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No place like home: (l-r) Eric Dahl and Sandy LeVan.

Photo: Alicia Solsman

Mission: Homeownership
By Miriam Axel-Lute

Community Realty’s buyer-brokerage puts regular buyers front and center

When Sandy LeVan met with her broker from Prudential at the beginning of her house search two years ago, he asked her two questions: where she wanted to live and how much she was willing to spend. Then he began showing her houses. But LeVan, who works at United Tenants of Albany for what she gently calls a “nonprofit salary,” wasn’t finding anything. She was being priced out of the rapidly escalating market.

And though her broker was always polite and patient, LeVan says she began to get the feeling that he was “just waiting for me to buy a house already. . . . It was very subtle pressure.” At one point she saw a house with a fire-damaged roof. He told her she could always put a new roof on. “You want to give me the money?” she recalls thinking.

Eventually, “I began to feel bad, like I need to buy a house, I’m dragging this guy around,” she says.

LeVan took the summer and fall of 2004 off from looking. Then she heard about Community Realty, a brand-new brokerage launched by the Homeownership Collaborative, and went to check it out.

Mary Connair, one of Community Realty’s real-estate agents, first asked her “everything short of whether I liked moonlit walks on the beach,” recalls LeVan. Among other things, Connair found out that LeVan needed a place to walk her dogs and preferred quiet, but wasn’t bothered by an “edgier” (i.e., not considered totally crime-free) neighborhood.

Since one of Community Realty’s missions is promoting and supporting underappreciated urban neighborhoods, and because the brokerage specializes in lower-income first-time homebuyers, its agents had no trouble understanding what LeVan was looking for. “I liked that they understood the whole urban thing,” says LeVan.

And because Community Realty represents only buyers, and pays its brokers by salary only, not commission, there wasn’t the same kind of pressure. “I could breathe when I got to Community Realty,” LeVan says.

Eric Dahl, the managing broker for CR, and his partners in the collaborative founded the brokerage primarily to fill a gap in the services provided by the Homeownership Collaborative’s seven member organizations, he says—groups like the Affordable Housing Partnership and the Troy Rehabilitation and Improvement Program, which were providing credit counseling, homeownership classes, housing rehab, home improvement classes. . . everything except connecting their clients with the actual housing market.

“As housing counselors, we’d send people out to find a house, and sometimes we’d hear from them again, but we’d just send them off,” says Susan Cotner, director of the Affordable Housing Partnership.

It was also a nice perk that the new program would, in theory, be able to pay its own way, and eventually return some profit to the other members of the collaborative, without taking anything out of the pockets of their clients. This helped bring needed planning and start-up capital from the Charitable Leadership Foundation. One of the foundation’s grant categories, says William Dessingue, program officer for housing, is “projects that have a strategic plan for self-sufficiency, that might be developing a social venture that has a fee structure, but works for the common social good.”

Though its reason for starting may have been an internal service gap, Community Realty is in fact filling a market void at the same time, working with homebuyers who were not well-served by traditional brokers. For a broker operating on commission, many of Community Realty’s target clients—looking for small houses, probably in a time-consuming search, and wanting to bring in various grant or special loan programs—are going to be “a hard way to put bread on the table,” acknowledges Dahl.

“It’s a difficult buyer to work with, in the amount of time you spend,” agrees James Ader, executive vice president of Greater Capital Association of Realtors. “Some [brokers] may not take on that kind of client. Many will, and try to give it the attention they can, but probably not the attention it needs.”

Because it is taking on those clients, and bringing into the market new homebuyers with an interest in urban neighborhoods that sellers sometimes have more trouble marketing, Community Realty is in fact being welcomed by conventional brokers. “Someone to invest the time with [lower-income buyers] can be nothing but help,” says Ader. “It could be a wonderful addition to the market. I hope they succeed.”

Community Realty brings more than time and attention to detail to the table. Because it emerged out of the housing nonprofit world, it keeps its agents (currently four part-timers plus Dahl himself) unusually up-to-date on all of the various special programs and financing options out there designed to ease first-time homebuyers’ ways.

“It’s not just that we know IDAs [individual development accounts, a matched-savings program] are there,” explains Dahl. “It’s that we know all the idiosyncrasies.” So CR homebuyers are less likely to have a closing delayed because no one told them they needed a homebuyer-education certificate to get the a particular reduced-interest-rate loan, for example. Or, as happened recently in Troy, an agent can intervene when a seller’s agent wants to reject a contract because they haven’t heard of IDAs.

Of course, few Community Realty clients would be likely to get to closing without a homebuyer-education class under their belts anyway. Dahl says they’re envisioning the brokerage, even though its specialty is at the midpoint of the process, as a point of entry to all the programs the member groups offer as well. “Who do people go to first when they want to buy a house?” he asks. “A broker.” He’s hoping to draw in people who could benefit from the other programs the groups offer but who might not have found them otherwise. CR will shepherd them through the various steps and agencies, taking over directly when it comes to the actual house search and buying process.

Today’s Capital Region market is definitely not a buyer’s market, says Dahl. Although many of his clients would be able to afford many of the houses on the market with some available assistance, they are nonetheless having trouble getting their bids accepted because many properties are being snapped up by investors who can pay cash up-front. This makes it even more important to have a brokerage like Community Realty that’s focused on buyers and their needs, says Dahl.

If it keeps up, however, it will also affect the bottom line. Community Realty’s business plan is aiming to break even in five years. To make that, they may need to serve homebuyers of a somewhat higher income than they were hoping to. “The market conditions aren’t working in our favor right now,” says Cotner. “We need to be careful of the mission, making sure there’s plenty of room and time for service to everyone. That’s where the pressures will come in: the financial flux vs. who we’re serving.”

It’s far too soon to know how Community Realty, which only reached full staff this spring, will handle that balancing act, but Cotner is optimistic. “We have such confidence in Eric and the people that he’s hired.”

It wasn’t Community Realty who actually found LeVan’s house—it was a matter of word of mouth. But it was CR who made the purchase happen, she says. “Without them it wouldn’t have happened, I wouldn’t have had the confidence,” she says. She closed in May. Her Morton Avenue home has pretty much everything she wanted—a large and private yard, Lincoln Park across the street, a freestanding building, neat internal design. It doesn’t have a fireplace, but she’s OK with letting that detail go. It’s a two-family, and LeVan jokes that due to her day job, she expects to be the city’s best landlord.

It seems clear that the neighborhood is better served by having LeVan there than an absentee investor. And that’s exactly Dahl’s hope for Community Realty—that by helping individuals along the road to homebuying, they will also help strengthen some of the region’s urban neighborhoods.

For more information, contact Community Realty at 434.1840 or www.yourownhome.org

maxel-lute@metroland.net


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