Tech

Stars Of "Million Dollar Listing" Give Us The Dirt On Rich Tech Buyers In San Francisco

The secret status symbols of the sheepish billionaire.

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If New York City was the fifth character on Sex and the City — shaping storylines as much as location choices — then "tech" is more like the word of the day on Million Dollar Listing San Francisco, the fourth installment of Bravo's popular real estate reality show, which premieres Wednesday night: Buyers "work in tech" or represent "tech clients"; sellers, in turn, want "tech buyers." A ponytailed CEO wears his startup T-shirt on a tour of a $3.5 million home. The money is everywhere.

But that doesn't mean we get to see Mark Zuckerberg shop for his next pied-à-terre or Jack Dorsey unload his $10 million, two-bedroom oceanside abode. The three "hot shot" real estate agents who anchor the show — Justin Fichelson, a San Francisco native, Roh Habibi, who described himself as "future cast member of Million Dollar Listing San Francisco" on all his social media bios well before the show was developed, and Andrew Greenwell, the acerbic foil to his relentlessly optimistic counterparts — may not be top agents in town, but that's how things go in TV land. The matchmakers aren't always fixing up millionaires. The Bachelor stays single.

Instead, the show offers a peek into private off-market deals, the demands of newly minted millionaires, and a real estate market turned absolutely upside down by an influx of new money. Indeed, in the way of all good television, reality or otherwise, Million Dollar Listing is made engrossing by virtue of the same factors that make life excruciating: income inequality, the anxiety of being a perpetual renter, fear of being edged out by a more tech-savvy generation. Jenn Levy, a senior vice president of production at Bravo, told Buzzfeed News that the network was attracted to San Francisco because housing prices rose 34% last year. "That's just a huge number. When something like that is happening, we know it's a place we need to be."

Levy certainly knows how to play to the viewer's id. She's responsible for the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills spin-off Vanderpump Rules, a fun-size box of Sour Straws. ("That was like the easiest development ever, because their names were Jax, Stassi, and Scheana. We're like, yeah, make them a TV show.") Million Dollar Listing San Francisco writes itself, too: Recent reports from Redfin, the online real estate brokerage, shows that one in four Silicon Valley home buyers is looking to purchase property outside of Silicon Valley and that there's a .5% increase in home prices for every 1% increase in technology workers in a city. Join us as we gossip about tech money — and pull out some of the show's lessons — with Bravo's newest brokers.

1. Everyone is thirsty for tech spoils — especially the brokers.

Fichelson, who says his personal social circle includes venture capitalists and billionaires, is supposed to be the show's tech-money touchstone, but agents who don't have those contacts "are sort of desperate for them," Levy explained. "There's an episode where Andrew [Greenwell] is hoping that Justin will deliver some of these young tech buyers to his open house." That tension is "a big part of their dynamic, because [Greenwell] wants to also gets his hands on that pool of people who are so important to the market right now."

2. …and the sellers.

Greenwell told BuzzFeed News he's currently representing a three-unit building in Noe Valley, a nice neighborhood adjacent to the tech-saturated Mission District. The owners "couldn't understand why I couldn't get Mark Zuckerberg to buy their building," he said. "I'm like, 'Well, I'm pretty sure he's busy, he's not trying to buy up all the real estate in San Francisco' … They don't understand why someone is not going to come and pay them half a million dollars more than they want because they're in tech."

Sellers inevitably ask where the buyer works, said Greenwell. "The minute you say Google or Facebook, someone goes, 'Oh great! They have a lot of money and they'll spend whatever!' And it's like, 'Nooo, they're obviously very intelligent people. They didn't make this money out of the middle of nowhere.'" According to Greenwell, there are two "very distinct" groups of people in San Francisco right now. "There's the tech people and then the people who don't like the fact that [tech people are] there." So if a potential buyer works in tech, "they're gonna extort as much money as they can."

3. Rich people gonna rich.

Accordng to Fichelson, the "really, really rich" techies own property in sought-after Silicon Valley suburbs but increasingly have second homes in San Francisco. Fichelson said he has good friends who both used to work at Google. "One of them founded a social network and they live in Mountain View, but they have a party pad in SF, which is just sick. It looks like a nightclub." (Fichelson declined to say which social network. "I mean ... I want to respect their privacy.")

Consider a party Fichelson attended in Napa on a recent Saturday night. "It seemed very low-key," he said. "Then they took me down to their 'boathouse,' quote-unquote. It was very out of a Great Gatsby movie. Just a lavish mansion. Their boathouse. It had marble floors and it was unbelievable." Fichelson claims that Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the co-founders of Google "had helicoptered in" and YouTube co-founder Chad Hurley was there as well. "It's such a small city. You end up just meeting them."

4. Tech-money status symbols are everywhere — if you know where to look.

"Who's funding your company?" Fichelson offers as an example. "What big VC or angel investor is involved in your company? That's a big status thing," he said. "'I have Ron Conway backing me." Or 'I have Andreessen Horowitz backing me.'" Another cause for bragging rights? Saying you're a really early engineer at a successful company, which "implies that you made a lot of money — because you probably did." They may not drive a Rolls-Royce Phantom, he said, but when it comes to letting people know you were an early engineer at Twitter, "they really flaunt it."

The most quintessentially San Francisco status symbol, however, is found outside the state, according to Fichelson. Techies show off based on "where you're camping and who you're camping with at Burning Man," he said. Robot Heart is an A-list camp. Camps that have chefs and can claim billionaire techie campers also go higher on the cool chain. Fichelson himself has only been to the festival a couple times. The last time, he stopped by the camp run by Google chair and chief party hound Eric Schmidt. "His camp is away from all the cool camps. It's a fortress. You get in there and you've got ... What do you call those little things you stand up on and they wheel around?" Segways? "Yeah, there's Segways."

