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Home / Features / On the Level / ON THE LEVEL: Tommy Lawing lays down real estate law – and lays out real estate history

ON THE LEVEL: Tommy Lawing lays down real estate law – and lays out real estate history

Tommy Lawwing. Photo by Tony Brown

Tommy Lawwing. Photo by Tony Brown

CHARLOTTE – Time was, there was Brown & Glenn, Berryhill Realty, Dwelle, a handful of others.

But if you wanted to rent an apartment or house from the great-great-granddaddy of Charlotte property management firms, you rented from T.R. Lawing.

Today there is a welter of such companies, some bigger. But Lawing is still considered by many in the business – even the direct competition – as the gold standard in the business.

That is largely because Tommy Lawing, son of the man who founded the company in 1957, has run it since 1995 the way his father used to, but also with an eye open to the future.

On the Level chose Tommy for this week’s edition because he’s been a man in the news the past month. T.R. Lawing Sr. died week before last; and a couple of weeks before that, the eight other members of the N.C. Real Estate Commission elected Tommy chairman.

The buck now stops, real estate-wise, at 1445 E. Seventh St.

Thomas R. Lawing Jr., 65, has been in the family business since he graduated from N.C. State University in 1971 with a degree in economics, back when – as we will soon hear – the company had six employees.

It now has a staff of 45, and a portfolio of 2,750 rental units – 800 single-family residences, 250 duplexes and condos, and the rest apartments – and 11 homeowners association management contracts. Last month, it sent out 1,900 statements.

Like his father before him, Lawing is active in the community and Hawthorne Lane United Methodist Church. Like his father before him, he has presided over both the Charlotte Regional Realtor Association and the N.C. Association of Realtors.

But it’s not all business with Lawing. He’s right at home taking an hour off during a workday to sit down and chew the fat with On the Level. (Full disclosure: Lawing used to write a column for The Mecklenburg Times.)

And, boy-howdy, the fat really flew. Let’s sit at the feet of the guru of Charlotte property management, to both laugh and learn.

Wow. That was a packed funeral for your dad the other day. We had about 300 people.

Tell us a bit more about “Chief.” Ha. He was a very diverse personality; he had his hand in a lot of different things – and that continued after he retired, for our church and Aldersgate (Retirement Community, where T.R. Lawing Sr. lived), up until the day he died. Dad was a good example of public service by Realtors, and he taught his kids that. Because of that, I’ve been in (the) Rotary (Club) for 35 years. If I hadn’t been in Rotary, I wouldn’t have met all those people I met, in construction and in all kinds of different businesses.

How did T.R. Lawing Realty come into existence? Dad went to (N.C.) State and majored in agricultural engineering, and when he got out he put that to use by selling farm equipment, for International Harvester. He just didn’t like it. So he answered a blind ad for a property manager for a small company. This was in 1953-54, and in 1957, when the state legislature created the licensing program and the North Carolina Real Estate Commission, he founded this company. He was out of college for three or four years, had a small family; that was a tough thing to do.

What was the Charlotte property management landscape like back then? This will give you some perspective: He had one owner, when he was working for that small company, who said if you ever pull out on your own, we’d like you to manage Laureldale Apartments, now Laureldale Condominiums, in Elizabeth – they would have been about 10 years old then, built right after World War II. That was the edge of town then! Long before we started pushing out Randolph Road and out to Cotswold.

Wow. Here’s another picture for you. There was a group of small property owners all located in Latta Arcade uptown; we weren’t there; we were up a block on Tryon: Dwelle, Brown & Glenn, Trotter. You would see people arriving and leaving at the end of the month, playing their rent in cash.

Your business was once almost all apartments. Now you’re also got a lot of houses. The thing we figured out about apartments is that if you didn’t own it, you were going to see a lot of churn every time there was a new owner, and we did that over and over and over in the 1960s and ’70s. So we began to focus on houses, on building a portfolio one at a time, and if you lose them, you lose them one at a time. We were the first to manage rental condos, just as condos were becoming a form of ownership. People didn’t know how to rent them, or even if they could rent them because of the homeowners associations. We figured it out first.

The big REITs and Wall Street alternative investment houses are getting into Charlotte rental real estate bigtime. The Blackstone Group, even. Are they calling you? We’ve been contacted by them. They tell us, we have X number of millions of units. I’m delighted to do it. It’s a lot of work to buy 100 homes at a time, but now they making it work – fixing them up and offering as rental property. We’ll manage it for them because they don’t want to manage them. We have a lot of clients scattered all over the country – all over the world. We’ll do everything for you if you want us to. About 45 to 50 percent of our business is that. We carry about a $400 to $500 limit. That’s enough to fix a leaky toilet or to get us through the weekend when a water heater goes. But I’m not going to hit (an owner) with a new water heater bill first thing Monday morning. At that point, I contact him. Essentially, I’m taking care of it as if it were my own, holding off on anything over $500 until we talk.

Is T.R. Lawing in the business of owning real estate, too? One-hundred and fifteen units Lawing has an ownership in, and most of them – 85 – are in the Tryon House Apartments. Dad bought it from (the original owners). We would love to buy more – but for the money!

Ha. We’re going to the bank and borrowing money like everybody else. But more and more we’re seeing a whole new model with cash buyers.

Your model is more of a mom-and-pop operation, but professional. Half the people who work here – I’m being hyperbolic – are Lawings. Or in-Lawings. Ha.

