Lance Evans believes in the north country real estate market, his team of realtors and the two real estate trade associations that he manages day-to-day operations for. With the COVID-19 pandemic causing a surge in north country home sales, Mr. Evans sat down with NNY Business magazine to discuss why the boom has such a strong economic impact in the region and where he sees this trend of listings and purchases moving in the next year.
NNYB: What inspired you to pursue a career in the real estate field?
EVANS: My job is different than what most people think of as a “real estate job.” As executive officer, my job is to run the day-to-day operations of the trade associations. I began my job with the Jefferson-Lewis Board of REALTORS® in September 1998 after answering an ad. The board of directors were looking for someone with a business background who had worked with volunteers. Several years later the Jefferson-Lewis Board of REALTORS® entered into an agreement to provide services to the St. Lawrence County Board of REALTORS®.
NNYB: What professional path did you take to get to where you are today as the Executive Officer for the Jefferson-Lewis Board of REALTORS® and the St. Lawrence County Board of REALTORS®?
EVANS: I graduated from SUNY Potsdam in 1983 with a degree in math and secondary education and taught for a year and a half, but I didn’t enjoy it. However, the liberal arts education I received from Potsdam did help me acquire the skills needed to work at managerial positions at several area businesses. In 1995, I received a master’s degree in business and policy studies from SUNY Empire. In the places I have worked, I am used to being a “generalist” as opposed to specializing in one aspect of a business. This means I ended up with a broad amount of knowledge without specialization. That works well with a small trade association where you wear many hats.
NNYB: What does the job entail?
EVANS: I am the executive officer of the Jefferson-Lewis Board of REALTORS®, a position I have held since September 1998. In September 2001, the St. Lawrence County Board of REALTORS® began buying business services from the Jefferson-Lewis Board of REALTORS® and I became their executive officer as well. Each has its own governance body and its own separate internet-based Multiple Listing Services (MLS). All in all, there are over 500 REALTOR® members between the two associations. There are also a number of affiliate members in each including mortgage lenders, home inspectors, real estate abstract firms, insurance companies, etc. My job is to run the day-to-day operations of two real estate trade associations and two (MLS). Each association and MLS is overseen by a board of directors made up of volunteers from among the membership who set policy and direction for their association. With two other staff members, we work all aspects of the associations assisting the members with issues they might have, planning educational offerings, and implementing the policies that the boards of directors have decided upon. We also help the public with issues they have as well as members of other associations that contact us for assistance.
NNYB: You have mentioned the term “REALTOR®” several times. What is a REALTOR®?
EVANS: The term REALTOR® is a registered member mark owned by the National Association of REALTORS® (NAR) and can only be used by real estate brokers, appraisers, and sales persons that belong to NAR through local and state associations. All REALTORS® are real estate licensees, but not all real estate licensees are REALTORS®.
EVANS: NAR is America’s largest trade association with over 1.4 million members. The members belong to one or more of over 1,200 local associations and 54 state/territory associations of REALTORS®. There are also 87 cooperating associations in 66 countries. REALTORS® pledge to be bound by a strict code of ethics which has changed and evolved for over 100 years.
NNYB: Real estate in the north country has seen a considerable spike in sales and purchases during the pandemic. What specifically drove this rise?
EVANS: There were several factors in the spike we saw in the second half of the year. To begin with, when New York state went into a general lock down in March 2020, real estate agents were limited to what they could do. Most interactions had to be virtual or remote. For instance, the only way an agent could legally show houses was to do it using video (either live or recorded). Due to this, and the fact that people were restricted from moving, listings did not sell. By June sales in both associations, which account for most of the real estate sales in Jefferson, Lewis, and St. Lawrence counties, were lower than 2019. This was after being up over 2019 as of March 31. At the beginning of June, when real estate was able to re-open on a less limited scale, pent-up demand started pushing home sales up. In addition, while lock down orders were eased, people could not leave the country nor visit certain states without quarantining on their return. This disrupted many people’s vacation plans and they looked around for areas of the state that were low in the number of cases, but were good areas to visit. The Thousand Islands region certainly qualified! While here, a number of people decided to buy. Others, who had been putting off a buying decision, decided now was the time to buy a primary or second home. A third factor was a result of the lock down. Many people were sent home to work remotely. In larger cities, this often meant small apartments with little green space and few opportunities to get fresh air or socialize. Our area benefited as people had good access to internet, could easily go outside, and the area was safe for families for recreation. This led to a number of sales. About a quarter of all area property sales are cash and a good number of the sales at the higher end of the market were cash during 2020. This was because our area’s house prices are relatively lower when compared to larger areas. If the buyer was selling their property in another area and moving here, many times the buyer had the cash to buy a larger property in our area for less money than they would spend elsewhere. Finally, the continued low interest rate, combined with prices that are favorable, motivated many people to buy. Remember, the lower the interest rate the more of a monthly mortgage payment will go towards the principal.
