Taking at Space Value

Business comes with the territory

by Will Lindner

sevilleThroughout her long career in travel and tourism marketing, Linda Seville kept her toes in the real estate appraisal business to maintain her license. In 2003, the increasing call for her services led her to leave tourism and open Seville Appraisals in Stowe.

It took a while — somewhere around 40 years, in fact — for the circle to close and for Linda Seville to take up “the family business.” But since she launched Seville Appraisals in Stowe in 2003, there’s hardly been a slow day. It looks like Seville — who is both the daughter and the sister of appraisers — made the right choice.

It also seems like the right choice because this native of Atlanta, Ga., ended up in a place (Vermont) that had once seemed to her like a magical land in a storybook.

“When I was in school I read a book by this lady Maria Von Trapp,” says Seville, referring to The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, which was published in 1949 and became the basis for The Sound of Music. “The way she described Vermont, it was like a fairy tale. I was just a kid of 16, and I thought what a dream it might be to live there. I later met this man, Jim Seville, who became my husband, and he loved Vermont, too, so we came up.”

That was just for a visit, and by then she wasn’t a starry-eyed kid anymore.

“He wanted to live here,” she says, referring to her former husband (who is now deceased). “I didn’t think actually living here was necessary, but I said, ‘I’ll come for a year if you get me a dog or a snowmobile.’ And he did!”

That was in 1980. After scouring the state the couple found a little house on a hill, with a pond, in the Stowe-Morrisville area’s Sterling Valley.

“’That’s it, right there,’ I told Jim.” And that’s where they stayed.

Or, stayed some of the time. The Sevilles were instructors in reflexology, an alternative healing methodology intended to relieve pain and promote well-being by working on nerve endings, primarily in the feet. Back in Atlanta, Seville’s mother, Alma Jones, had financed her studies in reflexology in exchange for personal treatments. Jim was one of the instructors.

They eventually married and embarked on a career teaching and certifying new practitioners through the International Institute of Reflexology, traveling all over the United States and Canada.

“One time we gave up the house for a year and a half and lived out of a travel trailer,” Seville, now 58, remembers. “We had a blast.”

After 11 years, though, Seville had had enough of the nomadic life. She entered a period of transition, in which she and Jim were divorced, and she embarked on a new career in the hospitality industry, starting with a job at the front desk of The Topnotch Resort and Spa in Stowe. A self-starter with an entrepreneurial spirit, Seville delved deeper into the business and became the director of sales and marketing, and, in time, the executive assistant manager.

“I had tremendous mentors there, Stephen Price and Tim Piper,” she says of Topnotch. “They were great, teaching me the ropes in that industry.”

As her aspirations grew, Seville was lured away by an opportunity at the newly opened facility The Inn at Essex (now known as The Essex Resort & Spa). “It was more of a corporate-type business,” she explains, “owned by the same people that owned Hawk Resorts in Killington. Eventually I oversaw the marketing activities at Hawk as well as The Inn at Essex.”

Seville’s trajectory continued — and expanded. In the early 1990s the company began delving into the international market, and this led to her working closely with the Vermont Department of Tourism and building a relationship — still in the service of The Inn at Essex — with Discover New England, an organization that represented the New England states in the United Kingdom and Germany.

But sometime around 1989, the travel market faltered, putting jobs in jeopardy in Vermont’s tourism industry.

Seville, though, had an ace in the hole.

“I had always thought that it’s good to have a secondary option in your back pocket,” she says. And that option was an old and familiar one — the family business: appraisals. Her father, Nathan Jones, worked in appraisals for the city of Atlanta starting in 1962, later becoming the chief appraiser for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in its Georgia office. He retired after 32 years, but there was so much demand for his services that he went into private practice. Seville remembers, “He had a huge desk, with 200 appraisals on it at any one time.

