- Matthew Thorsen
- Luke Clavelle and Steve Lipkin
Batting averages, fumbles, tackles and other stats are generally considered the stuff of sports leagues, but real estate agents abide by their own set of numbers — sales totals, units sold, listing-price-to-sale-price ratios. If you peruse those figures for Vermont, it's clear that Steve Lipkin has attained the equivalent of all-star status in the buying and selling of apartment buildings.
The Burlington agent has overseen $100 million worth of sales during the 16 years he's been in business. And he's picked up the pace in recent years: Since 2010, Lipkin has closed on 168 deals, to the tune of nearly $57 million.
To nonagents, those numbers might seem a bit arcane, but the Northern New England Real Estate Network generates rankings that put them in context. For the last four years, Lipkin, 48, has been the No. 1 agent in Vermont for multifamily sales, a distinction that means he sold the most of that type of property in terms of total value. He was involved with nearly a 10th of the multifamily transactions statewide during that period.
The secrets of his success? Carving out a niche, mastering the city's "rules and regs," making connections, and never shirking "dirty work."
Lipkin started out as an agent in 1998 at the same firm where he works today: Coldwell Banker Hickok & Boardman Realty, a local offshoot of a mega-franchise with 3,000 offices in 51 countries.
The road to the top wasn't glamorous. Raised in Kennebunkport, Maine, Lipkin got his first taste of the sales business after graduating from Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y. He drove his Volkswagen van to San Diego and got a job peddling copy machines to businesses, getting paid only when someone agreed to buy one. He'd call them cold or show up at their door, and the gig proved less than lucrative. Lipkin, not one for retrospective whining, says only, "It was tough."
He landed his next job at Perry Morris Corporation, a southern California company that leased computer-chip generators and other high-end equipment to businesses. But then the dot-com bubble burst, and Perry Morris went belly up.
In 1992, Lipkin moved to Burlington, beckoned by his two older brothers. At the time they owned and operated Coyotes Tex-Mex Café on Church Street, as well as the Old Dock House Restaurant across the lake in Essex, N.Y. Lipkin helped manage the restaurants, but "manage" was a liberally interpreted term; he cooked, waited tables, tended bar and washed dishes, too. After five years of that, Lipkin decided to return to a commission-based line of work: real estate.
The first six months at Coldwell Banker were slow: He didn't get a single sale.
That's not unusual for a newcomer, but Lipkin chose a particularly unsettling time to enter the business. It was the turn of the 21st century, and the World Wide Web was beginning to upend how things were done. In the real estate industry, an agent's power had been vested in the pages of a single document: the Multiple Listing Service, or MLS, book. The black-and-white paperback edition came out monthly and listed all the properties on the market in a given location. It was difficult for buyers and sellers of those properties to circumvent real estate agents, who held the keys to this repository of fresh inventory. Those listings started making their way online right around the time Lipkin got his license, and he remembers hearing speculation that agents might go extinct.
Early on, Lipkin decided to stake a claim in a sector of the market that other agents seemed to avoid: the duplexes, triplexes or larger apartment complexes referred to as multifamily properties. "It was a niche nobody else seemed to be focusing on or specializing in," he explains, "and I saw an opportunity there to become an expert."
Realtors may deem these types of transactions undesirable with good reason: Rental buildings are subject to stricter safety requirements than single-family homes, and they are more likely to have unresolved zoning-permit issues that need to be addressed before a deal closes.
Burlington has plenty of aging properties, upwards of 100 years old, that don't change hands frequently, and code violations tend to accumulate over the years, according to Lipkin.
By now, having been on hundreds of fire-safety and building-code inspections, Lipkin knows how to navigate the byzantine regulatory system. Some city officials say he can spot problems before they've arrived at a property to point them out.
"Getting the property under contract, where you get the buyer and seller to agree on the purchase and sale, is a big part of the job, but that's really where the job begins," Lipkin says. "Where we shine is getting the property from there to closing, and helping our clients through the zoning, and through the public works, and the financing and the title search."
"Steve has spent more time in my office than any other real estate agent I know of," says Bill Ward, Burlington's director of code enforcement.
The relationship of realtor and code enforcer can be conflict prone, because the former is trying to close deals while an inspector might raise issues that delay or derail them. But Ward says he likes working with Lipkin. "I've actually enjoyed it, and I think it's sort of a model relationship," he says.
For his part, Lipkin is surprisingly forgiving of the regulatory system. "The city gets a bad rap," he says. "You always hear how bad it is to do business in the city of Burlington, but I think if you know the rules and you play by them, and you try to deal with issues up front, it's not a mystery."
