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27 February 2015

My Other Home Is Spiritual Fulfilment

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At the end of 2007, a confluence of miscalculated risk, wonky economics, systemic debt, predatory lending, and a housing market that had inflated like a condom filled with champagne, collided in a maelstrom that washed $4.2 trillion out of home equity in the United States. “Wall Street got drunk,” as President Bush put it. In 2008, in California alone, almost a quarter of a million homes foreclosed. The American Dream—that fragile phantasm built on a skeleton of white picket fences—seemed less corporeal than it had at any time since the Great Depression. California dreaming, but the skies were grey.

Markets ebb and flow, and one person’s disaster is another’s opportunity. Acquiring, selling, losing, buying; it’s a tale as old as time. Various civilizational hallmarks like writing and mathematics owe much of their genesis to real estate and the need to survey, record, organize, and control land. The history of property is the history of civilization, and what brighter motivation for conquest and pillage has there ever been than the eternal quest to covet thy neighbor’s ass(ets). But acquiring property is no longer an exercise in rampage, looting, and pillaging, it’s about cutting the sharpest deals and bleeding the opponent’s bank balance—it’s commerce.

In California, a spacious 1920’s bungalow bought in December 2006 for $1,046,000, had plummeted in value by December 2009 to $680,000, and has lurked around that price since, climbing to a peak recovery of $876,000 in January 2015. While nice to live in, if looked at purely as an asset, this purchase was possibly a poor choice. However at the top end of the market, the fluctuations are less extreme. According to luxury real estate broker Joyce Rey who made the highest sale in the United States in 1978 ($4.2 million), and again in 2010 ($72 million), in Beverly Hills at least: “The trend is always up. It may dip down for a while but it continues to go up.” Real estate brokers generally acquire between 2.5% and 6% in commission on every sale. On a $20 million property, even that 2.5% earns a cool half mil.

The modern world of luxury real estate is a place of big sales, bigger egos, brash houses, and brilliant dental work. The Bravo network has been putting the Real in Real Estate with their reality series Million Dollar Listing—a look into the deals and intrigues of high-profile luxury real estate brokers. We shot the cast members at properties that were significant to each realtor, and had them teach us lessons in the art of the sell. It’s a speculator’s market, so buy low, sell high, bring your checkbook, buckle up, and set your solarium to stun.

Ryan Serhant

Ryan Serhant spoke to me from New York. As he came onto the phone he was accosted by well-wishers outside the Manhattan hotel that he calls home. Ryan was very forthright, and his answers wove together a quite charming combination of bluntness, self-promotion, and almost savant-like non-sequiturs. He grew up wanting to be an actor, and held no ambitions in real estate. Ryan began working in real estate “because [he] had no money.” In 2012 he was the 15th ranked broker in New York.

The Property:

A $14,000,000 Manhattan apartment with two bedrooms.

Its significance:

“It’s 157 West 57th Streetthe penthouse just sold for $100 million dollarswhich is one of the most expensive homes to have ever sold in the United States. It’s one of those classic, classic New York City buildings that everybody knows of and not a lot of people have ever been in or seen inside.”

Success in real estate:

“I am successful at what I do, not because I know anything about real estate, but because I know how to negotiate people. I was an actor for a very long time, it’s what I studied. Everybody’s different but everybody’s exactly the same at the same time. Everyone is a human being. Everyone has needs, wants, and desires. Everything is relative–that’s why very wealthy people have very wealthy friends, because misery loves company. And they like to complain about their private jet together because everyone understands.

But if someone’s complaining to a regular person about their private jet not being gassed up and ready to take flight, a regular person is going to say you’re an asshole. Like what are you complaining about?

It’s all relative… Why did Kurt Cobain commit suicide? I don’t know. I have no idea. No one will ever know because no one was inside his head at that time. No one will ever, ever, ever know because it was relative to him at that time.

I think that the clients that I deal with, whether we’re listing the penthouses at the Ritz for $118 million dollars which we have on the market now—or whether we’re listing a Saudi Prince’s apartment for $70 million dollars which we are doing right now… We treat everybody the exact same way. But I think I change. Ryan—the Ryan that everybody gets is catered towards their characters. It’s an improvisation.”

Making money:

“The real estate business is a volume business. It’s a commission business. There is absolutely no ceiling to how much money you can make and there is absolutely no floor to how much money you can not make.”

On architecture:

“Being a real estate broker has nothing to with architecture. People come and meet with me all the time, they want to work for me, they want to be on my team, and I ask them: ‘Why do you want to be a real estate broker?’ And they say ‘I love architecture, I love real estate’ and I say ‘Get out of my office,’ because they’re not going to be good brokers. If you want to work with people, if you want to negotiate emotions, if you want to be somebody who’s connecting buyers and sellers—that’s what real estate brokers do.

I’m not really selling a building to another building, I’m selling somebody who owns a building to somebody who wants to give that person all of their money.”

