Power Brokers: Inside the Lives (and Homes) of Philly’s Million-Dollar Real Estate Agents
Jules is … betwixt.
A word about Jules: He’s rich. You have to be to get a showing at the Ayer, the 1929 luxury condo building that faces Washington Square, and whose pedigreed residents have included, among others, Chase and Jennifer Utley and Larry Magid. Jules is slender and refined and looks to be in his mid-40s, with an impressive mop of black curly hair and arty black glasses, and he strolls through this unit (asking price: $1.7 million) as if it’s a gallery exhibit and he can’t quite decide whether the paintings are exquisite or vulgar.
The listing agent is Laurie Phillips, the silver-haired doyenne of Rittenhouse Square real estate, who swans around the space like a Price Is Right model, carefully opening kitchen drawers and bedroom closets while extolling the terrace and the view (albeit a sliver of one) of the Square below. Jules wants a place with a lot of natural light, and one that can accommodate his oddly shaped nine-foot-long dining table. In this moment in high-end real estate, one never knows what might be important.
And oh, what a moment we’re having. Televised real estate porn like Million Dollar Listing and Love It or List It feeds both a national obsession with property and a “keeping up with the Joneses” ethos that convinces us everybody can afford a huge spread but us. As the price rout after the Great Recession has finally given way to the Great Rebound, we seem more consumed by the real estate wars than ever.
Nowhere are those wars raging more fiercely than downtown, where last year just four zip codes accounted for 131 of the 174 properties citywide that sold for over a million dollars. In the past five years, the number of million-dollar-plus residences sold in Philly rose more than 150 percent. While the real estate picture continues to be rosy all over the city, it’s the glitzy, ritzy snow globe of Center City that has truly captured the imaginations, and the wallets, of those who waltz through the high-end market. There is a spirited, and sometimes pointed, competition for their deep pockets.
There’s no question about the depth of Jules’s pockets — he practically smells like money — and as he asks some questions about the finishes (pewter or nickel?), his realtor, the ceaselessly peripatetic Mike McCann, looks at his watch; they’ve got five more listings to see. “I don’t often use this word,” Jules says to no one in particular, “but it’s lovely.” A good sign: You want your potential buyer to use a word like that.
Knowing who that potential buyer is can be a key weapon in the luxe real estate market, and in this case, Laurie Phillips went into battle without it. “That was frustrating, because I really couldn’t figure him out or what to suggest for him next,” she tells me later. Phillips had asked McCann for some background on Jules; he refused to give any. McCann confirms this: Jules had “specifically requested confidentiality.” At the end of the day, McCann says, “It’s none of her business who he is and how much he’s worth.” (Oh, snap!)
McCann and Phillips are just two of scores of city realtors slugging it out for buyers and sellers in the rarefied air of million-dollar listings, and their radically divergent approaches prove there’s more than one way to skin a VAT. There are also the people like Noah Ostroff, up-and-comers full of swagger who are out to remake the rules. Between the three of them, this trio represents the bold, the beautiful, and the young and the restless of the real estate world, all duking it out in the city’s frenzied new land grab.
THE QUEEN OF RITTENHOUSE
Laurie Phillips is early. This isn’t surprising, because Laurie Phillips is always early. She thinks it gives her an edge. It’s almost as if she thinks that by being literally one step ahead of everyone else, she will, in fact, be a step ahead of everyone else.
In the world of Center City real estate (“It’s a shark tank,” she comments airily one afternoon), Phillips is the beatific monarch of Rittenhouse. Allan Domb, the “Condo King”-turned-City Councilman, is a formidable presence (“I gave him a big fat check, but I didn’t vote for him,” Phillips says), but it’s she who floats across the Square, commanding respect and, occasionally, six-figure commissions with her regal bearing and pixie-ish mirth. She lives in a tasteful, expansive condo at the Barclay with her husband, an IBM manager, amid a sea of crown moldings and original Nakashima furniture. But perhaps what’s most amazing about her is how quiet she is. One expects realtors to be loud and crass Glengarry Glen Ross types. Phillips comes off more like a hostess at Lacroix, serenely guiding you to your table. I watched her on the phone at lunch one day with a buyer’s agent who insisted — insisted! — that his clients weren’t putting down a nickel more than 10 percent on a deal; speaking barely above a whisper, she got those clients to plunk down 25 percent. She’s known as much for her tough negotiating as for her statement jewelry, which includes a seven-carat diamond ring and a seemingly endless collection of gargantuan necklaces that can make her look like Elizabeth I.
