Manhattan Beach Confidential – Anonymous real estate blogger comes out
A traitorous Realtor. A stay-at-home MBA mom. A man in his fifties with dirty, worn-out sneakers.
Over the last three years, several theories have been tossed around about the identity of “MB Watcher,” the anonymous blogger behind Manhattan Beach Confidential (MBC). The blog site offers a critical look at real estate practices in the city and has infuriated many local Realtors in the process.
Earlier this month, resident Dave Fratello revealed that he is MB Watcher. Fratello was not a Realtor, until April, and his shoes are remarkably clean.
Sitting in his new office situated above a shop on a downtown Manhattan Beach corner, he explained what it was like to be the man behind the computer screen.
“It was like a witch hunt,” he said. “People were mad at me and I didn’t know what they would do if they found me. They were so mad about the existence of the blog, the only way I could continue it was to remain anonymous.”
On June 14, Fratello formally revealed his identity on MBC in a post that began, “Hi, I’m Dave.”
However, a June 10 post on real estate agent Blake Roberts’ blog site suggested that Fratello had been outed against his will.
“The identity of the writer behind mbconfidential.com has been one of Manhattan Beach’s biggest real estate mysteries,” reads Roberts’ post, next to a photo of Fratello. “…Now, after years of trying to discover MB Watcher’s identity, I’m 98 percent sure I’ve tracked him down.”
The supposed forced outing turned out to be a joke. Fratello had recently confided in Roberts that he was MB Watcher. Roberts suggested writing the expose as a gag prior to the official reveal, according to both men.
But not everyone is laughing.
“A lot of what [Fratello] did, especially earlier, was hurtful,” said 37-year South Bay real estate veteran Jack Gillespie of South Bay Brokers. “This is a difficult business and it’s easy to be a critic. People say how bad something is that happened, and they don’t know their tails from third base. And it’s especially easy being a critic when you’re not out there to be confronted.”
Fratello said revealing his identity has been mostly a positive experience.
“I’ve had a really good response,” he said. “Agents are congratulating me for coming out. There are agents who tell me they read the blog every day and they get information they don’t get anywhere else. It’s an honor to hear that.”
With a real estate license and a face that now goes with a name, Fratello not only plans to continue MBC, but was hired by the Daily Breeze to expand the blog into a weekly column, “South Bay Confidential.”
Gillespie is still wary.
“I don’t know if two to three months with a license makes you an expert,” he said.
Gillespie said Fratello’s limited experience in the industry could be problematic since he is not a practicing agent.
“Why doesn’t he get in the trenches and spend dollars trying to figure out how to price a home and spend time with clients who are worried about their equity?” Gillespie said. “That’s what everybody else does, and he doesn’t do that. But if he wants to get in the trenches, I welcome him.”
Leveling the Field
The Long Beach native moved to Manhattan in 2000 and launched MBC in 2007, after having difficulty finding detailed, local information while sifting through real estate blogs during the sale of his home.
In Manhattan Beach — where an average single family residence (SFR) sells for millions and four square miles include sand, tree, hill and “east side of Sepulveda Boulevard” sections — real estate becomes extra complicated, Fratello said.
“Nobody had come up with a fine focused site on a tiny little market,” he said. “I wanted more information than I could get. Weird things were happening and no one was talking about it.”
Fratello works as a political consultant in Santa Monica. He anonymously launched MBC right before the market took a dive, adding to a growing number of “housing bubble” blogs. As MB Watcher, he wrote hyper-local, informative and opinionated pieces strictly about SFRs available on the west side of Sepulveda Boulevard.
A story about Britney Spears looking at Manhattan Beach homes drove MBC’s first real explosion in traffic. Admittedly, Fratello developed an obsession to grow his readership, posting at least once a day.
“I would drive home from Santa Monica, eat dinner, put the kids to bed, exhausted,” he said. “I would drag myself through a little more real estate and then pass out at midnight.”
Agents were soon meeting buyers armed with printed MBC articles with numbers, charts, graphs and commentary. Some claimed houses were priced too high, were peculiar in some way or had sat on the market longer than listings indicated.
Names of agents were never printed in blog posts, according to Fratello.
“I will state problems with a house in an article,” he said. “That’s what people expect. The blog is mostly from a buyer’s perspective. It’s leveled the playing field but become a source of conflict over time. Most agents are afraid to say out loud whether a property is overpriced.”
While some agents saw the blog as valuable, others viewed MB Watcher’s criticisms as sensational.
“His first year or two, he had a really negative attitude toward real estate and his comments were more confrontational,” said Realtor John Altamura. “As he grew, he understood more about real estate and progressed. He gave statistics, told what’s selling and not selling, gave comparisons. I think he became very valuable.”
So valuable, Altamura makes MBC required reading every day for his son, who also works as a Realtor.
