The most honest man in real estate thinks the housing market isn't going to crash
- Jonathan Miller is a real-estate appraiser who's published monthly housing reports for 27 years.
- Everyone from The Wall Street Journal to The East Hampton Star quotes his data and analyses.
On a hot July day seven years ago, Jonathan Miller took his 29-foot Hydra-Sports powerboat out into the Long Island Sound off the coast of Connecticut.
The boat smelled like sea salt from his recent lobster-fishing trip. The water in the estuary was clear and calm. Miller and his wife, Cheryl, were enjoying the sunshine when his iPhone rang.
The call was from a journalist at an international paper asking for Miller's comment on the US housing market for a story.
"I didn't even tell them I was on a boat, just that I didn't have my laptop handy if they needed numbers, he said.
This, Miller said, was one of the strangest places he has ever answered a call from a journalist.
But for those who know Miller, it's not strange at all.
The 62-year-old founder of the real-estate-appraisal and data firm Miller Samuel is probably the most-quoted man in real estate, with some 2,469 news citations, according to the database LexisNexis. After all, he releases monthly and quarterly housing-sales and rental reports on behalf of Douglas Elliman in 14 different markets across the country — and has done so for the last 27 years.
Especially now, when relatively high mortgage rates, rapidly declining demand, and even scarily dipping home prices are battering the market, Miller has steered the public through it all and provided accurate information so that both industry veterans and regular people can understand what the heck is going on with residential real estate — and make important life decisions accordingly. His nontraditional background — he's an appraiser, not an economist — puts him in a unique position to translate what can be a jargon-filled and opaque topic for the masses.
He's ready for the challenge.
Impartiality is crucial to Miller's success
Miller is a polymath: he has guided Floridians through understanding how Miami could adjust and profit off of the influx of New York-based buyers in 2020; he's predicted how a downtown Manhattan office-turned-condo building could cause a surplus of residences for sale that will push down sales prices in the area for years to come; and in the spring, he explained the impact of the ultra-luxury market on real estate in the bougie ski destination of Aspen, Colorado.
—Jonathan Miller (@jonathanmiller) December 15, 2022
His most relevant hot take right now isn't even that hot: Miller opposes the idea that the US housing market will crash now the way it did during the Great Recession. Like many of his peers, he argues that there are too few properties on the market compared to those seeking homes for that to happen, and that the market varies too much locally.
'When things are bad, I say they're bad'
His honesty has not always been welcome.
In the years that preceded the Great Recession, he said, he had to start requiring mortgage-broker clients working for banks to pay his company before the appraisal because so many refused to pay if they did not get the valuation they wanted.
In order to attract and keep business, other appraisers would assess properties higher than their actual value in New York City, he said. One time, he even saw a luxury condo appraised at $15 million over its actual value.
"We weren't morally flexible," he said. "And that made us a pariah for mortgage brokers."
So Miller Samuel had to pivot away from relying so heavily on institutional players, which had made up 75% of its business. He instead started catering to individuals who needed appraisals, like private lawyers or co-op boards, to keep the company from going under, Miller said.
But days after Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy in 2008, the tide changed.
"All of a sudden, our company was seen as genius because we never lost our mind," he said.
His candor over the last 36 years has helped him rise to a vaunted position in a crowded field of experts, including Redfin's Daryl Fairweather and the National Association of Realtors' Lawrence Yun, who are both economists.
Those in the field respect him, from his best friend, the Chicago realtor Garry Vallo, to Phil Crawford of the "Voice of Appraisal" podcast. Friends say celebrities like NBC's beloved weatherman Al Roker and the "Shark Tank" millionaire mogul Barbara Corcoran call on him for his appraisal expertise.
"I'm proud that I'm not an economist," Miller, who feels that not being tied to a larger corporation helps him remain objective, said. "When things are bad, I say they're bad. And when things are good, I say they're good. The good means more because I said when things were bad."
It's been a long fight to the top fueled by 'piss and vinegar'
Miller was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1960. He described his dad as a "serial entrepreneur," who worked as a real-estate developer, the owner of the largest McDonald's franchise in the world, and the proprietor of a French cooking school.
"I always admired that because the man was not afraid to take on new worlds," Miller said. "His passion was the climb. When he succeeded, he lost interest. It ended up making me a conservative entrepreneur."
Miller studied business and hotel management at Michigan State, where he met his future wife and business partner, Cheryl, greasing donut trays in the wee hours of the morning at a campus bakery.
