Inside Aspen’s Pandemic Real Estate Supernova
‘Selling the Mountains’ podcast host Christian Knapp on lessons learned from three months covering an unprecedented boom
For the Aspen Times Weekly
Click here to listen to Christian and Aspen Times Weekly editor Andrew Travers discuss ‘Selling the Mountains’ in the latest podcast episode.
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The COVID-19 pandemic turned the world upside down in so many ways. In tourist destinations heavily reliant on travelers from far-flung cities across the globe, the impact has been profound. The dialogue changed from over-crowding and sustainable tourism to safety and basic survival — overnight. The darkest days of the spring 2020 quarantine saw us hiding in our homes, stockpiling toilet paper, running low on Clorox wipes, and hosting Zoom happy hours. An unprecedented mountain town real estate boom was the furthest thing from anyone’s mind.
In one of the most unlikely turn of events in the history of economic predictions — that mind-boggling boom is exactly what transpired, and it’s still happening today.
City-dwellers fled their apartments for the sanctity, safety and outdoor recreation afforded by rural outposts like Aspen, Jackson, Telluride, Big Sky, and others. Zoom Town and Urban Exodus entered the everyday lexicon and full-time residents felt the pressure of newcomers and second homeowners suddenly becoming “locals” once travel restrictions were lifted. Along with it came a heightened demand for real estate, both luxury vacation rentals and second homes, resulting in record 2020 sales volume ultimately eclipsing $3 billion in both Aspen and Vail while the general tourism economy went into survival mode.
“With a single-family home price at about $11.2 million finishing out 2020,” local Olympic medalist-turned-broeker Chris Klug put it bluntly, “it is one of the more expensive real estate markets in the world.”
Homes outside the downtown core, with space and privacy, were suddenly hot commodities seeing multiple offers after languishing on the market for years. With inventory at historic lows, it’s officially a sellers’ market: one property in the West End listed at $17.9 million recently went under contract within hours of hitting the MLS. Another property sold last spring during the height of the pandemic for $22.9 million sight unseen.
So what does the boom mean for buyers and sellers and professionals who make a living from the real estate economy? Clearly, the top brokers are significant beneficiaries with the standouts exceeding $200 million in annual transactions and a select few exceeding $400 million. These numbers are staggering – shocking even – but it’s not an overnight phenomenon. The best brokers capitalized on the unprecedented demand because year-in-and-year-out they get the premier listings and have a client referral network developed over years of deals and quality service. Common themes I have heard from brokers in this rarefied top-tier air is years spent cultivating relationships, a strong work ethic, and extremely capable teams behind them to manage the complexity of juggling so many high-dollar transactions, marketing initiatives, showings, staging, and content creation all at once.
The trickle-down effect of the boom is profound. Ask any builder, interior designer, lender, architect, or other professional that makes their living from the real estate economy and they’ll tell you they can’t keep up with demand. It’s to the point where they’re having to turn down lucrative business due to a lack of bandwidth, supply-chain issues, and staffing shortages. This sector of the mountain economy has been supercharged, but is it ultimately sustainable? Are we on the precipice of a bubble?
With these thoughts in mind, I launched my podcast “Selling The Mountains” in February, setting out out to uncover this symbiotic real estate economy with a business-focused narrative keying in on the trends, tactics, and insights of the top professionals in their trade. It’s a fascinating high-stakes industry driven by interesting characters with stories to tell that educate, inspire, and entertain. The podcast medium itself is growing exponentially allowing creators to develop super-targeted content for audiences with on-demand topics of interest while they’re in the car, at the office, working out, or even adventuring in the mountains. (At least that’s the theory, and after all, any content is good content as long as it’s on brand.)
In the first season of the show, we’ve heard from a diverse group of brokers, developers, and designers – from Andrew Ernemann, the first Aspen broker to sell more than $500 million in 2020 to Jordie Karlinski, and up and coming broker who recently transitioned from a professional snowboarding career to being a full-time realtor.These entrepreneurs have opened up for deep dives about what drives success and how they give back to the community. Some of the brokers I’ve talked to, like Craig Morris, eschew modern marketing tactics like social media altogether while others like Chris Klug embrace everything from state-of-the-art video production, live virtual property tours, regular blog posts, digital advertising campaigns, and sophisticated customer relationship management. Some even dabble in the latest trending platforms like social audio pioneer Clubhouse or the viral video phenomenon TikTok to complement their emphasis on Instagram, the preferred social channel for this cohort.
Keeping up with all these platforms is pretty much a full-time job in and of itself. Checking the boxes from a digital marketing standpoint is critical, but what is the true return on investment in the latest trending platform? From a traditional marketing standpoint, look no further than broker advertising in the local newspapers, multi-page spreads in the print magazines, and airport video display units to recognize the value of these mediums to reach important clientele. Whether or not these efforts truly make a bottom-line impact, they do send a signal to the client that you know how to expertly market their property. After all, considering the commission on a home north of $10 million, it’s fairly easy to justify a strategic marketing plan for each luxury listing. Lest we forget, the Aspen market saw 90 closings in 2020 above $10 million, tripling the 27 such sales in 2019. That 233% increase tops the previous high-water mark of about 30.
With all this demand you would think every broker in the Roaring Fork Valley is riding a high, buying tons of new gear, shopping for a warm weather vacation home, and socking away enough money to weather the inevitable downturn. Not exactly. There are more than 700 real estate professionals vying for their slice of the pie, so it’s an incredibly cutthroat market. For every broker doing more than $100 million in annual transactions, there are many doing a few deals here and there and trying to carve out their niche while working another job. The challenges of starting out as a new broker are real, especially if you don’t have a deep network of contacts from a previous career; perhaps as a ski instructor, hospitality professional, adventure outfitter, or even the proverbial boot fitter. The Pareto Principle is in full effect in mountain real estate with the top 20% of brokers doing 80% of the business, and that ratio is probably overly optimistic.
