Reprinted with permission from The Business Record
January 18th, 2019
Closer Look: Les Sulgrove
Take a closer look at the vice president of VIA Group Realtors
BY KENT DARR, Senior Staff Writer
Friday, January 18, 2019 6:00 AM
When VIA Group Realtors President Ken Clark said last month that veteran residential real estate agent Les Sulgrove had been named vice president of the West Des Moines firm, he left out a key piece of information. “Our CEO (my wife) vetoed releasing the fact that we also gave him the title CAO, Chief Amazement Officer,” Clark said a few days after the fact. “In announcing this to the agents, I stated that his intellect and humor never cease to amaze me. He’s as quick with his wit as he is with his stats. His database of historical Des Moines market data is likely the most comprehensive available. His stats are quoted nationally. Les through his CyberPros organization introduces our agents to cutting edge technology. His contribution to our group is immense.” It’s true that 28 years ago, Sulgrove picked a career in real estate over what many people consider would have been other, obvious choices. Stand-up comedy comes to mind, though Sulgrove said he hasn’t performed a day of stand-up in his life. Instead, he has focused on real estate sales, the technology that drives the industry, and statistics that go beyond the number of homes sold and average selling prices. He is a former president of the Des Moines Area Association of Realtors, leader of a national group that anticipates changes in technology used by the industry. He was recently named the Iowa Association of Realtors national political coordinator for U.S. Rep. Cindy Axne. He also runs a food group on Facebook.
How did you become a real estate agent? Why not a comedy writer?
My education is media technology. If you parse that out, it’s photography, graphic arts, audio/video production, printing, darkroom work. All the things that have to do with media back in the early ’80s, so of course most of the technology is gone now. Really the only skill set I have left is maybe some creative juice for flyers or something. I do like working with audio and video. I fly a drone once in a while. I am going to get my drone license. I have not used it for business purposes yet; I don’t want to break the law.
Were you in the communications business early on in your career?
After I graduated from college I went to work selling photography equipment at Southridge Mall. I did that for probably four or five years and then went into the printing business and I worked for Midwestern Paper selling paper. Before I got physically into real estate I was actually working for a printer doing their pre preps work in the darkroom all the time. That was about the time when film and plates were going away.
What led you to real estate?
My wife was working from home at the time doing home day care and I decided I needed to get out of the house. I do like the independence of real estate. The cool part is you can take an afternoon off and go be with kids, grandkids now.
Why did you start crunching the numbers?
How I got involved in it was back in 2006 or so I was getting into the chairs at the Des Moines Area Association of Realtors, preparing to be the president in 2011. Watching all of these presidents talk to the media about what was going on in the market scared the heck out of me. I knew what was going on, but I couldn’t tell you how many houses were on the market or how many were selling over a set period of time. And so, lo and behold, about 2008 I decided I have about three years to learn and figure this out and be a good source for that information. Well, guess what happened in 2008. I really wish I had some data then, but we have data now going back to 2008. So it’s a pretty good goldmine of info.
What insight does that historical data tell you about the current market?
We all know real estate is cyclical for sure. And it just points me in the direction of giving me a better idea of when something’s going to happen versus saying, “Oh this is what we expect it to happen.” Probably in the next couple of years we’re going to be, maybe, at that peak again instead of the valleys. We’ve been on the rise for the last four or five years, home inventories are coming back up again, which is good, and of course with it, so are interest rates. The historical data will give me some kind of an idea of where homebuyers’ favor is going in five years from now rather than just a couple of years out.
Are you ready to say where the market is headed?
No. I’m still crunching the numbers.
D.R. Horton, the country’s largest homebuilder, has picked up the assets of a large Greater Des Moines homebuilder. What effect will that have on the market?
You probably know from looking at my stats that I feel like we’re really heavy with new construction. There’s two numbers out there right now, 36 and 15. At the end of November, 36 percent of our total inventory was new construction. That’s a lot, and of the new construction it’s predominantly priced over $300,000. Fifteen percent of the homes that are new construction are actually selling. That’s a big imbalance, and that’s showing up right now with the months of inventory. Maybe this is some of the bump after [the collapse of Regency, at one time the largest homebuilder in Iowa]. There was a period after Regency when nobody could build. I think that we’re probably going to see some dips in home pricing in the new construction values just because we have too much out there.
How is technology changing real estate sales?
Video is the big thing. Three-sixty video is going to be big; drones are a huge player in the future of real estate. I think the days of agents having personal websites are probably heading out the door, only because people don’t go to personal website anymore, they go to the portals, Zillow or Realtor.com or the broker sites. That’s why my site is heavy on the blog. I realized that I don’t get a lot of traffic to my real estate website; they find the properties elsewhere. But they come to my site to find market data.
I have to believe the relationship side of the business still plays a big role.
Yeah, it does. But, for example, what the 360 [degree] video does is take the open houses out of the picture. You know, we don’t see a lot of open houses anymore; they are predominantly in new construction. The video gives people the ability to look online. That’s hard for the traditional agents that have been around a long time to really get over. Change. I love change; it’s one of my driving factors.
What have been the most significant changes that you’ve seen during your years in the business?
Other than the internet? Probably just paperless transactions; it’s all coming back to internet-based technology. One of the biggest things that’s happening in the real estate industry is consolidation. At one point, you know, four years ago, we had 30-some boards of Realtors. We’re down to seven boards or 10 boards of Realtors across the state. We brought Newton into the Des Moines Area Association of Realtors, we brought in Marion County, we brought in some of the west-central counties. Adair County is now part of the Des Moines Area Association of Realtors. The challenge is the growing number of agents. We have 2,300 agents in the Des Moines Area Association of Realtors and we’re going to sell 14,000 homes this year. There’s not enough real estate being sold to support 2,300 agents.
With all of the information that is available online, including a video walk-through of a home I might want to buy, what is the value of the real estate agent?
Like it or not, people don’t have to come to us anymore. But where we stand out is still the majority of people are going to use a Realtor because they see the value of the service for the negotiation and the ultimate troubleshooting and the closing process. I honestly believe it’s easier to sell a house today as a Realtor, but it’s harder to get it to close. I track the number of homes that don’t make it to closing each month. In November we were at 22 or 23 percent, so two out of 10 homes didn’t close. The industry standard is around 12 to 15 percent. It could be home inspection issues. It could be buyer’s remorse. I think just because there’s such low inventory, buyers are making a decision to buy the house when they just saw it and they haven’t had a chance to think about it. There is that fear of loss that is driving some faster offers because somebody else is standing right behind them saying, “I’m going to write that offer, too.” It won’t hurt a thing if the market slows down just a little bit.