Jonathan Miller is the most accomplished real-estate appraiser in town. In most places, that’s like being the captain of the mathletes team. But in New York, it has the power to make him a near-celebrity. “He is the Encyclopædia Britannica, the Wikipedia of Manhattan real estate,” says broker Suzanne Sealy. In the past year, 300,000 copies of his market surveys were downloaded. “He’s the only appraiser that has groupies!” jokes his business partner, John Cicero. Last month, a seminar with him sold out Avery Fisher Hall. (It’s the room’s only full house this year.)
When he started two decades ago, the business was all brute-force phone- and paperwork. “To find out if a comparable kitchen was renovated, you had to call broker after broker. It felt incredibly inefficient, and a lot of my competitors would just assume everything was the same.” Then as now, the quality of appraisals varied, too. Says one broker: “I had one recently—he was from another planet. He was basing all his valuations on square footage and averages, nothing else. Miller does much more than that.”
What does he do? Miller picks apart blocks and buildings, and then refines the information in new and useful ways. A developer can go to Miller and ask precisely how much he can expect to get for his apartments, given zoning rules, degree of luxury, and various other criteria. It’s Moneyball for properties instead of pitchers, and Miller has the biggest data bank, which in turn produces the most meaningful numbers. “If an appraiser from California came here, he could measure an apartment, look at the ceiling height, note the kitchen,” Miller says. “[But] there’s a point where you leave the objective information. How do you quantify light? Do I measure ultraviolet rays coming through the window? Of course not. So I need to understand by looking at a tax map and elevations of buildings next to me why this line sells for 5 percent more …” Et cetera.
The developer Trevor Stahelski says Miller’s data were crucial on projects like 245 West 115th Street. “I don’t know the guy from Adam, [but] on a case-by-case basis, neighborhood by neighborhood, his reports [help] me to make decisions.” On 115th Street, Stahelski says, Miller’s information showed that slice of Harlem “selling faster and increasing in dollars per square foot.” His bankers, he adds, would likely have rejected data from brokerages, sinking the project at its start.
That impartiality is the second source of Miller’s status. When, at the start of his career, he began producing reports for Douglas Elliman, he extracted a promise that the company would “never, ever, ever, ever, tell me what to say.” Says Elliman chief Dottie Herman today: “I know what we’re reporting is absolute. He would never compromise, and I would never ask him to do that.”
These days, Miller’s chief competition may be only the fast-moving market itself. Leonard Steinberg, a luxury-loft specialist with Elliman, praises Miller’s data for their “validity” but wonders whether they’re as potent as they once were. Today, condos go into contract months before closing, as buyers make deals from floor plans. Miller relies on closed sales only. That means he’s sometimes reporting year-old numbers in a whipsaw market. “What’s happening with signed contracts is a better barometer of the condo market,” Steinberg says. Broker Reba Miller (no relation to Jonathan) adds: “We’re in real time, he’s not. There’s a certain part of the market that he can’t capture, not 100 percent.”
Jonathan Miller agrees, sort of: “That’s absolutely true. But it’s virtually impossible to do a market study based on contracts. You just don’t get enough sampling to make the numbers statistically viable.” Besides, he is selling one other intangible as well, one that he mentioned just before hitting the Avery Fisher stage. Miller was chatting with Kent Swig, the developer who seems to own half the financial district, about last year’s ruling that made co-op sales public. Until then, Miller was one of the few who had those figures. “Everyone’s got the data now, Jonathan,” Miller remembers him teasing. “We’re all the same.”
“Well, Kent,” Miller quipped. “You don’t have me.”