NNYB: Do you think it will continue?
EVANS: Currently, inventory is low in many parts of the market, meaning that there are more buyers than sellers. Depending on what happens when things open up more we could see a continuation of this trend. Nationwide, there is a shortage of homes for sale. Much of what is written about is about new homes. Existing home sales are still strong in the first few months of 2021 also. One interesting item is that when locked down a number of home owners turned to remodeling and adding onto their home. This increased their satisfaction with the home and reduced their desire to move, further reducing the inventory of homes for sale.
NNYB: How has the pandemic changed the real estate market in terms of customer relations, showings, and closings?
EVANS: The pandemic has changed things; however, not everything has changed. While interactions with customers and clients may be done differently by real estate professionals, those interactions are still going on. While the pandemic sped up the adoption of some technologies and adjusted how business is done, real estate is still a people-to-people business. Unlike some products, every property is unique and has its own beauties and challenges. Just look around your own neighborhood. There are a number of two-story houses, but each one is different and the land it sits on may be a different size, shape, or may have restrictions on it that other properties don’t. The same is true of the homebuying process from the sign going into the yard to the handing over of the keys. It takes the human touch to keep the process moving and assist the parties properly. This is where the real estate professional comes in. I mentioned earlier that not all real estate licensees are REALTORS®. Many of our REALTOR® members take advantage of training and tools available to them because of their REALTOR® membership. These trainings and tools assist REALTORS® to help their clients have a smoother experience. They are used to the ‘bumps along the road’ that sellers and buyers may experience and can help guide all the parties to the finish line.
NNYB: Will this digital/virtual trend continue as the pandemic slows and the business community opens to in-person?
EVANS: Our area was doing some virtual showings and interactions pre-pandemic. Especially in the case of military, not everyone can come multiple times to look at properties. Because of the pandemic restrictions, all companies, not just real estate firms, have been forced to look at how to do business differently. For REALTORS®, one of these ways is video showings and appointments. As stated earlier, these have happened in the past and will continue. However, as real estate has opened more, these have declined as limited in-person showings are allowed.
NNYB: While home sales have been on the rise in the tri-county region, are you seeing a rise in property values?
EVANS: Appraisers use recent sales to do comparisons to a home they are appraising. Using these sales, they are able to prove to a lender that the price offered for a home is in line with the market. This fluctuates based on sales in the area and the time frame used. Depending on what happens, this will affect the property values.
NNYB: How will these rises affect the market in the years to come?
EVANS: Over the past number of years, property values have risen in the north country. This has helped to encourage more homebuying. It shows an increased confidence in the area economy. Rising property values help to increase the value of everyone’s property.
NNYB: Are undeveloped properties selling as fast as homes are in the north country and why do you think that is?
EVANS: Location is important, as is a buyer’s vision for a property. In most cases, a property that has a structure on it will go faster than an undeveloped property. This is especially true in residential real estate. Unless you are already living in the area, most people moving into an area need a place to live, so an existing house in good condition is preferable. Given our shorter building season, newer homes are rarer. Of course, if the buyer is a farmer who needs land for planting or wants the land for camping, hunting, snowmobiling, etc., a structure may be less important. The same is true of a commercial buyer where an existing building could be a hindrance, especially if a buyer needs to have a certain type or style of building.
NNYB: How do January to February sales from 2020 compare to January to February sales in 2021?
EVANS: The first two months of 2021 have continued the upward trend on sales. Single-family sales in the three counties are up 40% while sales of all types of properties are up 47%. In addition, the days on the market (time from when a property is listed to when a purchase offer is accepted) has dropped by about three weeks.
NNYB: What can a seller do to make their property move quickly on the market?