For those starting out, social media savvy or a strong marketing background can quickly help you stand out from the rest and provide a leg up. Others attach themselves to a top broker, either as a mentee, partner, or assistant, to learn the trade and perhaps get a referral fee for helping sell a low priority listing. In other cases, aspiring brokers tie their success to new developments. A case in point is what’s happening in Snowmass Village, where the opportunity to get floor time and act as the exclusive listing broker for new inventory has proved to be an effective launchpad for brokers breaking into the real estate industry and building a client network. Buyers love new, whether it’s a beautiful mountain modern condo in Snowmass Base Village, or a ground-up bespoke custom home on Red Mountain with a build price of $2,500 per square foot.
Another way for up-and-coming brokers to hone their craft is by diversifying their business with different types of transactions to accelerate growth and expand their referral network. Starting in luxury vacation rentals is one tactic that can be both extremely lucrative and legally arduous, often requiring lengthy contracts and high-touch concierge services. But a successful rental transaction, oftentimes exceeding $100,000 per month during a peak period, comes with a big commission and can lead to a real estate transaction down the road. Another option is selling fractional residences offering a relatively stable slate of transactions for many years until the inventory is sold out (just don’t call them “timeshares” around the real estate crowd).
While expanding the type of transactions you’ll take on, employing the latest marketing techniques, and leveraging a mentor can help with growth, there’s nothing more important than differentiating yourself and standing out in a crowded field. The same goes for product and experiential marketing: what is your unique selling proposition or brand position in the market? Perhaps you’re part of a team pairing a seasoned broker with an up-and-comer like Mandy Welgos and her former partner Dana Horton. Maybe you’re a husband-wife team like Tracy and Bubba Eggleston that can offer both a male and female point of view while doubling-down on your availability and expertise (and maintaining some semblance of balance on the home front).
“We live what we sell,” Bubba said in our interview.
‘It’s still all about relationships’
Another emerging trend is to break from the status quo and align with a national brokerage firm offering proprietary technology to help agents achieve greater success. With the recent Compass IPO on the New York Stock Exchange, the company has gone from a mid-$300 million to $7 billion valuation in just five years. Compass’ leaders come from a tech background and are using that acumen to apply the latest digital marketing solutions for their brokers while simultaneously gobbling up the top independent agencies in critical real estate markets.
“If I was going to make a change, I didn’t want to do it with the status quo,” Compass Aspen managing director Steven Shane explained on “Selling the Mountains,” “and this is a company that was going to disrupt an otherwise somewhat antiquated industry.”
It remains to be seen how successful a publicly-traded brokerage will be in a mountain town environment, but at the end of the day, Shane and others will tell you it’s still about relationships. By partnering, or acquiring, an established local firm these companies are able to absorb a network of brokers and rapidly scale the business with centralized services, proprietary technology, a powerful referral network, and global marketing power.
What hasn’t changed much through the years in mountain town real estate is the lack of ethnic diversity. Mountain towns are not known for their diversity in general but we’re starting to see more people of color spending time in the mountains, which in theory, ultimately leads to home ownership and changing demography. Apart from the pandemic, international clientele from South America and Australia have been buying homes in mountain communities for many years and some brokers cater to this market — speaking fluent Spanish and traveling abroad to make connections like Douglas Elliman broker Brittanie Rockhill.
Additionally, we’re seeing a some local brokers with diverse backgrounds gaining traction in the market and, as realtor Theo Williams — one of the few Black brokers in the Aspen market — explained on the podcast, they are not afraid to speak up if they see something that isn’t right. It’s a breath of fresh air to see people experiencing the mountains that don’t necessarily resemble traditional alpine enthusiasts of the past — hopefully that’s an emerging trend that is here to stay.
“We preach a lot about doing the right thing and if you see something that’s not right, you should speak up,” Williams told me on the show, “but very few people actually do it.”
One trend that isn’t going away in the short-term is a broker’s ability to get creative and find unlisted properties, or even persuade a homeowner to become a seller, in an inventory-starved market. The “pocket listing” phenomenon is currently dominating the conversation as sellers test the market before committing to formally listing their property. This strategy can expose flaws as showings are conducted and also tests the price point before formally hitting the MLS. Less showings means less disruption for the homeowner, especially if they’re full time residents.
Maintaining privacy, either through an LLC or never putting a property on the market in the first place, is a confidentiality tactic that ultra high net worth homeowners can afford when demand is strong. It will be interesting to watch the market this summer as more and more properties transact behind the scenes.
“If someone comes to me and says, ‘Hey, I’m looking for a unicorn in a haystack,’ I’m going to go find that for you,” Rockhill told me.
The mountain real estate economy is a fascinating industry worth exploring on a deeper level, especially in light of recent trends, stratospheric price points, and the unprecedented demand the market is currently experiencing. Despite everything, the fundamentals of being a successful real estate broker, builder, developer, or designer remain the same: Follow your passion and you can tackle the impossible; One opportunity generally leads to another, eventually far exceeding what you ever thought possible; Whatever your journey, always respect the past while looking towards the future and apply lessons learned from previous endeavors or business deals to the next one; and most importantly:
Your favorite project should be the one you’re working on now. That’s certainly the case for me and “Selling the Mountains.”
Christian Knapp is the host of “Selling the Mountains” and former chief marketing officer at Aspen Skiing Co.