By Konrad Putzier
Investors from around the world may be calling New York a safe haven, but for Maria Daou the metaphor has a special meaning.
Growing up in Lebanon, her move to the Big Apple as a teenager was an escape from civil war. Today, the broker with Warburg Realty says her foreign upbringing has helped her relate to international buyers, who make up about one third of her clientele. It may have also influenced the way she handles her customers.
Daou describes herself as “brutally honest” — an arguably un-American trait. But she is far from rude. “I want to be the nicest broker in the world,” she said. “I have been accused of being too much of a hand holder. But when I became a broker, I thought: if I do it, I’ll do it this way. I want clients to feel that they are getting the best treatment.”
She added that she often stays friends with her clients after the deal is closed.
Daou’s unique style seems to be paying off. She has brokered sales and rentals across Manhattan, and recently closed on a $6.5 million condo at 25 Central Park West. Her personal record is the $18 million sale of an apartment to a foreign billionaire. But as is often the case, her success is the result of several unlikely turns of events.
Daou was born in Lebanon in 1971. When she was four, hostilities between Christian and Muslim populations plunged the country into a civil war that was to last for 15 years. Her father, a “television personality,” moved the family from Beirut to the comparatively safe town of Biblos, where she grew up with her five siblings.
The war was always present. “I grew up in bomb shelters,” she recalled. “I grew up living in hallways, and was often pulled out of school because there was a car bomb.”
Still, Daou said she had a happy childhood on her father’s exotic fruit farm. “It’s a beautiful country,” she said. “Even with the bombs falling, it was a very enriched childhood. I used to play in old Roman ruins. And people were very resilient. If a car bomb went off, the next day stores would be open again.”
But when she moved to Beirut to study at the American University, the frequent school closures due to bombs proved too much. Luckily, her family’s American connection offered a way out.
Daou’s mother was a New Yorker. She had met her father there in the 1950s, while he was a Mathematics graduate student at Columbia, and followed him back to Lebanon. But her grandparents still lived in New York, and the Daous decided to send their children to college in the U.S.
In 1988, when Maria Daou was just 16 years old, she began her studies at Barnard College. “It was a culture shock, even though I had an American mom and spoke English,” she recalled. “I grew up in a Third World country in many ways, because of the war. I never had any sleepovers or trips to malls and all these American childhood experiences. I couldn’t relate to anybody.”
Even now, more than 20 years after coming to New York, Daou says she can relate more easily to other foreigners.
Daou majored in pre-med and psychology and worked in cancer research for three years after graduating. But she soon realized that working in a lab wasn’t for her — and decided to become a chef.
“My real passion was food,” she said. It still is. “Before I even sell an apartment, I tell my clients where they can get good food in the neighborhood.” She also blogs on farmers’ markets on Warburg Realty’s website.
After several years of working in a restaurant and as a pastry chef, she decided to leave a “tough business” with little income. Daou married, had a daughter, and began looking for a job that left her more time to spend with her family. So she decided to become a broker, even though she had her reservations.
“Back in the day, brokers did not have the respect they have now,” she said, in a hint at less-than-forthright business practices. This early negative impression is another reason why Daou places such importance on honesty.
In her two years as a rental broker with Manhattan Apartments, Daou closed on about 70 leases. “I got along well with people, and before I knew it, I was best the performer at my firm,” she said.
In 1999, Daou joined Warburg Realty and became a sales broker. She said she likes her job for much of the same reasons she enjoys playing puzzles: “I actually like the challenge of being the first to find the listing when it comes on the market — finding the right thing in a puzzle-like way,” she said.
The single mom — she has a 10-year old daughter and six-year-old twin girls — is also happy about her flexible schedule. “What I like about real estate is that it’s the kind of business that allows me to be with my kids,” she said. “I can work from home, and I can work all night while they’re sleeping.”
Although Daou has sold in all parts of Manhattan, she knows the Upper East Side best, where she lives on 76th Street.
Although she now considers herself a New Yorker and doesn’t want to live anywhere else, she still misses Lebanon. “I’d love to go regularly and take my kids,” she said. “I hope to go there next year.”