Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Saluting: @properties' Scott Graden

The second in a series of profiles saluting Condo Superstars, agents who ranked in the Top 10 for selling the most Chicago condos in 2007.

A Scott of All Trades Finds Success in Rehabbing

Name: Scott Graden. Brokerage: @properties. Age: 34. Years as Agent: 11. Transaction Rank: 6 (178 units). $ Volume Rank: 9 ($52 million). Resale $ Volume Rank: 87 ($7 million). Condos (as % of business): 90. Source of Statistics: Multiple Listing Service of Northern Illinois (MLSNI), Chicago condos closed in 2007.

Several of Scott Graden’s friends say that the real-estate agent-extraordinaire reminds them of the obsessive-compulsive Los Angeles real-estate speculator who starred in last season’s popular Bravo series, “Flipping Out.”

Like series’ star Jeff Lewis, Scott rehabs most of the condos he sells. He acknowledges he is as meticulous as his TV counterpart about his properties. “I’m not as high maintenance, but I, too, will do anything to make a unit sparkle. And we do have the same type of look and drive the same model car” [a 2006 Grey Range Rover].

And like Lewis, Scott relies on a close-knit team of 28-to-40-year-olds to help him as he generates tens of millions of dollars of sales each year. His “family” at @properties includes eight licensed agents and an administrative assistant, although he personally generates 90% of his sales.

Says Scott: “The MLS will show in the $60-million range for 2007, but I sold another $25 million in Chicago off the MLS. For agents who've been around, the MLS isn't always needed. If I get a $10-million building on my desk, I know 10 agents can get it sold for me, so I just call them. They will return the favor for me later.”

Scott’s real-estate savvy is in his genes. His father owns his own real-estate company in Indiana, and those family ties drew him to the business. He got his real-estate license when he was just 23 and he began to fashion his particular way of developing and selling condos while working in northwest Indiana and learning on the job.

But he then moved to Chicago, where he had a brief stint in the corporate world at Kraft Foods. “The 9-to-5 hours didn’t work for me,” he says. “I needed more freedom and ability to move up the ladder faster. Real estate was perfect, and there’s no better city for real estate than Chicago, where there’s a wonderful mix of new and old.”

He vividly recalls his first condo sale in 1997. He sold a first-floor, three-bedroom, two-bath, 1600-square-foot unit in the 2800 block of Halsted for $240,000. “That got me going,” he says.

He began at Chicago Greystone, a local builder, and later moved to Koenig & Strey before getting into condo development himself in a big way. He’s been with @properties for about 3½ years. “Basically, I handle a couple of projects on my own and represent 25 developers.

"What distinguishes me from the rest is that I facilitate the project from the beginning, finding the project for the developer, helping finance a project through financier or banker connections,” he explains. “I also design all the units and interiors, sell them and close them. I do it all myself.”

In the process, he has become a real-estate professional with a deep knowledge of what today’s buyers are seeking in a condo (“great kitchens and baths, high-tech wiring, higher finishes, Internet access,” among other features).

But Scott has had to sacrifice to be the jack, or Scott, of all trades. “There’s little time for a personal life,” says the 34-year-old bachelor. I’m working 80-to-100 hours a week. When everyone is at home, I’m out there, working with clients, viewing properties, mailing building owners, hunting for prospects.”

And when things do slow down in Chicago, especially in the winter, Scott escapes to Phoenix for one week of each month--but not for vacation. He has been establishing real-estate relationships there and in suburban Scottsdale and already has a staff of five 25-to-32-year-olds working with him.

In addition to the $85 million in Chicago, he sold almost $50 million worth of condos and homes in Arizona in 2007. Scott plans to open a brokerage in fast-growing Scottsdale in the next year, but will continue full speed ahead in Chicago.

So much for carving out any personal time.

What is Scott Graden’s secret? What motivates him and makes him unique? What does he predict for the condo market? What advice does he have for other agents? Why should buyers, sellers or developers work with him? What would he rather be?

In a recent interview, by phone and e-mail, he addressed those questions. In his words:

How does it feel to be a Top 10 Condo Superstar? Great. I’m not one for accolades, but it is the perfect barometer to know that the hard work is paying off.

What are your secrets to selling so many condos? Picking the right projects. We sell properties that are well designed and have great finishes, while maintaining a price that is usually lower than all other projects.

