Who better to parse the L. A. luxury-real-estate market than these unscripted real-estate celebrities? An original cast member of Bravo’s Million Dollar Listing Los Angeles, Josh Flagg is arguably the king of small-screen square-footage swagger, having sold more than $2 billion worth of properties since he started in the industry at 18. Mauricio Umansky may be known to many as the husband of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills’s Kyle Richards, but as founder of The Agency, he also oversees one of the fastest-growing private brokerages with offices worldwide and more than 600 agents. Michelle Schwartz and Ari Afshar are quickly blazing their own Carrara-marble-paved trails to fame. Sally Forster Jones routinely logs record sales in Beverly Hills, Holmby Hills, and beyond, while Malibu macher Chris Cortazzo’s career continues to crest as he rides L.A.’s exploding coastal market.
> What’s the difference between an easy and a difficult client?
Josh Flagg All of my clients are extremely difficult, and that’s what makes this job extremely fun. Look, when you’re buying houses in the price range I deal with, of course you’re going to be difficult. But that’s OK—I’m also difficult. These are massive purchases, so do you really expect people to be easygoing about it? No. But I like it! It keeps you going. I don’t like doing boring things. I like demanding people. It’s a thrill.
> What’s demanding?
Flagg Demanding could be I have to close in one week to facilitate a 1031 exchange. Or when a seller wants a three-month leaseback, and the buyer wants to move in right away. These are the kind of demands I work with all the time.
Michelle Schwartz Micromanagers, often attorneys, they’re great clients. But there’s a particular personality that functions in the law world that is constantly looking for all the negatives. I’m a positive person and I believe that our transactions will be successful.
> OK, but what about a truly nightmare client?
Mauricio Umansky Someone who is über-high-end, has all the money in the world, and is cheap as can be. Right now, I have a seller who has all the money in the world, the buyer is giving them everything you could want, and the seller doesn’t want to do a full house cleaning of the property. Same on delivering a $30 million house where the seller doesn’t want to pay $7,000 on escrow or take care of the oven that’s broken. Because they’re claiming it works fine for them. You’re still selling a $30 million house—you have to fix that goddamn oven.
Sally Forster Jones I once got trapped in the driveway by clients who were arguing and had to get the police involved to help me get my car out.
> Have you ever walked away from a client?
Flagg Oh, that’s happened many times. Many times. I don’t mind difficult, but rude I don’t tolerate. I had one abusive client that would call me, screaming all the time. I finally gave it back to him, and he couldn’t take it. He said, “If you’re dying of hunger and thirst, don’t come to me.” And I said, “Don’t worry. If I’m dying of hunger and thirst, I would never go to you.”
> Who’s worse to work with, an A-lister or a B-lister?
Flagg The celebrities and the billionaires aren’t usually that hard to work with themselves. But you’re not working directly with them; you’re working with their business managers, and they’re often the ones to kill the deal. They want to be looking out for their clients’ best interests, but they don’t understand the housing market. They don’t look at a property in terms of location and investment or any of those things. They get finances, not real estate.
> Why is it in L.A. that certain homes seem to go from celebrity to celebrity?
Umansky It’s because the top echelon of agents are all sharing clients and information. There are a handful of us who people call. Right now, we’re getting calls where people say, “I’m considering moving to Florida.” That’s happening all day long. Yesterday, I was playing golf with someone, and it was exactly that conversation: “Do you know anyone who might want to buy my house?” Anyone? I know three people who want to buy that house immediately.
Chris Cortazzo Usually they’re friends or acquaintances.
Schwartz Oftentimes, luxury agents have the inside scoop as to where celebs live in addition to the fact that many notable figures work to avoid unnecessary exposure. Working with a high-end real estate agent who specializes in luxury property provides the opportunity for a buyer to get into a home that is not being broadcast across the main channels—a huge advantage when searching for a truly divine property.
> How do you to prepare for a showing?
Flagg I don’t prepare for them. My assistant goes ahead to do everything: open drapes, turn lights on, light candles, light fireplaces. I have no idea how long it takes because I’m not there.
Ari Afshar Anytime I have a showing, I try to get a sense of who the buyer is. I will do some due diligence, and from that I’ll create a curated playlist to match what I think their personality might be. So as they’re walking through the home, music is playing throughout that I believe will resonate with them. A lot of times, it starts a conversation about music. It creates a much better experience and can make them feel at home.
