September 19th 2014
New York Daily News
Millionaire profiling is a heck of a lot harder than it used to be.
Real-estate brokers who used to be able to spot a wealthy prospective buyer from a mile off are now struggling to tell billionaire tech moguls from average Joes in ripped jeans. Guessing wrong can mean missing out on big deals — or traipsing around the city showing pricey pads to fakers who just want backstage passes to some of the most luxurious homes in the world, which they could never afford.
“These days, if it seems too good to be true, usually it is,” said Jason Haber, a luxury broker at Warburg Realty. “You’re not John Spano (the con man who closed a deal to purchase the New York Islanders in the 1990s). You can’t buy something if you have no money.”
But wealthy Manhattan buyers are no longer just well-heeled Upper East Side bankers in sharp suits. Nowadays, they’re Russian oligarchs, sheikhs from the Middle East, elderly couples from the Midwest, financial executives and tech guys in sneakers.
The increased diversity of the buyer pool opens the system of finding an apartment to radical abuse, brokers said. You never know when the scruffy guy in the corner in sandals and a ponytail is your buyer or whether he just showed up at the open house for the free wine.
Haber was recently duped by a man who contacted him about purchasing a $10 million Manhattan townhouse with money he said he inherited from his late father. The prospective buyer, in his late 40s, seemed legitimately wealthy. He was knowledgeable about fine art, he spoke three languages and wove an elaborate tale about a bad childhood.
Haber was sucked in and spent a month showing the buyer some of the city’s most exclusive townhouse listings.
“He came across like a rock star — he had a beard and long hair and told me this whole story about how his father had abused him as child and how he wanted to use the money to cleanse himself,” Haber said. “When someone plays on the emotional heartstrings, it’s hard not to take them at face value.”
The mystery buyer turned out to have no money at all. He just wanted photos of himself in fancy apartments to put on his Facebook page.
Every con man has a tell. This guy’s? He just wouldn’t stop taking selfies.
Finally, Haber confronted him — and the scammer disappeared.
But brokers can’t get too cynical, or they risk writing off seemingly unlikely buyers who really can pony up the cash for seriously pricey digs.
Broker Brandon Trenthem of Town Residential recently came close to missing his shot to sell a $6 million SoHo loft to someone who seemed way too good to be true. The 21-year-old Asian student from London contacted him by email, saying she needed an unusual New York City pad for school in the fall and was willing to pay several million dollars. Asked for proof of funds, she sent a bank statement showing a jaw-dropping balance of $400 million.
The string of zeros made Trenthem’s heart soar — but also made him see red flags.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Trenthem said. “It actually made me ever more wary, but I figured why not try? I’ve seen crazy things happen in this business.”
Trenthem arrived at the first showing in a three-piece suit, and booked a car service to take the girl and her father around the city to view the places he’d picked out. The father, who wore track pants, saw three units and then told Trenthem he wanted to double the budget, to $6 million.
“I’m kind of laughing at myself, like did I really just put myself in this position?” Trenthem said. “Is this real?”
The next week, the girl and her father inked a deal for a $6 million apartment on Lafayette St. after sending Trenthem to the apartment alone with a feng-shui app to test the apartment’s aura. The aura was good, and so was their promise of cold, hard cash.