Brett Lyon and Woody Stahl are sons of real estate, having been raised by parents in the business. South Bay DIGS sat down with these young guns of investment real estate at their Manhattan Beach offices to get their take on local real estate, 1031 Exchanges and neighborhoods to watch.
AS TOLD TO CONSTANCE DUNN | PHOTOGRAPHY BY PAUL JONASON
What inspired you to get into real estate?
Brett Lyon: I came from a real estate family. In fact, we both did. My dad is a local builder and my mom is a residential real estate agent in Manhattan Beach. So I grew up with it in my blood. I went to USC’s Marshall School of Business and graduated with a specialty in real estate finance.
Woody Stahl: My grandfather and my mother were both in real estate. I was more into racing motorcycles, then shifted into selling luxury real estate with my mom in Lake Arrowhead. Then, I moved to Manhattan Beach and started selling apartment buildings with Brett.
So you have the building side and the real estate side?
BL: Yes, and it allows us to have a unique perspective that’s translated well into our niche, which is development and investment real estate. Woody even has his contractor’s license.
WS: When I lived full-time in Lake Arrowhead I was involved in many new construction projects, and it’s always been a long-term goal of mine to develop houses.
What are your firm’s main areas of expertise?
BL: We work with several product types, but our specialty is apartment buildings, twoplus units. Our goal is to offer services that help our clients create passive income and cash flow, plus build and maintain wealth.
What makes your firm different than others in the area?
BL: We offer a wide range of investment properties to clients, and we’re experts in a range of local areas, which makes us unique. Our specialty is the Beach Cities and the South Bay as a whole, which includes off-thebeach or “City East” areas like Inglewood, Gardena, Hawthorne and Lawndale. These areas have attributes that appeal to different sets of clients. Basically, they offer a better rate of return—you get more cash flow—whereas in the Beach Cities, investment real estate offers a benefit in long-term appreciation. We’re currently expanding into the Westside and Long Beach, as well.
What factors are currently influencing local investment real estate?
BL: I think we’re seeing a lot of positive influences. Rental rates are increasing and property values are appreciating. The Google headquarters are coming into the local area. Also, the potential Hollywood Park project and NFL stadium have opened up the range of investment properties available to people in the Beach Cities.
Any trends in local investment real estate that have surprised you?
WS: The dramatic increase in rental rates and mass development has surprised us. So when we meet with our clients, especially in the Beach Cities, a lot of times we value their properties both as an apartment building and as a possible development opportunity.
Any hot areas for apartment investing right now?
WS: Some of our favorite areas from a cash flow standpoint are Inglewood and Hawthorne.
BL: The majority of our business is local to the Beach Cities, but we love helping clients find opportunity in all areas, and Inglewood is an interesting one. It’s an up-and-coming area with a lot of positive momentum, like the Hollywood Park project and NFL stadium we mentioned. And it’s not far from Westchester and the Google headquarters.
Any tips for investors looking to add real estate to their portfolio?
WS: Find the value-add potential in each and every deal that comes on the market, whether it’s increasing rents, remodeling units or possibly developing the land.
Do you consult with individuals looking to get into investment real estate?
BL: We offer free consultations. First, we figure out a client’s long-term goals. From there, we can offer advice on product types and locations that will fit those goals. We’re also experts at handling 1031 Exchanges, which is pretty unique.
What’s a 1031 Exchange?
WS: It’s a process that allows you to defer your capital gains. Many of our clients who may have run out of depreciation, or want to improve their cash flow, will exchange into more units or even a different asset class.
You put together a nice team at Lyon|Stahl. What makes you guys different?
BL: Our culture and work ethic makes our team unique. We’re young, dynamic and hardworking. We have a lot of different perspectives [on] investment real estate that allow us to identify opportunities.
What do you guys like to do when you’re not doing real estate?
WS: We both like to go to the beach and surf.
BL: If the waves are good, [we] surf before heading into work.
Written by Constance Dunn
Photos courtesy of Manhattan Beach Festival of Motoring
In 2014, teenage car aficionados Connor Wohl and Aidan Nesicolaci, fresh from establishing classic car clubs at their schools, decided to showcase some of South Bay’s most standout vehicles at their very own Concours D’ Elegance in Manhattan Beach. The result, produced by about 35 student car club members, was an impressive showing of exotic, classic cars and a tidy sum raised for the car clubs at Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach and Da Vinci School, a charter school located in Hawthorne.
