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Barbara Corcoran, the Jim Cramer of the Real Estate Business

Almost every Friday on the "Today" show, the real estate queen Barbara Corcoran advises people to buy a home.

Barbara Corcoran

It’s pouring rain outside, but in a green room at the “Today” show’s Rockefeller Center studios, the sun is shining in the form of Barbara Corcoran. Cue cards? Check. Coffee with cream and copious amounts of sugar? Check. Almost every Friday, the pixieish real estate queen with the short blonde hair comes here in her shiny, fluorescent suits and delivers her ebullient shtick about what a great time it is to buy a home, recession be damned.


First, there’s the $239,000 property in Indianapolis. Corcoran takes a highlighter and runs it over the catchphrases she’ll use to tout it. Chief among them: Indianapolis is “home to the 2011 Super Bowl.”

This story first appeared in the July 10, 2009 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Then there’s the $335,000 house in Shakopee, Minn., that’s 3,000 square feet (“feels like 6,000”) and sits “right” on the Minnesota River, with a “very luxurious” living room, and a working fireplace.

“It’s funny,” Corcoran says, taking a swig of coffee. “When I was young, I sat around writing ads for every broker in my firm. Now, years later, I’m still here, still writing ads.”

That’s a pretty good way of putting it. In a world where the line between news and entertainment has become virtually nonexistent, Corcoran, 60, is a talking head whose job is to get people excited about spending their money. Two years ago, the former head of the Corcoran Group became a weekly contributor to the “Today” show, and her job since then has largely been as an on-air purveyor of real estate porn.

When the market was ascendant, Corcoran used booming housing prices as evidence that there was no better purchase than a home. Now the market has tanked and she’s still advising people to buy. The current argument: Don’t miss out on the deal of a lifetime. Like a Jim Cramer of real estate, it’s go, go, go all the time.

Economic forecasters say the prices of residential listings may still drop over the next year as foreclosures flood the market, but not Corcoran. She is a self-described eternal optimist and self-described eternal optimists do not advise you to stockpile your cash and wait for the economic fog to lift. “I already think the market is improving vastly,” Corcoran had said a few weeks earlier, during a visit to her Upper East Side offices. “I think by the fall, people will acknowledge things have changed.”

Of course, she’s said that before.

In 2007, after the bubble began to burst, Matt Lauer said to Corcoran on “Today,” “We’re talking about the worst housing market in generations, or a generation. What happened?”

She replied, “I think the worst is behind us. You should know that, right now, prices are at their lowest point, in my belief.”

Corcoran then urged people to buy, saying there were “good deals” everywhere, and even encouraged those with adjustable rate mortgages to hold off on selling their homes, lest the market rebound, leaving them in the dust.

“Let’s say you could get 5 or 7 percent more a year from now — if I’m right, and I might not be — then it still pays to hold on to the house.”

 

 

Since then, housing prices have plunged 30 to 40 percent, foreclosures have gone through the roof, and unemployment has skyrocketed to 9.5 percent.

What sort of evidence was Corcoran relying on when she went on the air two years ago and made these prognostications? “Wishful thinking,” she says now. “Obviously, I was dead wrong. Do I regret it? No. Fortunately not everyone is as diligent as you to go and look it up.”

If Corcoran’s statements about the recession haven’t damaged her with “Today,” it’s probably because she is earnest and upbeat, perfect casting for the show’s perky crew. They’ll cover job losses, but in between segments where they showcase mascara and bikinis. They aren’t going to wallow in bad news and drag on endlessly about the Great Depression 2.0, and neither is she. The first words out of her mouth on air this particular morning are “Back with better houses.” Even her clothes — on air, at least, she seems to have a categorical aversion to black — are unfailingly cheery. She has a smile that never fades and a habit of nodding in agreement with everything Al Roker says. He is the man now responsible for interviewing her week after week, and on most occasions, Corcoran begins bobbing her head in approval before he’s even started talking.

Perhaps that’s because she has a pretty good idea of what’s about to come out of his mouth.

“I write all the questions,” she says, back in the green room. “I do the whole segment. It’s very hard work.”