Schwartz I’m not a hard-sell person. The house is either going to sell itself or not. People want to feel in control, not that they’re being followed. I’ve bought several homes for myself. I don’t need someone to tell me, “This is the kitchen.” If there are high-end items like jewelry and art in a house, I advise clients to lock them up in a room. If people find a locked door and love the house, they can come back for a second time. Creating a little mystery is a good thing.
> How has the pandemic affected the behavior of typical L.A. luxury buyers?
Umansky Our jobs seem to be getting a little bit easier, to be honest—we seem to be showing less and selling more.
Forster Jones People aren’t coming to just look and get decorating ideas; they’re really coming to buy. So in that regard, there are definitely less showings and more real buyers. And the buyers who are looking have money.
Flagg You have straightforward buyers who, if they’re really interested in buying, they buy. They’re not looking at a thousand other properties. It makes our life a dream.
Cortazzo Yeah, they’re focused and appreciative, which is a wonderful situation.
Schwartz I think COVID has also helped us as relationship-based agents. The trust is really important. Also, those agents who are door-knockers, that’s all shifted.
Flagg “Knock, knock.” “Who is it?” “COVID.”
> What features are popular now with luxury buyers?
Schwartz Gated communities are huge. I’m seeing that security and safety are super high on everyone’s list. People want to create that bubble for themselves—their home as sanctuary. I have a client who’s looking to buy the house across the street so she can have full-time staff living there.
Forster Jones I have never seen so many requests for safe rooms. There’s a feeling of insecurity. People want to protect themselves. And builders and developers are paying attention; they’re including safe rooms in almost all luxury homes now. These are hidden rooms found behind a bookcase or something like that, that are bulletproof and break-in-proof. I was just in a home that’s under construction this morning, and that safe room is the size of some people’s living rooms.
Schwartz We’ve never had to think about a stay-at-home order. When you have to hunker down next time, where is that going to be? This is at the forefront of people’s minds.
> How is L.A.’s homelessness crisis affecting the high-end market?
Schwartz That’s driving people away from certain locations. I mean, it’s just major: you come off some of those side streets, and people start scratching their heads and asking, “How do I own a $10 million house where there’s a homeless encampment down the road?”
> Do the women feel men have it easier or harder in real estate?
Forster Jones Residential real estate started as a women’s type of business, but there are more men now. I don’t know that there is much of an advantage or disadvantage.
Schwartz Age is more of a factor than gender.
Flagg I’ve never been a woman, so I don’t know.
Umansky I gotta say, being the father of four girls and being a broker and watching 350 women agents at our office, I think the biggest challenge for particularly good-looking single woman is getting past the bullshit client who is just trying to date them versus finding the real client who really has interest in working with them. Do you agree with me, Michelle? Sally?
Schwartz Totally. I’ve had women tell me that they put on a fake ring when they’re doing showings for that reason. They say the reactions are polar opposites regarding how they act and engage with them when they have a ring.
Umansky I’m going to have to start buying CZ rings for all of the onboarding woman agents.
Schwartz The open houses were scary. I would hold my phone and if I had to call someone, I’m ready. I stay prepared and stay alert. If I’m walking at night after an open house or closing a house at night, I would walk with my keys in between my fingers. There was a ring that they were marketing to real estate agents that had a hidden button so when you squeezed it, it would alert 911.
> What’s your standard work uniform?
Flagg I can’t even remember the last time I wore a suit. I’m not super dressy—I’m stylish, but more relaxed. Jeans, slacks—that kind of thing.
Afshar If it’s a tech or musician client, it’s T-shirt, jeans, and some nice tennis shoes. If it’s a luxury client, I’ll go full suit and tie. You have to play the part and dress accordingly.
Schwartz I’m always put together. You have to be a chameleon in this business. I’m a people reader: shoes, watches, and handbags are dead giveaways. You can see this and adjust who you’re going to be. If someone is in a Gucci track suit and they’re a lot younger than you thought, then I’ll adapt to that and it will impact how I show the property. I can throw out a zinger early on, and then I can gauge how they respond. I know within 30 seconds who they are. It’s a game of personalities.
> What are the go-to rides of high-end agents?
