MOORESVILLE — Bill Balatow might not have learned everything he knows about real estate from the furniture business.
But knowing the difference between a divan and a davenport hasn’t hurt.
Which is not to say that Balatow, one of the go-to Realtors for buying and selling houses near the Mecklenburg-Iredell county line, spends a lot of time sitting around on a fancy sofa.
Balatow, a Buffalo, N.Y., native, found himself surrounded by the furniture industry when he moved to Lenoir with his parents at age 6.
After graduating in 1979 from the University of North Carolina, he made it official and spent the next 20 years in just about every aspect of furniture.
In 1997, Balatow found himself back in the Old North State with a small furniture company that closed in 2000. That’s when he decided to make a career change to real estate.
Now Balatow, 57, lives in Statesville and bases his practice out of the Allen Tate Realtors office in Mooresville, where he specializes in homes on the east shore of Lake Norman.
On the Level met the tennis-playing, expansive-talking, imposingly statured Balatow on the veranda of an equally imposing $1 million home on the lake near Mooresville, where we munched on leftovers from an agent luncheon he had just hosted.
We discovered that Balatow is not the kind of guy afraid to speak in complete sentences and use words like nadir, and use them accurately. Nor is he afraid to broach touchy political and social issues, as long as it’s off the record. “Why piss off half my customers?” he reasons.
But, on the record, he’s also not afraid to tell his sellers that if they really want to sell, and sell fast, and get top-dollar, they might have to fix up their houses, get rid of clutter, and maybe even rearrange their furniture.
Has real estate recovered? It’s busy, but not as busy as it was in the spring of 2007 at the end of the boom, when it was, “Oh, this will never end.” We survived through it somehow as an industry. It’s nice to see colleagues busy, too. And it’s just nice for homeowners too. A lot of people’s lifetime dreams are tied up in their house. It’s frustrating when you can’t help them. It’s nice to see young people dream again, and more experienced homeowners have enough equity to move up. At its nadir, maybe half the country was in negative-equity territory, and it’s still a very uneven recovery, so not everybody is out of it yet.
The flip side of the information age is that on any issue, real estate included, you can find an outlet that will say it’s good-it’s bad, it’s better-it’s worse, how to buy and sell and when to buy and sell. When I was in real-estate school, we were told that all real estate is local, and the internet, which is global, makes it block-by-block and street-by-street.
And, therefore, the recovery, or lack of it, is local? I can only really speak about the northern part of the Charlotte market, up around the lake, and the recovery is much more apparent in the Mooresville to Concord arc than in Troutman and Statesville. Prices came back some, from 20 percent off the peak in 2006 and ’07 in the areas closer to Charlotte, with gas being what it is, to maybe 15 percent. Around Birkdale, exit 25 (off Interstate 77), where you’ve got a great shopping center and great golf club ─ that’s why it’s so successful.
So other than the lake and the traffic-free commute on 77, what’s the draw up here? Ha. Good one. It’s the lifestyle here around the lake. People are moving in from other areas for business, younger people are starting in business, it’s a real melting pot of people from all over the country ─ the world, really. It’s not NoDa or Fourth Ward; it’s not hip. But it is accepting of people from outside. People are accepting of people from everywhere, gay or straight, black or white. An older real estate agent told me once that the only color you have to be concerned about is green; do they have the money for what they want? And the taxes in the counties are lower than they are in the cities and towns. You have a $1 million house, you pay about $5,000 in taxes here, which is one reason why the lake area draws so many people, and jobs, from the Northeast and the upper Midwest, where you might pay $13,000 on the same house on, say, Long Island.
Word is you are a good real-estate agent. What makes a good real-estate agent? I was taught that good real estate agents are communicators, not decision makers. I’m an old accounting and business major at Carolina who got into sales, and there is a personality aspect to it; I just enjoy helping people fulfill their dreams, really. But down deep, I’m a numbers guy. I take (Multiple Listing Services) data and plug it in, and we still have a lag in price growth and sales in the $550,000-$950,000 range. That’s a market that’s really fueled by exuberance, when the economy is exuberant. The economy is recovering, but it is not exuberant. When is someone living in a $250,000 or $300,000 house going to get that house with a boat slip he’s been dreaming of? It’s when he’s just gotten a big raise, or made partner; when he’s exuberant. (The market for houses) over a million (dollars) is more stable, because of the financial stability of people in that market. The infill areas close in to uptown have fired back up because there are a lot of people who want to sell, but they’re still under water on their loans, so there’s a low inventory of homes in those close-in neighborhoods, creating a boom.
How do you sell a house these days? It often takes from two to four weeks to take a house from signing the papers with the seller to listing it on the MLS, because before you get it on the MLS, you want to fix up every nook and cranny. Those are the houses that are moving. If everything isn’t perfect, you better have it priced dirt cheap. You’ve got to move furniture around, move fixtures if you have to. The internet has made that necessary. Buyers can see 15 or 20 pictures of every property they’re interested in, so they can go see exactly what they want. Instead of showing people 20 or 30 homes, now I show them eight or 10. They’ve done their research, sometimes even seen the crime data for an area, even the sex-offender stats. So when they come and see the house they’ve picked out to see and there’s chipped paint, or a floor is scuffed, or the front door is hard to open, they’re out of there. I had a lake house recently where we put maybe $1,500 into just clearing some undergrowth and topping out trees so you could better see the lake from the house, and it added $30,000 to $40,000 to the sales price. That’s how you sell a house.