 

• • •

Hang around Corcoran for more than five minutes and you’re likely to catch her flirting with (or flattering) someone. She flirts with the gray-haired cameramen at “Today.” “You don’t look a day over 35,” she’ll say. And Roker. “We’re going to take our show on the road,” he says, after taping their segment. To which she replies: “Yeah, but I’ve gotta watch out for his wife.” Even this reporter. On three separate occasions, Corcoran grabs my legs and my arms and tells me how muscular I am. “Wow! Wow!” she says, all bright-eyed and amazed, as she feels my thigh. “I go to the gym three days a week and it’s the worst part of my day. How do you get like that? I wish I could do that.”

Then there is her habit of ribbing people just hard enough that they feel like they’re talking to a real person.

Backstage, she runs into the financial guru Jim Rogers. “He works for Fox News,” she says, in a loud stage whisper. “Tar and feather the guy.” Then to him: “Congratulations. I heard you sold your house.” (He later explains he no longer has an affiliation with Fox.)

With Corcoran, it’s all about establishing a kind of jokey intimacy, as quickly as possible. A little off color, but never truly offensive. And if you’d like her to speak differently, all you have to do is tell her what to say. As a pundit, her shtick is so codified she’s easy to channel.

One day in May, Corcoran is holding court at her Upper East Side offices with Marie McGovern, an editor from the Daily News, and a small camera crew. Corcoran writes for the paper frequently, and today they are filming a series of webisodes giving advice on selling your home. McGovern’s detailed outline amounts to having written both the questions and the answers.

Says Corcoran, “I read your notes and it’s like it’s me speaking. It’s so weird.”

“I know,” says McGovern. “I started writing and after a little while it was like ‘I can sound like Barbara Corcoran. It’s not that difficult.’”

Corcoran laughs and then begins the monologue she was asked to deliver. “The most important thing you want to figure out before you even call the realtor is ‘What is my house worth?’” she says. “And here’s how you go about it. You go out and look at competitive houses that are your enemies’ houses.”

After the take finishes, McGovern lobs another softball, this time about how to update a Seventies bathroom. “You could talk about changing the towels and the rugs,” McGovern says, “adding some splashy color.”

For 30 minutes, it goes on like this, as the Daily News gives Corcoran questions to answer, then supplies her with instructions on how to answer them. The United States may be in the midst of the worst economy in 50 years, but as Corcoran presents it, the biggest mistakes sellers are making are not putting flowers in the window and failing to grout the bathroom floor. Occasionally, Corcoran goes off the script a little, injecting a slightly off-color joke, such as advising that you replace your toilet seat “because no one wants to pee on somebody else’s toilet seat.” But it never stops being light.

In between takes, the two women shoot the breeze. “I got a complaint yesterday for using foul language in a speech I gave,” Corcoran says. “I said, ‘holy s–t.’ I mean, what other word can you use? There’s no other word you can substitute for that. People loved my language. I usually get compliments on it. It makes them trust me. They say ‘She tells it like it is.’”

In fact, there are dozens of phrases one can substitute for holy s–t starting with “oh my gosh,” but Corcoran avoids them when possible because they do not fit as readily within her media persona.

She tells dirty jokes, uses bad words, and makes vaguely inappropriate comments about your physical appearance less because she’s a different kind of real estate broker than because she’s selling you the idea of a different kind of real estate broker. By being ever so slightly inappropriate (more PG-13 than R rated) she says, “I’m your friend, not your salesperson.” It’s smart, another way to close the deal.

“She was constantly telling her brokers how attractive they were,” recalls a former Corcoran underling. “The first time I was in the office she felt my butt and said something like, ‘Welcome to the office.’ Or she’d squeeze a guy’s arm and say ‘You’re so muscular.’ She’s not hitting on you, she’s selling you. It usually works.”

 

 

• • •

A hallmark of self-branding is the tendency to turn everything into a life lesson, and there is almost nothing that’s happened to Barbara Ann Corcoran that she hasn’t used to her advantage. All the problems she’s encountered, all the adversity she’s faced, have only served as object lessons on how to make lemonade from lemons.

Corcoran grew up the second of 10 children in New Jersey with a father who was a press foreman and a mother who was a housewife. The family lived in a two-bedroom house in Edgewater — six girls in one bedroom, four boys in another, and their parents on a pullout sofa in the living room. “We called it a Castro controvertible because it added a little sex appeal,” she says.

Dyslexia nearly ruined her life. “I hated school. It was like a jail sentence,” Corcoran says, riding back to her offices from “Today” in a town car. “I couldn’t wait to get out. But at home I was my mother’s favorite or I thought I was. I entertained the kids, I was funny, everybody wanted to be around me. So I was very outgoing at home, and enormously quiet at school. I think kids learn shame early when they’re asked to read out loud and can’t do it. That was what I woke up and worried about.”