We’re sitting in the lobby of 1706 Rittenhouse, one of several glossy condo buildings to have opened in the past decade. Phillips has sold several units here, including former Phillies ace Cliff Lee’s $6.5 million spread in November. (While her clientele tends to spin on the doctor/lawyer/CEO axis, Phillips has also done brisk business with athletes.) The mission this morning, the one we’re early for, is to (delicately) tell a couple trying to sell their fancy unit for $5.85 million that, basically, the color palette is too bold. As we walk through the den of the unit, done up in a headache-inducing aqua, the husband asks, “You think it’s the colors, or the [ceiling] height?”
“The height is what it is,” Phillips says. “We can’t change that. I think it would be better if it was the same color as the other walls.”
As the wife purses her lips, the husband huffs, “We’ll take it under advisement.”
Phillips throws them a bone — the dining room is fine! — but you can see the couple grow increasingly defensive as we tour. Taking the cue, Phillips halts the critique. Later, I ask if all sellers are so resistant. “We have interesting clients — smart people, interesting people — who are very difficult,” she admits. “When it comes to people’s homes, it’s very, very personal.”
It’s her ability to get personal that has made her such a formidable player in the city’s richest pocket of real estate. Growing up in northern New Jersey, she wanted to be a painter (and still does) but ended up at Plumer Levitt after graduating from Philadelphia College of Art in the mid-1970s. Her unassuming manner helped her broker deal after bigger deal, making her rich (annual jaunts to Amalfi, a Benz with the license plate PWR RLTR) as she mined the Rittenhouse social whirl for leads. Her business model remains simple: She only takes on a few clients at any given time; she personally shows every residence; she almost never takes a listing under a million bucks. Her staff is comprised of three people: herself; her comely and omnipresent assistant, Madison Alig; and a part-time file clerk. “We don’t want to do a high-volume business,” Phillips says, “dealing with tons of people and driving 15 buyers around in the same week and showing them oodles of properties.” She shrugs. “And now, as I’m turning 60, it’s also a matter of who I want to spend my day with.”
The recession of 2008 “was very bad — really bad. In retrospect, I just should have shut my doors and gone on vacation for a few years.” Now, fueled by Main Line empty nesters and New Yorkers fleeing stratospheric prices in Manhattan, Rittenhouse is back. Phillips says she worried about whether escalating prices would stick at places like 1706 Rittenhouse, which was built in 2009 and where she now has a few units up for resale. “When the first person called me to tell me she wanted to sell for $7 million, I was worried. I personally didn’t know if it was achievable.” (It was. The unit sold overnight. For more than the asking price.)
Still, Phillips says she constantly has to wrestle with sellers who now think their condos are worth twice what they paid only a few years ago. “I will let a listing go if I don’t think it will fetch that price,” she says one day over lunch at the Saloon. “I’m not willing to risk my reputation.”
Which is what? I ask. She delivers her patented look of benign amusement, the seraphic face that’s launched a thousand sales. She takes a gentle sip of water. “Success,” she says.
THE REAL ESTATE MAN
“I walk fast,” Mike McCann warns me. He’s not kidding. Barreling through his offices inside the Penn Mutual Building opposite Independence Hall (“Department of Awesome,” a sign on one wall reads), he settles into a meeting with one of the new young realtors he’s mentoring (he has 14 agents), then bolts off to a marketing meeting. And then out the door we go, to a brokers’ open house in Society Hill, where he’ll personally lay out the tomato pie from Iannelli’s and lead a Facebook Live tour of a four-bed, three-and-a-half bath townhouse on the market for $1.5 million. Right before we step inside (amazing space, horrific 1980s decor), McCann pops open a tin of mints, proffers them to me. “I’m known for Altoids and espresso,” he says. “They’re my two regulars.”
If you’ve been anywhere near Center City in the past 20 years, you’ve seen Mike McCann’s purple signs imploring you to call “Mike McCann, the Real Estate Man.” The catchphrase has become so ubiquitous that most people don’t refer to him without saying the whole thing. “I was so compulsive and obsessive from the get-go, people started to call me that,” McCann says. “But I don’t know who came up with it.”
