Tracy McLaughlin has been Marin County’s top volume individual broker for over 15 years. As a luxury specialist, she ranks eighth in sales among all single brokers in California and 24th in the U.S., according to RealTrends 2022 rankings, with over $415 million in sales in 2021.
Engel & Volkers Attorney sit down TRD Explains why, after decades at Marin, she recently expanded a second office to the Colorado ski resort town of Aspen—and some of the culture shock she’s experienced since opening the location a few months ago. She also discusses the current market in Marin and why some homes are still selling at “almost peak COVID pricing” while “Grade B inventory” continues to languish. The conversation has been edited and condensed.
How is Marlin’s top end this spring compared to the second half of last year?
When the market changes, people freeze. Buyers don’t want to keep buying because they don’t know where rates are going to go, and sellers keep saying, “We’ve got a lot of liquidity in this house. We don’t need to sell in this market.” So in terms of last year’s transactions Saying this caused a lot of hibernation.
Now that people have adjusted to the rate after rate and got through this little banking crisis, they’re saying, “Well, I’ve been on the sidelines for about a year, but our third baby is born, or my Mother-in-law moved in with us, we really, really want to buy a house now, and we can budget for a 5% rate.” People are snapping up homes they know are hard to come by again, and paying almost close to peak COVID s price.
What types of homes will they not be able to get again?
Newly built apartment on a flat plot with indoor and outdoor living areas. I mean, because of our terrain, it’s just a home run all day, every day in Marin County. We have too much hillside life and families crave flat lots they can walk on. It puts all sorts of pressure on the pricing of a particular asset.
The other, which I’ll call Class B stock, is a fixed superstructure on a hillside with no yard, or a yard below the main living space. They don’t sell. You have to be really deep discounted right now to sell it. So there are big cracks in the market.
We have new buildings, if done well.I’m talking really tasteful finishes on condominium lots that are now selling for anywhere from $1,800 per foot to My house for sale at 9 Westshore $4,500 per foot. Then we have other stuff that needs work on the hill that sells for $700 to $900 a foot. This is a huge difference.
What’s better in the market – a new home on a hill or a fixer in an apartment?
At the end of the day, the fixers do a better job because Marin lacks that kind of land here. I think if you notice the trend among young people, a lot of them don’t even have a driver’s license anymore. They are Uber. They want convenience. They want to go out to dinner and have a drink without worrying about getting in the car and driving home. These flat lots where people can ride their bikes or take their prams out of the garage instead of getting into their cars are really popular.
Do these buyers from San Francisco want that city-style walkability and amenities?
Buying audiences from San Francisco to Marin used to be smaller. About 90% of the transactions are inside Marin, about 8% are in San Francisco, and 2% or 3% are out of state or abroad. With COVID, it feels completely upside down, like we just left San Francisco, and if you have 10 shows, eight are young buyers from San Francisco starting families. So there’s really that exodus mentality during COVID.
With the market picking up again, why did you decide now is the perfect time to be in Aspen? Why bypass the Tahoe and go straight to Aspen?
It’s funny that you mentioned Tahoe, because I’m just saying I can fly direct from San Francisco to United to Aspen, much faster than I can drive to Tahoe. So that’s part of the motivation. But our family has been going there for years. I flipped several houses there and built a very nice home there for our family.
This is really an extension for my daughter. They’ll be running Aspen while I’m in Marin County. All the kids go to school in Colorado and they really love that community and we know there’s a great opportunity for really smart data-oriented realtors out there who work hard and do a great job . Overpriced. So the girls, Whitney and Grace, were my partners there.
There is a lot of back and forth between the two markets. I know a lot of people from Marin and San Francisco who own homes in Aspen or want to move there, and we have people who live here as well.
Have you sold in any mountain communities before, or is this completely new to you?
This is brand new, but I grew up in Sun Valley and my ex-husband grew up skiing in Aspen.We started hanging out when the kids were very young
We didn’t know much about the ranch, but it was really interesting to learn about the riparian rights and the river. In the heart of Aspen, new construction is now priced at $5,000 a foot. Therefore, it is one of the market leaders in the country in terms of appreciation and price stability.
But that market is also very different. They’re not staged like we are. They don’t prepare houses like we do. They don’t do pre-market inspections. So we’re hoping to move the market a little bit out there and convince sellers that it’s much smarter to pre-inspect their homes before they hit the market, rather than biting their nails and having their homes out of contract or canceled.
Is there no show in Aspen?
If you look through the listings there, it’s usually the owner’s furniture. They have electric toothbrushes on the stand and ski passes from the 1970s hanging in the hallway. It’s a $20 million house; what are people doing?
Our stager, Vesta, I work almost exclusively here at Marin, is based in Los Angeles and opens for us there. We’re excited to show people how to do something different from what they’ve been doing for a long time.
How has the new market impacted you so far?
We just launched two months ago, so it’s a brand new business, and we’ve invested heavily in outreach. Six weeks ago, we sent out 40,000 postcards, and we made a one-year commitment to Aspen Modern Luxury magazine, posting two pages on the front of the magazine. I said to my girls, “This is like grad school. It’s going to take a few years.” We didn’t expect anyone to pay us for the first few months.
[There is] A list that we thought we were getting, it would be fun to show someone how to fix their house to fix it in order to sell it. I had a great building company build my house and they were more than happy to make any small improvements before listing. So we built the same framework there for my business that we’ve done here.
I have now done 600 flips in Marin County. I did a number in San Francisco and it’s just a tried and true formula for me. Even if you can’t completely renovate, you can make the house more attractive by doing silly things like wallpapering it, putting it in the slightly dated laundry room, and painting the cabinets white so they don’t walk in every day They’re all saying, “I hate this laundry room.”
What’s it like to go from a well-known market to one where you have to start from scratch?
I know we’re new to that market, and I’m fine with that. Whitney and Grace said, “Mom, we’ve got to go,” and I said, “We’re going. It takes two years to start a business.”
In Aspen, I think there are about 2,000 licensed agents. Everyone there has four jobs, one of which holds a real estate license. Most of them are happy to trade once a year.
Most people here go into real estate and it’s a full time job for them. So, this is also different. Aspen’s surrogate has more of a “here today, went to Maui” approach. Sometimes it’s hard to reach them. They don’t answer the phone. They don’t return calls all day, and it’s more of a lethargic pace in terms of responsiveness.
What is the reaction of professional agents who have been in the market for a long time?
Some of the top producers I used to know can be a little intimidating. There might be a little bit of, “What are they doing here?” But, look, in the end their business has been established for many, many years, and I’m sure they’ll be fine.
Are you looking to specialize in luxury like you do here? Or are you happy to step in the door?
We obviously wanted to get into that part of the market, but at first, I said to Whitney and Grace, “Buy an apartment. Take anything and you can start trading and learning.”