For years, the standard profile of a real-estate agent was an SUV-driving suburban matron, or, like Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe in Independence Day, a burnt-out divorcé looking for a fresh start selling split-levels in New Jersey. It was often a place where one ended up, rather than began. In New York, at least, that’s changing. Fueled by record-high housing values, a wave of speculative development, and a radically constricted supply of residential units, real estate has become not only the city’s most lucrative investment, but its ever-grander obsession.
This is a city, after all, where an Elliman agent recently parked her car in front of an open lot in Chelsea and sold five $1 million condos from the backseat by showing buyers the site through a hole in the fence. Whether the popularity of The Apprentice has anything to do with its setting in the real-estate industry, the networks aren’t taking any chances: Both ABC and NBC have real-estate series in the pipeline—the imaginatively titled Hot Properties and Hot Property, respectively. (Shvo says he was approached by one of the big-four networks to star in his own reality show, but passed to devote his time to his company.)
Brokers, meanwhile, are morphing into this decade’s Masters of the Universe. “The prices are larger than life, so why shouldn’t the brokers be larger than life?” says Lockhart Steele, the founder of the popular real-estate blog Curbed, itself a beneficiary of the overheated real-estate market. “This whole idea that brokers are the new celebrities—Shvo’s right on the forefront of that,” Steele says.
It’s undeniable that any 32-year-old multimillionaire who showed up in New York less than ten years ago with just a few thousand dollars to his name and not an ounce of professional experience, then promptly went on to eat the lunch of pretty much everyone in his field, would engender a certain amount of professional enmity. That he’s good at what he does probably doesn’t help: He’s forward-thinking (he pairs developers of his high-end buildings with well-known architects, like art-world favorite Richard Gluckman, to generate buzz), he’s almost pathologically hardworking (he’s regularly at his office past midnight—his secretaries and receptionists have day and evening shifts), he goes to extreme lengths to please clients (from getting near-impossible restaurant reservations to placing calls to help their kids get into the right school), he is a gifted salesman and born charmer (he coaxed me up to the 45th floor of Bryant Park Tower despite the fact that I have a fear of heights so debilitating I often throw up), and he’s a relentless deal-closer (one Friday, a buyer, who was in Mexico City, was wavering about signing a contract. “I said, ‘I need it signed today,’ and she was jerking us around, and I got a little pissy with that,” says Shvo. Rejecting her offer to FedEx it by Monday, he went straight to the airport, flew to Mexico City, got her signature, and headed back that evening).
Professional envy aside, Shvo seems to possess a special gift for incurring people’s wrath. “If you talk to 100 people,” says Andrew Gerringer, managing director of Douglas Elliman’s Development Marketing Group, “you’d probably hear 99 people who have nothing nice to say about him, and the other one probably just doesn’t know him.” Adds Pamela Liebman, president and CEO of the Corcoran Group, “In my twenty years in this business, I have never seen one man inspire such across-the-board loathing.”
What makes him so reviled? Even by the spiffed-up standards of the modern broker, Shvo, with his hair and his suits and his $800 Louis Vuitton shoes, is over-the-top. His appearance alone might not inspire cries of rampant egoism, but then there are comments like this: “This comes from my whole life philosophy that anything you do, you should do the best way, and that includes the way I dress,” he says, picking an invisible piece of lint off his suit. “When it came to my office, I’ve had them install my wood panels four times because the grain didn’t look right to me,” he says. “Now it’s perfect.”
Shvo owns apartments in many buildings—three in the Oxford on the Upper East Side, four in the Downtown by Philippe Starck on Broad Street, and his main residence in the Grand Millennium, on the Upper West Side, for instance—but he claims he has no idea how many apartments he owns altogether. That kind of showboating drives competitors mad. “He told the New York Times that he bought around 35 apartments,” says Liebman, “but he can’t really remember. Does anybody really believe that?”
Shvo isn’t shy about his own professional importance, either. The real-estate business, according to Shvo, badly needs his youthful perspective. “Nobody has a young dynamic,” he says. “Your average apartment buyer today isn’t in their sixties, they’re in their thirties.” Developers, he says, “want somebody who understands technology, not somebody who is just trying to understand how their e-mail works.”