It’s Miller Time! The Affable King of Comps Aims at Rentals

jonathanmillerjoefornabiao 2 Its Miller Time! The Affable King of Comps Aims at RentalsFor the last 15 years, Jonathan Miller has produced the Prudential Douglas Elliman sales reports that hold the New York real estate world in thrall. Thursday, for the first time, he released a rental report. He was excited.

“To me, this is fun,” Mr. Miller said. “I don’t do something unless it’s fun. I’m very childlike. I have four boys, and if they get a remote control car, I get a remote control car.”

Mr. Miller calls New York real estate a spectator sport—something to rehash at backyard barbecues (“Except New Yorkers don’t have backyards”)—and he’s given many more people a chance to see the game.

“We’re all about transparency,” he said. “That’s been my mantra, and I live and breathe it.”

Mr. Miller, CEO and president of Miller Samuel, has been in the appraisal business with his wife and sister since 1986. In 1994, frustrated that co-op sales information wasn’t made public, he started approaching the major real estate firms for access to their records. “Everyone nodded their heads and said”—not necessarily in so many words—“‘Well, what would you do in return?’”

The answer from Mr. Miller? “Nothing.”

He saw it as more of an “altruistic” venture, one that would make him a better appraiser and the public better consumers. At the time, Douglas Elliman had been experimenting with an in-house market study, and approached Mr. Miller to collaborate. He made it clear that his involvement was “an all-or-nothing scenario”: The reports had to be impartial, done “independently or not at all.” They agreed.

The real estate community was slow to understand the arrangement. Two realtors, whom Mr. Miller declines to name, held meetings informing their brokers that Miller Samuel had been bought by Douglas Elliman. It took two years, he recalls, to correct that mistaken impression.

His rigorously objective approach paid off, though: His sales reports have become required reading. Initially released mid-year and year-end, they eventually became quarterly; and reports on outer boroughs and the Hamptons supplemented the original Manhattan-only analysis.

“I’ve always wanted to do a rental study,” he said.

Prudential Douglas Elliman president and CEO Dottie Herman called it a logical next step; 70 percent of the city rents, after all. The team tossed the idea around for the last couple of years, trying to figure out the particulars. In the end, they took a familiar approach—the rental reports use the same metrics as his sales reports, reinforcing their dominance. No one before has analyzed rent per square foot rental-wise, Mr. Miller said, but it makes it easier to see the links between rentals and sales.

And he still does “at least 90 percent” of the spreadsheet number-crunching himself. Of course, he acknowledges, this could be a fault; there could be a more efficient system. But he also acknowledges his own wonkiness.  “Remember,” he said, “I’m somebody that likes to watch C-Span.”

Fortunately, real estate watchers seem as interested in Mr. Miller’s numbers as he is. “I was expecting interest, but the coverage was overwhelming,” he said of the response after he announced the rental report. “People were starving.”

Ms. Herman pointed out that the rental market often consists of the customers most in need of information—out-of-towners and recent graduates who don’t know what to expect. New Yorkers may not be fazed by $2,000 studios, she says, but “if you were in Kansas or Ohio or the middle of America, you would flip out.” And, too often, Ms. Herman says, the real estate business fails to provide comprehensible information, especially as compared to other industries’ tech-savvy accessibility. Consider something like WebMD, she suggested: “There’s lots of information, but then you have to figure out whether you’re dying.”

It’s an apt comparison, as Mr. Miller’s professed love of “pushing out content” has spawned a podcast, a Twitter feed, blogs and copious TV appearances. But while his numbers feed an Internet-inspired hunger for information, they’ve established their strength through a quality the Internet is conspicuously not known for—methodical impartiality.

“I have my name,” Mr. Miller said, “and that’s all I’ve got.”

mfischer@observer.com