EVANS: There are a number of items a seller can do depending on their time frame. One of the easiest is to talk with a REALTOR® to help them set an accurate, realistic price for their property. The agent may also give them some advice to more quickly move the property. If the seller is still occupying the property, they can “de-clutter.” The more that buyers can see themselves occupying the property, the faster it will sell. Other things a seller can do is to repair any minor damage, do some beautification (clean, plant flowers, etc.), and make the property available and presentable for showings on a reasonable time schedule.
NNYB: What are some mistakes that homebuyers can avoid in the market today?
EVANS: There are several mistakes. The first is to not know what they can afford. Most lenders will sit down with the potential buyer and go over the buyer’s financial picture and issue a pre-approval letter. This is an estimate of what the buyer could borrow. The buyer should also have a list of things that are must-haves; this could include the number of bedroooms and bathrooms, or a certain location or type of location, etc., as well as items it would be nice for a property to have. Buyers should also be aware that a REALTOR® can show any property to the buyer, including ones listed with other companies. With that in mind, it is smart for the buyer to engage one agent and work with him or her exclusively. That agent should know the buyer’s needs, wants, and budget and be able to work with the buyer to find a property that will fit the buyer. In our current seller’s market, buyers should be aware that there will be multiple offer situations. A seller with two or more offers to consider will need to look at many facets of each offer and may pick one based on price, the buyer’s ability to close, impediments to a buyer purchasing (such as need to sell a property, financing, etc.), and/or other factors. The buyer needs to be able to act quickly in some situations. This is one of the many areas where working with a REALTOR® helps a buyer.
NNYB: How have mortgage interest rates changed over the last year?
EVANS: The average rate on a 30-year fixed mortgage began 2020 right around 3.75%. When the pandemic was declared, and much of the nation went into lock down, the rate fell. It went up briefly when the first economic stimulus was announced, and then dropped for the rest of 2020, setting a number of record lows. Recently, rates have begun to rise and are inching up towards the 3.75% rate as the economy has opened up and new financial stimuli being passed. With employment increasing and some furloughed and laid-off workers being brought back, rates are predicted to keep rising. Having said that, the rate is still very low and this should help buyers and sellers.
NNYB: What does this mean for the buyer?
EVANS: For the buyer, a lower rate means that more of the monthly mortgage payment goes toward principal instead of interest. It also means that the buyer can afford more house for the same amount of money. It also means that the decision to buy or rent is easier as more of the buyer’s money goes toward equity in a property.
NNYB: What does this mean for the seller?
EVANS: As stated previously, with lower interest rates, homes become more affordable. This means a seller is more likely to get a realistic price for the property that reflects its worth and properties don’t stay on the market as long. In contrast, when interest rates go higher, it becomes harder for buyers to afford a property and properties either stay on the market longer or go through a number of price reductions.
NNYB: As the real estate market grows, have more north country residents pursued becoming a real estate agent?
EVANS: Our market has been growing for some time. When I started at the Jefferson-Lewis Board in 1998, we had about 180 members. Now we are at about 350. Similarly, the St. Lawrence County Board has grown from about 70 members in 2001 to about 170 currently. Some of this growth has been existing companies deciding to join our association. A larger part of the growth has been from new licensees becoming agents. It should be mentioned, though, that over time people have also left the association as they have retired, moved away, or decided to pursue other opportunities. Like any career, there are wonderful opportunities to grow and thrive as a real estate licensee as long as you are willing to make the commitment to the profession.
NNYB: What does that mean for the competitive market of listing properties? EVANS: In a seller’s market like now, listings sell quickly which makes it hard on both sides of the transaction. This can be frustrating to all involved. However, new people entering the field often bring new skills and ideas that assist everyone. I should caution that over my 22 plus years in the industry, I have seen the market turn from a buyers’ market (more sellers than buyers) to a sellers’ market (more buyers than sellers) and back again. This means that the short supply will probably not last forever, but neither will a market where there is oversupply.
Through all these different markets, REALTORS® are a trusted assistant to both sides of the transaction. Together with our area lenders and other real estate professionals, they work hard to bring buyer and seller together. Real estate is one of the key factors of the economy and helps many portions of the economy.
In additi n, REALTORS® do more than sell real estate. Most are involved in their local communities, schools, and organizations. I am continually impressed by the wide range of places our members volunteer including youth sports, service clubs, fire departments, food pantries, and many other worthwhile causes. REALTORS® work to improve the community they live in and, in doing so, the lives around them.