Get to Know Power Broker and ‘Million Dollar Listing New York’ Star Ryan Serhant
Serhant is sharing everything from how he got his start in real estate to his perfect NYC day to valuable advice for aspiring agents.
If you know New York City real estate, odds are you’ve heard of Ryan Serhant. The celebrity broker has risen and risen in the industry, starring on Million Dollar Listing New York since it premiered in 2012, and it doesn’t look like he’s slowing down anytime soon. As well as being a top-performing agent and best-selling author, Serhant is also now a company founder and CEO.
Last September, at the height of the pandemic and amid uncertain market conditions, he did the unthinkable and opened his eponymous real estate brokerage, SERHANT. Over the past year, the company has exploded, growing to encompass 65 agents and 45 full-time employees. It also currently represents the most expensive listing in NYC, the 96th-floor penthouse of 432 Park, asking $169 million.
But, this is just the most recent chapter of the broker’s story. Recently, we sat down for 30 minutes with Serhant to chat about everything from how he got his start in the business to what he predicts for 2022 and more. Get ready to peek inside the mind of this power broker, including what his ideal NYC day is.
Congratulations on one year of SERHANT! You launched your namesake real estate brokerage in the midst of the pandemic and pre-vaccine. What has been the most rewarding thing about starting your own agency during this time and what have been the biggest challenges?
I think there are so many talented people in the world and incredible business ideas that will never happen because people just don’t start or they let themselves get in their own way. The most rewarding thing for me about starting SERHANT. was that we actually started it and that we actually did it.
I guess it makes it even more rewarding because we did it when we did it. When it was not a given, everyone said don’t do it. The city was empty. It was scary, there was a lot going on in the world. There always is, but a lot last summer, last spring, last year.
But, I think that it was the perfect time for us and I think that’s the most rewarding thing: That we actually did it and we started. Obviously, it’s been a great first year for us, so that’s been exciting. It worked, sure, but I knew it was going to work and it’ll continue to work. Just the fact that we actually did it, it takes a lot to take that risk and start a new business, start anything. Now, I can look back and say all the stress and all the pain we went through to get SERHANT. up and running is over. It’s great. Now, we’re in it. It’s kind of like anything. It’s like with going to the gym, the best part of it is when you leave. It’s like, “Yes, I did it! It’s over now.”
After working for other brokerages for years, what was most important for you when creating SERHANT?
The most important thing for me in creating the firm was to establish a firm for agents first. The real estate agent is my customer and always has been. The United States incentivizes real estate agents to sell real estate for the most money possible. That’s how the real estate business is set up in the United States. Most brokerages are brokerage first, brokerage brand first. It’s, “Hey, come work here. Use our brand.”
SERHANT. is agent brand first, agent tool first, agent first more than anything. And that’s what all of our resources are for, which is why we have an in-house film studio to help the agents brand themselves with content. It’s why we have an in-house education platform to teach real estate agents how to sell even more. So, there’s a lot of that and that’s exciting for me because I’m a real estate agent. At the end of the day, I set up a firm to help other people do exactly what I have been doing for 13 years.
Going back to the beginning, how did you decide to get into real estate and what was your first job in the business?
I got into real estate because I was out of money and I lived in New York City. I moved to New York City after college in 2006 to pursue acting. I wanted to do theater and film, and I had never been to California, so I didn’t want to go to LA. So, New York was easy for me. I came here and gave myself two years. On that two-year mark, I hadn’t made it yet. I hadn’t figured out a way to make a steady income yet through acting, which obviously is really, really hard. And so, I needed to pay my bills if I wanted to stay in the city and I knew that if I left New York City I’d probably never come back.
So, I looked at temp jobs and bartending. I went to a bartending school and I was just terrible at it. A lot of my friends were waiters or kind of the classic stuff; survival jobs. Then I had another friend who said, “Listen, get your real estate license, and that way you don’t have to show up at the bar every night from 6pm to midnight. You can work one day a month, zero days a month, or 100 days a month. It’s whatever you want to do and then you can make money as you work. The harder you work, the more money you make and you can pay your bills. You do one rental deal, and you can pay your bills, that’s it, one client.”
That was intriguing, and I just figured, you know what? This is not something I ever wanted to do, totally random, but let’s go for it, let’s try it. And so I got my license and I started the day Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy. So, the day the Great Recession started, the day of the subprime mortgage collapse.
So, where did you start or were you independent at that time?