“Some of the best cars came to our first show,” recounts co-founder Connor Wohl, citing a Porsche 934 racecar and a Shelby AC Cobra 289 that were among the lineup. “What an honor.”
“Last year was a great success,” says Connor’s dad Todd Wohl. “We had about 80 cars of all shapes and sizes, from Mustangs and McLarens to Mercedes and racing cars. Model years ranged from the 1930s to present-day exotics.”
The young car enthusiasts’ second annual event, Manhattan Beach Festival of Motoring, is just around the bend. On Saturday April 25th, a slew of exotic and classic cars, including a Porsche 918 Spyder, a hybrid supercar with a million-dollar price tag, and a Porsche 911 GT3 RS, will post up at Mira Costa High School from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Admission is free, though donations to the student car clubs are accepted. Food trucks and music will be part of the festivities, and attendees can pay $15 to ride in select cars.
“The purpose of the Manhattan Beach Festival of Motoring is to create an event that’s community driven and includes kids,” says the senior Wohl. “What car people of all ages enjoy is having the young kids come into the hobby, because as cars age, what happens to their owners? They age, too. Eventually, older cars fade away as their owners pass on. How many people like Model Ts? Not many.”
The event is not limited to sleek supercars or showroom vintage models either. “We changed the name of the event to the Festival of Motoring because it’s more in line with people bringing their cars to the event, enjoying themselves and not worrying about their car’s condition,” explains Todd Wohl. “Motoring means ‘whatever you drive.’ We want the world to know that you can bring whatever car you’re in love with. Whatever drives your passion.”
What are the event’s founders looking forward to at this year’s event? “Continuing our success from last year,” says Connor Wohl. “Getting more great cars and making this a South Bay event for years to come, and something that my brother Zachary, who is in sixth grade, can take over.”
“The art of this is taking the older cars and bringing the youth into it, and showing them not just what a new Mini Cooper or the latest Ferrari is like, but what a 1965 Mustang is like, or a 1930s hot rod,” says the senior Wohl.
As testament to the power of cars to link not just communities, but generations, when co-founder Connor Wohl is asked what inspired him to produce the Festival of Motoring, he points to his father. “He and I spend time together driving in his cars,” says Connor. “I think it’s really cool to talk about cars.”
“He’s been exposed to a wide range of cars,” notes the senior Wohl. “He got the car bug from me.”
And where did Mr. Wohl get the car bug?
“That’s easy,” he answers. “My dad.”
Interested in having your car participate in this year’s Festival of Motoring? Visit MBFestivalofMotoring.com or email a photograph of your car, along with its make and model, to email@example.com by the deadline of Tuesday, April 21st.
MBFestivalofMotoring.com | Saturday, April 25, 2015 | 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Mira Costa High School, Artesia Boulevard and Peck Avenue | Free, but donations are accepted
In real estate for nearly 30 years, homegrown South Bay resident Kevin Moen has a keenly tuned sense of the local market. He sat down with South Bay DIGS in his Rolling Hills Estates office to talk about the state of South Bay real estate — and the role of today’s realtor.
AS TOLD TO CONSTANCE DUNN | PHOTOGRAPHY BY PAUL JONASON
How did you get your start in real estate?
I played football at Cal and had some opportunities to play pro football. When those ended I got into teaching, at a time when enrollment was going down, so I wasn’t being offered permanent positions. I started having a family and bought a house, so I went to work for a friend of mine who had a local developing company. It led to real estate, which was the perfect environment for me to be an independent contractor and create my own destiny. Over the years I’ve performed different roles in this industry, from owning a company and managing a real estate entity to doing what I’m doing now, which is assisting in managing the RE/MAX Estate Properties office in Rolling Hills Estates, along with representing my clients.
How does your approach differ from other area realtors?
What I perceive as my strength is an in-depth understanding of the local area and the values for this market. If a house is selling for a certain amount — is that a good value, a fair value, or a great deal?
How has the role of a real estate agent changed over time?
Nowadays, anyone can look at properties online. My job as a realtor is to give context to that information; to inform people of the lifestyle differences in each area, the schools and how areas compare to one another, value-wise. I can go shop in any marketplace online and find a great house. But is it next to a dump? Does it have a toxic waste plant nearby? There are a lot of elements — from a home’s view and lot size to its age and uniqueness — that impacts its value. And that’s what a skilled realtor brings to a valuation.
Being enmeshed in the local real-estate scene and knowing the players brings certain advantages then?
