Small Wonders

Giant brokerages aren’t crushing the boutique firm—they’re creating a new opportunity.

(Photo: Jeremy Liebman)

Robert de Niro, Kanye West, and Woody Allen went house-hunting this year, but not with agents at industry giants like Prudential Douglas Elliman or Corcoran. Instead, they turned to small boutique firms that seem quaint in the age of the megabrokerage. They’re not alone—while thousand-agent outfits gobble up competitors, mom-and-pop throwbacks are capitalizing on the perception that the big guys are getting too big. “Bigger is in, but [it’s] not better,” declares Dominique Richard, daughter of the grande dame of boutique firms, Alice Mason, who employs just twelve brokers. At the larger agencies, “sometimes brokers never even see the apartments,” says Laurie Cooper (pictured), an independent broker who recently helped De Niro buy Harvey Weinstein’s Central Park West apartment. “I am personally involved.”

So involved, in fact, that most boutique brokers engineer their social lives around deal-making. Michele Kleier, who works with about 40 brokers, says she often hears of soon-to-be-available apartments first “because either I or my daughters know [the sellers] socially.” Patricia Burnham, whose clients include the Hearsts, says she’s had parties where she’s “sold most of the people their homes … I was out with someone last night who said, ‘I want to sell my property.’ I’m sure in my database there’ll be a CEO or hedge-funder who’ll want that.”