“What I would’ve hoped for in the beginning is for him to have come out and said he is not a Realtor, but a private citizen interested in real estate practices,” Altamura said. “Then people could have taken it with a grain of salt.”
A loosely organized campaign to discover the blogger’s identity began soon after the launch, according to Fratello.
Rumors surfaced and memos were passed around describing MB Watcher as being the spouse of an agent, bald with a goatee, tall and lanky, short and fat. Many worried the blogger was one of their own.
Except for Fratello’s own agent, who discovered him early on, nobody suggested that the trim, silver-haired, 40-something man who frequented open houses was MB Watcher.
“There were a couple of listing agents I always ran into at open houses,” Fratello said. “To the same agent, I’ve said I lived in three different neighborhoods.”
In January 2008, Fratello came close to being discovered after crashing an invitation-only open house attended by only few people not on the limited guest list.
“I was with my family and saw a sign and pulled over,” he said. “It was a giant party house, very opulent and strange.”
Later that night, Fratello posted the following on his blog:
“It’s not every day that they let the plebes, the riff-raff, you know, John Q. Public, waltz through an $8m house. Sunday was one of those days, though…Take dramamine first, for your head shall get to spinning after a short while touring through this 8,000-sq.ft. home. We’ve not seen such a peculiar layout in recent memory. There are head-scratchers around every corner and bend.”
Fratello later learned of a memo sent around the local real estate world within days of the post pegging another non-invitee at the event as the suspect — a man in his fifties with ratty tennis shoes.
“I guess he better fit the profile of an evil blogger,” Fratello said. “They didn’t expect the guy with the baby strapped in the Bjorn.”
A heated debate followed a series of MBC posts about what Fratello called “bogus re-lists” — properties taken off of the market and immediately re-listed to reflect less time on the market.
“The reason the re-list debate mattered to me is I was trying to track how long properties had been on the market,” Fratello says. “It’s wiping out how long a property had been on market. It’s something we debated a long time and upset some people. The practice is unethical. What can I say?”
Many Realtors disagreed. The Multiple Listing Service used by South Bay Association of Realtors requires both recent and total number of days on the market be shown for a property.
“It’s a way for a Realtor to get a property out there,” Altamura said. “Realtors see it and they understand. I contacted him and explained that ‘bogus’ was not the correct word. He listened and that showed growth on his part.”
Others felt frustrated not only at the content of the articles, but that they could not confront the blogger directly.
Dodging questions and disguising his voice over the phone started to take a toll on Fratello.
“For the last year, it’s grated on me to not be honest,” he said. “I don’t like feeling creepy, dishonest and sneaky.”
Fratello said the time is right for him to come out.
In April, he took heat for an article that implied a property was overpriced. He later realized the implication was inaccurate, but was accused of getting it wrong maliciously.
“It really stung me,” he said.
The experience prompted Fratello to get his real estate license to better understand the industry.
Shortly after, he was approached by the Daily Breeze to expand MBC into a weekly column appearing next to his real name, which would use the same model for other cities in the South Bay.
Fratello said he knew an anonymous column in the newspaper wouldn’t last.
“Everything’s been coming together for me and it made sense to come out,” he said.
“People tell me I’m helping them if I’m helping in a bigger area,” he added. “And to get compensated [for the column] is nice too.”
Fratello’s real estate license makes him eligible to receive referral fees from the handful of agents he recommends, which he said he will fully disclose to people to whom he refers properties.
Gillespie thinks that could prove to be a conflict of interest.
“If he’s going to receive money for referring somebody, how does he criticize that property if he feels it’s been handled incorrectly?” he said.
“In the case of a normal, workaday listing held by an agent from whom I’ve received referral fees, I would expect to be equally critical, perhaps more critical, of the property, if I made any comment or offered any analysis,” Fratello said in an email.
Gillespie pointed to Fratello’s most recent column about a property on The Strand.
“It was all positive and complimentary, with no criticism,” Gillespie said. “I know absolutely, [Fratello] has received a referral fee for another property from the same agent…That wasn’t mentioned in the article.”
Fratello confirmed he had recently referred the agent for a different property, but said that he has not yet received any referral fees. He said he will not receive a referral fee for the Strand property.
“I truly don’t see the point of stating in a story that a listing agent has any prior relationship with me, because I am writing about properties, not people,” Fratello said. “…If my relationship with that agent got me in the door, that was a treat for me and my readers. [That house was] so far outside the scope of my normal coverage, I don’t think it raises these hypothetical conflict issues, but I’m taking note that for some people, perhaps it does.”
The Breeze declined to comment on any questions pertaining to South Bay Confidential.
“I have to find a voice that’s edgy and informative, but won’t get me fired,” Fratello said. “I’m trying to show I’m still independent. My commitment is to tell it like it is.”
For more information, visit sbconfidential.com ER