Yes. You’re going to encounter 10 hurdles in each transaction. Escrow companies, Title companies. Inspection companies. So the job of an agent is to get the client through those hurdles as efficiently and with as little stress as possible. Good agents have the ability to work through the processes of a transaction to get the buyer to the finish line as quickly as possible and get the home sold. When I do a deal with, say, Chris [referencing a recent issue of South Bay DIGS featuring Chris Adlam of Vista Sotheby’s International Realty], it’s going to be a smooth process. I’ve known him for 28 years. What has stayed the same during your years in South Bay real estate? The South Bay is a consistent and steady buy. The excellent schools have a lot to do with that, and are a driving force for families, which creates a constant demand for our area… and the beauty of our community, as well. When you drive around here, some of the views you get are world-class. There are some high-level elements — schools, beauty and security — that make this a very desirable area. And it’s just a fun place to live. You have the beaches, you have horses and you have open trails. There’s a ton of activities, all right here.
What are some of your favorite activities?
I grew up with a family that had a farm, so I love that lifestyle. I’ve got a good buddy who kept after me to get involved in the Empty Saddle Club [a Western-riding club in Rolling Hills Estates]. So I got involved with the club about three years ago. It has 14 acres of horse facilities and there are close to 40 cows for roping and doing various cowboy activities. It’s a great escape. You feel like you’re on your own ranch.
So what is the current demand like for horse properties in Rolling Hills Estates?
There are just not as many people coming to this area to buy horse properties for the purpose of having horses. There is much more of a demand for large lots. Someone may buy a horse property with the idea of converting the barn area to a sport court or a playground for kids. So buyers like the ambiance of space, but not necessarily for use as a horse facility.
What do you see coming around the bend in local real estate?
We’ve come through a few years of pretty high escalating values, and initially I projected this year as a stabilizing year with not a lot of growth in price. What’s turned out so far in this first quarter is a little spike in prices because there’s very little inventory. We’ll see how the balance of the year plays out, but right now, there’s very little inventory and there seems to be a very strong demand. We’re still being influenced by extremely low interest rates, they’re still hovering around 4-percent or under, and that should be a tremendous incentive for buyers who are utilizing loans to buy a house.
Any trends in local demographics?
We’ve always had a fairly large international buying community, whether from the Asian market or the Middle East, that has identified the stable home values and good schools in this area as an opportunity. It’s great. If our economy is kind of going slow and theirs is going strong, overseas interest in local real estate affords us a good buying environment.
What are some of your favorite spots in the South Bay?
The Bull Pen in Redondo Beach has always been a favorite little getaway. And I enjoy The Admiral Risty, which I call ‘my favorite little haunt.’ It’s about a mile from my house. My family and I know the people who work there and we know the menu. We’ve got our favorite dishes.
Robb and Bryn Stroyke were born to be in the real estate business. The brothers and partners in Stroyke Properties—the boutique real estate firm in Manhattan Beach specializing in South Bay beach properties—were, at least initially, educated at their parents’ knees. For many years, Bob and Viva Stroyke ran Vintage Real Estate Group, which their boys rebranded as Stroyke Properties in 2010. As partners, the brothers specialize in Manhattan and Hermosa Beach homes. During a recent conversation with both brothers, they discussed their background, their business and the current state of South Bay real estate.
Why did you professionally pursue real estate?
Bryn Stroyke: We came from a real estate family (both Viva, our mom, and Bob, our dad, had long and distinguished careers as brokers in the Beach Cities), but interestingly, both Robb and I started in commercial real estate. Robb was in commercial development and I did commercial brokerage with what is now CB Richard Ellis.
What was the impetus for joining forces with your brother, and when was that decision made?
Bryn: Partnering with my brother was natural… we have always been close, despite totally discredited stories from him about how I used to torture him. We joined forces in 1992 and resurrected our father’s firm, Vintage Real Estate Group, which we rebranded as Stroyke Properties in 2010.
So, how long have you both been in the business?
Bryn: I started in real estate in 1983 and Robb started in 1986, but we grew up in a family where real estate was discussed around the dining-room table, so our exposure to [the business] was much earlier than that.
What aspect of this profession do you most enjoy?
Bryn: I was having this discussion the other day with a friend of mine who is an architect. [He] said that even though he is an architect—because he loves the creative part of creating new homes and buildings—what animates him [in the end] is making his clients happy. It is very much the same in brokerage. I enjoy the deal aspect of real estate, finding great buys for my clients or setting record prices for my sellers, but in the end what I enjoy most is making people I work with happy, whether that be because we found and purchased a great lot for new home or we just smashed the record for highest sale on the walk street. We have always had the philosophy that even though we are in a commission business, we do not pursue commissions, but rather we invest in relationships. We provide real estate solutions for people, and sometimes that involves commissions and sometimes it does not, but we are always directed towards meeting our clients goals and needs.
