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The Craft of Real Estate During Covid and Beyond

Dec 1, 2021


contributor

Bess Freedman is CEO of Brown Harris Stevens. She is not only a real estate leader, but also a champion of social change, philanthropy, and building a culture-first brokerage for agents, staff, and clients.



New York City is a metropolis defined by its real estate. After all, the city was built by some of the greatest architects in history, and the skyline continues to evolve with some of the tallest buildings on earth. Real estate is a constant topic of conversation at parties, among politicians, and in the headlines—the prices, the neighborhoods, who’s selling and who’s buying. Because real estate plays such a pivotal role in New York City life, I feel incredibly fortunate to be CEO of real estate company Brown Harris Stevens. Founded in 1873, it’s the oldest continuously operating brokerage in the City, and one of the largest privately-owned real estate services companies in the nation. In fact, of the large brokerages in NYC, we are the last legacy privately-held brokerage left—or as I like to say, we are the last woman standing! 

Two years ago, Covid-19 changed everything. Discussions of real estate quickly morphed into talks about how to survive during a pandemic. There was so much fear and so many unknowns. In New York City, real estate agents were forced to stop showing properties and deal volume dropped by 30%. We had to send our employees home to work remotely—and no one knew when we’d be back. In the middle of all of this, I came down with Covid and lost my sense of taste and smell. My symptoms and recovery were slight compared to so many others. I was lucky. There are people I know both in and out of my company who did not survive the disease. 

As the economy struggled, Brown Harris Stevens merged with Halstead, another real estate giant owned by our parent company, Terra Holdings. The decision to join forces was a long time coming, but the pandemic definitely served as a catalyst and got us to move quickly. Through the restructuring, Brown Harris Stevens more than doubled in size, bringing the company to nearly 3,000 agents across 53 offices in New York, the Hamptons, Hudson Valley, Connecticut, New Jersey, Miami, and Palm Beach. While other companies were forced to scale back or close, we grew. 

At the height of the pandemic, many people chose to leave urban centers for the suburbs and more rural destinations. The second home market boomed as more people started working remotely. The narrative that New York City was dead began to permeate the media—but I was never worried. NYC is the most resilient place on Earth; we survived the September 11th attacks, the Lehman crash, and the mortgage bubble. New York is not a shrinking violet: she’s the comeback queen! 

Speaking of comebacks, when vaccines became available, business bounced right back, too. 2021 has, so far, been the best year in the history of Brown Harris Stevens. All our markets have seen unprecedented numbers—including NYC. The rental market rebounded, sales are exceeding pre-pandemic levels and the luxury market is on fire. The Big Apple is back. Of course,I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that there are still challenges ahead for NYC: safety, homelessness, coming back to offices, and anti-business rhetoric that drives business owners and developers to live elsewhere. The ripple of hope is our mayor-elect Eric Adams will use his unified moral vision, will, and strength to solve many of these issues.  

Through all of the ups and downs of the last two years, I have never been prouder to be at the helm of a company like Brown Harris Stevens. We are privately owned, which means we are beholden only to our agents. Our goal is their success. We have a singular focus: How can we help you? We don’t answer to investor boards, we don’t grow to satisfy the narrative of scale. During the very toughest of times, we were there for each other and now, during this busy time,  we celebrate each other. The customized service we offer is truly a craft: it takes skill, patience, finesse, and knowledge to be a really great agent. In fact, this mindset inspired our latest marketing campaign, Mastery of the Craft, which showcases how vital agents are to the overall buying, selling, and renting process. We are not a large, corporate entity. We don’t offer a cookie-cutter experience and we are fiercely proud of that. 

Real estate is the pulse of NYC, and Brown Harris Stevens has been an integral part of that history for nearly 150 years. In true New York fashion, I’m excited to see what’s next.

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