Madonna, Scarlett, Bono Tackle N.Y. Real Estate Deals

What housing slump? The N.Y. real estate market and celebrities still mix.

May 12, 2008 — -- New Yorkers are reminded fairly frequently that not everyone is hurting from the nation's housing slump.

Attention-grabbing names like Madonna, Bono and Scarlett are still making multimillion-dollar real estate deals in the city and the media aren't shy about reporting it.

"It's certainly amazing how often, just going through city records, [you find] someone with a well-known name is selling an apartment that's absurdly big and absurdly expensive," said Max Abelson, who writes a real estate column for The New York Observer, a weekly newspaper.

In today's economy, "even financiers are having a hard time. … Thank God that precious celebrities aren't hurting for money," he said jokingly.

The New York Observer, The New York Post and The New York Daily News have all published recent stories about celebrity real estate transactions in the city, as have real estate Web sites such as and the Real Estalker blog.

Abelson's latest celebrity reports include news that actress Scarlett Johansson sold her Tribeca loft for nearly $1.9 million and that U2 lead singer Bono sold his Central Park West apartment for $4.9 million.

Abelson said that, of the eight real estate items he writes every two weeks, only one usually pertains to famous names. But when he asks friends for feedback, he said, it's usually the celebrity news they remember.

"I think there's sort of the fascination factor," said Stuart Elliott, the editor of the real estate magazine The Real Deal. "I think people maybe imagine that there are other people that live these rarified sort of lives and they want to participate in that."

It's not just young starlets and hip musicians whose deals garner headlines. Abelson reported last month that septuagenarian sketch-comedy veteran Carol Burnett sold her apartment in the Trump International condo tower for nearly $5.6 million.

Sometimes there's more to the story than just the star, Abelson said. Part of that Burnett sale, he said, was that it was mogul Japanese real estate billionaire Katsumi Tada who bought the comedian's place.

What seems behind the spate of celebrity real estate news is the fact that New York's luxury housing market continues to move at a whiplash speed.

Take, for instance, Seagram heir and Warner Music Group chief executive Edgar Bronfman Jr. The New York Post reported that Bronfman last year bought a co-op apartment for $19.5 million and a penthouse condo for $19.2 million -- only to later put both apartments up for sale for $24 million and $24.5 million, respectively.

"The high-end market, which is what a lot of these celebrities are buying in, has held up surprisingly well compared to the overall market nationally and even the overall market in New York," Elliott said. "The thinking is just that there's lots of people with lots of money out there, and they're still spending."

Co-Operating With Madonna

The Real Deal recently produced a feature detailing who bought what at one of the city's most exclusive addresses -- 15 Central Park West.

The new condominium development overlooks Central Park and includes units ranging in price from $690,000 to more than $40 million. Actor Denzel Washington, Nascar driver Jeff Gordon and, most recently, Sting have all purchased homes there.

Sting bought his condo for $26.5 million, city records show.

Many of the building's buyers purchased units one to two years ago, while the development was still under construction, Elliott said.

"Not until the building is completed does the deal actually close," he said. "When the deeds are filed, you get a window into what these high-end units are fetching."

Elliott said that the construction of more condominiums in the city has made it easier for celebs to buy in New York.

When stars looked to buy in co-op buildings, he said, they often found themselves stymied by wary co-op boards.

"People in co-op buildings sometimes just don't want the traffic that a celebrity is going to bring in, or their entourages, or to have paparazzi stationed outside," Elliott said. "Condo ownership is just more amenable to like a celebrity lifestyle in a way."

Madonna last month bought a $7 million apartment in Harperley Hall, a co-op building on Central Park West, but it was no simple purchase: Last year, the singer, who already owned one apartment in the building, filed a lawsuit against the building's co-op board, claiming it wrongfully blocked her second purchase.

It wasn't the Material Girl's first dust-up with a co-op board: In 1985, she was rejected by the board of the San Remo, another co-op on Central Park West.

Big Names, Tough Sells

Though some celebs may find it hard to get into the New York buildings of their choice, the real estate agents charged with finding would-be homes for the stars may have a tougher lot.

Lauren Muss, the senior vice president of the Corcoran Group, said that it's not unusual for celebrities with busy schedules or for those who live outside of New York to send assistants to preview apartments with real estate agents before joining in the hunt themselves.

When they start touring places, some will schedule or cancel appointments at the last minute.

While some stars are "lovely" to work with, others "don't always appreciate your time," she said.

"It takes a certain type of broker to be able to handle celebrities," she added. "They can only go out on Saturday. You'll go crazy trying to make the appointments on Saturday, and then they cancel half an hour before," she said.

Muss wouldn't name names. She said that often, in dealing with celebrities, she signs confidentiality agreements that stipulate that she can't reveal that they're working with her.

Real estate agents aren't mum all the time. Abelson said that some will leak news of celebrities to the press to attract publicity for their services.

Of course, some real estate agents treat their clients like family -- because they are. Johansson 's brother was her real estate agent, according to a New York Observer story by Abelson.

But the family ties attracted less attention than Johansson's selling price on her Tribeca duplex. The actress sold the apartment for $52,000 less than what she paid for it in 2006.

Johansson wasn't the only celeb to compromise on her asking price. Bon Jovi and actor Kevin Spacey both reportedly dropped the asking prices on their respective condos too. Bon Jovi sold his place in February.

If Johansson had sold the unit a year earlier, she might have avoided the loss, Abelson said. Still, he added, Johansson may have let the apartment go at a lower price because she could afford to.

Bono probably could have secured a higher sale price for his Central Park West apartment too, he said.

"Celebrities seem to have their own rules when it comes to real estate," Abelson said.

"In both cases," he said, "I think it's probably because neither of them particularly needs the money -- not because they were forced to sell because of the bad market."