What sets apart your firm from competitors?
Bryn: We are a unique firm in that we are a small boutique real estate office, just Robb and I, and our two associates, Serena Polonis and Charlene Frias. Despite our small size, we consistently sell well over $100 million per year and easily have the largest average deal size in this market. In fact, if you were to look at a list of transactions over $10 million, you would see our names more than any other firm, despite the fact that we are competing with firms that have literally hundreds of agents. We have been accused (and it’s usually a compliment) of being market movers who consistently push values (on the listing side). A couple of weeks ago, I had a buyer acknowledge this by saying to me, “I definitely want to use you when we sell, but I can’t afford you when we buy,” which was funny because he thought we did a great job at selling, but took the same approach of setting record prices when representing buyers. While we remain extremely bullish [in] this market, when we work with buyers, we are looking for the best values at any given price point. I explained that the best buy last year in the Beach Cities was an oversized Strand lot that our client purchased for $12.5 million that is worth 50 percent more today. [But] I think the best explanation for our track record is Robb and I both come from sophisticated real estate backgrounds, and that has manifested itself in a very analytical approach to spotting and creating value. And while spotting trends and value is important, being able to communicate that value to others is just as important, whether that be to our own clients or to a broker representing a buyer for one of our listings.
On the subject of trends, what are the latest that you see in the South Bay market?
Robb Stroyke: We are seeing more high-end buyers than in the past. Due to the lack of available inventory of high-end new homes, we are seeing those buyers purchasing lots, paying a premium for location, and then hiring their own architects and general contractors to build new custom homes for themselves. We are also seeing [a] strong demand for bigger homes. Additionally, we are seeing more speculative development, the pace of which is still not meeting demand.
And how, exactly, have things shifted in the South Bay market in the last few years?
Robb: We are seeing more all-cash transactions. That phenomenon began in 2012. More second buyers are coming [to the South Bay with cash] and paying record prices for ocean view homes and townhomes. And with the likes of Google, YouTube and other leading tech firms expanding their operations in Playa Vista, we see this [as] being the beginning of that trend. Vacation rentals have become a game changer in some sense to the values of investment properties close to the water and downtown because the income potential—even with the increased management costs of 20 to 25 percent—surpasses the traditional yearly rental rates.
Where do you see the South Bay market headed in 2015?
Robb: I see the market continuing to appreciate. With respect to Manhattan and Hermosa Beach residential real estate, we have averaged approximately 10 percent a year appreciation on the sales price for the past 100 years. I expect 2015 to exceed that appreciation rate, as did 2014.
South Bay native Chris Adlam has specialized in residential home sales since 1987. Today, as one of the top realtors for Vista Sotheby’s International Realty, he’s the go-to guy when it comes to the South Bay—and the Palos Verdes Peninsula, in particular—real estate scene. He’s consistently won top awards for sales in the region where he still resides with his family. South Bay Digs recently caught up with Adlam for his take on the current state of real estate in this always desirable area.
Why real estate as your chosen profession?
I started in real estate when I was 23. I was newly married and very involved in a family business, but I wanted to do something on my own and residential real estate always interested me.
How long have you been in the business?
28 years. Now you know how old I am!
What do you like best about your job?
I truly enjoy the challenge of getting my clients the best deal possible. Whether I’m representing the buyer or the seller.
What sets your firm apart from competitors?
Sotheby’s is so well connected and offers a global reach that most other companies just don’t have. The global reach combined with our local expertise gives Vista Sotheby’s a huge advantage.
You’ve won some of the top realtor honors awarded to South Bay brokers. How do you conduct business in a way that leads to such continued success?
I’m happy to say that last year, REAL Trends/The Wall Street Journal named me one of the top 250 realtors in the country. I believe my work ethic, honesty and market knowledge are the keys to my success.
What are the latest market trends you see in the South Bay?
We are seeing an unprecedented rise in prices in certain areas. The average asking price per square foot in Manhattan and Hermosa Beach is over $1,150!
Where do you see the South Bay real estate market headed in 2015?
I think prices will continue on a gradual rise in 2015. Interest rates should remain at or near historic lows, and buyer demand is strong.