Still, she says, being dyslexic forced her to use her imagination, to be charming and fill in the blanks, which is what good salesmanship is all about.

After high school, Corcoran enrolled at St. Thomas Aquinas College in Rockland County, N.Y. It wasn’t a great school (“I don’t think they rejected anyone back then,” she says) and higher learning wasn’t really her objective. “The truth is, I didn’t really have a desire to go to college,” Corcoran continues. “It was a stall tactic for me because I didn’t know what else to do. It was $350 a year and I took out a student loan. Imagine going to college for $350 a year!”

While there, she worked as a waitress in a diner, which is where she met the most stylish man west of Manhattan: Ramòne Simòne, aka the Dark Knight. He had jet black hair, blue aviator shades, was perpetually tan, and drove a buttercup yellow Lincoln Continental, the kind with a hump in the back. He also worked in real estate and invested $1,000 in the real estate firm they started together.

Corcoran’s parents hated him on sight, and with good reason: Ramòne Simòne was actually Ray Simon, and after eight years together, the partnership disintegrated when he left Corcoran for her secretary. But Corcoran took it in stride and, lo and behold, it wound up being the best thing that ever happened to her.

She took seven brokers (half the office) upstairs and started her own real estate business. At first, it was slow going. But then she called a publicist named Steve Solomon and he told her the fastest way to get her name into the papers was to provide reporters with a survey that contained lots of data. “The media love numbers,” he told her. Thus, The Corcoran Report came about and a real estate star was born.

“The only information I had gathered for it was a list of our apartment sales over the last six months, exactly 11,” Corcoran wrote in her 2004 biography, “If You Don’t Have Big Breasts Put Ribbons on Your Pigtails,” which is divided into — what else? — a series of lessons. “So I added up all the sale prices and divided by 11. I checked it twice and the answer was $254,232. I rounded up to an even $255,000 and typed in the words “Average Apartment Price” next to it.

Of course, extrapolating the average price of a Manhattan apartment by taking a snapshot like this is an inexact science at best. But over the next several years, Corcoran’s competitors routinely complained she was courting the press with flimsy and misleading information, and it never made any difference. In a market filled with new money, the city’s tony firms were dinosaurs, operating on the antiquated notion that rich people never, ever discussed exactly how rich they were (or how much money they’d just made off a sale).

“Sotheby’s and Brown Harris Stephens would never voluntarily talk to the press about a deal, but she did,” recalls Deborah Schoeneman, the former real estate columnist from the New York Observer and New York Magazine. “She understood that getting her name out there only brought more sales to her company. She gave you data. She made your job easy.”

Corcoran was also the first New York broker who truly figured out how to use the Internet as a virtual showroom for her properties and was one of a select few to employ an advertising department to oversee listings in The New York Times.

The real estate powerhouse Deborah Grubman, whom Corcoran recruited from the boutique Upper East Side firm Alice Mason, recalls the difference between her new and old firms. “I had good experience at Alice Mason but we were 12 people so I did everything myself, including my ads. When I came to Corcoran, I reserved a page in the Times’ Home supplement, I took the photographs, did the display copy and brought it to my manager. She said, ‘What did you do that for? You don’t have to do that. We have an advertising department.’ I was shocked. It was like going from the Earth to Mars.”

By the turn of the millennium, the Corcoran Group had grown from seven brokers to over 400 and was doing more than $2 billion worth of deals a year. As for the actual average price of a Manhattan apartment, it had risen to $750,000, according to industry estimates.

 

 

 

• • •

To hear Corcoran tell it, her grand plan was never to become a pundit. Right after 9/11, she sold her firm to the Cendant Corp. for $67 million and prepared to walk away from it all. The windfall was unbelievable, especially to her. Finally, she’d have time for her husband Bill, a former FBI agent and real estate broker, and their son Tom, then seven. Corcoran didn’t have children until her mid 40s, at which time her younger sister carried a baby for her. (Her daughter Kate, now four, was adopted in 2005.)

The sale should have been the best thing that ever happened to her. Instead, Corcoran became miserably unhappy.

“I thought I would feel free as a bird and enjoy the quote ‘fruits of my labor,’” says Corcoran. “It was horrible. I woke up everyday fighting depression.”

