Joseph Barbieri never intended to become a real estate agent.
After graduating from Cornell in the mid-1980s, Barbieri landed a finance job in New York. His brother, who had just finished his MBA at NYU, got a job in Stamford, CT, so the two decided to look for a place together.
“We were young, so we were looking where things were affordable like Port Chester of Stamford, but we kept driving through Greenwich and I really liked it, so at the last minute I said, ‘Let’s just find something in Greenwich and get another roommate.’ We lived right across the street from a park and coming from a cramped college dorm, it was just wonderful,” Barbieri said.
He left his job in New York City, and, after a chance meeting at a puppy training class, found his way into real estate in Greenwich. The Sotheby’s International Realty agent was ranked as the No. 1 independent agent in Connecticut by sales volume in the most recent RealTrends rankings, selling $192,533,145.00 worth of real estate.
RealTends recently caught up with Barbieri to discuss his career in real estate, the housing market in Greenwich and major industry issues. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Brooklee Han: Can you tell me how you first got into real estate?
Joe Barbieri: I didn’t have the intention of getting into real estate initially. I had a couple of different majors in college, one of them was business and then I switched over to nutritional biochemistry. I wanted to go to medical school and become a molecular psychiatrist to help people with their nutrition and health goals. So, I was up at Cornell studying and during my childhood and college years I played football and when you play football you get a lot of concussions and your desire to sit down for a long period of time and read goes away. After I left Cornell, I moved to Old Greenwich and I got a job at Morgan Stanley Smith and Barney through some connections, but within about a year-and-a half I realized that I really liked Old Greenwich, but I didn’t really love my job, so I decided to take some time and figure out what I wanted to do and I ended up studying for my real estate exam.
My brother and I were living together in Old Greenwich with some other housemates and they had a puppy and I would take it to puppy class. One of the women at the puppy class was the head of relocation for Preferred Properties and she suggested that I go work for them once I passed my exam. So, once I finished studying and passed my licensing exam I went to work for Preferred Properties, and they wanted me to work in Norwalk. At the time I think the only thing I knew in Norwalk was Stew Leonard’s (a grocery store chain in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey with a cult-like following). I started on January 1st or 2nd in 1986 and the manager just took me under her wing and in my first year I think I sold 29 homes. My first deal was a multiple bid situation, and we were sitting in someone’s home on a Saturday night with the other agent and there were five offers all together, but my buyer was the only one with 80% financing and she ended up getting the house. Actually, that was my second deal. My first deal was the sale of a farmhouse and my brother, he was a CPA, he asked me how much my commission would be and I didn’t know so he figured it out, but then the deal fell through. Ever since then I never even look at the numbers until after the closing (laughs).
That first year was really successful. I sold more than anybody has ever sold in their first year, so they invited me to the Greenwich branch. The funny thing was that in Norwalk, prices ranged from about $100,000 to $400,000 and people shopped by $50,000 intervals, but when I got to Greenwich the price categories start at half a million and went up by half a million until you got to $10 million, so it was a very different market to learn. I ended up working under the woman who had recruited me. After a year or so I moved to William Pitt, which became a Sotheby’s affiliate in 1989 and then in 1995 I helped some other agents open a wholly-owned Sotheby’s office in Pickwick Plaza. And that is where I still am today. It wasn’t initially a career path that I chose; I think what happened was that I really was very fond of living in Old Greenwich.
BH: How were you able to build off of that initial success and become one of the top agents in Connecticut?
Barbieri: It was a lot of just taking care of the people who came to me. Originally it started with a lot of people looking to rent places for the summer and a lot of those people became buyers. Then I always got referrals from these people and other friends, so that was how it started. It was really about building a reputation and just being confident and caring about getting better at what I was doing. If you are a good guy and nice to work with, people like working with you and it helped that I genuinely liked a lot of my first clients. They were really nice and fun to work with and they presented me with some really interesting opportunities.
BH: What do you think it takes to become successful in this business?
Barbieri: The one thing that actually makes anybody successful is their ambition. I mean you also have to work hard and there is a lot of dedication and you give up a lot when you are in this business, and challenges because of time constraints, but you have to understand all of that going in. I mean you never really get a day off and I know brokers that go years without taking a vacation because there is always somebody that needs you or something that you have to do and be present for. I have become one of the top agents in the state, but that was never really my goal. I just keep working at a pace that I am happy with and I think as long as you are happy with your performance, that is what matters. In real estate you are fully responsible for how things go, so if you know what you are doing , you can have great success and that for me made the difference. I just kept continuing because the clients that I have had just kept me in business by referring people to me. There are a lot of people I’ve done business with earlier on that I ended up becoming the family real estate broker and now I am dealing with their kids or helping them sell their house as they prepare to retire in a warmer climate.