But there is a business method at work there, not just nepotism. Yes, we try to streamline it by assigning one property manager to a property, or to an owner. We do want to make it kind of like a family. You get to know your owner. You get to know whether he’ll want vinyl siding or new paint; covered gutters or clean them out; new interior paint between tenants or just a touch-up; new carpet or clean. I’m looking to keep clients for a long time. That’s what a good property manager does, how he thinks: Long-term. A good salesperson, as soon as he closes one deal, he’s looking for the next sale.

How has the Charlotte property management business changed? Seems to me there are a lot more companies out there. Prior to the recession, we had only three or four major competitors, full-time (rental) management companies, some of the ones I mentioned, Meca, Berryhill. But after the last five to seven years – now I bet there’s 30 property management companies in town if there’s one. A lot of them work a geographical area. A lot of them are agents who go into property management to just stay alive during the hard times. When sales come back a little bit more, they’ll get out of (management).

I lived in a building a couple of years ago, and when it sold the new owner switched from Berryhill – and I had rented from Berryhill before, a long time ago – to this other company that I had never heard of. And – this is strictly my opinion as a tenant, not a journalist – they didn’t know what they were doing. Worse still, they thought they did. Yeah, you see some of that. But most of them are trying to do the right thing. When they call about landlord/tenant rules, or how to evict somebody, we’ll gladly work with them – we’ve all taught classes. Joe (Rempson, Lawing’s son-in-law) still does. We laugh because we’ve had whatever problem you’re calling about a dozen times. They say, “The landlord doesn’t want any smokers”; or, “The landlord wants the tenants to take off their shoes before walking on the carpet.” We tell them: You can’t prevent people from smoking; you can’t make ’em take off their shoes.”

How do you deal with the stressors of the job? Nobody loves a landlord. And with Internet reviews, every little minor complaint makes you public enemy No. 1. You get used to that. I grew up in this business. Dad would go out at night or over the weekend with passkeys – we don’t have passkeys any more, but he would go out with passkeys to let the guy in to fix the furnace so the tenant wouldn’t freeze to death. Each day in this business is different. You don’t know when you walk in in the morning what’s going on that day. There is a rhythm to every month, but you just don’t know. . . .I’ve been here for 43 years, and I love the freedom that comes with it. As long as I get the jobs done that I’ve got to do, it doesn’t matter in what order I do them. There aren’t nearly as many appointments as sales people have.

What about you makes you good at this? Because I was an economics major, my education was on a high level; it was a pretty good education for being in real estate. But learning to be a property manager – all that I learned here. When I joined T.R. Lawing in 1971, I became the sixth employee, and we didn’t know how were going to pay everybody. Now I’m the only one – and I’m tell you this to brag, but to show you how old I am. . . .

Ha. I am the only one here who has done all the jobs. I’ve even done maintenance. I even put in the computer system here. That’s a function of age: If you’re old enough, you do everything. That’s the nice thing about being old.

Ha. Talk about the N.C. Real Estate Commission and your leadership of it. We’re ultimately responsible for the image of the business of real estate in all of its forms. The N.C. REC is held in high regard around the agency because it is standalone body; we’re quasi-government; we own our own building. That $45 fee you pay every year – that’s our budget. Look at other states, South Carolina for example. I hate to pick on South Carolina because a lot of our agents do business there, too.

Oh, go ahead, pick away; no argument here. Ha. The S.C. Real Estate Commission is under the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. That has immigrant labor, fire marshals and everything – even barbers and beauticians. We’re pure real estate. They’re funded out of the budget’s general fund. We’re more independent; we can have more of a say. North Carolina is unique in that it allows us to identify some gaps to work on.

Like what, for instance? We’ve identified the military, soldiers coming out of Fort Bragg, as a population that needs education in real estate, in buying and leasing. In the Army, everything is vetted for you and provided to you – where you shop, where you get a haircut. They don’t choose anything – and most of them come to that right out of high school, so they’ve never had to learn to be consumers. That’s the kind of flexibility we have. We can set up something like that and not have to go to the legislature and ask.

Talk about the business of disciplining licensees. The commission is pretty much cop, judge and jury. We’re trying to encourage licensees to call us first before they do the deal if they have any questions at all about it. Call prior to dealing with that septic tank. If a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true, so please call us first. And it’s working. Two or three years ago, we had a backlog of 500 to 600 disciplinary cases, meaning that some of them dated back two or three years or more – that’s not serving the licensees or the public. Now we have a backlog of 240, and we have no cases that are more than 12 months old. We’re trying to get the word out: We’ve stocked up on public information officers who are ready to answer your questions, or to find out the answers – if you would just call.

When the Meck Times publishes stories on the disciplinary cases … our online numbers jump sky high. Oh, I read ’em. We all read ’em.

Ha. But our whole philosophy has become: Let’s be more helpful. Our updated courses for brokers and a lot more, well, up-to-date.

This has been amazing: history, perspective, business. Anything else you would like to say? I like what I’m doing. I like the volunteer work I do. I’m in good health. I’m blessed to work with nice people. There are times when we’re going to disappoint people. I hope the reputation of the profession has come up since the recession, and I think it has. A lot of people dropped out of the business, and only the best stayed in for the long haul. We have become a lot less part-time, a lot more of a full-time profession. It’s an exciting time to be in real estate, and an exciting time to be business; technology is everywhere. I can’t think of a more exciting time to be alive.

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