So she began to think about a second career. First, she considered public relations. “I would have been great at p.r.,” she says. “What stopped me from going into it was that I’d have some poo-head guy who was no good on air, and couldn’t talk in a sound bite and I’d be doing press releases for him and flattering his ego as to why he wasn’t getting any coverage.”

This is the official story. The unofficial story is that Corcoran had turned over the day-to-day management of the company to Pamela Liebman, a protégé of hers, but hoped to remain in place as the face of the brand after the sale went through. Yet as time wore on, Corcoran’s relationships with Liebman and Cendant soured, according to multiple sources at the firm. Her former acolyte turned out to not want to share the spotlight after all. Cendant, then a public company, is said to have grown uncomfortable with Corcoran’s outsize persona.

“By the time Barbara left, she and Pam were barely speaking,” says a person who worked with both of them at the time.

“I don’t believe in bad-mouthing people,” Corcoran says later, when confronted with the differing account of her departure from her firm. “So what you see as less than honest, I see as smart business. Nothing’s gained if you don’t keep the positive moving forward. So what I choose to do, and sometimes it’s hard, is mainline the positive. Because that kind of thinking gets you the best out of life.”

In 2005, Corcoran rode out with a bang. She arrived at her retirement party in a cowgirl get-up from a store she refers to as “the gay men’s shop” in the West Village and exited the venue atop a white horse. “It cost $1,000 extra for a white one, and it was a cliché, but I didn’t want them saying ‘She rode out on a black horse,’” Corcoran recalls.

She also managed to irk the top brass of the company by delivering a speech at the party in which she said to her sales staff, “Thank you for making me rich,” and then added, “I look forward to hiring you in my next business.”

“I was saying it in jest,” Corcoran says, laughing. “But that is not how it was received by upper management.”

Around this time, Corcoran published the breezy self-help book, the one with the superlong Helen Gurley Brown-esque title. She also stepped up her TV appearances, providing commentary on everything from trends in the housing market to updates on what was happening to Britney Spears’ Malibu, Calif., compound in the wake of her split from former husband Kevin Federline. It wasn’t quite a career yet, but Corcoran liked the attention.

Soon after, she got deals with ABC and Fox News. In 2007, just before the real estate bubble burst, she moved to “Today” as its “contributing real estate agent.”

This fall, Corcoran will enter the world of reality TV as a regular on Mark Burnett’s new ABC show “Shark Attack.” On it, entrepreneurs seeking out venture capital will consult with titans of industry.

From time to time, Corcoran’s slightly wacky sense of humor has gotten her into hot water. On “Today” in late April, Corcoran wound up in a minicontroversy when she said a small guesthouse in one of the properties she was showing was good “if you have a little midget.”

“My big mouth has gotten me in a lot of trouble and it’s also made me a lot of money,” she says, adding of the aforementioned midget gaffe: “That was nothing.”

Perhaps more significant are the mistakes Corcoran has made about the scope of the recession, which raise a larger question: Whom does Barbara Corcoran serve on air — the “Today” show viewers or her former colleagues in the real estate business?

It was one thing to hype the New York real estate market in an effort to get a little more money out of hedge fund managers and Russian oligarchs. It’s another when she’s showing houses on the most watched morning show in America, a program where the average viewer is middle class and likely assumes that because Corcoran no longer has a financial stake in her company, she (and “Today”) have their best interests at heart.

“I still believe buying a home is the best investment you can make,” Corcoran says. “I mean, it’s hard to look at it that way now, but most people who retire, what do they retire on? Certainly not Social Security. They retire on cashing out of a home. And you know why else I believe it’s the best investment for the average American? Because buying a home is forced savings. A lot of us, including me, do not have the discipline to save. When you’re paying off a mortgage it’s forced savings. If you judge it in the context of the last few years, you say ‘What?’ But over the long haul, believe me, it’s savings. If you can stick with it.”

For what it’s worth, Corcoran adds that she’s made a lot of dough not only from the deals her firm made, but also from multiple properties she bought and sold herself over the years. “I put my money where my mouth is,” she says. “I’m an optimist. That’s what I got from my mother and it influences everything I do, including real estate. I see the bright side of things. And real estate should be seen in a positive light. Yes, I’ve had some clunkers, but there have been many more ups than downs.”

 

 

 

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