Courtesy of Phil Faranda
Housing today comes in a wide variety of flavors and caters to a host of disparate markets so that everyone can find their home sweet home.
TV used to be three channels. Coffee used to be regular or decaf. And real estate used to be houses or apartments. Today, everything is more complicated. Everything has a niche market.
Niche real estate, says Phil Faranda, principal broker and founder of the Briarcliff Manor-based J. Philip Real Estate, is “analogous to specific areas in the practice of law or medicine or the trades.” According to Faranda, niches in real estate are “low-hanging fruit. A lot of agents don’t leverage it. They want to specialize in everything.”
“First-time buyers are a niche. A specific language is a niche. It’s pretty wide.”
–Phil Faranda, Principal Broker, J. Philip Real Estate
Some niches, like short sales, shift with the needs of the market. Faranda notes that during the Great Recession, many people were “upside down” — their houses were suddenly worth less than the loans they were paying off — and they needed to avoid foreclosure. “I specialized in short sales, negotiating with banks to satisfy the loan,” he says. “I had hundreds of short sales, which saved people from foreclosure.”
Other niches are more constant. “First-time buyers are a niche. A specific language is a niche. It’s pretty wide,” adds Faranda. Geographic areas can be niches, down to a specific neighborhood, subdivision, or ZIP code. Want waterfront? Golf? Niches. Luxury is a niche; so is affordable housing. Rentals, he says, “are probably underserved because they are not sexy. A busy rental agent can always have a good income stream.” Co-op apartments, he says, are a niche that “agents roll their eyes at because of the low prices. They are a lot of work for less money, but they are the most affordable housing in Westchester County and there is a built-in need for it.”
Niche: LGBTQ Community
One niche Faranda’s company focuses on is the LGBTQ community. They started marketing to this demographic around 2006, and in 2021, broker Anthony Ruperto created the Ally Team at J. Philip Real Estate to serve this clientele. The division has its own website, allyhudsonvalley.com, with content specifically geared toward the LGBTQ market. Ruperto is a member of the Hudson Gateway Association of Realtors (HGAR), an organization of more than 13,000 real estate agents in the Hudson Valley. He helped create and serves as co-chair of the new Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee, along with sitting on the Fair Housing and Legislative committees.
“We were approved by Lambda Legal [a national LBGTQ civil rights group] and are also very vocal in adding changes to the Realtor Code of Ethics,” Faranda says. “Until 2010, it was not unethical to refuse service to LGBTQ individuals. Can you believe that?”
To reach specific markets, Faranda says the key is putting out content. “You need a YouTube channel, a website with a blog, and you put content out to your sphere of influence, to past clients, in social media groups, Instagram, Twitter,” he says. And those looking to buy should spend the time and effort to find brokers who know their needs. “I’ve been in many situations, standing in Best Buy, listening to people drive other people to drink over $39 earbuds, but they will go with the first agent they come across,” Faranda notes. “Always vet the agent to make sure they are specialized in what that consumer needs.”
The LGBTQ market has proven very successful. “Yes, it paid off, and I am glad I did it,” he concludes. “Whenever you are on the right side of history, it’s a good business move.”
Rivertowns resident Jenifer Ross, an agent with J. Philip, may be the walking representation of niche marketing. She focuses on multiple niches at once: adults who want to “age in place” in a private home rather than a senior-living center and, more than that, would prefer an architecturally preserved building.
Ross calls this market third-agers: retired or semiretired people with adult children who want to downsize but “are not quite sure what to do with their belongings” and not yet ready (and possibly never ready) for assisted living. “Finding these folks their third-age homes is my passion,” she says. “I’m helping them move to the forever homes, whether it’s a condo, coop, rental, or independent-living situation. I find great joy in helping them with that transition.”
“Westchester is very right for this generation to stick around. They don’t have to head down to Florida.”
–Jenifer Ross, Agent, J. Philip Real Estate
With degrees in gerontology and architectural preservation to go along with her real estate license, Ross is uniquely qualified for this niche. She even helps her clients make design or structural changes to a premises to make it safer and more accessible as they age. “There are so many senior-living communities, but what if you want a forever home, to live the rest of your days comfortably?” she notes. “That’s where I want to focus and create more inventory for this population.”
Westchester, she believes, is a perfect option for these third-agers, who want less upkeep and lower taxes but also want to stay local — in a walkable, urban environment near the friends, relatives, and doctors they already know. “Westchester is very right for this generation to stick around. They don’t have to head down to Florida,” asserts Ross.
Niche: Seniors Seeking Luxury
Seniors make up perhaps the biggest and fastest-growing niche market, and Westchester is awash with communities to accommodate them. One of the latest is Waterstone of Westchester, a luxury senior-living community in White Plains that caters to adults 62 and older.
“It is estimated that there are 73 million people over 65, so communities like ours are in demand.”