How have things shifted in the South Bay?
Buyers are coming or buying second homes from all across the globe—China, Europe and the Middle East. The South Bay is such a desirable place to live.
Your involvement in the community extends to the number of charitable causes you support. Of these, which are most important to you?
I support and served as a trustee of the Peninsula Education Foundation; education is the foundation of our children. I also support both of our local hospitals.
What do you do when not selling homes?
Everyone who knows me [also] knows I’m a car nut. When I’m not spending time with my wife and two daughters, I enjoy golf and my German shepherd, Rocco.
South Bay DIGS recently had the pleasure of sitting down with long-time South Bay real estate duo Steve and Ceci Watts, who specialize in Peninsula real estate.
First things first. Why did you decide to go into real estate?
Ceci and I started selling about the same time 29 years ago, but I started here in Palos Verdes and Ceci started her real estate career in Texas in 1986. I did a rehab project in Lunada Bay with my brother 1985 and liked the process. Sandra Sanders was our real estate agent so I asked her, “If I get my real estate license will you hire me.” The answer was yes and for 29 years it has been a fantastic relationship and an incredible career. Ceci had wanted to sell real estate since high school so after she graduated from college in Texas she started selling in Dallas.
When and how did you and Ceci team up?
We met on a blind date 22 years ago, were married 9 months later, and decided to do what we both love to do and do it together. Ceci has very strong marketing skills and her background of having a degree in interior design is a tremendous benefit to our working with our buyers. We have been introducing to our sellers the opportunity to update their home for sale which increases their value tremendously with Ceci’s input for design features. We are able increase our clients’ return on investment double and triple what they invest into their home.
The two of you earned your way into the top 1% of agents nationwide. What is your formula for success?
Speak the truth, show up, be creative. I have yet to find a magic formula. The added ingredient to what I previously stated is work hard and know your market
You’ve been in the business for nearly 30 years. What is the most significant change you’ve seen in Palos Verdes real estate during that time?
Technology. Our real estate market is an open book to consumers. We even have our own app now where buyers can be in front of a home on the market and pull up all the MLS data with pictures.
What does life on the Peninsula offer that other parts of Los Angeles do not?
Where do I start? I have lived on the Peninsula for 52 years and 21 of them married. There is no place better to live, whether it is to raise a family or retire, because there is so much to offer an individual. Because there are no party bars or nightlife on the Peninsula, it is quiet. The Peninsula focuses on family life. It provides an atmosphere of living in the country with access to downtown Los Angeles only 30 minutes away. There is a sense of a rural atmosphere but with the benefits of a large metropolitan city right around the corner. The schools, the theatre, one of the world’s largest ports, great sports, high school’s top ratings are just some of what keeps us excited about living on the Peninsula, and now the world-class Terranea Resort and Spa in our backyard.
Let’s switch subjects for a moment. You and Ceci don’t just live and work in Palos Verdes — you’re also active members of the community. Will you tell us more about that?
We truly appreciate this community we live in and the people who live here. We feel more connected when we give back. One event we did, which was driven by our daughter Mariah, was to organize a 100,000 meal packaging event. We raised $25,000 along with FCA from all the local high schools. Is was great because it brought 400 people together, families and children of all ages, with the goal “to help others.” One of our annual events for 13 years was bringing Santa Claus to Palos Verdes. We started this process on a flatbed truck going door to door delivering gifts to children. This became so overwhelming we then set up Santa’s Workshop in Malaga Cove, which was such a blessing for so many people throughout the years. We are currently having a great time with an event at halftime at the Peninsula High School basketball games called SUPERSHOT. These are just fun ways for us to give back to our community.
What are you doing when you’re not selling homes or giving back to the community?
Ceci and I love spending time with our two girls, Mariah and Natalie. We love snow skiing, water skiing, riding bikes, hiking, and jogging as a family. We enjoy opening our home for various events and we are very active in our Church. Ceci and the girls are involved in Las Madrecitas and Ek Kardia, trying to teach serving others before ourselves.
Do you have any predictions for where the housing market is headed in 2015?
We expect the real estate market here in South Bay to be what we refer to as “fair market for all.” For buyers, interest rates are low and prices are starting to level off. For sellers, inventory is low so buyers will be competing for good properties. There will still be strong buyer demand for those buyers who are still in the market. We expect some slight appreciation for 2015.
What about the Super Bowl — any predictions there?