I went to a small firm, my friend was at that small firm and so he had me come with him. I was going to work with him, and then the market collapsed, and two weeks later he quit and left. He moved to California because he said real estate is dead and New York City’s never coming back. And, I didn’t know what to do then because he got me into it. I was going to work with him, and so then I was by myself.
I just started posting ads on the internet, really, for apartments. I would meet strangers on the street and I would introduce myself to people in Starbucks or Saks Fifth Avenue. I’d meet people at the gym, I’d meet people walking or in taxi cabs. Anywhere I could, I told people that I was in real estate. And, that’s how I got my first clients.
If you could tell yourself something back then now, what would you go back and say?
I’d probably tell myself to, #1, calm down everything’s going to be okay. Take care of the work and the work will take care of you. Don’t over-stress about the money, don’t over-stress about the minutiae. You’re in this for the long game, and it’s about having a limitless livelihood. Just stick with it, because there are a lot of times when a client yells at you on the phone or a deal dies. There are no salaries, you know, I’m freelance—I’m a 1099 independent contractor. I’ve got go out there and try convince someone to spend $1 million with me and they don’t even know me. How do I do that?
And I probably would tell myself as well, earlier than I actually did, start working on your brand now. I have learned over the years that the #1 lead generator is to build a personal brand whether I’m a writer or I’m a real estate agent or I’m any kind of salesperson who’s selling anything. Whether it’s selling yourself or a product, start thinking about what your brand identity is right now because that’s going to generate business for you while you sleep. If there’s anything I would do differently, I would do that.
Can you tell us the story of how you ended up on Bravo’s Million Dollar Listing New York?
I got into real estate and my first year I made about $9,000, but in my head, I’m not a realtor. In my head, I’ve got to pay my rent, but I’m really in New York City to act. I wanted to be on Broadway, to be in movies. It’s the whole reason I came here, I didn’t come here to show rental apartments in Brooklyn. And then the second year, I just keep getting busier and busier and doing more and more real estate.
It just became a better use of my time because when you’re an actor in the city, what it really means is you work for free until you don’t. In real estate, you also work for free until you don’t, but the chances that someone would pay a commission for me helping them with their apartment were way higher than someone picking me to be in their play that would actually pay. A lot of work for actors in New York City is free, especially when you’re young.
So then, that second year I got a little bit busier, that was 2009. Then in March 2010, Bravo put out a casting notice for a New York franchise of the Million Dollar Listing LA show. I went to that audition with 3,000 real estate agents and they picked me. We started filming at the end of 2010 and the show premiered in March 2012.
So, in a way, does that fulfill any acting dreams you still had at the time?
You know, it’s funny, my life became very full circle. I pushed the acting thing away, I pushed the camera stuff away and said, “I’m going to focus on this business, I’m going to do real estate now.” It’s kind of what they say about luck, right? Luck is when opportunity meets preparation and so then the opportunity for a reality show comes around. I had prepared to be in front of the camera my whole life and so now, here’s my opportunity.
Sure, I’m not on screen with Denzel Washington, but I’m doing my own version. Life finds a way to write your own story and so, my ability to perform in front of the camera worked well. I think that was also what helped me to get cast because I was not the biggest real estate agent, but I also knew how to not be nervous in front of a camera, I knew how not to stumble, I knew comedic timing, I knew what audiences would want to see because I studied it for so long. I was trained in it. I think that really, really helped.
Do you see yourself continuing with the show indefinitely?
Million Dollar Listing is a great outlet for me. It’s fun, it’s different, it allows me to do my job while also being entertaining. It’s also a great lead generator. People watch it all over the world. There are people in New Zealand who are watching season 5 right now, as Bravo licenses the shows to different countries. It’s been a fun ride, so I don’t have any plans to stop it because I’m still doing real estate, but my life has changed. I now run a real estate firm, I’m not just a real estate agent doing open houses every day, so things are different. I think the show has done a pretty good job of evolving with us, which is nice.
From season to season, there are times you have rivalries with your castmates for listings or deals, and bonding moments where you work together or celebrate. Overall, what is the current feeling among the cast?
The cast is great. We see each other on deals all the time in real life, not just on the show. So, we’re all good. It’s a unique experience and we’ve all been in it together, so there is a camaraderie between us where otherwise we would just be purely competitors. Now, we’re competitors who were brought together by this crazy TV show experience.
Today, you work with luxury listings in the Hamptons and South Florida as well as NYC. What is most different about these markets? Also, what is similar?
The biggest difference is the geography, obviously, right? Urban, suburban, beachfront—different geographies. And the other biggest difference we also have between Florida, let’s say, and New York is that you have local governments that are just different. Florida is low-tax, pro-business, New York City is not right now. And so, there are just different reasons for why people will buy one place versus the other.
