Photo by Gabriel Zimmer/Catskill Image
Earlier this year, an article by New York magazine’s real estate and design publication Curbed described Upstate Curious as the team behind the sale of “every single house that was recently painted black within 50 miles of the Hudson River.” Considering that the boutique Hudson Valley-based real estate team founded by Megan Brenn-White is less than five years old, the sentence speaks volumes about the meteoric rise of Upstate Curious.
With $140 million in closed and pending deals so far in a year that has seen mortgage interest rates climb to their highest levels since 2002, Brenn-White and the Upstate Curious Team have managed to thread the needle of success in an increasingly crowded and challenging industry. The secret? Brenn-White’s business philosophy is all about leaning into the power of connection. With 55,000 Instagram followers, a wildly successful community app with 7,000 active users, and a newly forged partnership with the innovative tech- and design-driven brokerage Compass, the Upstate Curious Team is managing to meet everyone in the right place at the exact right time.
Brenn-White left New York City for full-time life in Ulster County in 2016. That year, the Harvard and London School of Economics-educated owner of a digital marketing firm first dipped her toe into real estate by getting her realtor’s license, and began tinkering around with the possibilities of Instagram. “I started an account just to document what was happening with my move up to Kerhonkson,” says Brenn-White, associate real estate broker and CEO of Upstate Curious. “It was also a new, visually compelling medium that I felt like I needed to learn for my marketing clients.”
In 2018, an article in the New York Times profiling residents who had moved to the Hudson Valley and Catskills touted Brenn-White’s account as an approachable blend of listings and community goings-on, and gained her 1,000 followers in the process. “I think that was really a catalyst for getting a lot more attention,” she says. The next year, she closed her marketing firm and launched the Upstate Curious real estate team. As the story now goes, then came Covid.
The pandemic drove intense growth for most brokerages in the Hudson Valley, but it catapulted Upstate Curious from upstart brand to household name. “Covid accelerated everything,” Brenn-White says. “We went from $50 million in volume to over $100 million in one year. It basically doubled the business.” The Instagram account was a one-stop-shop for browsing listings, learning about communities upstate, and immediate conversations with buyers and sellers.
In the four years Upstate Curious was part of Keller Williams, Brenn-White grew the team from just herself into a dynamic group of agents with diverse backgrounds in everything from fashion to documentary filmmaking. While many real estate agencies focus on a small geographic area, the 14 agents and six support staff on the team cover 12 counties across the Catskills and Hudson Valley, intentionally mirroring the broad search parameters of their client base of second home buyers and sellers. Home base for the team is a 43-acre property in Accord whose historic farmhouse and cottage have recently been renovated into guest houses for visiting clients, team members, and partners.
The key to covering so much territory is communication. The team is in constant conversation with each other, sharing tips on accepted or declined offers, community happenings, and more over Zoom and Slack.
“We have the resources and geographic reach—because there are so many of us and we’re spread out—to make ourselves experts on anywhere there is someone who wants us to sell their property,” says Katy Porte, an agent who joined Upstate Curious in 2022. “It’s extremely important to have a support network in real estate. If it’s just solo agents helping each other out from time to time, it’s very different from having this kind of established team network.”
This spring, Upstate Curious moved from Keller Williams to Compass, a partnership that is proving to supercharge the reach of its listings. “The decision to move to Compass was based a lot on the market conditions,” says Brenn-White. “Compass is the largest brokerage in New York City, has some of the best agents across the country, and it’s very collaborative and tech-forward, so it’s a natural fit. We’ve probably been getting 15-plus referrals a month since we joined Compass. That network is going to be a world of difference for us and our clients.” It’s also helped to increase the team’s average sales price by over 40 percent, although buyers will see listings for $350,000 (albeit ones that generally boast a distinctive design or location) sitting happily along ones in the seven figures on the team’s website.
An All-In Approach
By the time acclaimed designer Tom Givone was ready to sell his Floating Farmhouse in Sullivan County, his artful four-year design/rebuild process had already been featured in Dwell, Architectural Digest, and Travel + Leisure. But the modernist reimagining of a historic manor home with a deck cantilevered over a private swimming creek sat on the market for six months with a big-name brokerage before Givone took the leap to relist with Upstate Curious this year. In six weeks, the team secured an all-cash offer at asking price.
“I was afraid to let the other brokerage go because I thought they knew my buyer, but I figured I really had nothing to lose,” says Givone. “Upstate Curious had a fresh game plan and a much more customized, personal approach.”
With the Floating Farmhouse, the team applied their winning combination of down-to-earth social media coverage, digital storytelling, and captivating photography by their full-time team photographer Phil Mansfield, whose work has been featured in Architectural Digest, Vogue Living, Food & Wine, and the “House & Home” section of the New York Times. They also featured the listing at their booth at the high-end Kingston makers’ fair Field + Supply, and developed day-trip itineraries with recommended local spots for buyers to get a feeling for what living in the area might be like.
“Our job as real estate agents is not just finding you a home; it’s discovering the community you want to be in,” says Hillary Kolos, an agent who joined the team in 2021. “We try to get to know all that we can about someone and what kind of lifestyle they’re looking for, and then we can start to connect them with certain towns,” she says. “With my listing on Mead Road in New Kingston, for instance, the right buyer will appreciate the pastoral privacy of almost 100 acres and the work that the seller has put into the historic Victorian farmhouse, as well as this nice constellation of nearby towns—Margaretville, Bovina Center, Roxbury, Andes, and Stamford. But that might not be the right fit for someone looking for busy village life.”
A Community-Minded Ethos
The team’s passion for helping buyers find their sense of community extends well past the dotted line on the closing contract. In 2021, the team debuted the Upstate Curious mobile app, which provides a way for residents to find everything from community meetups to contractors. “As a team, I think we just keep figuring out how to solve problems,” says Brenn-White. “One problem was that a lot of people moved up during Covid and needed to meet people and didn’t know how to deal with a house. The app now has almost 7,000 people who are talking to each other and answering those questions, as well as small businesses and vendors gaining access to these new potential customers.”
Earlier this year, Upstate Curious also joined forces with the American Farmland Trust to help launch the New York Farmland Access Fund (NYFAF). So far, the fund has received $2.5 million in pledges, including $1 million from Upstate Curious, to help provide first-time LGBTQ+, BIPOC, and women farmers with equitable farmland access and permanently protect 1,000 acres of farmland in the Hudson Valley and beyond.
“Part of what I like about Upstate Curious and our approach to real estate is that we do try to keep the community in mind,” says Kolos. “It’s important to me that if I’m going to be involved in real estate that I’m involved in equity conversations, and doing my best to be a positive force within a world that’s hard right now economically. Taking on projects like the New York Farmland Access Trust is just part of how our team is trying to operate in a thoughtful and ethical way.”