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Keeping it real has this middle market broker making strides

By Roland Li

When Peter Vanderpool and Lazer Sternhell founded the investment sales firm Cignature Realty in early 2009, friends were concerned the duo would be stuck in a down market. But as Vanderpool remembers it, the move was calculated, and he and Sternhell were very aware of their capabilities.

“A good broker will always be able to make things happen,” said Vanderpool, who is president of the two-man firm.

Since opening Cignature, they have closed around three deals a month, despite the many challenges of the recession.

Cignature focuses on selling multifamily buildings throughout the five boroughs and Class B and C office buildings, mostly in midtown Manhattan. In the Bronx, low vacancy rates have driven the firm’s business, and increased lending has boosted the number of transactions. Meanwhile, Queens has a stable sales market, thanks to solid buildings and transportation, said Vanderpool.

“The key to New York real estate is having good product,” he said.

Demand for acquisitions has been strong, but the demographics have shifted. Many institutional investors have grown dormant in the recession, but smaller investors have swooped in as prices ease.

“Those funds either have disappeared, or they’re on a holding period,” said Vanderpool, adding that former fund managers have even struck out on their own.

Cignature’s commercial approach also has advantages. In smaller office buildings, owners are reassured by a rent roll of relatively small tenants, said Vanderpool.

Whereas a large anchor tenant can devastate a prime office building if it moves out, the loss of a smaller tenant that takes a floor or half a floor can be overcome much easier, making it a safer investment for smaller buyers.

Vanderpool and Sternhell also focus on “quiet,” off-market deals, which tend to close faster and avoid potentially costly bidding wars.

“When a deal’s on the market for a while, it gets stale,” said Vanderpool.

The duo is involved in the entire sales process, including advising sellers and finding an agreeable price that reflects the value of the building. They analyze rent rolls, neighborhoods and other assets, with the goal of finding a fair price that both seller and buyer are happy with.

“We know our product. We’re a very client-based firm,” said Vanderpool. “When we’re selling a building, we show our clients where the value is.”

They want Cignature to remain a boutique firm, but Vanderpool said that it could grow up to a total of six brokers.

The diverse number of sellers, from estates to retirees to children of deceased owners, work with the brokerage, and every deal is different.

Vanderpool and Sternhell met at another commercial firm before founding Cignature, where Vanderpool worked for six-and-a-half years. His most memorable deal was a $200 million sale of three apartment buildings, further complicated by the seller’s unique work schedule. The seller worked nights, while the buyer had a more standard work schedule.

Vanderpool recalls getting calls just prior to midnight and dashing to the property, and after a few weeks of midnight meetings, the deal was finalized.

In a more recent deal with an estate, Vanderpool had to track down the proper representative in order to facilitate the sale of a building. He started by contacting an old attorney, and then an accountant, another attorney and a public administrator, before finally finding the actual seller.

For Vanderpool, finding the identity of a seller can involve detective work, and he is constantly seeking new opportunities. “I’m on the phone from the minute I get in to the minute I get out,” he said.

“When a deal’s on the market for a while, it gets stale. We know our product. When we’re selling a building, we show our clients where the value is.”

Vanderpool was always connected to buildings — his father was an attorney who worked with real estate — but he didn’t realize as a child that he would dive so heavily into the industry. After he attended the University of Buffalo, he began his career as a broker, and quickly caught on.

He was also always an avid athlete, playing baseball, soccer and, most recently, beach volleyball. He is torn between the Mets, whom his family always rooted for, and the Yankees, who strongly symbolize the city.

Vanderpool is also involved in charity work, supporting research for breast cancer, which claimed the life of his mother, and Crohn’s disease, which some of his friends have, as well as Jewish charities.

He lives in the West Village with his fiancé, having previously lived in Gramercy and the Upper East Side, and sees it as the third stop in a loop around Manhattan.

Eventually, Vanderpool could imagine himself owning buildings, but for now, he finds plenty of action in dealmaking.

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