But, the types of clientele and the way you sell are the same. You have to know your market in and out. You have to understand how to sell and how to sell to luxury clients in the markets that we operate in.
Which NYC neighborhoods have you lived in and where do you see yourself and your family calling home next?
Well, I’ve lived everywhere. My first apartment in the city was on the Upper East Side, and then I went to Koreatown, then I went to the Financial District—a bunch of different buildings in FiDi—then I went to Chelsea and then I went to SoHo. Now, we’ve moved to Brooklyn. We just built a large house in Brooklyn and I really hope we don’t go anywhere else, but who knows.
But, it’s nice because in my business, in the real estate business, it’s important to live in the product so I’ve moved around a lot. Especially when I first got into the business because it’s better for me to meet clients in an area and say, “Oh, I live here. I’m a resident of this neighborhood,” or “I used to live in Chelsea, I just moved out,” or “When I lived on 66th Street…Let me take you to 70th.”
New York City is a rock, it’s tiny, but at the same time all the neighborhoods are very, very different. If you’re just the Tribeca guy, people aren’t going to call you to list something on Fifth Avenue because you’re the person who’s known for Tribeca. I want to be the one who sells luxury real estate all over Manhattan, and so I’ve bounced around a lot so I could experience all the different neighborhoods.
Knowing and having lived in so many parts of New York City, what right now would you describe as your perfect NYC day?
A great day for me in New York City, let’s say, is Sunday. I wake up, I go work out at a gym that’s nearby or I take one of the many workout classes that are at all the different gyms near our house. I come home, I’ll take the baby and my wife and maybe we’ll go get breakfast at a local restaurant, maybe down on Smith Street in Brooklyn or somewhere else nearby. We just moved and there are so many different places, so we try to try new places all the time.
After that, we’ll go back [home]. I’ll then jump into the car or I’ll Uber to go into my office at SERHANT. House NYC for a couple hours on Sundays, our headquarters in SoHo on West Broadway. Maybe I’ll create some content or go through emails, really review the week that I just ended and plan for the week ahead. Then, maybe I’ll meet my wife and we’ll do a little shopping in SoHo since that’s where we are and then we’ll head home. Maybe get an early dinner with a friend and then watch football on our giant TV that we just installed. Then pass out, wake up, and start the week.
If you ever made a primary residence somewhere other than the Big Apple, where would you go?
My wife went to college in London and she’s from Greece. For her, one day she wants a place in London, she just loves the city, and she will also want a place in Greece. So, maybe somewhere in there. You know, I like Los Angeles, we do good business there. I like the south of Florida, I don’t know if I’d ever move to either personally. So, maybe London.
What advice do you have for new agents who are trying to break into real estate in New York City right now?
Join a team. Be a part of the conversation. Start networking immediately. Learn everything you can and just remember, your first three years in the business are grad school. You’re not supposed to be successful, you’re not supposed to make all this money. Lawyers have to go to law school, doctors have to go to med school, just because you’re in sales don’t think that you also don’t have to go to sales school. There’s a lot to learn. Clients choose to work with the most experienced and the most knowledgeable for a reason because it’s the safest for them.
Imagine if you broke your shoulder, you’re not going to go to the doctor who has been doing it for six months, you want to go to the guy who’s been doing it for 100 years who knows exactly what to do because he’s gone through all the war stories. Thank God selling real estate is not like repairing a broken shoulder, it’s a bit simpler than that depending. But, just really plan for those three years to really learn as much as you can and if you make money, it’s a bonus.
Finally, nationwide, so many markets are booming right now and moving fast. Everyone’s wondering what will happen next. Are things going to fall, are they going to keep going at lightning speed? Looking into the future, what do you predict for real estate in 2022?
I think it’s going to be great. Listen, for urban markets in the United States, we haven’t had a foreign purchaser come through to buy US real estate in nearly two years. That’s a big deal. I think that inflation is a real thing in the US, but also everywhere else where their central banks are also propping up their economies by buying different things like mortgages and bonds, and so I think that international purchasers are going to want to take their money and put it into the form of US dollars by owning real estate.
I think 2022 might the biggest year for US real estate that we’ve ever known, especially in New York City. But then from there, I think that pricing will adjust—I don’t think things tank, I think they’ll adjust.
I think we’ve had massive price increases in the last 18 months because the market was really, really soft for an extended period of time throughout the US. COVID just sort of accelerated its rebound, instead of letting the rebound take its sweet time. I’m excited for next year.