McCann is an outlier in the luxury market. At 56, he has the look and bearing of an ex-military working-class Joe, right down to the suits that don’t seem to fit him quite right. Raised in the Northeast, he’s a former door-to-door vacuum salesman and hotel room-service waiter, a La Salle dropout with perhaps the second-worst Philly accent after Sister Mary Scullion. “People are shocked when they meet me,” he admits, “because they think I am going to be this pompous idiot. And instead I’m like, ‘Hey, how ya doin’?’ I’m a Philly dude.” (Well, Delco. His wife’s call; she wanted the schools.)
He’s also a dude who happens to own more than 60 rental units in the city and drives a new midnight blue Range Rover. Last year, the McCann team at Berkshire-Hathaway (also Laurie Phillips’s agency) closed almost 800 sales in Philly, representing more than $263 million in real estate. “Philly is booming,” he tells me, sitting in a house on the corner of 2nd and Spruce that he currently has on the market for $2 million. “People think the whole country is booming. It’s not. It’s downtown Philadelphia.”
A stark contrast to Phillips’s calm and orderly kingdom, McCann’s business model is fueled by his own particular brand of frenetic adrenaline, which allows him to respond to 400 emails a day, manage his team and his six (six!) personal assistants, and still personally show one in five of his own listings, which average around 60 and can climb to 150 at any given time. Stephen Starr, Will Smith and Vice President Biden’s daughter Ashley have all bought his listings. (He also sold ex-Phillie Pat Burrell’s penthouse. “If that place could only talk,” he says.) I ask why he’s still running around town like a lunatic every day when he has all of these people to make money for him. “I’m not really a business owner,” he says. “I love what I do, and being with people. And I’m the rainmaker. If I wanted to run a business, I would not have my own team. I would have my own company.”
He’s parsing. But then again, parsing is what happens in real estate, where assuaging a seller or calming a buyer depends on how deftly words are used. “The luxury market, you have to be patient and persistent,” he says of million-dollar-plus clients. “A first-time buyer, you can get them to emotionally move all kinds of ways. But if you work a luxury buyer, they buy at their own pace, when it works for them, when they see what they want. It can be a couple months or a couple years.”
Back at the brokers’ open, more than two dozen agents filter in and out, taking in the sea of brass finishes, magenta-tinted marble and, in the case of one bathroom, neon lighting that looks inspired by Miami Vice. McCann asks one openly befuddled realtor what she thinks.
“It’s … interesting.”
“Well, that’s one word,” he says.
“Do you really want two?”
Selling at the high end isn’t always a cakewalk, and McCann’s portfolio spans a wide range of price points and clients. His inventory starts as low as $85,000 — a price that wouldn’t warrant a sniff from Laurie Phillips. He has also crafted a lucrative business working with developers to buy old places, rehab them, and flip them. He attributes the heat in the market to several factors: empty nesters and New York expats (both also a backbone of Phillips’s business); meds and eds; the growth of business at the Navy Yard, which has helped skyrocket South Philly prices (they jumped 7.4 percent in the first quarter of 2016, the biggest increase in the entire city); and suburban-bred millennials looking to buy their first houses in the bike-friendly, hip confines of town.
“We’ve become a young city,” McCann says. “We were an old city. Remember when we were growing up? ‘Filthydelphia.’ That’s what we called it. It was a grumpy, blue-collar, old city. Now,” he says, with the look of a little boy who’s just charged downstairs on Christmas morning, “it’s everything.”
Bart Blatstein is hanging up some clothes in the backseat of his car when he spies Noah Ostroff walking down Walnut Street. “Noeeeeeeee!” he yells, delivering an appropriately bro-ey handshake. “Looking good there, my man.”
Blatstein is, of course, a real estate rock star: Like Ori Feibush, who has redeveloped a good chunk of Point Breeze, and Eric Blumenfeld, the man reviving the Divine Lorraine Hotel on North Broad, he has a reputation as a maverick rewriting the rules of urban development. With his expensive suit, caramel skin and toothy white smile, he talks with Ostroff about what big swinging dicks in real estate talk about — prices, new projects, the house that Blatstein is rehabbing on Rittenhouse Square “that is just driving me fucking nuts.” He’s precisely the kind of ballsy player Noah Ostroff aspires to be.
