Small real estate shops strike a return to the Midlands

06/28/2014 6:44 PM

06/28/2014 6:45 PM

A handful of small real estate shops have begun to appear around Columbia, including the return of a Century 21 franchise, which could be a sign of a rise in the home-sales business.

After 13 years in the business and surviving one of the worst economic recessions in U.S. history, Columbia Realtor Karen Yip felt it was time to get her broker’s license and jump into the unknown – independent brokerage, or business for yourself.

She went independent with Yip Premier Real Estate.

Meanwhile, Century 21 may be one of the most recognizable names in the business, but six years ago it left the Columbia real estate market – while the Great Recession was still picking up steam in the local area.

Ten days ago, however, the Century 21 brand made its return to Columbia. Established local broker, John Bolos, rolled his bustling foreclosure real estate business into a new Century 21 franchise that recently opened at Richland and Bull streets.

And veteran real estate agents Brad Allen, Andrea Reynolds and Mary Lane Sloan recently opted to put their experience together at The Art of Real Estate and avoid being part of a takeover of Prudential Real Estate by a California firm.

Boutique real estate firms are on the rise in Columbia. They may be a symptom of a “new norm” in the business and a permanent, larger part of the new real estate landscape.

These new businesses also are a sign of confidence in the future of the real estate market in the Midlands, which trailed most locales going into the recession – and by most measures is taking its time coming out.

Still, more homes’ sales closed last year than in any year since 2009, according to year-end state market reports, with a nearly 18 percent increase in home purchases in 2013 over 2012. Also, housing inventory last year was down 4.6 percent from 2012, and sellers listed 8.7 percent more homes.

Prices for single-family houses increased 4.1 percent last year and condo prices increased 7.8 percent, the reports said. While some of these key indicators have slowed over the first half of 2014, in part due to weather and in part due to economic factors, other indicators are also pointing up.

Membership in the S.C. Realtors trade group has risen for the past 18 months, said Nick Kremydas, the trade group’s chief executive officer. Membership is up 5 percent over a year ago, with nearly 14,000 members statewide.

“Real estate’s a lagging indicator of the economy, so as commercial sector jobs, manufacturing and all that start to build, we tend to see those trends increase on our end, too,” Kremydas said.

After membership in the trademark industry group peaked in 2007 at 22,000 members in the state, it had fallen every year since until the end of 2012.

Membership in the group became a point of discussion in late 2010 when Russell & Jeffcoat, the Midlands’ largest real estate firm, pulled out of the state group citing the hardship a mandatory $400 in annual dues placed on real estate agents already reeling from the recession.

“We’ve seen continuous membership in growth,” Kremydas said. “It’s been slow, but it’s been continuous growth in the right direction. As an association, we’re working really hard to provide a real value for Realtors to belong.”

Some of things these budding new boutique operators seem to have in common is that they’ve been top sales people at their old firms for a long time, they understand that real estate marketing today is information technology, but also that it still is people who buy houses.

Yip, who graduated from USC in 2003 with a honor’s degree in public relations, said her immigrant Chinese parents were more than surprised when she told them she was thinking about going into sales.

They operated a Chinese restaurant in Columbia first on River Drive then in the Northeast for 30 years and put three girls through school. Yip worked behind the counters while growing up and, even for a while after college graduation, before being urged by a Coldwell Banker recruiter to try real estate.

She has worked at Russell & Jeffcoat, ERA Realty and ReMax.

Then Yip’s father was diagnosed with stage-three colon cancer and tuberculosis in 2012, when she said he placed a heavy thought in her head one day during her many trips with him to radiation treatment: “He looks at me and he says, ‘Well, you’ve been in real estate for 10 years now, coming up, you’re doing very well. Have you thought about opening up your own shop, or are you going to continue working for somebody else?’ ”

Yip, whose husband of four years converted during the recession from being a builder to a Realtor, is renovating an 1,800-square foot building she purchased at 1608 Taylor St., across from the Township Auditorium, for Yip Premier’s new offices.

“Four years later, this is the family business. This is the legacy for our children that we’re going to have one day, we hope, God willing,” Yip said. “My dad planted the seed and my husband encouraged me, that we could do this.”

Bolos, meanwhile, said he has no desire to run a mega-sized real estate firm in the property he has renovated in the historic Richland district of town.

Bolos got his start in the real estate business 11 years ago, when he worked in his parents’ real estate firm, Covenant Properties. After purchasing the company from his parents in 2008, he concentrated on foreclosure properties and later opened J. Bolos Real Estate, which offered traditional real estate services.

Bolos merged those companies with Century 21 as an independent operator and opened the company’s new building at 1430 Richland St. in Columbia.

Century 21’s absence from the Midlands presented Bolos an opportunity to keep what he and his family had built, he said, while applying his knowledge of the way real estate is now marketed through new technologies under a major name brand.

“I knew I would have the exclusive on it – there was no Century 21 in town,” Bolos said. “I’ve been in the business for a while and we had grown to become one of the largest independent franchises in the area. I didn’t want to give up what I had, but I wanted to make the next move and do something big.”

Another boutique real estate shop recently opened in Columbia is The Art of Real Estate, at 2903 Millwood Ave.

Owners Brad Allen, Andrea Reynolds and Mary Lane Sloan are an experienced group of Realtors who left the local Prudential Real Estate franchise recently after learning the company would be bought out by California-based Berkshire Hathoway.

“Statewide, this resurgence in the market has caused Realtors to invest a lot of time in technology, in working efficiently. And what they’re re-discovering almost, is that, all the technology and the software, the apps, the smartphones and all those things – are necessary tools for their business, but at the end of the day real estate is a people business.

“They’re doubling down on customer service.”

Reach Burris at (803) 771-8398

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