In back of borough hall, the Historic Preservation Committee had run out of ideas. The beloved Second Empire, saved just ten years ago, had recently failed as a community center. Now the borough wanted to unload it. Demolition loomed. The committee chairwoman faintly asked “does anyone know of a good real estate agent who likes old houses?” Sound familiar?
Out of the estimated 60,000 New Jersey real estate salespersons, brokers and agencies there only exists a small armful who embrace the preservation of historic assets. Some treat historic properties as a niche market they have justly developed. Others find great satisfaction in wedding a nervous preservation minded buyer to a passionate old house seller. Many agents own or have owned several historic properties and many serve on land management boards. Some have even raised their hand when the historic preservation committee has pleaded for salvation.
What qualifications or specialized courses do you need to make a market in preserving New Jersey’s historic properties? By most standards, not so much. ‘Regular’ real estate agents site specific designations they’ve earned through additional education such as Senior Real Estate Specialist® (SRES) or Certified Residential Specialist (CRS.) But other than having the obligatory high school diploma, completing a basic coursework, passing a state required exam and then signing up for the guidance of a licensed real estate broker; presently, there are no national or state designations or certification courses specifically dealing with historic properties and their principles in preservation. But, some agents have been driven to do better.
David M. Schure is a real estate agent with 18 years at the same Princeton agency, Callaway Henderson Sotheby’s International Realty. The majority of his business is in historic properties. His background includes an MBA in marketing from College of William and Mary, two years in Columbia University’s Historic Preservation Program, a six year stint at National Trust for Historic Preservation leading to work with the Trenton Downtown Association and service as a former chairperson of the Princeton Historic Preservation Commission. Although he owns a 1750’s home, David now has a focus on preserving Mid-Century Modern.
Princeton has a tremendous amount of historic building stock within its 20 locally designated historic districts. David would be the first to talk about architectural esthetics but recognizes that as an agent “the big challenge is the guts of the building” He emphatically states he isn’t an architect, mechanical or structural engineer and would never give any technical advice. However, he does maintain lists of experts that a buyer or seller might consult with. Keeping these lists of possible resources in historic preservation is part of his, and other agents, stock in trade. David thinks someone should offer coursework for real estate agents in historic properties and it could be modeled after the credits American Institute of Architects (AIA) certifies for courses in continuing education. The main thing real estate agents may not get is that preserving historic property’s integrity is preserving its value. Thinking of local ordinances as controlling and overbearing is actually the reverse. David says, “The ordinance may be the way to protect contributing assets in a historic district from deteriorating and losing their inherent value.”
The overall market for historic properties is fairly small. Though New Jersey is historically dense with older building stock, fewer than 8% of yearly real estate sales involve properties built before 1930. This can vary greatly by location, land use, a municipality’s history of development, the expendable wealth within a market’s demographic and an agent’s passion for preservation. And granted, describing a “side hall colonial” as “Historic” or “Vintage” does not have the same gravitas in Historic Preservation as a property nationally recognized as “historically important” and/or “architecturally significant.”
For over 15 years at Caldwell Banker, real estate agent Stephanie Smith has serviced buyers and sellers in mostly Central NJ from Ocean County to Mercer up through Essex and West to Hunterdon. Her education is her experience with 80% of her sales in homes built before 1930. She has personally owned and maintained historic properties, but, has shied away from her past work on historic societies and committees. She believes, “they are too political” and sometimes finding “the other active members are too focused on the wrong things.” Although fluent in local and/or state historic designations Stephanie would rather not advise buyers on historic restrictions. “I advise them to do their due diligence. This is because there are no agencies that I have found that give the same answer twice, so it is more beneficial (and safer for me) to let the buyers find out their own details on any restrictions.” Stephanie cautions that for older properties “the marketing is very expensive.” She is also very proactive, “I have mailing lists of interested buyers and sellers… specifically if a barn or out building might be available to an architect or artist” She also is a big fan of specialized websites listing old houses for sale (see below) especially when the site provide statistics on ‘page views’ that she can pass along to her clients.
