Million Dollar Charade? Behind a Reality TV Show in BrooklynThe facts about how broker Ryan Serhant took over sales of the 550 Vanderbilt luxury condo suggest the liberties taken to create a good tale
“Getting this project would change my life! I will go from Ryan Serhant, who sells listings, to Ryan Serhant, who sells neighborhoods, who does billions of dollars in sales!”
Quite a cliffhanger. Who wouldn’t stay tuned to see if our hero real-estate broker gets the big assignment? That was the dramatic setup for a recent episode of Million Dollar Listing New York, the reality TV show tracking three ambitious brokers, including Serhant, the dashing former actor who runs a high-profile team for Nest Seekers International. In Season 7, Episode 10, titled “Billion Dollar Listing,” the Manhattan-based broker is making a big foray into Brooklyn.
The show’s narrative suggests that Serhant made a Hail Mary pitch to win the job as exclusive broker for the luxury condo project at 550 Vanderbilt Ave. Over lunch at nearby Morgan’s Brooklyn Barbecue with an executive from the building’s development company, he unspools a plan to invite hundreds of prospective agents and buyers to a grand smorgasbord from restaurants all around the building, based on the idea that he’s selling a neighborhood (Prospect Heights/Clinton Hill), not just the luxury condos.
“I just need one day, no strings attached!” he implores. After a long pause for effect, the executive gives a skeptical shrug—keeping up the suspense—and says, “OK.”
“I am back in the game!” Serhant exults in the next scene. Stay tuned for the smorgasbord!
The record, however, suggests that any such drama was long past. Serhant already had the job. A look at the reality behind the reality show, based on the building’s documents and public reports, illuminates how such shows bend time and space to portray decisions as more dramatic and transactions as more spontaneous than in ordinary life.
In this case, close readers of real-estate trade publications would know that at the time the episode was recorded, Serhant’s team had already been hired by the developer of 550 Vanderbilt, part of the larger Pacific Park Brooklyn project, to sell the building’s 100-plus remaining units.
And that’s not all the sleight of hand. Our study of the sales documents involving five apartments Serhant purportedly sold around Aug. 2, 2017, the date of his big event, shows that all took far longer to enter contract (at least eight months) than one would expect from the flourish on TV.
Nor did the sticker prices shown on screen reflect what buyers at the event would have been told. Three of the five “list prices” flashed during the episode reflect price cuts announced long after Serhant’s big event. That allowed Million Dollar Listing to portray Serhant as closing deals not far off list price.
Perhaps most importantly, Serhant’s seeming sales wizardry on behalf of 550 Vanderbilt—already some $90 million in sales by his team, The Real Deal reported this past May—benefited from a little-noticed tailwind: an effective price cut, building-wide. Though most sticker prices stayed steady, an extension of the building’s 421-a tax break, from 15 years to 25 years, meant much lower monthly outlays for property taxes.
None of this, of course, surfaced on Million Dollar Listing. Even by the pliable standards of both real estate and reality TV, this segment was a doozy. (It’s available on Bravo through Oct. 3, and also for a fee on Amazon or YouTube.) Bravo, shown examples of the supporting facts for this story, declined comment; neither Serhant nor a representative of the building’s developer responded to a query.
Building the Drama
The 550 Vanderbilt drama actually began in Episode 3: Serhant meets with Gene DuBrovin, an executive at Greenland USA, the U.S. arm of Shanghai-based Greenland Holding Co. It now controls the project first developed as Atlantic Yards by Brooklyn-based Forest City Ratner; today Pacific Park includes the Barclays Center and just four of 15 planned towers. 550 Vanderbilt is the only building so far with condos.
As the drama unfolds, DuBrovin wants Serhant to visit the firm’s sales office in Shanghai and attend a launch there. But a visa snag stymies the broker, and seemingly his effort to land the big deal as well. Why this hurdle is presented in the story doesn’t make much sense: 550 Vanderbilt had already launched to Chinese buyers in June 2015 and, as Serhant points out in the later episode, changes in Chinese government regulations have made it it tougher now for buyers to invest in overseas properties.
By episode 10, DuBrovin has seemingly changed strategies, telling Serhant that Greenland wants the building sold domestically. Serhant presents his Big Idea: the smorgasbord-type event, showing off neighborhood residents and amenities to potential buyers. (Actually, his pre-event invite and Instagram post—he now has 792,000 followers—emphasized a giveaway of an electric bike and Barclays Center concert tickets.)
“You don’t have to give me the listing,” Serhant insists, promising to run the event himself.
“I’m just curious,” says DuBrovin, maintaining a poker face. “What do you get out of it?”
“I think it’s important” (cue tension-building music) “in times like this in life to take massive risk,” says Serhant. “Worst case is, I don’t sell anything. Best-case scenario—and I’m going to be really honest with you—is I’m going to blow your f****** mind and you will give me the building afterwards, because you won’t be able to see any other broker selling this but me.”
The Big Event
At the event, the requisite last-minute snafus are fixed—tardy vendors finally show up—and a crowd of some 500 show up to sample the food and look at apartments.
But the surprise VIP guest who suddenly appears is none other than “Mr. Hu,” Gang Hu, the President/CEO of Greenland USA.