I am a quarterback fan and both these guys are impressive. Not sure you can bet against either Russell Wilson or Tom Brady. I would like to be negotiating Russell Wilson’s contract when his initial 4-year deal is up. Not bad for the Seahawks who signed him in 2012 on a 4-year contract for only 2.99 million…that is a great return on your investment.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
We are thankful for all the clients who have worked with us over the years and given us the opportunity to help them find the right home to create memories and raise their families.
California home sales tempered in 2014, falling roughly 8.2 percent behind the previous year. But with positive housing indicators and a strengthening economy, experts are predicting a 2015 marked by increased home sales and a better balance between sellers and traditional home buyers.
According to the CALIFORNIA ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® (C.A.R.) “2015 California Housing Market Forecast,” economists expect a 5.8% increase in existing home sales in 2015, which translates into 402,5000 total units. They further expect median prices to continue upward, with a forecasted 5.2% increase bringing the median home price up to $478,700.
Last year’s sluggish home sales resulted in large part from dramatic increases in home price coupled with depleted market inventory — an environment that caused many investors to exit. Without traditional consumers stepping in to take their place, 20 months of double-digit year-over-year home price growth finally normalized to single digits in 2014.
“Stringent underwriting guidelines and double-digit home price increases over the past two years have significantly impacted housing affordability in California, forcing some buyers to delay their home purchase,” said C.A.R. President Kevin Brown in a press release. “However, [in 2015], home price gains will slow, allowing would-be buyers who have been saving for a down payment to be in a better financial position to make a home purchase.”
C.A.R. expects 30-year mortgage interest rates, which repeatedly defied forecasts last year, to remain at historically low levels despite a slight increase to a year average of 4.5 percent. This bodes well for potential buyers, who Brown wants to remind that 20 percent down is not always required to buy a home.
“There are numerous programs available that allow consumers to buy a home with less down payment, including FHA loans, which lets buyers put down as little as 3.5 percent,” he said.
Looking to economic recovery, last year was the strongest since the recession hit in 2008 and closed out with a 5.6 percent unemployment rate nationwide. Currently hovering around a 7.9% unemployment rate, Los Angeles is is forecast to return to pre-recession employment numbers in the coming year.
Yet even with job growth, low interest rates, and slowing gains in home prices, affordability remains a key issue, particularly in the state’s luxury markets. According to C.A.R.’s Traditional Housing Affordability Index, just 27 percent of households will be able to purchase a median priced home in California based on traditional assumptions. This forecast is 3 percent lower than 2014 projections, and is down significantly from 56 percent in the first quarter of 2012. Much of this is attributable to the fact that household income declined while home prices swelled.
With affordability where it is, the homeownership rate for 18- to 34-year-olds continues to fall as the number of Millennials renting or living with parents continues to rise. Household formation for this same demographic is remarkably slow, contributing to Census data that shows an addition of just 476,000 new households in the 12-month period ending in March 2014. By contrast, the two periods prior had an average of 1.3 million added households. Even in today’s “renter nation,” the C.A.R. 2014 Millennial survey shows that over half of this group places homeownership as an eight or above on a scale of one to ten, where ten is “extremely important.” Roughly the same percentage expects to purchase a home within five years.
“With the U.S. economy expected to grow more robustly than it has in the past five years and housing inventory continuing to improve, California housing sales and prices will see a modest upward trend in 2015,” concluded C.A.R. Vice President and Chief Economist Leslie Appleton-Young.
If you’re addicted to HGTV like we are, you’ve probably seen “home stager to the stars” Meridith Baer on the show, “Selling LA,” and on the network’s documentary series, “Staged to Perfection.” Baer is the namesake behind her company, Meridith Baer Home, the largest home staging company in the country.
Based in Los Angeles, Baer also stages luxury properties in New York City and the Hamptons, Miami and coastal Florida and Connecticut. She and her team also furnish homes in the beach cities and on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. Read on to learn how her career as a Hollywood screenwriter led to home staging, and find out which Hollywood celebrity homes have gotten the red carpet treatment from the pioneer of home staging.
South Bay Digs: I hear you have a colorful background.
Meridith Baer: I was born in Los Angeles but weeks later moved to Northern California. My father was associate warden at San Quentin Prison and we lived on the prison grounds. I attended a one-room schoolhouse from 1st through 8th grades. Usually I was the only person in my grade, so I was both the valedictorian and the class dunce!
SBD: Do you think living on prison grounds affected your knack for beautifying interiors?