Real estate agents are sales people who generally work on commission. A final sales commission is roughly 6% split between the buy and sell agents, minus what each of their licensed broker/agency subtracts. Sales in historic properties take longer; involve a lot of hand holding and the use of creative resources in marketing. An agent’s upfront cost in marketing expenses may never be recovered if the seller gets cold feet or if the deal takes forever. Knowing these and other financial risks, many agents are weary of the pit falls in dealing in historic assets.
Meg Sullivan has been a licensed realtor for 31 years, mostly with Coldwell Banker in Chester. She attended Drew University’s Historic Preservation Certification Program and looks forward to the rewarding workshops she attends in the NJ Historic Preservation / History Conference held annually by New Jersey Historic Trust. Meg served several years on the Randolph Landmark Committee, including 2 years as Chairwoman and was responsible for reviewing potential construction projects affecting historic properties. She was involved in finding “the right buyer” to save Randolph’s 1826 Golden Corners house.
Meg believes that a few years ago “buyers started looking for more character in older houses.” Through her studies, she knows how to define styles and architecture to buyers. Once she fully understands what passions drive a buyer or seller of historic real estate, she knows exactly what resources to apply. Meg maintains lists of contractors, architects and especially building inspectors who are knowledgeable about older properties and their intricacies. Preservation Directory www.PreservationDirectory.com “has a wealth of resources” that she combs through. She has developed niche marketing strategies that involve everything from custom flyers to historic societies, social media outreach, networking with like-minded agents, relying on Caldwell Banker’s outstanding media listings but also utilizing some very specialized corners of the internet.
Here are five of the most prominent websites that many New Jersey real estate agents use to specifically cater to the growing market of historic property buyers and sellers:
Historic Properties www.HistoricProperties.com
Old Houses www.OldHouses.com
Old House Dreams www.OldHouseDreams.com
HistoricForSale www.HistoricForSale.com (a sister site of Preservation Directory)
These sites also have paid listings of real estate agents who specialize in old and historic properties in each state. Recently, the National Trust for Historic Preservation announced they will now drive their web-based historic house listings toward the CIRCA website. National Trust will continue to list historic properties in their print edition of Preservation Magazine. The CIRCA website claims that it “averages over two million page views a month” and “Your listing will be promoted to hundreds of thousands of old-house lovers.”
If there seems to be a growing market for historic properties, would it benefit real estate agents to become more educated to reflect this as a specialty? Supervising Historic Preservation Specialist, Meghan Baratta at the NJ State Historic Preservation Office suggests there is no need for real estate agents to go through extensive courses to market NJ’s historic assets. But “if there was a way for agents to get real answers regarding their basic questions, they could relay those answers to alleviate the uncertainty that scares people away from historic properties.” With more education and understanding agents could know what makes something important and historic and how to work with those attributes.
Early in this century the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP), in conjunction with New Jersey based ERA Real Estate, created a programmed course on historic properties for real estate agents. Completion led to a designation as a Historic Properties Specialist. Required studies included Architecture In America: International Origins and Influence, and workshops on “…laws and regulations that govern historic properties and designated historic districts.” Ultimately this would enable ERA agents “…to educate clients about available tax credits and any restrictions that may exist on altering a historic property.” Carol Calamari, an ERA Justin Realty agent in Bergen County, took the 2 day course twice and found, among other factors, that both courses were “great tools to really understand the architecture of a home. I can educate my sellers and buyers with styles and possibly the history of a home they own.”
Unfortunately the NTHP / ERA program expired around 2010. But it made a difference for real estate agent Carol Calamari. She has remained an active member of the Rutherford’s Historic Preservation Committee and believes that one of the most important things an agent can explain to a buying client is the building’s “historic value to the entire town.” Carol is now equipped and ready to raise her hand to help her commission and her historic home clients achieve their preservation goals.
William “Billy” Neumann is a Preservation New Jersey Board of Director and chairs the Marketing Committee. He is the current Chairperson of Bergen County’s Historic Preservation Advisory Board and led Rutherford’s HPC for five years. He has authored two local history books, several National Register nominations and presents talks, walks and demonstrations on history, historic preservation, commercial photography and beekeeping.