– Laurence Gerber, President & CEO, Epoch Senior Living
“It is estimated that there are 73 million people over 65, so communities like ours are in demand,” says Laurence Gerber, president and CEO of Epoch Senior Living. Senior-living communities like Waterstone, developed by Epoch and National Development, provide older adults with the opportunity to stay close to their friends and families, religious centers, clubs, and community organizations while expanding their social circles.
“When I started the company, my vision was to create a place that would provide for each person’s physical, emotional, and mental well-being. I wanted to provide seniors with the support they need to live happy, carefree, and healthy lifestyles — but, most of all, ones that are connected,” Gerber says.
The rental/lease performance for the new property is going very well and is ahead of projections, he adds. “We are very pleased with the reception we have gotten in the Westchester market.”
Waterstone’s location, in Downtown White Plains, with restaurants, shops, and cultural activities all within walking distance, is a “perfect fit for our new community,” according to Joanna Cormac-Burt, COO of Epoch Senior Living. Westchester remains an attractive location for seniors, they say, because of its proximity to New York City. Waterstone is located across the street from Bloomingdale’s, a short walk from stores and restaurants, like Whole Foods and The Cheesecake Factory, and just two blocks away from The Westchester mall. The property also is close to I-287 and not far from the White Plains Metro-North train station.
“It’s always important for housing to meet the needs of the homeowner,” Cormac-Burt says. “We pay close attention to detail. Each Waterstone property is designed to reflect the community.” Westchester-based Elkus Manfredi Architects tried to create a sophisticated, urban feel to match the Downtown White Plains environment, which Cormac-Burt says was an essential element of the property’s ambience. “Waterstone of Westchester is a very sleek, contemporary building. Cast-in-place concrete floor slabs mimic the high-rise buildings that evoke the dynamic qualities of a city. The interior has high ceilings, chandeliers, and glass-panelized wall systems, adding the open feel of floor-to-ceiling windows.”
Waterstone also represents another niche: high-end real estate. Today’s economy has put a serious damper on future projects like this, according to the developers. “We are always looking for good opportunities but do not currently have any other projects planned in Westchester. With construction costs and interest rates having increased so much, the cost of new projects has increased so dramatically, it would be prohibitively expensive to start a project like Waterstone at this time,” says Gerber.
Like all economic cycles, this too shall pass. Eventually. When it does, the developers will certainly jump back in. “We believe that there is always a market for your product if you target it to the correct market,” Gerber adds. “Westchester is a diverse place that offers a multitude of opportunities. If you build it, and build it well, they will come.”
It’s a sad state of affairs when housing that normal, non-millionaire-types can afford is also considered a niche, but such is the case in Westchester. For many years, the Westchester County Association (WCA), one of the county’s most prominent business membership organizations, has been advocating affordable housing.
“It’s one of the linchpins or foundations of building a vibrant economy,” says Michael Romita, WCA president and CEO. From healthcare workers to staff accountants to the people who make your morning latte, affordable housing “pretty much touches every single industry out there,” he says. “To attract and retain talented employees, businesses need a pipeline of workers living in the neighborhoods they are trying to reach. If we don’t have housing opportunities for our workers, our communities and businesses are going to struggle and suffer,” Romita says.
In November 2022, the WCA’s real estate task force pushed out a five-point plan for the county to target its share of the federal American Rescue Plan Act funds for affordable-housing initiatives. The WCA plan calls for tax credits, a re-zoning overhaul, infrastructure improvements, grants for multifamily-unit preservation, and a focus on the adaptive re-use of the county’s woeful overstock of empty commercial space. The group also lobbies the issue in Albany. “New York is alone among our peer states in failing to address this issue at the state level,” Romita notes. “Massachusetts and Connecticut have already taken this on, to great success.”
The biggest obstacle in New York, he says, is the concept of municipal home rule, which gives every city, town, and village a say in what’s built in its jurisdiction. Developers have to “go town by town and village by village,” according to Romita, “and we have about 45 different governing bodies, each with its own set of rules and regulations, which are not consistent. It’s common for developers to have to run an extensive gauntlet of approval processes that are very difficult to meet. Our approach is to ask the state legislature to step in and create a statewide solution.”
Despite these strong headwinds, he notes several projects already up or in the works that include “adaptive re-use” and “build to suit” (BTS), where a commercial property tenant works with a developer to construct a new, custom-built facility for lease. Some of these projects even include a residential component, such as the site of the former United Hospital in Port Chester, where there will be 18,000 square feet of residential space available for seniors seeking care and assisted-living services.
Both the Galleria and White Plains Mall are also partnering with developers to repurpose space to cater to residents seeking more affordable and convenient options. The most important issues in Westchester real estate, Romita says, is “continuing adaptive re-use of commercial office space, affordable housing, and sustainability.” Each will be a big ask in one of the most expensive counties in the country.
