Conductor to the Real Estate stars

By Will Lindner

Bob Hill keeps Vermont’s 12 local Realtor associations in touch with each other, the national association, and reality

VT_realtor_lead_DSC2194_245Bob Hill has been executive director of the Vermont Association of Realtors since 2004, maintaining contact with the 12 local real estate boards around the state, and serving as their conduit to the national association.

As many an artist before him, Bob Hill wondered if he could successfully reinvent himself in the workaday world. Would his talents translate? Could he, a guitarist and vocalist, find common ground with colleagues who thought in practical terms rather than in notes, intervals, and expression?

Those concerns have long since been put to rest. Some 30 years after taking his first, decisive steps into the business world, Bob Hill has an office in Montpelier with a view of the state capitol, and the title of executive vice president of the Vermont Association of Realtors. He has found more commonality in those two worlds than he ever anticipated.

“As a freelance musician I had encountered arts councils as a means of aid and support,” he explains, “and I gravitated into arts council management as I needed more regular employment.”

His professional odyssey began in North Carolina, near the Smoky Mountains. His personal odyssey was more exotic. Born in New Orleans of missionary parents, Hill grew up largely in Thailand, returning to New Orleans for college. He then moved to his parents’ native region of western North Carolina, living among relatives and eventually meeting his future wife and frequent singing partner, Ellen.

Hill’s arts council career took him to New York City, to Ohio, and then back to North Carolina, where he made his first connection to real estate.

“The local board of Realtors was looking for someone to run their multiple-listing service,” he says. His work for the board expanded, his reputation grew, and he became the right man at the right time to take on the job of salvaging the local chamber of commerce after it had fallen into dire disarray.

“I restored its credibility, doubled the membership and the budget, and resumed its services to its members,” he says. “Then in 2004 this opportunity came up in Vermont, which brought me back to real estate, which I enjoy.”

His comfort stems partly from his identification with Realtors. A professional term with a legal trademark, it refers to licensed agents who are members of the association. “It dawned on me that Realtors have the same psyche as performance artists,” he says. “They’re concentrating on the audience that’s in front of them — pleasing their clients. They don’t have time to think about what’s behind them.”

And what is that? The legal and regulatory framework that envelops their profession; the continuing education required to maintain their licenses; supportive communication with their colleagues; the meticulously crafted forms and paperwork that protect and define everyone’s rights and responsibilities in real estate transactions; dispute resolution; and advocacy at every governmental level on issues related to the affordability, ownership, and transfer of property.

If Realtors are performers, Hill realized, he is their stage manager. Hill and his staff provide the tools (props) and the environment in which they can perform successfully.
The first unit of organization for Realtors is their local board, of which there are 12 in Vermont. The state association maintains contact with the leaders of the local boards, both providing and collecting information, and serving as their conduit to the national association. Hill convenes regular meetings of the Presidents’ Council in Montpelier.

“We begin by asking each president to give a sense of their current market, so we get a statewide view and see what their needs are.”

At the Presidents’ Council meeting in June, Hill took the pulse of Vermont’s market. “As you went around the table, the resort areas like Stowe, Manchester, and Ludlow were still reporting slow sales because the second-home market has not returned yet. The tax credit was not the incentive for those markets, like it was for primary residential areas around Montpelier or Chittenden County.” Rutland is a primary residential market, too, Hill adds, but unemployment has slowed its recovery.

Hill is convinced that the tax-credit stimulus worked. The $8,000 First-Time Homebuyer’s credit expired in November 2009, but was succeeded by a $6,500 Move Up credit aimed at encouraging financially comfortable homeowners to purchase more valuable properties – making their current homes available and keeping the line moving. That incentive expired in April.

“The hope is that given that priming of the pump in the first quarter, now that unemployment is receding – slowly, but the principles of the recovery are solid – that people will have more confidence, and the building and housing market can move forward. We’re certainly seeing that in the numbers,” Hill reports.

The residential real estate industry uses an index, based on a ratio of pending monthly sales and population and benchmarked to the “norm” in 2001. That norm is represented by the number 100; monthly reports higher than 100 are considered good, and lower than 100 are not. Hill says Vermont’s index in March 2009 was 90.6; by March 2010 it had improved to 104.6, and in April the number was an encouraging 110.9.

“Real estate is always local,” he notes. “At our meeting it was different in each community. But Vermont has generally fared better than other places, like Massachusetts and Connecticut, which had more severe declines. Vermont has generally held its own during this decline.”

Hill credits a variety of factors. Vermont never had the explosion of speculative construction seen in Florida, Nevada, and California, nor therefore their rash of defaults and foreclosures. Though the Vermont market is tight – perpetually 20,000 homes short of need, says Hill – prices and values have mostly remained stable.

Ironically, that’s also made Vermont’s recovery a little slower than in places where desperate banks will dump foreclosed properties for a song. Martha Lange, president of the Central Vermont Board of Realtors, wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Vermont has excellent anti-predatory lending laws that helped prevent the sub-prime mortgage collapse here,” says Lange, who practices with Century 21 Jack Associates in Montpelier. “To get a mortgage in central Vermont is tough, but I appreciate that; the reality is if no one gives [an applicant of marginal means] a loan, they’re not going to get into a home they can’t afford. Vermont and Wyoming had the lowest rates of foreclosures, per capita, of any state.

“Don’t get me wrong,” she adds. “There are foreclosures in central Vermont; people have walked away. But we came through this with our dignity intact. I felt pretty proud of the state and of Realtors in general for not pushing people beyond their means.”

Lange also praised Bob Hill for his leadership during this difficult period.

“They [the state association] are right across the street from us. I look out and see Bob going out for lunch,” she says. “I’m constantly impressed by his professionalism and good nature. In this storm he’s been a very pleasant, calming influence.”

Peter Tucker, of the Lamoille Area Board of Realtors, has had a different experience of real estate recovery. He works in Stowe – one of those largely second-home markets where only people with cash (and no need of a mortgage) can purchase. Tucker had exactly one transaction assisted by the homebuyer’s tax credit, and that was in Waterbury. But he sees long-term benefits in Stowe’s slow market

“The value of the property has stayed consistent,” says Tucker. “Down the road, that’s good. New purchasers will be encouraged by seeing that the property [they’re considering] will have a stable value.”

Tucker, the immediate past president of the Lamoille association, will soon step into the role of board president of the Vermont Association of Realtors, for which he gives Bob Hill significant credit. Tucker says Hill has mentored him and encouraged his leadership potential – and has nurtured the Vermont Association back to health.

“This Association, when Bob came here, was in a fair state of decline,” says Tucker. “In the late ’90s it had gone through a big downturn in membership. Bob was brought in to provide more stability. He has run a very efficient operation; he’s provided balanced budgets, managed our funds very effectively, and has dealt with the challenges of change that have come to our organization.”

Change is a constant in any regulated industry, so one of the state association’s critical roles is monitoring relevant legislative action, and influencing it where possible. Hill was disappointed that the 2010 Legislature adjourned without restoring the 40 percent capital gains tax exemption on the sale of real estate despite its restoration for other business transactions. (The exemption had been lifted for a year to boost state revenues.)

“We’re also extremely concerned about property taxes,” he says. “We believe we could be on the verge of a crisis if something is not done. We don’t have a solution, but we would like to be part of a solution.”

For Martha Lange, busy at her practice in Montpelier, Hill and his band mates at the Association have mostly hit the right notes in their efforts.

“There are times, when a proposed rule change or a law comes along and we’ll scratch our heads and say, ‘Did anybody really think about this?’” she says. “The Association does that reality check for them. That’s what I look for the Association to do, and I’m very grateful for it.” •