At the beginning I took a self-righteous tone,” he said. “Airing the dirty laundry of an industry that already struggles with its reputation is not the most effective way to change its perception.”
Mr. Heddings said that his blog had replaced more conventional forms of marketing, like sending postcards, and that as a result, most of his clients had found him through reading it.
One of them was Naomi Novik, a fantasy fiction writer. She got the idea to search real estate broker blogs from thesavilerowtailor.co.uk, a blog run by a British tailor. Since she had come to know the tailor through his blog, she thought she could get to know brokers through their blogs, too. That’s how she found Mr. Heddings.
“New York City real estate has a terrible and well-deserved reputation for being a nightmare,” she said, “and Doug’s blog was endlessly valuable because he seemed like someone who was articulate and trustworthy. I live a good portion of my life online, in a way, and have always found people and services that way.”
Noah Rosenblatt, a vice president of Halstead Property, writes UrbanDigs, which started in 2005. From the outset he has tracked macroeconomic indicators like unemployment rates and stock-market strength to gauge the housing market.
On the blog, “people can learn about me and how I view the markets,” said Mr. Rosenblatt, who worked as a trader before becoming a broker in 2004. “I tell it like it is, real time, ahead of the curve, as opposed to lagging quarterly reports that get spun by brokers.”
As a result, he said, he has attracted a readership that over time has come to know him and to trust his opinion of the market. “It takes a lot of time to build something from nothing,” he said. “You can’t just launch a blog and get 5,000 visitors a day.”
Now, all of his clients are people who have found him online.
Propertygrunt.blogspot.com, named in part for Grunt, a soldier in the G.I. Joe comic book series, is run anonymously by someone in the real estate industry. In an exchange of e-mail messages, he said he had no plans to change the tune or the tone of his four-year-old blog, which gives his perspective of the real estate market as a whole.
A recent entry, he said, “was about how brokers kept using the word ‘confidence’ after the dismal fourth-quarter market reports.” He lampooned brokers’ use of the word, and wrote seven sizzling paragraphs in boldface capital letters to get his point across.
But whether gung-ho or down at the mouth, New Yorkers, so far, seem to have an insatiable appetite for real estate news.
“It just is, and maybe it always has been, the great New York obsession,” Mr. Steele said. “Maybe it’s because Manhattan is an island, and from Minute 1 there has always been a fixed amount of space.
“Jeez, I don’t know,” he said. “Real estate just makes people crazy.”
Sunday, January 25, 2009