Sometimes you can even find a niche within a niche. Senior-living communities can be built in lots of places — including on a college or university campus. The concept has its own moniker, university-based retirement community (UBRC), and the first one in the Tristate region is currently being developed at Purchase College. Known as Broadview Senior Living at Purchase College, the community will feature 220 independent-living apartments and villas for seniors ages 62 and older.
Broadview will also offer assisted-living apartments and memory-care units for those who need such services as they grow older. Those features are not unusual for a senior community, of course. What is unusual is that residents have access to many of the college’s amenities, including dining venues, a fitness center, heated indoor pool, salon, library, and movie theater. A landscaped area will include walking paths, gardens, an outdoor dining area, and an amphitheater for summer performances. In addition, Broadview will have the Learning Commons, which will house classrooms, art studios, a performance space, makers space, and a café. Residents will be able to audit classes on the Purchase College campus and attend theatrical, cultural, and sporting events for a nominal fee.
“Purchase has a robust usership in that we knew there was an audience and that older adults in the area are interested in being engaged in the campus.”
–Ashley Wade, Executive Director, Broadview Senior Living
The developer, Lifecare Services, is the second-largest senior-services developer in country, says Broadview’s executive director, Ashley Wade, but this is its first UBRC.
According to Wade, a UBRC provides a platform for intergenerational engagement and opportunity, allowing for additional programming for students, faculty, and residents. New York State passed legislation allowing the project to proceed, she says, with the following stipulations:
- The college will lease the land to Broadview, allowing the community to develop 40 previously undeveloped acres of land to construct the retirement community.
- Broadview makes an annual lease payment to the college, and the proceeds realized by the college are earmarked at 75% for student scholarships, 25% for faculty and staff support.
- The college and Broadview are to remain financially autonomous, with no comingling of funds.
- No funds from the college were used in the development of Broadview, and it was financed through the sale of tax-exempt municipal bonds.
- Broadview must retain a nonprofit status.
- 20% of the retirement residences must be offered at a below-market rate.
As of November, Broadview has reservation deposits on over 90% of the independent residences, Wade says. The project was the university’s idea. The state allows all adults ages 60 and older to audit classes at its public colleges at a low price. “Purchase has a robust usership in that we knew there was an audience and that older adults in the area are interested in being engaged in the campus,” Wade says. Wade adds that the UBRC model embraces the best of how we want to live in a community, bringing generations together in a thriving community. The students benefit as well. “Imagine taking a history class, talking about the Vietnam War and sitting next to someone who was actually there,” she says. “Or an aspiring physician talking to a longtime practicing physician. Those shared experiences are really healthy and positive for everyone involved.”
Westchester County is ideal for this type of project, she says. “It offers unrivaled access to academic, intellectual, and cultural pursuits many older adults seek. Additionally, there is the proximity to parks, natural and historic attractions, coupled with strong healthcare resources in the area.”
Joe Maymi, an agent with Howard Hanna Rand Realty in White Plains, fell into a small niche about 25 years ago. “I got in by accident, around 1998 or 1999, when I got an assignment from my broker,” he says. The assignment: Work with a bank to market and sell a real-estate-owned (REO) property. REO properties are owned by a lender after they fail to sell in a foreclosure auction. They are mostly residential properties that the bank wants to get off its books as quickly as possible.
“Banks don’t want to take the houses back. They set the price and hire real estate agents to market it,” Maymi says. “They are sold as-is, so it’s always ‘buyer beware.’ But some can be pretty great discounts.” REO properties also may need a little or a lot of repair work. They are marketed like any other property, placed on the Multiple Listing Service (MLS), and are only allowed to be sold to an owner/occupant, not an investor, for typically the first three weeks on the market.
“They are sold as-is, so it’s always ‘buyer beware.’ But some can be pretty great discounts.”
– Joe Maymi, Agent, Howard Hanna Realty
As one might expect, the REO niche fluctuates. There was lots of inventory after the Great Recession of 2008. But the pandemic shut down the market as banks worked hard to keep their mortgagees in their homes. After the pandemic lockdowns, as housing prices skyrocketed, homeowners became able to sell their now-more-valuable homes more easily and avoid foreclosure. Over the past six months, however, Maymi says he has seen more auctions at county courthouses.
Part of the appeal of this niche, Maymi says, is that there is no emotion to the sale of an REO. “It’s literally a number they look for,” he notes. “That’s the beauty.” On the other hand, the process of foreclosure and eviction can take six to 12 months, and on occasion, the bank will sell it themselves as part of a bigger investment portfolio. In this case scenario, the agent receives no commission. The REO market, Maymi says, is not for the faint of heart. “Just because it says ‘foreclosure,’ people think they’ll get a great deal. That’s not always the case. A great deal means the house requires a tremendous amount of work, so much work, it’s not mortgageable,” he advises. “If you got a good deal, there is a reason why.”