By Kendra Sitton
Longtime real estate agent Gregg Neuman recently celebrated two milestones in his storied career: being an agent for 40 years and passing $3 billion total in home sales. He has been in the business so long that he has helped three generations in the same family buy or sell homes. Editor Kendra Sitton spoke with Neuman about how he got started and where he is going.
How did you initially get into real estate?
Well in 1981 I was tending bar and I don’t have a great deal of education, [only a] high school education, but I knew that the most amount of money to be made is in sales. And I didn’t want to sell a whole lot of shoes, and it was hard to sell airplanes. I decided I would try real estate.
And so in 1981, which was an interesting time to start because like two weeks after I got my license the FHA standard interest rates went to 18% after the VA went to 16.58% — the highest it’s ever been — and I didn’t know you couldn’t sell in that market and all the other agents were tearing their hair out. I was fortunate that I went forward and did it and had a great time. And then I bought a real estate office a month later, I should’ve known, should have been warned the woman sold me the office with no money down. But she let me use her broker’s license, and so I had to learn how to sell quickly.
I was selling more than all those [more experienced] agents combined — there were 17 agents in the office. I was outselling all of them. In my first eight months, I closed 10 transactions and it didn’t even add up to a million dollars, which was pretty amazing because you could buy a house in San Diego for $70,500.
And so from that point on I was tending bar at night, and working real estate during the day because I was getting accustomed to having food with my meals. And what happened was eventually I just got too busy to go on tending bar and then it was only tending bar two nights. People would come into the bar, I’d put a napkin down say ‘hi, want to buy a house?’ and they say ‘no, it’s a cocktail.’
I did my first business with people who are underserved, still are underserved — bartenders, waitresses, hairdressers— because people rely a lot of their income on tips or it’s a little harder to get them qualified and documented.
And so then eventually I sold that office. I actually merged with Red Carpet Realty. People thought I sold rugs. But then eventually I merged my office with a Century 21 office. And that also didn’t have a lot of people in it.
Eventually I figured out the smartest thing to do was just to be an agent on my own. And then in 2000 I decided it was time to locate and move Downtown because there were no offices downtown, especially in the Gaslamp district. I opened my office in the Gaslamp District. Two weeks later 9/11 happened. Business was a little slow, but then I’ve been here ever since.
And then the Gaslamp district got concerned about there being too many real estate offices in the Gaslamp district because immediately eight or nine more followed me into the Gaslamp area and they would lose their charm of restaurants, retail and things like that so they passed the rule that real estate offices could be grandfathered in, but nobody could open anything else now that wasn’t a restaurant or commercial on the ground floor. When the market turned badly in 2008, all the rest of the offices shut down and I’m it — the only office permitted in the Gaslamp district on the ground, which ironically is the most visited spot in all of San Diego. That’s kind of how I ended up here after starting 40 years ago. Time management is why I’m really down here because it’s much easier to work because there’s over 15,000 people but they’re straight up in the air and like a mile and a half versus how many homes, you’d have to go visit to get 15,000 homes in Rancho Bernardo, in outlying areas.
One thing that stood out to me is you initially served this underserved populations in real estate and now you have a lot of these really large deals. What would a typical client be today?
One of the things when you start in real estate, your only real clients, unless you’re fortunate, are buyers because you’re too new in the market. Nobody really wants to trust you with their listing. So you work buyers. The challenge with working buyers of course is that buyers, you can only sell to them while they’re sitting next to you. Especially when I started out, because we didn’t have all these things that they have today.
But my clients now are mainly sellers, because I specialize in working the seller population. I do a lot of advertising for sellers because the listings work 24 hours a day. While I’m in bed, my listings are around the world.
I still get just as big a kick out of first-time homebuyers, although I don’t do it a lot anymore, but it’s still fun to see that people … the excitement in somebody’s eyes when they get their first home. And it’s always a great pleasure to see the enhancement for a seller to be able to move into the next phase of their life, whether they’re buying something else, whether they’re relocating, whether they’re downsizing, whatever they’re doing, that’s still very rewarding. I mean I can do anything now. I don’t need to work, but real estate still offers that immense satisfaction that comes from helping people thrive after 40 years.
