4 lessons from a 97-year-old real-estate agent
More than 7 decades in the business have given him wisdom; he shares a few gems.
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.
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.
"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."
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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.
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"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."
Did you sustain a shell fragment to the head during the war? All of your numbers are off by a factor of 10 in favor of Bush (he racked up $5 TRILLION in debt) and a factor of 10 in disfavor of Obama (he has racked up $1.3 TRILLION so far).
If you are going to rant, at least get the figures right!
And, feel free to return all of your Social Security and Veteran benefits. It would help diminish the national deficit. And, I am tired of paying more in payroll taxes per year than you made in total earnings per year when you still worked.
I agree with all of Johnson's comments, but here's the reason the housing market collapsed...
we strayed from requiring every buyer to put 30% cash down and to finance the rest with fixed rate loans, preferably 30 year. All the "zero down", variable interest loans, and balloon payments were stupidity, forced upon banks by the Barney Frank and Cris Dodd social engineers, along with meek, bespectacled, no clue joke Fed Chairman, Alan Greenspan.
Drop the price of homes 50% and then I'll start looking.
The housing market like this economy was built on deception and greed.
All you Realtors can go pee up a rope!
Sales people are basically opportunistic. They have the advantage in that they are products of class legislation, monopolies, and laissez faire statutes, codes and injunctions. Couple this with discrimination (bankers lend more freely to their cronies, i.e., freemasons, Catholics, fellow club members and other social contacts). Sweet deals are frequently made during down-turns in the ecomomy. And, brother/sister will not arrest or indict brother/sister. Kick backs occur within certain groups.
Oh, sure, they will cry foul and claim that I am in need of an education and/or psychiatrist. Both sources are political and thus bias. And, chances are they are all peas in the same pod. Pragmatists who will say something like "oh that's the way it is" or some other lame observation.
A crook very seldom admits their guilt.
I would love to own a home in Ballard on the Puget Sound. I love the state of Washington, its health conscious living, and the focus with good health care, education, and youth.
The house i wanted was about 150,000USD, when i wanted to buy. Family issues caused me to move, and the house is now worth about $300,000. I love the ocean, and the air is good for me. Its really nice to be working into the 90's, he is a dedicated realtor. i hope to retrain with finance study to sell mortgages, and learn the ways of insurance.
Here's a tip from an old timer (not 99).
First, BUY LOW.
Second, SELL HIGH (more than what you paid to buy)
A real money maker: you begin with saving just one cent. The following day, save 2 cents. The following day, 4 cents. Then, 8 cents. Then, 16 cents.
(How much so far? In just 5 days, you have saved 31 cents.)
The 6th day, save 32 cents. 7th, 64 cents.
(in one week you've saved $1.27).
8th day, $1.28 ..... you get the idea. Just look at what you will save in, say, 10 years!!!!!
Bet this kind old "crook" never thought of this...
Well I can assure you Mr. North Carolina realtor, I've been in the business since 1975 and never, EVER have I said, implied or stated the housing is "an investment". NEVER.
Because it's not nor will it ever be. Shelter is always a cost, day after day until you're in your grave and it NEVER pays you back.
Mr. Johnson is correct in his article. I have been an agent for 33 years and have always felt Real Estate is a long term investment not a get rich quick scheme.
Over the years I was amazed at people who got a loan that had credit issues. That hurt along with outrageous increases in value. Was it the real estate agent or a greedy seller who had to have so much out of the home to do this or that!!
People there are many many hard working professional agents out there, and the comment from the individual who says we are crooks they just don't get it.
Where else can you get professional help and you pay nothing until the home sells and closes?? We fulfill a market niche and we reach more buyers than a For Sale By Owner.
My hat is off to Mr. Johnson he is a wise person.
North Carolina Realtor
I have known George Johnson and his son Bob, for several years and both of them are absolute gentlemen. To all of those who are categorizing George with real estate agent crooks, and real estate agents making money, I can categorically assure you that you couldn't be more wrong.
George Johnson cares far more about his customers' well-being, comfort level when buying, and many other things before he starts thinking about how much this or that property will make him. He is now serving the grand-children and possibly great-grand-children of his first customers in Seattle way back in the late 30s. He has earned his stripes the hard way.
For those who would like to hear George tell his story personally, got to the link below.
I would trust this guy with my property any day of the week. He is Mr Traditional Customer Service himself.