BH: As you have mentioned, there is a lot of sacrifice involved in becoming a top agent. What have been some of the biggest challenges you have faced in your career and how have you overcome those challenges?
Barbieri: Some of the biggest challenges I have faced were some difficult sales. There was this beautiful compound with a cell tower right next to the driveway and then this piece of land that at the time was the most expensive piece of land in Greenwich. It came down to a lot of hard work and strategizing.
BH: You started in the industry 36 years ago. How has it changed over the years?
Barbieri: I think the biggest change is that buyers have a lot more information than they did before. Technology is helpful but it is not always 100% accurate, so that can be a struggle. I still basically do all of my business on the phone. We have a marketing team now and they use a lot of technology. Another of the biggest changes is how we do business. At the start of the pandemic we were helping a lot of people who just wanted to get out of the city as soon as possible, so I was selling properties or helping people rent properties over FaceTime, they never even saw the place in person.
BH: How has your use to technology for client management or lead generation changed over the years?
Barbieri: I do have social media, but I have people that manage my Instagram and other platforms for me, so for the most part I am still doing things the way I have always done them because a lot of this business is relationships with people and email and texting are great and convenient for some things, but when you are doing business and making deals, a phone call is so much better and you can hear things in people’s voices that you don’t get from a text.
BH: As you mentioned today you get a lot of leads from past clients and referrals, but how did you generate leads when you started out?
Barbieri: When I first started out, I actually went around to all of our offices and introduced myself to the other agents and brokers. So, in that first year I was getting about 80% of my business from other brokers in the office, maybe because I was ambitious or maybe because I didn’t mind selling a $150,000 condo. But those first few clients seemed to like working with me and they sent more business my way and then they followed me when I moved to Sotheby’s.
BH: What are some big market trends you are currently seeing in Greenwich?
Barbieri: At the start of the pandemic a lot of people coming to Greenwich were just looking to rent and then they decided to buy. Right now, the market has low inventory and when something good comes on the market there is a flood of activity. Before COVID there were no signs of the market here improving, prices were moving lower and lower, it was a challenging time. But when the pandemic hit, all the aging inventory was cleaned up. A lot of things that never could sell finally sold and that just kept continuing and now we have under 200 homes for sale and a year ago we had over 400. I get people calling me all the time looking for inventory, but we just don’t have any. There is some concern about what is going to happen this year. Are we going to get back to a normal market? I don’t know and I don’t think anybody really knows.
BH: You have been in Greenwich for the majority of your career. What do you like about the area?
Barbieri: There is a very strong entrepreneurial spirit here. Everybody is busy doing something. It is a town that never sleeps. There are a lot of successful people here and it is a great influence. I used to tell some of my first-time homebuyers that if they move here, it will bring the best out of them because you need to be at your best to afford to live here. Some of the neighboring towns are less expensive, but people are willing to stretch to be here because of the schools, the community and the proximity to New York.
BH: What is something you like best about working in real estate?
Barbieri: I told someone this morning that being in real estate is like being a wedding planner. It is a joyous experience, but it’s important and it is pretty stressful. It is a very important transaction in people’s lives. I remember when we rented our first place here in Greenwich and how happy I was to get it and how happy I felt knowing I had a really great place to live and how grateful I was for our agent’s assistance. So, I think what I really like is that you feel like you are really making a difference in someone’s life.
BH: Is there anything in the industry that you wish you could change?
Barbieri: I wish there was eight or nine days in a week so you might get a day off (laughs). Also, when you work in an area you are really stuck in that one area, so I wish there was the chance to be more mobile. Being in this business so long I do have opportunities to help clients with things in other parts of the country, but I would love to do more of that. One thing that is nice is that a lot of times business slows down over the holidays, so you do gain some extra time to spend you your family, but more days or more hours in a day is still something I would love.
BH: A lot of agents struggle with finding a good work-life balance. How have you dealt with this challenge?
Barbieri: You are basically always on in this business, and you always have to be at your best to help with a situation. There is no time you can’t be available; at times it can almost feel like being an emergency room doctor. If you are lucky though, you will like the people you are working with, so it doesn’t really feel like work. The business is completely unpredictable. You might think you don’t have a lot going on and then the end of the day comes around and you realize how much happened. So, because of that you can’t make a lot of personal plans because real estate will fill them up and that is something you have acclimate to. I try to approach it all with a sense of humor, I mean it is stressful, but you have to make the experience and process as enjoyable as you can.
BH: What is your best piece of advice for a new agent stating out?
Barbieri: The first thing you need to do is to get up to speed on what you are doing. You have to be confident. People are spending a lot of money and they need to trust that you know how to do what is best for them. When I first started, I went to every single house in my area to get a feel for what was on the market, how it was priced and what was ultimately selling, so I could then use that information to help clients. Buyers and sellers really appreciate someone who is making the effort to know the business and understand the market.