Flagg I have eight cars. Two vintage Rolls-Royces and two vintage Mercedeses. My daily drive is my vintage Aston Martin. If I have multiple showings, I use my husband’s G-wagen. When it comes to other agents, I see a lot of S-Class Mercedeses and Bentley sedans.
Afshar I drive a Mercedes S 560. It represents comfort and luxury, and I can use it to accommodate my clients. So I’ll get a driver, and I’ll be sitting back there with them and I’m able to talk. And, of course, when I don’t have clients, it’s nice. It’s a driving-on-a-cloud car.
Forster Jones I have a Tesla Model X with a personal driver, and I transformed the back seat into my mobile office. With constant showings, I’m always on the move, and this allows me to be the most productive throughout my days. I wanted something that is environmentally friendly, practical to me during work and off-hours, and is a luxury vehicle that is not ostentatious.
> Do you ever select a car to go with the home or client?
Schwartz It’s sad because it’s so L.A., but a car says a lot about you. I have a BMW X7 because I have two kids. I need to have a mom-mobile that still looks good. A lot of people will ask me about my car; it becomes part of the conversation. The mom-mobile humanizes me and brings me a little more down to earth. I’m instantly able to connect with families when they see my car.
> What kind of gift do you usually give clients after they’ve purchased a seven-, eight-, or nine-figure home?
Schwartz I love the Taschen oversized coffee-table books with the stand. Those are so unique, and it’s not something you typically buy for yourself. I’ve also done a delivery service for the year—like a huge orchid arrangement per month. Also, personal chefs as a thank-you gift.
Flagg I usually send them a huge tin of caviar. I choose that because I think it’s an impressive gift and I’d love to get it.
> What brand?
Flagg That’s a trade secret.
> What’s in store for the L.A. real estate market? Do you believe predictions that there will be a roaring twenties?
Flagg If prohibition happens, I’ll be really pissed. I love drinking.
Schwartz Your safe room is going to be your bar.
Cortazzo You can just feel the built-up demand. It’s coming. I also feel that people are broadening their scope on location. These more exclusive locations like Malibu or Montecito have changed dramatically because people aren’t going to the office as much anymore.
Schwartz It’s also the land, the outdoor space, sports courts—all that. If kids aren’t in school, parents still want to get kids out of the house.
Cortazzo That’s why home exteriors are becoming more important. If you’re going to be staying home, you don’t want to be trapped inside.
Schwartz Personally, I think that downtown L.A. is going to really have a hard time for a while. The idea of going into a building where you have, you know, 192 other renters or owners—it’s not the ideal.
Umansky But pre-COVID L.A. was going vertical. Now that has changed. There are still a lot of high-rise buildings, and we’re going to have to figure out how to sell them. I think generational thinking has changed, too. Our 13-, 15-, and 18-year-old kids, pre-COVID, were all thinking about micro living, renting, living smaller, being mobile, all that stuff. Everything you read was, “The future is renting.” Now they’re thinking about settling down, having a big house. Having two big houses! The whole mentality is changing. And from that perspective, I actually think it’s changing for the better.
> So what’s the biggest misconception about the life of a high-end L.A. real estate agent?
Umansky That everything is easy and we make gazillions of dollars. My first call this morning, before I brushed my teeth? I just leased a place on Hollywood Boulevard, and the technician called and was grinding me that the voltage was too high. So we had to get DWP on the line. Then I had a Zoom session to go over staging a property and look at the plans. Because it’s new construction, I have to pick where the desk is going to go and what kind of TV the room will have so that I can use the TV as a sales tool. It’s little things like this all day. But then my third call was putting $30 million into escrow, and that’s kinda fun, too.
Afshar I think people see big deals and assume easy money. The reality is that real estate agents tend to be the biggest risk-takers, betting on themselves and their ability to provide a living for not just themselves but, in most cases, their families. We work very long hours, endure incredible amounts of stress and pressure, with the strong possibility of not getting paid at all. Very few careers have such a high risk factor. As a result, I believe most agents deserve every dollar they earn.
Umansky The other thing that people may not realize? We are a service industry. If you’re servicing your clients, there is zero downtime. We’re not the celebrity; we have to deliver to people. And if it’s truly white-glove, we’re on 24/7, period. Most agents at this level live with constant low- to high-grade anxiety. I am able to not have that because of my personality, but probably 99 percent of agents do.
Cortazzo Most of us work seven days a week and have lunch in our cars.
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