One of Corcoran’s Brooklyn leaders talks real estate, decorating, and an ongoing love affair with Park Slope.
Corcoran associate broker Lesley Semmelhack always loved to redecorate her childhood bedroom. Eventually, the living room also became her domain. Often, her mom would return home from work to find the couch in a new spot and the furniture totally rearranged.
Later, working for Condé Nast in editorial fashion and photography roles proved a natural fit. “I developed a strong sensibility for interior design and architecture,” she recalls. “That made real estate the most natural segue for me.”
Since joining Corcoran in 2004, Semmelhack has applied her gift for reimagining spatial relationships to her work as a real estate broker. As a resident of Park Slope, Brooklyn, she has focused on art-directing and styling client properties and photo shoots in her neighborhood and beyond. She also coaches prospective buyers on making a space — often a lifetime investment — their own.
Semmelhack talks about how design has become integral to her real estate practice, offers tips for rethinking a space and shares her insights about the hot Brooklyn market.
Inhabit: How did your talent for design help you to carve a niche at Corcoran?
Semmelhack: Early on, I realized the extent of my competition — not just in Brooklyn, but all of New York City. I had to understand and believe in what differentiated me. I had to explain to people why they should choose me and be authentic about it. My expertise had to be meaningful and tangible.
It didn’t just happen overnight, but eventually I knew that my strength was in understanding design. I always loved it, and then I was schooled at Condé Nast, with very high standards. My visual sensibility was fine-tuned during my time there. I approach every single [real estate] listing and photography in the same way that I would curate an editorial shoot.
Inhabit: What are ways you tap your design sense for sellers?
Semmelhack: I naturally helped sellers reimagine their spaces in terms of color, shape and light. I would stage spaces, really transforming them, and began to notice a pattern: We got incredible responses.
I know how to elevate a space and make it feel exceptional by curating its elements and art-directing photography. That can make a huge difference in terms of visibility and sale price.
Inhabit: How does an eye for design impact your work with potential buyers?
Semmelhack: I recently worked with a husband and wife looking to buy. He told me that his wife totally trusted my selection of listings. Anything I felt to be worthy of their time, they would seriously consider. In the end, I showed them only two properties, and they bought one. There was an element of trust between us because they valued my taste.
Inhabit: What are the most meaningful elements that can transform a space?
Semmelhack: A lot of New York City apartments are very boxy, and the furniture is often boxy, too. So you have squares and rectangles inside of squares and rectangles. I see that as soon as I walk into a space, intuitively and immediately. I often suggest that we create more of a balance.
Much of that boxy furniture is dark, which can feel boring and heavy in combination with different kinds of brown wood. So color can be very transformative. If a space is challenged in terms of natural light, we consider how to illuminate it to open things up. That might be through artificial lighting, wall treatments or window treatments.
Inhabit: How else might you customize an interior vision?
Semmelhack: There’s such a variety of architecture in New York City. I don’t apply the same design input on a new development that I would in a Victorian brownstone.
Some places have really incredible architectural integrity that might work well with mid-century modern or classic pieces. For some new building projects, I’m very involved in helping the developer select finishes, tile, paint, cabinetry, etc. A good decorator always considers the architecture before determining what works best in a space.
Inhabit: Any specific tips for people eager to buy in Park Slope, or Brooklyn in general?
Semmelhack: I often remind people that they aren’t just buying an apartment or a house; they’re buying into a neighborhood and a community. Park Slope, Brooklyn Heights, Prospect Heights — each neighborhood has a slightly different mood, just as the Upper East Side feels distinct from the Upper West Side or the Bowery in Manhattan. So I encourage people who are new to Brooklyn to explore various neighborhoods to understand what feels most natural and what works best for their lifestyle.
Inhabit: What are some of your favorite neighborhood spots?
Semmelhack: I have a beautiful deck with lots of potted plants, so making coffee at home and having it out there is a treasure. I love Claro, a new Oaxacan restaurant on Third Avenue. I love the garden, and the food is exceptional. For a mainstay restaurant, it’s Al Di La.
Every single Saturday, I go to the farmer’s market at Grand Army Plaza. I love to buy flowers there, and my husband and I make hot sauce with ingredients from a farmer we’ve known forever: Ray Bradley. He’s seen my kids grow up, and he recently brought us back peppers from a trip to Greece.
Inhabit: What advice, applicable to real estate or to life in general, do you find worth sharing?
Semmelhack: It’s so important to understand what you do best and leverage that skill to be successful. My affinity for design is something I enjoy, it helps me to stand out in a competitive business, and it helps my clients benefit, as well. That’s a winning combination.
Inhabit: Complete this sentence: Park Slope wouldn’t be home without…
Semmelhack: …living near Prospect Park. I can get lost in there, where all I see is green and grass. That kind of reset is really meaningful to me.