MB: The drabness of the prison reservation perhaps inspired me to be creative. From a young age my mom let me move the furniture around the house and gave me my own plot of land for my private garden. When I turned 13, my father became the director of Corrections for the state of Iowa and we moved to Des Moines. My mom was an early home flipper, and we moved from style-to-style large homes—English Tudor to Colonial to Modern. Through all of this my mom seemed to like my furnishing ideas and took notice when I suggested which furniture to buy. I still have some of those pieces in our staging inventory!
SBD: I’m told your staging career was preceded by a stint as a writer.
MB: In Des Moines I attended a large school that used a “tracking system.” They called it 1-2-3-4, but it meant dumb, average, smart and talented. Even though the San Quentin school gave me straight A’s, this school put me in the dumb class and I proceeded to do poorly in it. One day my teacher was out sick, and the teacher from the talented class covered for her and [gave us a writing assignment]. When he read my essay, he transferred me to the talented class and I began getting straight A’s.
All of this taught me to not just follow a single path but to be unafraid to take a new road. At the University of Colorado I got a journalism degree. While in college, I also flipped houses; I wasn’t doing construction, just paint and gardening and styling.
SBD: How did the Hollywood connection begin?
MB: The week before graduation I was approached to be in a Pepsi commercial by a total stranger, a young New York City advertising man named Jerry Bruckheimer, now the most successful movie producer in the business. Doing the Pepsi commercials led me to New York, where I was hired to be an assistant to the editor of a magazine. Soon I was being asked to appear in print and television commercials—over 100—and then a movie. I did freelance writing, including writing “Passionate Shopper” pieces for New York Magazine.
Later I moved to Los Angeles and continued to be in commercials, print ads and movies. I also did freelance magazine writing but the money was in the acting, not the writing. Through all of this, my hobbies were gardening and fixing up my various apartments and those of my friends. While reading movie scripts, many of which were poorly written, I thought, ‘I can do this,’ and wrote my first screenplay. I sold it for $250,000.
MB: After years earning a respectable living as a writer, I found myself tired of writing. I was about to turn 50 and the jobs were harder and harder to come by. At this point I was renting a home in Brentwood and found myself spending most of my time gardening. I acquired over 150 pots and filled them with trees, flowers and bushes, and I rearranged them regularly. [I spent my time] searching for treasures and rearranging my furniture, even changing the purpose of each room.
SBD: How did you make the leap into home staging? Was there a defining moment that sparked the idea?
MB: At this point, the owner of my rental home came to town, saw how much time and money I had put into his home—and asked me to leave! He saw that he could make money on what I had done. Not knowing where I could store all of my plants and furnishings, I suggested to a friend who was selling a spec home that I arrange them all at his house to show the lifestyle. It turned out beautifully, in fact photos of my work were published in magazines. But more importantly, the house sold within days for a half million dollars over asking price after multiple offers. My phone started ringing. Other brokers wanted me to move my stuff to homes they had for sale. And the brokers started calling it “staging.” It was fun! I said yes, but they’d have to pay me up front. In the beginning it was pure hustle and 18-hour days.
SBD: How do you think your Hollywood connection has helped your business?
MB: I don’t think it helped me, other than I was so frustrated by the entertainment business—by how hard it was to get anything made [from my screenplays], and even if it got made, it didn’t look anything like what I wrote—that I seized this opportunity to make something happen fast and feel realized.
SBD: That must have been a big shift.
MB: Instead of dealing with show biz agents and producers, I was now dealing with real estate agents and property developers. But there was a connection to my previous career. People pointed out to me that what I was doing was staging. And I realized that as I brought rooms to life, I was imaging who would ultimately be living in those rooms. I’d always been told I had a great eye for design, but what I liked was telling stories. Now I found myself telling stories through design. Interestingly enough, many top show business people bought homes we staged, hired us to stage their homes, or hired us for interior design. We’re even asked to do movie sets.
SBD: As a pioneer in the field, how do you think this niche has evolved? Where do you see it going?
MB: What I did in the beginning and what we continue to do now is create beautiful spaces that tell a story, a story of how the buyer can live in the home seamlessly. For me it was never just “staging.” It was never just filling spaces without attention to the quality of the design and furnishings. The details of what makes a house a home are what matter. Over the years, expectations about the level of design have radically increased. Homes now need to be staged in a particular style according to the architecture, value and location. The design has to be current, what you see in your favorite magazine. Art and rugs have to be geared towards the expectations and/or aspirations of the buyer. It is not uncommon for us to put $400,000-$500,000 of inventory into a luxury home.
