By Linda O’Flanagan
By all accounts, Caroline Bass’ career in real estate should have been an unmitigated disaster.
She was 22, grew up on a farm and had virtually nothing in the way of liquid assets. She was paying $725 a month to share an apartment with three Craigslist roomates on 151st Street and winter was just around the corner.
“My first six months in New York was a lonely and tough time,” recalled Bass. “I knew nothing about New York City, the subways or how to navigate around the numbers on the buildings
“I was eating Ramen Noodles and pizza and had major credit card debt. It was 2005, a very hot time in real estate, but everyone I met was incredibly competitive. There were a lot of very aggressive brokers out there, and that’s just not in my personality.”
By Christmas, she was ready to admit defeat and head back home to East Windsor, Connecticut. Perhaps she’d go back to her first job out of college working for a local artist organizing exhibition space and making sculpture replicas for sale on the mass market.
But then, Caroline Bass figured out how to make it work. Something amazing happened. Well, two things really.
First, Gordon Golub, then the Upper East Side office manager at Citi Habitats, called her in for a pep talk. “He sat me down and introduced me to Christine Toe [now a top Corcoran broker]. They convinced me there were honest, ethical, nice people out there and that I just had to keep trying and I’d eventually get it. Christine became a huge mentor to me and she was one of the main reasons I decided to stay in real estate.
“Gordon told me to give it one more month. Unlike me at the time, he knew December was always a quiet month for rentals. I had nothing to compare it with, so I decided to stick it out.”
Then, she answered a call to appear on Tim Gunn’s Guide To Style, an offshoot of the Project Runway franchise that saw the fashion consultant and former New School chair give some style-impaired professional a grooming makeover.
“When I went on his show, he called me dowdy. I was wearing old-lady suits with the idea that I would try to make myself look older, more experienced. I’d been having a tough time trying to get people who wanted to rent $5,000 apartments take me seriously. They always asked, ‘How old are you?’
“Tim was 100 percent right, though. I did look dowdy. He showed me how to dress as a business professional in smart skirt-suits, jackets, blazers and pants that flattered me instead of making me look like a little girl dressed up in her mom’s clothes.”
Whether it was the advice of the fashion guru or the rental maven, or perhaps a combination of the two, things did start to turn around for Bass.
“I don’t know whether [the makeover] changed people’s perspective of me, or whether I just felt more confident [as a result of the mentoring from her seniors] but I looked good, and I felt good … and then I rented an apartment.”
In fact, she rented six in that first month of 2006. And six more every month thereafter for the next two years.
“I started off with what I was comfortable with,” recalled Bass, who found herself finally clocking up the deals in the booming Harlem neighborhood she herself called home. “Then Gordon sat me down again and told me, ‘If you can do it there, you can do it anywhere,’ and sent me further south.”
And boy, did she make that work. Bass collected Citi Habitats’ Rookie of the Year award that year then Outstanding Customer Service Award and the elite Platinum Award. She was twice named Top Producing Agent for sales and rentals and Top Rental Agent for her Upper East Side office.
In 2008, just three years after entering the business, she won the Real Estate Board of New York’s prestigious Deal of the Year for a $30,000 Upper West Side co-op rental and, last year, The Real Deal named her the Best Rental Agent in Manhattan
“I was intimidated at first,” Bass admitted of her novice years, “but once the first deal turned out okay, I got a confidence boost.”
As her workload grew, Bass found she couldn’t handle it all on her own and, in 2008, she formed her own team — full time assistant, Mary Angelo, and two full-time commission-based agents, Maura McNally and Mike Camerlengo. “I had started to reach saturation point and I thought it would be a better way to serve my clients if I trained people to work the way I did.”
Today, Bass doesn’t confine herself to doing deals in one neighborhood and is as self-assured doing business from Battery Park City to Inwood. She still has a penchant for deals close to home, though home is now Ruxton Towers on the Upper West Side.
“I put everyone I know in my building because I love it so much,” she said. “I’ve lived there for three years. The location is amazing and the building includes all utilities, its close to the park and there’s a farmers market, Fairways and Trader Joe’s.
“And,” she joked, “now that I have such a great sense of style, thanks to Mr Gunn, I can shop in all the boutiques and department stores along Columbus Avenue!”
Despite, or perhaps because of the recession, Bass has seen her business thrive. “I was lucky because my clients are now starting to turn into sales clients and I have been able to do sales along the way. I might have been in big trouble otherwise.
“A lot of foreign buyers are coming to New York because they see it as a safe place to invest their money. A lot of people are buying larger, $1 million-plus apartments, deciding now is time to buy before prices start going up again. With rates as low as they are, it’s a great investment for people.
“Rentals are incredibly strong. Even though there is usually a drop-off in the winter market, I did nine rental deals last month — that’s really unusual for October.
“I think the competition for rentals was so intense during the summer, a lot of people who didn’t have to move stayed put in the hope they might get a better deal. Now they are all moving again.
“The market is stable right now, and I don’t see there being any dip in prices or landlords trying to raise prices because the summer was so strong.”
One property where Bass has been seeing a lot of business is the Frank Gehry tower at 8 Spruce Street. “I just did a client party at the building and had 140 people attend,” she said, noting she has three appointments their with potential renters next week.
She’s also working towards her MBA in marketing and entrepreneurship at Baruch College with an eye to breaking into the new development market.
“At some point down the line, selling a building is something I want to do — that’s something I haven’t yet conquered.”
If there is anyone who believes conquering that mountain is only a matter of time, it’s Gordon Golub, now executive vice president and director of rentals at Citi Habitats.
“A real estate career can be very challenging, especially in the beginning,” said Golub this week. “Caroline had the innate confidence and perseverance to move forward — even though, like all new agents, she faced a lot of rejection. Instead of dwelling on the negative, she instead focused her attention on ways to build and improve her client-relations skills and market knowledge.
“Even in December, the dead of winter, she made a commitment to show apartments to 20 clients in 20 days… she would come back to the office exhausted. After every single appointment, we would talk about what went wrong and right about each meeting, and strategize ways to improve next time.
“It paid off. Since that December, she has continued to produce, and grow her business. She has risen to the top strictly through hard work and professionalism. No one deserves it more.”
And what about Mr Gunn? Well, he too saw that inner drive in Bass and retained her as his broker when he purchased a million dollar penthouse last year.