* Motivation: I have a passion for sales, and enjoy designing and creating interesting spaces.

* Strengths: Sales, design, putting the right people together.

* USP (Unique Selling Proposition): I’m different because I do it all myself. Most agents step into a project after it has been designed, and have little or no say in the floor plan or level of finish. I control projects from start to finish. Most of my success comes from gut rehabbing old buildings; it’s really new construction with an existing shell.

I didn’t have any design background, but I would see all different types of condos, noting which layouts, interiors and amenities were selling the best. We try to keep our units, on average, in the $300,000 to $320,000 range. At our Roscoe Village project at 1944-54 W. Newport for instance, we’re selling a two-bedroom, two-bath unit for $300,000 that might go elsewhere for $400,000.

* Mix: We sell anything. We understand that a developer’s profit is in the last few units. Some agents slow their marketing efforts at the end of a project; we increase them. For a project to succeed, all units must sell. This will enable the developer to free up his money to buy another project--from us!

* Role of Internet: We have a lot of exposure for our clients on multiple, high-traffic sites.

Why do you sell so many condos? We pick great projects, design them well, price them correctly, have a great sales staff, and use every marketing strategy. We get more people through our units than do most agents. It’s a numbers game.

Who are your typical buyers? They’re first-time buyers, 27-to-29 years of age and probably two-to-three years away from having children. They watch the HGTV cable channel and related shows so they’re looking for condos with great kitchens, baths, nicer finishes and the other features they see on TV. The shows have had a huge impact, and developers are responding by putting more features into their units.

Who is your toughest competitor? I don’t compete with anyone else. I am the only one who can limit the amount of business I do.

What is your greatest weakness? Sometimes, I can’t shut “business” off. I am always working even if I am relaxing.

Path to success? My parents are hard workers and instilled in me a great work ethic.

How do you enjoy your personal time? I love to stay in shape, go to the beach, and I’m learning to play the piano and cook.

What advice do you have for agents who want to become Superstars? More than working harder than others, you have to work smarter. Educate yourself on the market and you will go farther than those who are working more hours.

What do you look for when hiring an agent? Drive, determination and, most of all, the ability to think outside the box.

Why should someone work with you? I give clients 110%, and bring lots of ideas to the table that they probably haven’t thought of. I have been out there, and have heard what people are looking for, for years, and that is invaluable. I can help a developer build the most saleable building.

What kind of condo do you prefer? I move every 8-12 months. I live in River North now but I’ve lived in six neighborhoods. Mostly, I enjoy Old Town. I like a unit in a smaller building, new construction, with zero amenities to keep the monthly assessment low. I’m thinking about resale and people should think about that. You may have a pool and an exercise room, but your monthly assessment may be $800. Someone will buy my unit over one with an $800 assessment.

What’s the secret working with developers? In the past, I worked with some developers who would promise everything up front and wouldn’t deliver. They’d pull the wool over our eyes, and buyers wouldn’t get what they thought they were getting. We don’t keep developers who do that because agents get the blame.

Now when we first meet with developers and sign the listing agreement, we have them sign a spec sheet to hold them to their promises. I pride myself on selling quality projects, and we have weeded out the developers who were producing sub-standard products.

Looking back on 2007:

* Most important decision: To continue specializing in low-to-moderate priced units.

* Highest moment: On the same day, we had grand openings at 4434 N. Damen and 1954 W. Newport. We sold 45 units to 45 buyers. It was a long, but fun, day!

* Lowest moment: Pushing through the slow times.

* Biggest mistake: Not increasing my advertising sooner. As most agents decreased their advertising, I increased mine and saw results immediately.

Looking ahead in 2008:

* Market forecast: Unit sales will be down slightly, due to economic diversions, and the election year. Appreciation will be flat in most areas of downtown.

* What are today’s buyers doing? They’re negotiating more. Where prices were coming down by $5,000, they’re now coming down double that. But the downtown Chicago condo market is still good.

* Where is the market hot? West Lakeview is great. We’re outperforming sales more so than any other neighborhoods, because we are better priced and better finished and still close to everything.

* No. 1 goal: Work less.

* Biggest challenge: Overcoming buyers’ concerns about the economy. It’s a great time to buy.

What would you rather be? A race-car driver.


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