SBD: What—if anything—can you tell us about some of your celebrity clients?
MB: We have worked with hundreds of celebrities in music, sports and entertainment, staging their homes, leasing furniture. We also sell them design services and furniture. We’ve worked with Bob Dylan, Beck, Seal, Madonna, Anthony Kiedis from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Ricky Martin, Katy Perry,
Harrison Ford, Sharon Stone, Halle Berry, Brad Pitt, Gerard Butler, Mike Myers, Reese Witherspoon, Liv Tyler, Geena Davis, Kevin Spacey, Amy Adams. We also work with movie execs, studio heads and billionaires.
SBD: What are your secrets to success?
MB: Working our tails off, caring about what we do, and loving what we do. Hiring talented, hard-working staff, designers and sales people. Bringing in the best and brightest on an executive level, in fact on every level. Keeping it new, keeping it fresh. Listening to the complaints, as well as the praise!
SBD: How would you describe your business model?
MB: We provide luxury furniture and design services. Our primary business is staging, or installing furnishings to help homeowners and developers sell their real estate assets as fast as possible for the highest possible price. All of the furnishings in our homes are for sale, so the buyer or the neighbor can own a room or the entire home furnished just as it is. We manufacture much of our own furniture and source the rest. In the future, we will be making our furnishings available to the public. We also offer interior design services and lease our high-end furnishings for the specific needs of our clients.
SBD: You switched careers at age 50. What advice would you give women 40-plus who are contemplating a career change?
MB: Follow the trail of what interests you. It’s not written anywhere that you have to spend the rest of your life doing what you have been doing. Pay attention when you find yourself saying, ‘I could do that,’ or ‘this could be better,’ or ‘what the world needs is this!’ Just start doing what you really enjoy and see where it leads.
SBD: What do you like to do when you’re not staging homes?
MB: I am constantly looking through magazines and searching on the web for inspiration. I go to estate sales and flea markets and auctions looking for little treasures to use on shelves. I like to look at historical pieces and dream about how to tweak them into the 21st century. I still love to garden. Cuddle with my cat. Cook. Read. Spend time with friends and family. Laugh. Drink good red wine. And I am addicted to Sudoku—the really evil ones!
Merit Real Estate is celebrating their 25th year of being in business and have big changes planned in the near future, according to Rodman Amiri, who works with his father Amir Amiri, Merit’s founder. These changes include building property as well as selling it. Today, Amir Amiri lists more properties in the South Bay than any other agent and has the largest inventory of brand new construction projects in the area. He has over 20 agents and most of them have been with him since he began Merit Real Estate in 1989. His son Rodman is excited about being brought into the family business.
“In addition to over two dozen residential units under construction spread out through Hermosa, Redondo, and Manhattan Beach,” says Rodman, “we are also working on our two single largest developments to date; a 13-unit townhouse-style apartment building in the city of Lomita, and a mixed-use project in Hawthorne.”
Rodman became interested in real estate not through watching his father’s business grow, but as a student at USC when he majored in Public Policy, Planning, and Development. “It was this that sparked my interest and enticed me to ask more questions and learn more from my father about his business,” he explains.
Though he found his interest in real estate independently, Rodman is grateful to be able to work with family. “I am lucky to have a great mentor constantly around to help me learn the business and get past new challenges. With every transaction comes a new, unpredictable challenge, and the best way to deal with that is with the guidance of someone with experience. The challenging part is reminding myself that he is a colleague with much more experience than me, and to be learned from. At times, I find myself thinking like a son, that his methods may be outdated, but I find that his experience usually proves me wrong in my doubts.”
Rodman’s specialty is Redondo Beach neighborhoods. He grew up in Redondo Beach and Merit Real Estate has always been based there, seen as a sort of neighborhood expert. “Each area in the South Bay has its own unique identity, but what we all have in common is the lifestyle. We are the best kept secret of LA…we have the LA scenery and weather, without the LA lifestyle. We move at our own pace, and embrace more of the laidback, beach lifestyle, contrary to what most would think of the LA area.”
Right now in Redondo Beach, the real estate business is constantly in flux: “Interest rates are all over the place. They have been going up and down unpredictably over the past couple months and that has led to a recent slowing of the market. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. In 2013, multiple offers on properties became the norm. Impulse buyers came out of the woodwork, as the cost of financing was at record lows. Now, the serious buyers who are still in the game regardless of rate fluctuations will be able to make a move on a property they want, and not have to deal with 10+ competing bidders, as was so common.”