Marin luxury agent Tracy McLaughlin details her expansion to Aspen
“Agents in Aspen have a much more ‘here today, gone to Maui’ kind of approach”
Tracy McLaughlin is Marin County’s highest-volume individual agent, and has been for more than 15 years. A luxury specialist, she had the eighth-highest sales volume of any single agent in California, according to RealTrends 2022 rankings, and the 24th highest sales volume in the U.S. with more than $415 million in 2021 transactions.
The Engel & Volkers agent sat down with TRD to explain why, after decades in Marin, she recently expanded to a second office in the Colorado ski resort town of Aspen — as well as some of the culture shock that she has experienced since opening that location a few months ago. She also discussed the current market in Marin and why some homes are still selling at “almost peak COVID pricing” while the “B-grade inventory” continues to languish. The conversation has been edited and condensed.
What has the high-end market been like in Marin this spring compared to the latter half of last year?
What happens when markets are changing is people freeze up. Buyers didn’t want to move forward with purchases because they didn’t know where rates were going and sellers kept saying, “We have a lot of liquidity in this home. We don’t need to sell in this kind of market.” So that created a lot of dormancy in terms of transactions last year.
Now people have settled into the successive interest rates and got through this little banking crisis and have said, “OK, I’ve been on the sidelines for about a year, but our third baby got here or my mother-in-law moved in with us and we really, really want to buy a home at this point and we can budget for the 5 percent interest rate.” People are pouncing on homes that they know are going to be hard to get again and paying really almost peak COVID pricing.
What types of homes won’t they be able to get again?
New construction in the flats on a flat lot with indoor-outdoor living. I mean, that’s just a home run all day, every day here in Marin County because of our topography. We’ve got so much hillside living and families crave flat lots that are walkable. It is putting all sorts of pressure on pricing on that particular asset.
The other, what I call B-grade inventory, that’s a fixer-upper on a hillside with no yard or the yard way down below the main living space. They’re not selling. You have to really hyper discount those right now to get those sold. So there’s a big fissure here in the marketplace.
We’ve got new construction, if it’s done very well. I’m talking about really tasteful finishes in the flats on flat lots selling right now at anywhere from $1,800 a foot to the house I sold at 9 Westshore at $4,500 a foot. Then we’ve got other stuff selling at between $700 and $900 a foot that are up in the hills that need work. That’s a huge differential.
What does better in the market — a new house up in the hills or a fixer in the flats?
The fixer does better, ultimately, because of the scarcity of that kind of a land here in Marin. I think if you notice trends with younger people, a lot of them aren’t even getting driver’s licenses anymore. They’re Ubering. They want convenience. They want to go out to dinner and have a glass of wine and not worry about getting in a car and driving home. These flat lots where people can jump on bikes or take their strollers out of their garages and not into cars, they’re really desirable.
Are these buyers people from San Francisco wanting that city-type walkability and amenities?
It used to be that the buying audience from San Francisco to Marin was relatively small. It was something like 90 percent of the transactions were buy-ups from within Marin and about 8 percent were San Francisco and 2 or 3 percent were out-of- state or out-of-country. With COVID, it felt like that completely flipped, like we had just this exodus out of San Francisco, and if you had 10 showings, then eight were with young buyers from San Francisco starting families. So, there’s really that kind of exodus mindset that went on during COVID.
With the market picking up again, why did you decide now was the time you wanted to branch out to Aspen? And why bypass Tahoe and go straight to Aspen?
That’s funny that you bring up Tahoe because I was just saying I can get to Aspen a lot faster on the non-stop on United from San Francisco than I can drive to Tahoe. So that’s part of the impetus. But our family has been going there for years. I have flipped multiple homes out there and I’ve built a really beautiful home for our family there.
It’s really an expansion for my daughters. They are going to be running Aspen and I’m here in Marin County. All the kids went to school in Colorado, they really like that community and we know that there’s a great opportunity for really smart data-oriented real estate agents who work hard to do very well out there. The price points are exorbitant. So the girls, Whitney and Grace, are my partners out there.
There’s a lot of back-and-forth between the two markets. I know a lot of people from Marin and San Francisco who own homes in Aspen or want to move out there, and we have people out there that have lived here.
Have you sold in any mountain communities before, or is this brand new for you?
It’s brand new, but I grew up going to Sun Valley and my former husband grew up skiing in Aspen. We started going out there when the children were really young
We don’t know a lot about ranching, but it’s been really fun to learn about riparian rights and rivers. In the core of Aspen, you’ve got pricing now at $5,000 a foot for new construction. So it’s one of the country’s market leaders in terms of appreciation and stability of prices.
But that market is also very different. They don’t stage like we stage. They don’t prep homes like we do. They don’t do pre-listing inspections. So we’re hoping to shift the market a little bit there and convince sellers that it’s much smarter to pre-inspect their homes before they go on the market, instead of nail biting and having their home fall out of contract or get canceled.
There’s no staging in Aspen?
If you flip through the listings there, it’s usually the owner’s furniture. There are electric toothbrushes out on their stands and there are 1970s ski passes hanging in the hallway. This is a $20 million home; what are people doing?
Our stager, Vesta, that I work with almost exclusively here in Marin, is based out of L.A. and is opening there for us. We’re excited to just show people how to do something different than the way they’ve done it for a long time.
How has the new market treated you so far?
We just launched two months ago, so it’s a brand new business and we’re investing a lot of money in outreach. We sent out 40,000 postcards six weeks ago, and we made a year-long commitment to Aspen Modern Luxury magazine to a two-page spread in the front of the magazine. I said to my daughters, “This is going be like graduate school. It will take a couple years.” We’re not expecting anyone to pay us the first couple of months.
[There is] one listing that we think we are getting, and it has been a lot of fun to show somebody what to do to their home to fix it up to sell it. I’ve got a great construction company that built my house and they’re excited to jump on any little pre-listing improvements. So we’ve got the same framework for my business set up out there that we do here.
I’ve done 600 flips now in Marin County. I did a number in San Francisco and it’s just a proven formula at this point for me. Even if you can’t do a complete renovation, you can make a house far more appealing with silly things, like taking wallpaper and putting it on a laundry room that’s a little bit dated and painting cabinets white so they’re not walking in there every day and going, “I hate this laundry room.”
What has it been like coming from a market where you’re well-known to one where you have to start from scratch?
I understand we’re brand new to that market and I’m OK with that. Whitney and Grace are like, “Mom, we’ve got to get going here,” and I’m like, “We are getting going. It takes two years to establish a business.”
In Aspen, I think there are something like 2,000 licensed agents. Everybody there has four jobs and one of them is holding a license for real estate. Most of them are happy to do one transaction a year.
Most people here that go into real estate, it’s a full-time profession for them. So, that’s different too. Agents in Aspen have a much more “here today, gone to Maui” kind of approach. It’s sometimes hard to reach them. They don’t pick up their phones. They don’t return calls for a day and it’s much more of a lethargic pace in terms of responsiveness.
What’s the reaction from professional agents who have been in the market for a long time?
There could be a little bit of intimidation from some of the top producers whom I knew before. There might be a little bit of, “What are they doing here?” But, look, at the end of the day their businesses have been established for many, many years and I’m sure they’ll be just fine.
Are you hoping to specialize in luxury there like you do here? Or are you happy to get your foot in the door?
We’d obviously like to be in that part of the market, but in the beginning, I said to Whitney and Grace, “Take a condo. Take whatever and you just start transacting and learning.”