After graduation, the couple moved to Chicago. Miller took a job as a realtor at a local Century 21 Realty shop, where he quickly became the No. 2 broker on his team. Vallo, who he met on the job, was No. 1.
Even at that time, Miller was a data visionary and computer whiz, Vallo told Insider.
"When we would do market analysis on a property, I knew at that point that he really knew his information," Vallo said. "He was the one who could analyze the data better than me and the other guys."
The young couple visited New York in 1985 and fell in love with the fast pace. They returned to Illinois, quit their jobs, and moved to the Big Apple two weeks later.
They promptly joined a real-estate company as guides who showed properties to potential buyers or renters.
Those early days in New York, Miller's boss said he was "all piss and vinegar" — ambitious, serious, and passionate.
He was promoted to sales director just six months into the job.
A database that launched a thousand reports
Data and real-estate obsessed, Miller decided to become an appraiser to close what he saw as a gaping lack of available information about the value of New York City buildings and homes. With sparse listing data and public records, the true value of properties in New York City was opaque.
To clear it up, Miller fanatically went to work. His parents gave him, his sister, and his wife the money to start an appraisal company a year and a half after he arrived in NYC. Miller and his sister, channeling their dad and with their parent's support, ran the day-to-day operations at the firm, which they called Miller Samuel, along with their spouses.
Big on tech, Miller Samuel created an innovative real-estate database of property information. Using a Scantron similar to a standardized fill-in-the-dot test form, they gathered data during property inspections that they input into their proprietary software. That data enabled them to broadly assess what made New York City homes valuable.
Their early efforts made them the first to quantify how much certain property attributes, such as a view of Central Park or the number of bedrooms in a particular condo building, were worth on the market. Today, Miller Samuel has replaced Scantrons with iPods, iPhones, and a CoreLogic appraisal software called A La Mode.
Miller saw the story in the data. He made graphs and charts to visually communicate what the numbers meant.
In 1994, Miller struck a deal that made him the unofficial Manhattan real-estate data master. The then-local brokerage Douglas Elliman enlisted him to put together monthly and quarterly rental- and sales-market reports.
As Elliman grew to become the sixth-largest brokerage in the country by transaction volume with 7,000 agents from the Hamptons to California, Miller expanded his scope, too. He can rattle off the median sales price in Rancho Santa Fe, California, or the market share of bidding wars in Miami, Florida.
Miller Samuel's business success paved the way for a life filled with family. The Millers settled in the leafy NYC suburb of Darien, Connecticut, and had four boys between 1989 and 1998. They now have two grandchildren and two more on the way.
Cheryl is not the face of the business in the way that Miller is, but she's been just as much his partner in business as in life, Vallo said.
"If there's ever been somebody that I've met, that has been a match that was made in heaven, it would be Jonathan and Cheryl," Vallo said. "Cheryl is the glue."
The 'king of free' is out to cut through the crap
Miller's profile really grew in the years after the Great Recession.
Constantly called upon to make sense of falling home prices, rising foreclosure rates, and how it all happened, the internet was paramount to building his following as he shared thoughts. Today, 8,500 people subscribe to his weekly blog "Housing Notes," which he started writing in 2015.
He joined Twitter in 2007, and now has 20,500 followers hanging onto his commentary, including industry giants, public figures, reporters, and economists like former President Barack Obama, the swaggering urbanist Richard Florida, and New York City's former head of housing, Vicki Been.
Readers of real-estate news around the world have especially appreciated his straight talking. A Google search of his name yields over 5,000 news results from broadsheets like the The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal to local newspapers like The East Hampton Star. In Miller's office on West 38th Street, he has scores of framed newspaper clippings that bear his quotes.
But unlike many who have gained a large following, particularly on social media, he has done most of his online work for free — he even did his early work for Douglas Elliman gratis until 2008. He's done it this way, he said, so no one could say he was doing it for anything other than advertising the facts.
He has done this so often that Cheryl coined a nickname for him: "the king of free."
Miller also teaches at Columbia University; has served as an expert witness in New York, Illinois, and California; and advised economic boards for New York state and New York City.
Today, there's much more data than there was when he started Miller Samuel, but also a lot more "crap," Miller said. An analyst now, he said, must be a curator who sorts through data without catering to a cause.
There's a reason Miller always picks up the phone — even in the middle of the Long Island Sound — and it goes back to getting the truth out.
"It's in my best interest to have the world have a proper take on the market," he said. "That's the long-term goal."
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