4 lessons from a 97-year-old Realtor (© Dan Lamont)Click to enlarge picture

Nonagenarian George W. Johnson has been selling real estate in Seattle for more than 70 years and is still at his desk six mornings a week. (Photo: Dan Lamont)

Buy a house today if you can, but don't sell one if you don't have to, says George W. Johnson, a 97-year-old real-estate agent who has been working the Seattle market since 1936.

Johnson, who is reluctant to call himself America's oldest real-estate agent — he says he just learned of a 99-year-old broker in Florida — has seen his share of housing booms and busts since he hung his first real-estate shingle 74 years ago.

"I've been through a lot of these ups and downs," he says, remembering the property boom that followed World War II, as well as the deep downturn in the 1970s when Seattle's biggest employer, Boeing, laid off thousands of workers.

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Through it all, Johnson says he has learned many enduring lessons. Chief among them: After every housing recession, the market has "gone higher than the one before." You have to have the stomach to hang on through all of the twists and turns, he says.

This market a 'baby' compared to days past
Johnson wasn't always a real-estate guy. He was born to a farming family in South Dakota on Dec. 22, 1912, and moved to Seattle at the height of the Great Depression to attend college and pursue a teaching career. To make ends meet, Johnson juggled three jobs at one time. He delivered milk for a while. "Whatever you could do to get by with, you did it."

Then, in 1936, he started dabbling in real estate. Unemployment hovered around 30%, soup lines stretched around blocks, homelessness was rampant.

Read:  5 reasons you still need a real-estate agent

"You could have bought the best house in (the Seattle neighborhood of) Ballard for $3,500." Times were tough. The current real-estate market, Johnson says, is "a baby" by comparison.

"In addition to the Depression, we had the drought at the same period, so it was just compounded. You wouldn't believe the things that happened during that period." 

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Johnson, a natty dresser who drives himself to work every day — including Saturdays – managed to carve out a niche as a service-oriented agent. When the economy turned at the end of World War II, he opened up his own shop in Ballard, north of downtown. He and his sons have run George W. Johnson Realtors ever since, weathering the ups and downs in the market with confidence that profits are there for the making.

"I've lost a lot of money in a lot of things, but I've never lost in real estate," Johnson says. He remembers selling his first house in the 1930s for about $1,500. "It's probably worth $300,000 now."

4 real-estate tips from Johnson
You can't thrive in the real-estate industry for this long without learning some useful lessons along the way. Here are some of Johnson's pearls of wisdom:

Beware one-company towns: Cities dependent on a single company or industry are more vulnerable to jarring downturns if the economy goes south. The Rust Belt's old factory towns have made that abundantly clear.

The Seattle market turned particularly grim in the late 1960s and early '70s when Boeing, the aerospace giant, laid off more than 60,000 people in the Seattle area. "Boeing was about the only major company we had other than (the University of Washington)," he recalls. "Now we've got a much broader base to help out … it is altogether a different proposition."

Johnson counsels homebuyers to look beyond real-estate values and investigate an area's fundamental economy before making a purchase.

Don't get greedy. Johnson blames "plain old greed" for the latest real-estate downturn — people got caught up in the enthusiasm of the moment and banks egged them on with cheap loans.

"Everybody was out to buy a house, raise the price, double it and make a quick buck," he says, shaking his head. "People signed up for stuff that they knew they shouldn't have and they couldn't pay (for) and of course the banks helped them."

Johnson is old-school in that way. At the heart of his real-estate philosophy is his fundamental belief in personal responsibility. "You've got to be able to hang onto a house until conditions are such that you can make a little money," he says, emphasizing that each and every potential homebuyer should make an honest assessment of his or her financial potential and should be wary of offers that seem too good to be true.

"People aren't as dumb as the media is making them out to be. They knew what they were getting into," he says.

But he is compassionate for those who have run into honest trouble. "It's tough on people who lost their jobs and are now losing their homes and that type of thing. It always is," he says.

Their pain, however, is the buyers' gain.

Timing is everything. "In this market, any young person that hasn't bought a house ought to buy one," Johnson says. "A buyers market doesn't come along that often … you just can hardly help but make money on whatever you buy today at the prices they are."

Johnson says rates are only going to go up over the long term, so borrowing will cost more. (Check local interest rates.)

If you don't have to sell, hang on. Unfortunately, Johnson expects sellers to continue to suffer, at least for now. Buyers, on the other hand, "know it's a buyers market – they are going to come in with offers below what we've appraised it at just because they know a lot of people have to sell," he says.

Despite the continued housing-market struggles, Johnson is confident that the latest downtrend is largely over. "We are headed up," he says, "but like I said, I think it is going to be slow. It will take a year or two at least."

And as the market heads up, Johnson hopes to be there helping his customers buy and sell homes just as he has for most of his life – out of a small, family office dedicated to service with a smile.

"We've done a good job," he says of his business. "We've been careful and honest and thorough and it's been good service, and I think that will always produce, no matter what business you're in."

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