Photographer: Richard Gerst at

Stylist: Joshua Liebman at

Groomer: Nathan Rosenkranz for


Josh Flagg

was born and raised in the affluent suburbs where he now makes his biggest sales. I met Josh in “the greatest little jewel box in L.A.” as he called it—a palace of gold and silver where he lounged in comfort, entirely at home amongst trappings and furnishings that had once belonged to Empresses and Maharajas. His meteoric career has overseen more than a billion dollars of sales in 10 years.

The Property


Its significance:

“The house belongs to a very dear friend of mine, Kay Kimberly Siegel, and it is in my opinion the—not the largest house in Los Angeles, by no stretch of the imagination, it’s a very large home but it’s not the largest—but it is definitely the most well done home I’ve ever seen in Los Angeles.

Every wall in the house is completely silver leafed. There’s a Baccarat elephant—there’s only six in the world that exist…one was a gift to Josephine from Napoleon. The home has some of the finest furniture, art, and antiques I’ve ever seen. And it’s a special home to me because it belongs to a very close friend of mine, and a former friend of my grandmother who passed away.”

How TV cameras affect decision-making:

“People at the end of the day just look at the bottom line, which is the sales price—the number. That’s all people want to know, is how much they’re going to sell the house for and how much they’re going to net in their pocket. That doesn’t matter if there’s a camera on them or if there’s no camera on them.”

Biggest sale:

“My biggest sale was $25 million for a house in Beverly Hills. North of Sunset.”

Photographer: Mitchell Nguyen McCormack at

Stylist: Korrina Rose.

Groomer: Elie N. Maalouf at

Photography Assistant: Jon Norris at


David Parnes & James Harris

I met David and James at their shoot in the Hollywood Hills, in an open-plan citadel that they’re selling. Their bright, jaunty suits and constant phone activity were well matched to the million-dollar vista punctuated by a topaz infinity pool. The pair have the sort of appreciation for Californian sunshine that can only come from having grown up in London. In 2013 their gross sales exceeded $120,000,000.

The Property:

A $5,749,000 Hollywood Hills mansion with three bedrooms and five bathrooms.

Its significance:

James Harris: “This house is significant because it’s in the Hollywood Hills and when I moved from London to Los Angeles, being able to see views of the city from downtown Los Angeles to the ocean always gave me that mad wow factor: ‘I’m here. I’m in L.A.’”

David Parnes: “The views are insane—they’re jetliner…the house is on more than one level but each level has insane views, which is very, very rare.

This is a show-off property, this is a bachelor pad, this is a statement. It’s not just about living, it’s about living. This is a trophy property and whoever buys it is going to show it offand quite rightly show it offit would be a wasted property if it wasn’t being shown off.”

The kill or the chase:

JH: “I love the chase. I absolutely love the chase. Getting the deal is good, but I would say the chase for me is the best part.”

DP: “It’s very much about reading people, even if they’re not your client, just to know what will push their buttons.”

Judgements about the buyer in the first ten seconds:

JH: “Whether they’re buying the house or not. I think because this is such an emotional purchase, I would say nine times out of 10 you know if a buyer is moving forward on the property.”

Biggest sale:

DP: “A big deal on Melrose Place—the Olsen twins occupy one of the spaces—Melrose Place is a very desirable area…a $30 million dollar property and we represented both sides so it came to about $60 million.”

Photographer: Mitchell Nguyen McCormack at

Stylist: Jimi Urquiaga for

Groomer: Elie N. Maalouf at

Photography Assistant: Jon Norris at

Styling Assistant: Leona Cheung


Josh Altman

The adversity and the triumph in Josh Altman’s narrative embody many of the traits of that elusive American Dream. Starting at $7 an hour in the mailroom before moving upwards into property development and speculation, Josh lost everything in the 2008 financial crash. He has since become one of the top realtors in L.A., averaging over $300 million in sales per year, and pushing his career sales beyond $1.5 billion. Josh took time away from his trip to the Super Bowl to participate in our photo shoot, and was very amiable towards the realignment of his travel plans.

The Property:

An $8,590,000 Hollywood Hills mansion with six bedrooms.

Its significance:

“I was unemployed when the economy went bad in 2008 and I lived around the corner from this house and I used to walk around and try and figure out how I was going to make money after losing it all and thinking, ‘one day—hopefully if real estate works out—I’ll be listing houses like this.’ And here I am.”

The Art of the Deal:

“You can have the nicest person ever and then if a deal goes wrong you see a side of that person that you’ve never seen before. But it’s all about keeping cool, calm, and collected, and making sure you’re always in control and that your client’s interests come first.

I practice the art of persuasion, I practice the art of negotiation. These are things that I’ve studied for a long time.

I’ve become very, very good at pricing properties. I can pretty much price them on the dot where I know that they’re going to sell.”

Most significant sale:

“I hold the record for the most expensive one bedroom ever sold, which was $20.1 million. It was in Beverly Park—it was the famous Dick Zanuck estate.”

Photographer: Alvin Nguyen for

Stylist: Jimi Urquiaga for

Written by Gus Donohoo

Photographed by Alvin Nguyen, Mitchell Nguyen McCormack, Richard Gerst