Since COVID hit, we’ve seen a very, very tight market, what’s your insider’s perspective on, the changes in real estate in the past year-and-a-half?
Well, it actually was good for the business in some ways because it taught a lot of us that we can work remotely and some of the inefficiencies are being ironed out of the marketplace because of the fact that you can have better viewing properties online and eliminate a lot without hauling somebody around. It has created a change in the marketplace where a lot more people working from home so they need more space. They were stuck together for a year and a half so there’s a lot of babies coming along. They were stuck together for a year and a half so there’s some divorces coming in. And then there’s people that realize that being stuck a year and a half, the house wasn’t big enough.
It was actually good for the market — the scarcity of the inventory and the low interest rates is what’s driving this market right now. But I don’t think we’re going to see that change. I don’t think we’re going to have a huge downturn crash like we had in 2008. I mean, the prices are high, but we live in the finest city in the United States, best weather. People [could] get a great house in Arizona for a lot less. And I tell them ‘but every morning when you wake up, you’re in Arizona.’
I think the other thing that the COVID did for us is… it was kind of a culling. It took a lot of the agents that were not doing any business out of the marketplace. That’s always good for the market because the people who remain are generally more professional and able to provide better representation for the buyers and sellers than the people who are just drifting through because they have a license and they’re part time or their spouse works or something like that.
What are you most proud of in your career?
The thing that has helped me the most in 40 years was being adaptive. When I started when interest rates were 18%, I was able to adapt to the market. That became a loan that was called a Fannie Mae blend where they blended interest rates. That gave me an interest rate of between 5 and 12%. So I think adapting to the market has always been my strongest suit.
I remember in ‘94 to ‘95, the builders, couldn’t sell their houses because the people couldn’t sell their houses so I created a builder trading program where you could bring your house to the builder and he would buy your house if you bought his. And instead of giving it a discount on his house, he would give me a discount that I could apply to the less expensive houses. And we did 550 of those from 1994 to ‘96 when the market was dead for everybody else. That’s the F word in real estate, flexibility.
I think probably the most amazing thing is when you sell $3 billion worth of property. At this point, it’s a big deal to me because I’ve done it over 40 years and it took 6,700 houses to get there. Now, my average price house sells at a million dollars so I’m going to get passed up very quickly, but it’s gonna take somebody a long time to sell 6,700.
I’ve averaged 165 houses a year for 40 years. The average real estate agent in the state of California does two deals a year. So, if you do 10 deals a year the brokers will fall over themselves to get you.
There are a few enormous producers but there aren’t a lot of them. When I started, the houses were $70k. You can sell 10 houses and that’s about a million dollars worth of business. It’s pretty astounding.
How many more years do you think you have in this business and what keeps you there?
Well, I’m very healthy. I am 75 years old. We have a house in Venice, Italy. It’s still doing the deals. I still like coming to work. I don’t like golf. I think it’s a good walk ruined. I’m not a fisherman. If I travel for a couple of weeks, I’m ready to come home with my own bed.
I just enjoy the business. It’s what keeps me young — working with people and dealing with people. It keeps me invigorate. I know too many people who have retired. Shortly thereafter they seem to fade away. I don’t have another passion other than selling real estate and doing real estate. That is my passion.
I’m very fortunate I have a wife who understands that. She goes to Venice for two months and then comes home for two months. During the two months she’s gone, I work like a maniac. She comes back, I spend some time together with her.
We are helping people still and we are making money. It can’t be any better this year: we’ve already closed over 150 transactions. And again, when you’re asking about how COVID affected the market, my average sale price last year was $700,000. Now my average sale price is a million dollars.
I think anybody who knows me knows that real estate is my life. It’s what I truly, truly enjoy. I don’t want to boast, but I’m in an enormously successful career. There are people who probably have sold more money than I have but I don’t think anybody’s sold more houses.
— Reach Kendra Sitton at email@example.com.