“He never steered us toward it at all,” she says. Nevertheless, her brother, Barry Jones, went into appraisals and has been doing it in Atlanta for 26 years. And Seville’s notion about that “back pocket” option had led her to take courses in her spare time through the Vermont chapter of the Appraisal Institute. She dabbled in it while pursuing her marketing career, doing appraisals at Pall Spera Co. Realtors in Stowe. And when prospects seemed to waver, at least temporarily, in tourism, the sky seemed the limit in appraisals.

“In the early 2000s interest rates started coming down and I was getting calls left and right,” she says. “I was making appointments at night and working on the weekends. It was overwhelming.”

The back pocket became the front pocket. She took the leap, opening Seville Appraisals in 2003.

“I’ve always wanted to have my own business. I decided now was a good time, and once I left the inn I never slowed down,” she says. “I’ve hardly had a breathing period.”

That doesn’t surprise Spera, her friend and former part-time employer.

“Linda is a wonderful, indefatigable worker,” says Spera. “She’s unique. She carries into her skill set a wonderful attitude: ‘Let’s enjoy what we’re doing.’ She has a real gift. And she’s a consummate professional.”

Spera has enormous respect for the trade Seville practices. Appraising, he says, is “like sculpturing fog,” the art of establishing a verifiable value for a house (Seville Appraisals deals solely in the residential market) out of intangibles. That charge has grown more challenging in recent years because of the role that real estate — and especially the suspect assessments placed upon properties during the “bubble” period of the 1990s and early 2000s — played in the recent recession. Even the owners and purchasers of homes with solid value, such as many in the Stowe area, are diligent about securing up-to-date appraisals to protect their investments.

Spera and Seville agree that Vermont-based real estate lenders were virtually guiltless of the flights of fancy that distorted the market and led to its crash in much of the country, but lenders, Realtors, appraisers, and market participants must play by the restructured rules that emerged from the downturn.

Seville cites two examples. One was the emergence of “appraisal management companies” in 2008. Increasingly, it is these companies that employ appraisers, providing a layer of separation between lender and appraiser that Seville concedes is a good idea.

“They were a little too chummy,” she says, “and there was also the problem of too much pressure being put on the appraiser. The appraiser is supposed to be an independent third party in a real estate transaction, and provide an unbiased appraisal of value.”

She insists that Vermont institutions have always been “strong and ethical,” and have not exerted undue pressure, but she is sometimes contracted by large, urban companies “who work a little differently than we do. They want to push the value [of a property] up. Not having to worry about that pressure, by going through the appraisal management companies, to me is a positive.”

Less positive, however, is the heightened liability surrounding the appraisal trade.

“It’s huge,” says Seville. “There’s finger pointing. You have to be so careful that you’re spending more time writing the appraisal, but they also want them turned around more quickly. The pressure and stress level is fairly high.”

Still, Seville enjoys her work, in which she is assisted by two longtime employees, Ina Seitz and Melissa Fogel. Her practice is mainly in Washington and Lamoille counties, but she’ll travel farther — even to remote Canaan — when required.

“Those folks need appraisals, too,” she says. And it certainly imparts variety to her experience. “The same day I may look at a multi-million-dollar property in Charlotte or Stowe, and a foreclosure in Franklin.”

It’s the foreclosures that trouble her most — Vermonters, she says, who have not been irresponsible as they are often portrayed, but have tried their hardest to make a go of their homes only to be beaten by financial realities.

“Some of these situations can be very sad,” she says.

On the whole, though, the work is good, and it provides ample opportunity to practice her favorite hobby, photography. She might take 100 pictures a day while out inspecting properties — “Critters, lakes, mountains … It’s a pleasure to be able to travel around this beautiful part of the country.”

And even after her itinerant years in reflexology, travel is still a passion for Seville, who says, “I’ll go anywhere I can find a cheap plane ticket.”

She knows that when she returns she’ll find her West Highland terrier, Murphy, the office mascot, waiting for her. And a desk covered with 200 appraisals needing her attention. •