“One of the big reasons that I didn’t get 550 Vanderbilt is that they were insistent that I met Mr. Hu … in Shanghai,” Serhant says in the voiceover. “He holds the key to the kingdom for me.”
Introducing Hu to Serhant, DuBrovin declares: “He just came from Shanghai. He’s going to be here throughout the day and hopefully … we can impress him.”
“I’m so sorry we didn’t meet in Shanghai,” says the affable Hu, seeming to relish his cameo.
“This is a good event, to make up for China,” responds Serhant. “Do you want some pizza? That’ll help with the jet lag.”
While Hu may have been just off a plane, what goes unsaid in the episode, since it would surely deflate the drama, is the fact that he works and has a residence in Brooklyn. In fact, Hu had bought a condo for himself at 550 Vanderbilt nearly two months earlier.
Talking to the Camera
During the event, Serhant tells the camera: “I think they [DuBrovin and Hu] can see how badly I want it.” Of course, everyone seemed to be playing along with the conjured suspense. Confirming the actual sequence of events, a Real Deal report cited the smorgasbord as occurring after Serhant came on board.
Other continuity issues are more trivial, but confirm that viewers are seeing something less than vérité: in this segment, Serhant is purportedly commenting in real time to the producers while wearing a totally different outfit.
Beyond this episode, how much does Million Dollar Listing New York bend reality? Though Serhant last year told the Huffington Post that Bravo goes to great lengths to make sure the on-screen agents are honest about their listings, others who’ve intersected with the show have raised some questions.
In a 2013 New York Times article, a former participant said Million Dollar Listing New York was full of scenes recreated for the camera, while a broker complained that the show had filmed a broker party for a unit after the listing had been sold. While that broker called the show “all make-believe,” a VP of Bravo, Shari Levine, declared—perhaps grading on a curve—“The level of reality is very high.”
A Faux Win
In the final mini-segment (excerpted here), titled “Ryan Serhant Gets His Way!,” the broker proudly pronounces his event “insane” but knows that has more to prove. “I have deals for you,” Serhant tells DuBrovin, producing a sheaf of pages. For three of them, Serhant says, “they’re basically ‘full ask’ and I know you’re going to take them.”
“These are good-sized units,” DuBrovin responds affirmingly.
The two others are below that full asking price but close enough “if you want to make a deal,” Serhant says, adding, “But there’s a catch.” Because he doesn’t officially have the listing, Serhant claims, his fiduciary responsibility is to the clients, not the developer.
“We certainly don’t want you taking them elsewhere,” responds DuBrovin.
Here too, the catch seems calculated for drama. These buyers wanted units at 550 Vanderbilt, not any random condo on Serhant’s list. And the already-contracted Serhant couldn’t take them elsewhere. In fact, a day after the event, but well after Serhant came on board, one of his associate brokers posted on Instagram that the team “in just over a week from official launch has over $12M in accepted offers!”
“I want this building,” Serhant declares urgently in the segment, as the music swells. “I can sell this building better than anybody else.” Then comes the verdict from DuBrovin: “You did a great show. Mr. Hu was very impressed as well. We need to focus more on New York and we think you’re part of that process for us.”
“Yes! Yes! Yes!” exclaims Serhant in the next scene, summoning up all of his thespian training. “Not only did I land 550 Vanderbilt, but I also got billions—billions with a B!—in possible listings that are coming forward with Pacific Park.” How much Serhant will participate in future Pacific Park buildings remains unclear. At least three of the next four towers will include rental units, not condos, while the program for the fourth has not yet been announced.
Looking at the Deals
What about those deals? Let’s go to the videotape. For the three offers said to be “basically full ask,” Million Dollar Listing displays the list price, not the sale price. But that list price does not necessarily reflect the reality as of August 2017.
For example, Apartment 1010 was said to list at $1,495,000. It sold for $1,450,000 in June 2018, just 3.2% off that ask, StreetEasy shows. However, when Serhant held his food fest, the list price was higher: $1,665,000, a figure that still appeared in the 13th Amendment to the building’s Offering Plan, dated Nov. 21, 2017.
Nine days later, according to StreetEasy, the price dropped to $1,495,000. The only way for Serhant to have sold it at “basically full ask” around Aug. 2 was to practice time travel. The buyer got not only a discount, but a huge savings on real-estate taxes. The annual hit, with the original 15-year tax abatement, was to be $4,582. With the 25-year abatement, those taxes dropped to an estimated $488 (at the higher asking price). The savings? More than $40,000 over ten years.
Then there’s Apartment 1115, one of the two units in the “below-ask” category; it was said to list for $1,650,000, drawing an offer for $1,550,000. It sold for $1,535,229 at the end of May. However, as of Nov. 21, 2017, well after the Serhant event, Apartment 1115 was priced at $1,685,000 and, according to StreetEasy, that list price was not lowered. So the purported $1,650,000 list price comes out of thin air.
Perhaps, as long as it’s a “million-dollar listing,” the finer points just get in the way of a good reality-show story. Serhant, by the way, just launched his new book, Sell it Like Serhant (named after his other reality show on Bravo), which, he asserts, “is going to help you flip that switch from mediocre to amazing.”