- Matthew Thorsen
- Kelly Laliberte of Wallace Realty in Bristol
A couple in their early eighties looked carefully around a tidy ranch-style home at the edge of Bristol. The wife liked the house and the two-acre lot; the husband, not so much. He eyed the spacious backyard and said glumly: "Lots of lawn to mow."
With the couple clearly at odds, the moment called for diplomacy on the part of their real estate agent. That's a quality Kelly Laliberte has in spades.
"You guys talk amongst yourselves," she politely told the two after showing the house, and then returned to the downtown Bristol headquarters of Wallace Realty. Located at 7 Main Street in the historic village — population 3,900 — the business her parents founded is entering a new phase.
The trademark green and yellow sign depicting the sun rising over Camel's Hump will stay, but the management structure is changing: Laliberte is gradually taking over the company that Claire and Tom Wallace have run since 1994.
"We're kind of slowly moving into retirement," explained Tom.
Laliberte didn't always want to go into real estate, but about 15 years ago she succumbed to the lure of self-employment — and to her parents' entreaties to join the family business. It still consists of just the three of them.
"I was in the restaurant business," Laliberte explained. "My parents actually tried [to persuade me] for quite a while. I finally said OK."
Since she entered the profession, things have changed for real estate companies. Wallace Realty has a storefront with pictures of properties posted in the windows, but it doesn't really need them. So much house shopping happens online now, and communication is often conducted by cellphone — especially via text for clients younger than 40, Laliberte said. The mobile phone is really her office, as is her minivan, she joked.
But in other ways, the industry remains much the same as ever. The ideal disposition for a real estate agent is still thick-skinned and outgoing, according to Claire Wallace. That pretty much describes Laliberte. "She could talk to anybody," says her mom.
And in an age when corporate real estate firms and online companies such as Zillow have captured a big piece of the market, it helps for a small firm such as Wallace Realty to have deep community roots. Tom Wallace's family goes back generations in the mountainside town that once had a thriving coffin, furniture and sawmill industry and is now a bedroom community for Middlebury, Vergennes and Burlington.
Tom grew up in Bristol, joined the U.S. Navy and lived with Claire in Key West, Fla., when Kelly and her sister were small. They moved back to Bristol when the girls were in grade school. The couple purchased a local gas station, which they have since sold, and the Village Creeme Stand, a Bristol institution.
The couple's other daughter, Piper Westbrook, manages the stand, which will celebrate 37 years in business this summer. The Wallaces' grandchildren now take turns filling soft-serve cones, just as Piper, Kelly and many of their friends did on hot afternoons when they were growing up.
After college, Laliberte lived on the other side of the Green Mountains — in the Mad River Valley — and worked as a caterer, bartender and waitress. She now makes her home in Bristol with her husband and their two daughters in a circa-1890 farmhouse that they renovated themselves.
Laliberte knows people all over central Vermont and shows houses in at least three counties. "Word of mouth goes a long way, and that's actually how I get most of my business," she said.
Her sister owns the bright-blue building on Main Street where Wallace Realty is currently located. The 19th-century structure was moved to the site decades ago from elsewhere in town — and shows it. "If you look from the street, it has a little lean to it," Laliberte explained.
But the eccentricities and beauty of its old buildings are part of Bristol's charm. Laliberte thinks the town could actually use more new housing stock — especially one-story abodes designed for empty nesters, she said. But the older homes continue to have strong appeal, particularly to those who enjoy renovating.
Whatever home buyers are seeking, Laliberte offers advice and encouragement through all the twists and turns, from finding the right property to closing.
"Our job is to hold your hand and make the process go as smooth as possible," she said.
The standard commission on residential real estate is 6 percent, and 10 percent on vacant land. But those numbers can be negotiable in an era when online instruction facilitates sales by owner and when some real estate agents work for a flat fee. Laliberte said her agency's fees are particularly flexible if it is hired for two functions: selling a client's house and finding him or her another.
Wallace Realty lists homes over a broad area, but Addison County is home base. It's significantly more rural than the state's economic engine, Chittenden County, and the market generally has less inventory and lower prices. Costs are rising in both counties, though. The median sale price for a single-family home in Addison County at the end of last year was $260,000 — up 7.2 percent from the previous year, according to the Vermont Market Report published by Coldwell Banker Hickok & Boardman Realty. By comparison, the median in Chittenden County was $322,000, an increase of 4.2 percent.
Price isn't the only variance between the real estate markets. Traditional means of moving properties are different in a rural area, too.
"Open houses don't work" in Bristol or nearby towns, said Laliberte. "Nobody shows up. We sit there by ourselves for a few hours." And staging a home isn't likely to bring a higher offer.
What's more important to rural home buyers is a good well and septic system, since municipal water and sewer service is scarce.
One thing remains constant regardless of geography: squabbles among couples. They disagree "a lot," Laliberte reported. "That's when you have to pull out your pocket psychology degree."
She's also learned to expect the unexpected — including walking in on couples in bed who didn't know their landlord was showing their apartment or house. Laliberte's sensible response: "Apologize, shut the door and walk out."
Winter in rural Vermont can present unexpected obstacles, as well. Laliberte said her van does great on snowy roads, but more than once she's had to navigate snow drifts to get to a home's front door.
That's one reason perseverance is an important tool of her trade. Many houses have quirks or drawbacks — or unplowed driveways — but none is unsellable, according to Laliberte.
"For the right price," she said, "somebody's going to buy it."