Ostroff has big blue eyes, short sandy blond hair, and the square jaw of an athlete. (He was a jock at Cheltenham High.) He’s wearing a zoot-suit blazer he had made in Vietnam (the whole suit cost him $50), jeans, supple loafers and mirrored sunglasses; the effect is Vince Vaughn in Swingers. On the surface, he seems like your quintessential Philly guy: went to Penn State, married his college sweetheart, had three kids, worked in Florida for a few years, moved back — but unlike your cousin Tony, he now lives in a townhouse in Rittenhouse. He’s steroidally convivial and boisterous, the guy who’s always ordering extra apps for the table at group dinners out.
At just 35 years old, Ostroff is the CEO of Global Living, a Keller Williams affiliate that contains 14 “teams” of agents divided by market: Center City, Bryn Mawr, Devon/Wayne, Blue Bell, Media. There’s an outpost in Wilmington, three in Miami, a just-opened office in England. To say that Ostroff is ambitious is a bit like saying the Sixers were kind of win-challenged this past season. His team sold 30 properties priced at a million-plus last year, and he thinks they’ll do at least that this year. By 2026, he wants to have 700 teams, in 700 locations, selling 35,000 houses a year. In other words, Noah Ostroff wants to be the king of the world.
“I’m not competing, I’m creating,” he says over lunch one day at Parc. He’s really big on trope-y, Tony Robbins-worthy axioms, whether he’s talking about new agents (“We provide the road map on how to be successful”) or his own humble beginnings in the trade (“Failure was never an option”). He lives by organizational charts and slick market reports, the former meant to show the breadth of his growing empire, the latter that he has his finger squarely on the pulse of the churning Philadelphia market. “A lot of people overcomplicate things,” he says. “They’re thinking, ‘How do I sell more houses?’ I’m thinking, ‘How do I grow a bigger business?’”
Ostroff’s reputation as a sort of bull in the real estate china shop leaves him amused, though he does admit he’s calmed down a bit since he first stormed onto the scene when he was 27, in 2008. “I don’t push people around. At least, not anymore,” he says. “I used to think puffing your chest out and saying why you’re better than somebody else, yelling at them and belittling them, would allow me the upper hand in negotiations. That was totally the wrong way to do it. I stopped that years ago. And I have tried to make amends to the people I did it to. I look at things differently now.”
The drive that makes him appear perennially over-caffeinated goes back to the beginning of his career post-college, when he worked as a project manager for Toll Brothers and then went into the trucking business with his father. Whispers persist among the city’s real estate intelligentsia that the only reason Noah Ostroff has become Noah Ostroff is because his father bankrolled him and his mother is a Toll. He’s a tad defensive about this, saying his dad never staked him and his mother is in no way related to the famous developers. The one rumor about him he confirms is that he’s now concentrating on new-construction projects: “I’m just thinking differently than everybody else.”
Everybody else isn’t always enamored of the Ostroff peacock strut. When I relay this gem of a quote from him — “For years I controlled the high-end luxury development market, because no one else was doing it” — to Mike McCann, McCann zips me back this apoplectic reply: “No one controls the high-end luxury market!”
Ostroff cites many of the same factors McCann and Phillips do for why the market here is so strong, adding items like the tax abatement program and the tech boomlet. But he warns of an emerging slowdown (“It’s coming, it’s definitely coming”) and says that if the city can’t do something about the wage tax, the transfer tax and its abysmal schools, the heat currently enveloping the downtown market will quickly cool off. “It’s weird, it’s difficult, it’s great, it’s bad,” he says of the Philly property scene today. “It’s all of those things.”
At the end of the day, it’s also a competition: for listings, for buyers, for market share, for attention. When I asked each of the trio about their business dealings together, McCann and Ostroff sang the other two’s praises. (“Laurie is a pretty unique bird, because she’s all business,” McCann said of Phillips; “It’s always great doing a deal with Mike and his team,” Ostroff crowed of McCann.) As one might expect, Phillips was a tad more circumspect: “Mike, Noah and I barely cross paths. My business is very different than theirs.” (Oh, snap!)
Two weeks after the showing at the Ayer, the unit went under contract. Jules wasn’t the buyer.
Published as “Power Brokers” in the July issue of Philadelphia magazine.