DIGS dives into the stories behind some of the world’s best real estate professionals. Market Influencer weaves a narrative journey about agents, entrepreneurs and influencers—and what drives them to succeed. This week we tell James Respondek’s story, an A-lister agent at Sotheby’s International Realty.
James Respondek, the A-lister muses on a nearly four-decade real estate career—starting when a fixer-upper could still be had in the Palisades for $200,000
James Respondek was 18 years old when he made his first real estate transaction for the princely sum of $5,000. “I rode up on the back of a friend’s motorcycle, up to this little subdivision,” he recounts. “We looked around, and I found a lot. The real estate agent said, ‘Why don’t you buy it?’ and I said, ‘How can I?’ and he said, ‘Well, just give me a $20 deposit and go back and figure it out.’” Respondek did, and a few years later sold it for a $3000 profit. It felt good.
“Real estate had always been appealing,” says Respondek, who made his career choice official in 1979 when he got his license, settled into the Westside and started selling homes. It was a time when the MLS was available only in print, computers were hardly mainstream and national cell phone service was still a glint in a developer’s eyes. “When I first started,” says Respondek, “the first computer was a matrix line computer in the back of the office that peeled off listings.”
Nowadays, if one is looking at the high-luxe real estate in coastal communities from Malibu to Marina del Rey, and inland to Bel Air, it very well might be listed by Respondek. It’s the seasoned agent’s home turf, with the core of his business located in Pacific Palisades, where he’s had offices since the 1980s. “The Palisades is just a great bedroom community,” he says. “It’s a great family area.”
He’s particularly positive on Palisades Village, developer Rick Caruso’s 125,000-square-foot development that will bring over 50 shops and eateries to Sunset Boulevard and Swarthmore Avenue this summer, along with a reconfigured Bay Theater. “It’s going to give the Village a fabulous facelift,” says Respondek. “As charming as it was, it was kind of tired from an architectural and amenities standpoint. This is going to be a huge plus.”
Ask Respondek if he, decades ago, could imagine the run-up of prices in his market and his answer is swift: “No. Never.” But price prophecies are a tricky thing, he says. The moment you’re sure the sky’s the limit, you might get hit with an unexpected downturn. And vice versa. “As soon as you say, ‘It can’t go up anymore’—it goes up some more.” His advice? “Stay open and let the market flow.”
It’s counsel coming from a learned place, considering Respondek has been witness to a sea change in local real estate since starting out nearly 40 years ago. “The [Malibu] Colony was still relatively cheap,” he recalls. “You could get a little fixer-upper in the Palisades for under $200,000.”
A lifestyle change that Respondek muses might be coming to the market in the next couple of years relates to the size of homes, challenging the concept that “bigger is better.” “People might put less emphasis on the size of a property,” he points out, instead placing greater weight on ease-of-living variables such as efficiency, comfort and being within convenient proximity to everyday destinations. “The mega square-footage thing is nice,” he says, “but it’s just more stuff to take care of.”
In a business not known for lacking in competition and hungry newcomers, Respondek has kept his place on top by staying engaged in his market. “You have to stay active,” he says. Spot emerging trends. Have good product knowledge. “Always be looking at property and keep your ear to the ground with what’s going on—who’s selling what and who’s buying what.” Anything else? “Some of [success] is probably going to be an innate intuition, talent, and gift of the gab.” For Respondek, who has transacted over $1 billion during his career so far, there’s also the visceral excitement that comes with striking a deal. “When you get a deal and it falls together—that’s exciting,” he says. It’s a rush that’s not abated for him since the day he hopped on the back of a motorcycle and bought his first property with a $20 bill. “It’s probably more exciting to me than getting the check.”
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