place like home: (l-r) Eric Dahl and Sandy LeVan.
Photo: Alicia Solsman
Realty’s buyer-brokerage puts regular buyers front and center
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.
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,”
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
information, contact Community Realty at 434.1840 or www.yourownhome.org