How to Start a Real Estate Agency from Scratch

A small Brooklyn brokerage, Niche, is a new generation of mom-and-pop shop, challenging industry giants

Kris and Zen Avery, center and right, with Mike Sullivan, who they represented in a deal to buy a condo on Bayard Street in Williamsburg (Photo courtesy of Niche Real Estate & Marketing)

The story of real estate sales in Brooklyn lately has been about big Manhattan firms storming the borough and recruiting hundreds of agents. This is the opposite story, about a young couple who bailed out of corporate life and created a new generation of mom-and-pop shop.

This summer Zenon and Kristine Avery launched their Carroll Gardens-based firm, Niche Real Estate & Marketing, with the aim of providing more personalized service than the giant agencies. “We noticed there is a gap in the marketplace,” said Kris. But getting started in the shadow of those firms, as well as long-established neighborhood agencies, is fraught with challenges including a lack of major capital and little public awareness of the new brand at first.

Kris and Zen decided, however, that they had several things going for them: industry expertise, complementary skills, and the moment in their lives when sticking around the neighborhood is a plus. (Their first child was born a year ago.) “We wanted to have more flexibility with our schedules and more autonomy over the projects we work on,” says Kris. “Also, we wanted to work together more, since we really balance each other as a team.”

The couple met three years ago, when they were working on the same real-estate development project. Kris, who studied business at Marymount College, had worked at real-estate companies like Brooklyn’s Steiner NYC. Zen, who has a degree in political science from Temple University, comes from a family of real-estate professionals and worked at firms including the luxury-property agency Town Residential. What they discovered about each other was a mutual, nerdy passion for their business. “We love it. We’re always talking about real estate,” says Kris.

The interior of the condo that Niche Real Estate helped a client buy this summer

After launching their business in May, they made their first deal in August, representing the buyer of a condo in Williamsburg. They recently landed a couple of property-management deals and are helping an overseas client look for a Brooklyn property to buy. As business prospects have multiplied, they’ve added three associates to the team.

What are their guiding principles as they navigate the tricky journey of being a tiny startup in a big business? The couple shared a few keys:

Know Your Niche: That’s where the company name comes from. “People want more face time together and we can offer that type of time and service,” says Kris. “Our first client left a big company to come work with us, as he felt neglected by his agent. Also, developers want to feel like you are working in-house and helping them build their own tools to run properties themselves, not just as a consultant. Since we only work with a handful of buyers and developers at one time, we can go above and beyond to really spend time and offer quality services.”

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Keep It Personal: The Averys make a virtue out of being a mom-and-pop shop with its own flavor. “We design things ourselves,” says Kris. One such project was the direct mailing of brochures to the Carroll Gardens community. They stuffed and addressed all the envelopes themselves. In launching their social-media presence, they’re mixing photos of real estate with family photos of the couple with their son, also named Zen.

Give Back to the Community: One aspect of Niche that sets it apart is that the firm donates 10% of the net profit from deals to a charity of the client’s choice. “We want to help people buy homes while building the community,” Kris says. The first charitable donation was to God’s Love We Deliver NYC, a non-profit dedicated to nourishing people too sick to shop or cook. Both Zen and Kris have been volunteers for various causes, so this aspect of the business comes across as genuine.

Manage Your Money Well: “As with most startups, you’re working with little capital to get started and need to be careful on how you spend marketing money,” says Kris. “As a business owner, you always worry about the start-up costs, but we have designed our business so that it’s versatile. Property-management services are retainer-based, so it’s steady income, whereas our real-estate deals offer more revenue but they’re not every month. We manage this carefully as we build our business.”

Arden Phillips is a New York-based writer and a graduate of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, where she received a degree in Television, Radio, and Film.