That said, though, most tech clients Fichelson comes into contact with go out of their way to hide their wealth: "They'll wear jeans, they'll be a little scruffy in terms of shaving. They may have a sweatshirt or a T-shirt and maybe some silly sneakers... They tend to be driving around inside a Prius or a bicycle or an Audi. Pretty low-key." But, he added, those same people will also "have a place in Napa, they'll have a big house in Hawaii."

5. Tech people definitely get special treatment.

Even the CEO of a large company might have to finance buying a house because they don't have liquid cash, Fichelson said — and banks are apparently happy to extend loans that they might not otherwise. "A smart bank like First Republic, they'll research who the person is and say, 'Oh, well, that's not a big deal because we know this guy is worth hundreds of millions on paper.'" Typically, however, techies are only buying homes after cashing out. In the meantime, they rent. "That's another reason why rent is so pricey," said Fichelson. "They're making a couple hundred [thousand] or more, so they can afford the expensive rent."

This extends to the agent's working relationship with these clients, The first episode of Million Dollar Listing San Francisco features multiple moments where the brokers are inundated with questions from tech buyers. Tech clients, said Habibi, also expect their text messages and email to be answered "within the hour, or less even possibly. We call it the Twitter generation because the attention spans aren't too much — it's 140 characters."

That sense of urgency also helps power a growing interest in listings that aren't open to the public. Habibi said one of the primary questions he gets asked is, "How much access do you have to off-market inventory that nobody else knows about?" In these types of deals, the seller names a high price and promises not to put it on the market. Tech buyers are willing to go "an extreme amount" over the asking price just so that they don't have to deal with competing offers. Habibi and Fichelson both said it's not unusual to go hundreds of thousands of dollars above the seller's demand. Last year 25% of the high-priced inventory in San Francisco was sold off-market, according to Habibi.

6. Bidding wars are bananas.

Bidding wars with tech workers are the urban legends San Francisco real estate, except they do exist. Million Dollar Listing sheds a little more light on how to get one rolling. Fichelson estimated that 95% of realtors underprice the property in order to cause the final bid to go over asking price. His description made it sound like an IPO pop, where tech companies price their stock in order to show an increase the first day it hits the public markets. "[Buyers are] going to know it's priced low, so it's a guessing game on how high they have to go," said Fichelson.

7. Tech money — and tech shuttles — are threatening San Francisco’s old-money strongholds.

All three Million Dollar Listing San Francisco brokers told Buzzfeed News that the Mission — where tech shuttle stops are clustered and adjacent to Mark Zuckerberg's $10 million fixer-upper — has become a desirable neighborhood because of the tech crowd. "It's a very weird feeling for everyone to have your values driven by, you know, shuttles," said Greenwell. Habibi, an ambitious young broker who escaped from war-torn Kabul, Afghanistan, with his parents, said the "technologically savvy young kids want to live in the funnest neighborhoods where they can walk outside their door, go to the local pub, they could go to the bar, they could go to the café, they can meet their friends for the best food in the city."

That means grand homes in historically coveted neighborhoods like Pacific Heights, for example, "are not as popular as you think they might be because whereas a shuttle might go to the Mission every 15 minutes, they're only going to Pacific Heights like every hour," said Greenwell. Fichelson compared Pacific Heights to New York City's Upper East Side. It "used to be the hottest thing," but "rent is way more expensive now if you're anywhere downtown."

But Habibi cautioned against counting out Pacific Heights. "I'll share a little fun information with you, OK? I'll tell you who lives in Pacific Heights right now in the tech world." He then unfurled a long list of names like Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, Jony Ive from Apple, Mark Pincus from Zynga and his wife, One Kings Lane founder Ali Pincus, Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, Dick Costolo from Twitter, and Benchmark Capital's Matt Cohler, an investor in Facebook. Michael and Xochi Birch, the co-founders of Bebo, also live there. These days, the Birches may be more famous for starting the members-only private club The Battery. Nirav Tolia, the CEO of Nextdoor, an app that acts like the smartphone equivalent of a neighborhood watch, is also in Pacific Heights.

The "Gold Coast" of Pacific Heights is on Broadway, between Divisadero and Lyon, said Fichelson. It's better known as Billionaire's Row. "If you pass by Mark Zuckerberg's house [in Dolores Park], it's not necessarily something you're going to take a photo of," he said, but the mansions on Broadway, "They're kind of flashy to a degree. They're statement houses." That's where you'll find David Sacks, the founder of Yammer, or insufferable neighbors like Oracle founder Larry Ellison.

While tech money and class tension typically go together like Airbnb and evictions, Levy said politics aren't really the purview of the show. And when I asked Fichelson about it, he said, "There's always growing pains in any kind of city. I grew up not going to the Mission that much because, quite frankly, it was kind of sketchy. I could get a good burrito there," but that's about it. Now, he said, the Mission is home to the city's most interesting restaurants. "I think a lot of the people who like complaining about the growing pains also enjoy going to those neighborhoods, quite honestly."

Fichelson also emphasized how the tech community has improved the city. "We like to point fingers at the people who are the cause for change, but same could be said for the bike lanes," which he credited entirely to the tech community. As for the shuttles, "they're all carpooling in one big bus. What's wrong with that?"

Million Dollar Listing San Francisco premieres Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET/9 CT on Bravo.

Nitasha Tiku is a senior writer for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.

Contact Nitasha Tiku at nitasha.tiku@buzzfeed.com.

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