- Matthew Thorsen
Brian Boardman, a realtor and owner of Coldwell Banker Hickok & Boardman, has worked alongside Lipkin since he started. "One of Steve's biggest talents is just his patience," Boardman says. "It's very time-consuming, dotting the Is and crossing the Ts."
In 2010, Lipkin brought a new real estate agent under his wing, albeit reluctantly. Coldwell Banker runs a mentoring program, pairing seasoned realtors with neophytes and asking them to play an informal advisory role. Lipkin was matched with Luke Clavelle, now 29, son of former Burlington mayor Peter Clavelle.
Lipkin resisted at first, he says. He was busy with sales, and taking on a mentee was another time commitment. But he warmed quickly to Clavelle, and within six months asked him to become his partner.
The politician's son lets Lipkin do most of the talking, but the elder agent sings Clavelle's praises. "Luke is phenomenal with a lot of the behind-the-scene things," he says. Lipkin credits Clavelle and the two other members of his team — buyers' agent Jacob Smith and his assistant, E. Stacey Lax — with contributing to his success.
Both Lipkin and Clavelle are clean cut and wear button-down shirts, but they look less slick than you might expect. Clavelle's sixth-generation Vermont roots are evident in his accent, and he wears loosely laced boots that appear more appropriate for hiking than deskwork. Lipkin is easygoing, with the fit look of someone who plays sports. (He does coach his son's hockey team, but says some of the 10-year-olds are already better than he is.)
Clients and colleagues say Lipkin and Clavelle's down-to-earth approach is part of their appeal.
Marsh Gooding, a Burlington investor who has bought several properties with the pair, says he sought them out because he wanted to be "in the know" about properties that are snatched up before they can even hit the market. And, he adds, "Steve's got the reputation for being the multifamily guy."
Gooding notes that he later came to appreciate qualities other than Lipkin and Clavelle's ability to uncover "hidden inventory." "They are very good at doing the dirty work that a lot of other realtors aren't necessarily willing to do," he says.
Gooding is referring to one purchase in particular, in which he was the buyer and Lipkin and Clavelle represented the seller. As part of the agreement, Gooding had stipulated that the seller clean out the debris-filled basement, but on the day of the sale, 20 tires and an assortment of other junk remained. Rather than postpone the deal, Lipkin and Clavelle lugged out the tires themselves. Gooding recalls seeing them emerge from the basement, their "dress-up clothes for the closing" draped in cobwebs.
Lipkin's willingness to do grunt work also came in handy during the six worst months of the recent recession, when business ground to a halt. He dusted off a skill that had helped put him through college, and started painting houses instead of selling them.
Sixteen years in, Lipkin is well known in the greater Burlington area, and that's another boon. Some people find him online, but word of mouth brings in most clients, and Lipkin says these relationships are the heart of his real estate business. He represents both buyers and sellers, ranging from first-time investors looking for a modest duplex to magnates with 100-plus units to their names. Clients become friends, and friends become clients.
Jeff Schulman, whose kids go to school with Lipkin's, owned a duplex on South Winooski Avenue for two decades. He had vague plans to sell it and periodically asked Lipkin about the state of the market. About a year ago, Lipkin asked his permission to show the place to potential buyers.
Schulman, the senior associate athletic director at the University of Vermont, says he felt "a little leery" about carrying out such a significant financial transaction with a close friend, but now he has no regrets. The process was complex: "We had worked really hard to keep the place up, but I was amazed at the number of code-related issues that had to be dealt with," Schulman says. Yet the sale took only about two months from start to finish.
"When it comes to multifamily apartments in this community, there's an understanding that Steve Lipkin is the go-to person," Schulman says.
Having survived the rise of the internet and the fall of the market, Lipkin says he feels pretty good about where things stand. The housing inventory in Burlington continues to be tight, and vacancy rates are low, making the city attractive to investors. When properties do come on the market, they typically receive multiple offers and sell quickly, Lipkin says. "In general, our market is pretty darn steady."
And steady is fine by this husband and father of two. He's invested in one multifamily property himself, but says he has no plans to turn from real estate agent to magnate. As for his family's own home, Lipkin chose "a flat-roofed, 1950s ranch that had a failed basement" on Crescent Road in Burlington. He says he was drawn to it because its location beside a ravine gives it a woodland feel, and he's since fixed it up nicely.
Reflecting on his rise from copier salesman to accomplished real estate agent, Lipkin recalls the guidance he got from David Gray, the realtor who mentored him at Coldwell Banker: "Stay honest and treat people fairly, and you'll be able to sleep at night."
Lipkin says he's made that his credo, but he fine-tuned it to fit the intimate environs of the Queen City: "Treat people fairly, and you don't have to hide behind the aisles in the grocery store."