Piano Man: Peter Von Der Ahe of Marcus & Millichap
Al Barbarino Jan. 30, 2013, 9 a.m.
Peter Von Der Ahe is Marcus & Millichap’s top-producing multifamily agent in Manhattan, earning a steady slot in the ever-changing list of New York City’s top brokers. He has brokered more than $730 million in sales during his career, and $360 million of that changed hands in the past three years alone. Since joining the firm in 2002, he has earned six National Achievement Awards and eight Sales Recognition Awards. In the final months of 2012, as capital gains tax changes sent jitters throughout the market, he and his team stood as an anchor for nervous clients, closing $204.76 million worth of deals in the last 60 days of 2012. But behind the impressive numbers and accomplishments is a family man, an author and a musician with a record of consistency—in and out of real estate. Mr. Von Der Ahe sat down with The Commercial Observer last week to discuss real estate, music, career and his family.
The Commercial Observer: The fourth quarter was huge in terms of investment sales. How did your team do?
Mr. Von Der Ahe: For our team it was one of the best quarters, and December was our best month ever. We closed about 16 sales in December. On one of the Thursdays, we closed four deals in one day. It was a nice confluence of events—rising prices, low interest rates, plenty of capital and the added pressure of the tax deadline—that created this perfect storm. If you were in the right space with the right people, a lot of transactions were happening.
How will the first quarter of 2013 pan out? What about the rest of the year?
Your brain kind of works in two ways—you think about what’s happening this month, but you also think about what will happen four or five months from now. You do your planning that way. I was concerned there would be a big drop-off in the first quarter this year, and I think, statistically, you’re going to see fewer sales in the first quarter. But the one thing that has surprised me is that we’re coming out with more inventory in the market this January than we did in January of 2012.
You’ve got heavy demand out there. The tax change didn’t really affect that side of the equation. So if I have to look into my crystal ball and look at 2013, you’re not going to see a huge drop-off in sales numbers. The way it feels is that the first half of the year there will be a healthy amount of activity. What happens during the rest of the year might depend on what goes on with government agencies and lending, which could widen spreads and affect interest rates and pricing. That’s where the biggest risk to transaction velocity is.
Which neighborhoods are hot or up-and-coming?
You have to look at the West Side and everything that’s going on in the northern part of Chelsea. We marketed and sold a new construction building [537 West 27th Street] for Ekstein Development to Tavros Capital Partners for just under $30 million at the end of the year, and we completed a couple of other transactions in that neighborhood last year.
There’s a voracious appetite for any type of investment opportunity in that section of Manhattan, and people are looking forward to it. There’s momentum and inertia because of a number of things—business, commercial, residential and cultural—and investors want to get ahead of it. That whole area of the high 20s and pushing out west from Fifth Avenue is definitely one of the areas to watch.
You’re the top-producing multifamily agent in the Marcus & Millichap’s Manhattan office, and you remain one of the most active brokers in the city. How do you stay so consistent?
I’ve been in this office for over 12 years, so there’s no real secret to that consistency. It’s just showing up every day, listening to what your clients say, listening to the market and just trying to hold yourself accountable to execute on the fundamentals of this business.
The second thing is that there’s lots of opportunity to become distracted—you can get distracted by opportunities within other property types that might not be right. So you have to keep your focus on your specialty and what you do best. That was something that became apparent to us, especially over the past three or four years, as something that we could consistently do. That ultimately benefited our clients. They really appreciate the intense focus.
If you had to choose just one, what’s your most memorable or important deal?
Everybody in this business has their war stories. One of ours was our sale of 220 Park Avenue South a couple of years ago for about $20 million. It had been on the market for maybe two and a half years before we finally picked it up as the third or fourth broker. There were a lot of quirks, both on the property and the financing. We had everything in the book, from J-51 to rent stabilization to issues with the C/O to Local Law 11. It covered the gamut of thorny New York City property issues, combined with a spectrum of personalities with conflicting interests. We are proud of that accomplishment because it was a way to demonstrate our skills, and putting that whole cake together was exciting for us.
How do you manage your team and keep everybody on the same page?
There are two basic themes that we operate by. One is meritocracy: we’re a merit-based group, and everyone has to come in every day and make contributions to the team. The other thing is that we essentially treat each other like you want to be treated. So honesty, trust, forthrightness—those are all things that we stress. Not only do we stress that in working with clients, but it all starts with our internal team culture.
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You wrote a book—Family Secrets: Secret Strategies to New York City Multifamily Investing—which details how to successfully invest in Manhattan. Why did you write it?
The original idea for writing the book came toward the end of 2008 when, obviously, I could see what was happening around us. I was thinking about putting a little side project on my plate because I knew I wouldn’t be as busy with as many transactions.
If you’re in this business, you have experiences that, although it sounds cliché, you couldn’t make the stuff up. They’re entertaining and unusual, and there’s also a lot of on-the-ground knowledge that you can only get by working in this business. You can’t learn it by getting an MBA at one of the real estate programs. It was a fun experience, and I hope to do another one at some point in the future.
You were a trained in jazz piano and were in bands in the past. Can you talk a little bit about that? Do you still find time to play?
I started playing when I was about 11 or 12. My four older brothers were forced to take piano lessons or play some kind of instrument. One of my brothers, when he was about 14, got so tired of being forced to take piano lessons that he … showed up at one of his piano lessons, and he just sat down, and he was naked. The piano teacher then told my mother that she was never coming back inside our house. That was how he got out of playing piano.
Being the youngest of five, by the time I came around, my parents had dropped that rule about being forced to take piano lessons. But as irony would have it, I asked to take lessons, so that whole experience started to become part of my life when I was about 12. I really gravitated toward it. I was introduced to an inspiring teacher who had a serious program on how to teach improvisational piano, and that opened up a whole other world for me. I have a piano in my house and, when I have time, I sit down and play. It’s a great outlet.
What did you learn being the youngest of five brothers?
I guess it adds a little bit to your determination and perseverance. The benefit of being the younger member of a family is that you get to see four other people go through the stages of life that you’re about to encounter, so you kind of get a courtside seat, and you watch that and, frankly, you get to learn from some mistakes. One of the lessons is not to sweat the small stuff and keep your eye on the big picture.
You’re a family man, too. How do you juggle real estate, music and family time?
My wife and I live in Manhattan, and we’ve been married eight years. We also have three sons, and I don’t think we’re going to go for five—three in Manhattan is enough for me [laughs]. The juggling of family and being in this business is difficult, but it’s very important. You have to remind yourself to keep balance, otherwise it will catch up with you. Every week I make sure I’m blocking out certain times for family.