Selling New York

- Dina Sta. Maria () - September 8, 2002 - 12:00am
They are as glamorous as the New York lifestyle they’re selling. Elizabeth Roxas-Dobrish and Geovanna Lim-Haas have formed Park Avenue International Partners, Inc. (paipi), a real estate brokerage firm whose main focus is to assist Asian investors.

Having grown up in Asia–both moved to New York from the Philippines in the late ‘70s–they are aware of and in tune with Asian sensibilities and practices. This is a definite asset both in identifying properties to offer their clients as well as in their dealings with these high net worth individuals and families.

"Asians are very selective in finding choice properties with sustained value," says Geovanna. "Rentals are not of great interest to most of my clientele. In Asia, you are often judged by the land you own. I guess this comes from the traditional agricultural culture in many Asian countries where owning land is very important for families."

Tapping into this select market was what pushed the two friends to form this partnership. Geovanna worked as finance manager for a health care organization before shifting to a career in real estate, following her own search for an apartment for her family of five. She confesses to having looked at about 50 apartments and "driving (my) broker crazy" but she also realized she enjoyed the process. She enrolled in an accelerated real estate program at New York University and went on to work in real estate sales for a Japanese conglomerate.

Elizabeth was ripe for a career change as she winded down a spectacular dance career that saw her rise to principal of the renowned Alvin Ailey Company. She made her farewell performance in Manila last year, in Ballet Philippines’ production of "Carmen". It was also during her search for a penthouse apartment for her and her husband that she thought of going into the real estate business.

"I showed her 77 apartments," Geovanna recalls, "but I think at some point we were just having fun going around together." Elizabeth also enrolled at New York University and, after graduation and getting her license, formed paipi with Geovanna.

"Asian businessmen don’t fool around," Geovanna says. "They look at the property, make a quick decision and often pay in cash! Many don’t even want to talk about financing."

Being Asians themselves give them a definite advantage. "My ethnicity and my Chinese surname immediately put some of my clients at ease," admits Geovanna. "Chinese customers would hear my name and immediately ask where my family was from. Many times this made the difference between getting the business or not."

It also enables them to know which properties will interest their clients. "In Asian culture, eight is a very important number, so if you happen to have an aprtment on the 18th floor of a building, it makes an apartment more valuable in the eyes of an Asian."

Geovanna adds, "I also know from experience never to bring an Asian to a co-op. They want a title."

Hardly a year into their venture, terrorism struck at the heart of their market. The terrorist attacks on New York and Washington dealt what many thought might be a mortal blow to the city, frightening investors away. But that, Geovanna relates, is far from what happened.

"New York City is alive and well and loved more deeply by its residents than at any time in my life living here," she says. The real estate market appears to be alive and well, too. "While the rental market has slowed down due to the September 11 events and in part to a troubled Wall Street, New York City real estate sales of condominiums and co-ops have gone through the roof. The exodus of stock market investors are shifting the balance of their funds into the real estate market. The rest of the buyers are taking advantage of low interest rates and they are buying homes for their own use as well as for investment. Prices in New York City are up considerably since September 11."

Interest in New York properties by Asians has, in fact, increased, as property buyers see these investments doing better than in the stock market. paipi currently has five deals involving Southeast Asian investors.

You can’t meet a New Yorker these days without asking them about 9/11. Both Elizabeth and Geovanna were in Manhattan on the day of the attacks, getting ready, as most New Yorkers were, to start another work day. The first inkling of something amiss came from the television.

"We assumed a small plane or a helicopter had mistakenly hit the World Trade Center as we watched the newscaster show pictures of a hole in the building’s side," Geovanna relates. "It wasn’t for another half an hour or so, when the next plane hit the other tower, that we realized we were under attack." It was only later that evening that she was able to make sure that all members of her family were safe.

Elizabeth’s husband, a lawyer, had already left for court in Lower Manhattan when she saw the news on television. "My initial reaction was totally blank," she recalls. "I couldn’t figure out whether they were reviewing a movie or what!" Later that evening, Elizabeth and her husband went out to eat. "There was a candlelight vigil," she recalls. "It was a beautiful and tearful evening. And yet hopeful at the same time."

"The feeling of togetherness and one-ness can be felt at a local supermarket, a video store or on a subway ride through the neighborhoods that make up Manhattan," assesses Geovanna. "New Yorkers have a resiliency that no one imagined."

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