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Real estate broker enjoys fast pace of new business

Melissa Murphy imagined herself pursuing a career in politics, eventually even running for Congress. But stints in D.C., Olympia and the Spokane mayor’s office left her frustrated with the glacial pace of political change. So in 2005 she switched to real estate and quickly became a top seller in Windermere’s Manito branch.

Recently she left Windermere to launch a new brokerage, Choice Realty, where she and business partner Ron McIntire give sellers the option of paying an hourly consulting fee instead of traditional flat commissions, and offer buyers a place to turn for specialized help, such as negotiating contracts.

We spoke with Murphy in her Spokane office at 608 W. Second Ave.

S-R: Zillow ranked Spokane the fifth most recession-proof housing market out of 154 urban areas. Do you agree?

Murphy: Absolutely. The biggest markets were the ones that saw the most speculation. Here we’ve always been slow and steady. We don’t have the big peaks and valleys that other markets do.

S-R: What’s selling right now?

Murphy: Anything in the modest-to-median price range. People aren’t taking risks right now. They’re looking for something that’s comfortable for their family, but they’re not looking for bigger and better.

S-R: What’s sitting on the market?

Murphy: Anything that has a lot of speculation involved. A couple of years ago we could pitch something as having room for growth or do-it-yourself potential. Now people want finished, move-in ready. Most importantly, buyers don’t have the easy access to money they did a couple of years ago. So if you buy a fixer, you’re going to live in it long-term and make small improvements – unless you’re a cash investor, which are few and far between.

S-R: What’s your forecast for the next 18 months?

Murphy: I don’t see things changing a lot. We’re not going to see prices go up. We may see them go down.

S-R: Some people want to sell but can afford to wait. Should they wait?

Murphy: No. We have to look at homes differently now. They’re no longer a get-rich-quick scheme. Back in 2004, ’05 and ’06, it was common to hear someone say they made $50,000 selling their home. Now the house is back to the bare bones of the American dream. It’s something that’s yours – you can personalize it. It’s not something you put money into, sell and make a killing. We’re going through a period where we won’t see the big swings. So if you have to sell, sell. If you don’t, don’t.

S-R: Who should consider buying?

Murphy: Anyone who’s looking for a long-term investment and protection against inflation.

S-R: What should sellers look for in an agent?

Murphy: Someone who’s innovative, who has exceptional market knowledge and is an excellent negotiator. Someone who’s looking for opportunities to get their house more exposure and get more buyers through the door.

S-R: What qualities should buyers look for?

Murphy: Someone who knows where to find value. Someone who knows what’s moving, and knows the history of neighbors and pockets. The South Hill in particular has some streets you want to be on and some that are a little iffy. You want someone who knows which neighborhoods hold their value.

S-R: Describe Choice Realty.

Murphy: Real estate has always been a take-it-or-leave-it business: either pay a flat 6 percent commission or pay $500 to get your house on the MLS and then you’re on your own. There was some variation out there, but not much. What we’re doing is taking the consultation model that attorneys have been using for years. You can hire us on the traditional 6 percent commission model, where we only get paid after a successful outcome, or you can hire us on a consultation basis at $200 an hour. We’re decoupling the costs, so you pay for exactly what you get. It’s not going to be for everyone, but it might be right for someone who thinks they have a really good property that’s going to sell quickly.

S-R: How have your peers reacted?

Murphy: Envious is the word I would use. Our model allows us to partner with sellers in a way that’s never been done before. That’s why I haven’t been this excited about my job since I started.

S-R: How many hours a week do you work?

Murphy: Too many. Usually 60 or 70, and because of the invention of texting, some clients feel free to contact me at all hours of the day. I work evenings and weekends, but I do try to take off at least one day a week.

S-R: How do you relax?

Murphy: My family has a lake place at Hayden, which is 90 minutes away. Once I get there, I’ve got to have a real compelling reason to come back. Also, I love to do triathlons, so long bike rides, long runs help me recharge.

S-R: What do you like most about your job?

Murphy: I love being my own boss. I go on a job interview every day, asking people to hire me to get this job done. I love the opportunity to interact with people and help them solve problems.

S-R: What advice do you offer sellers in this market?

Murphy: Upgrade quality – whether it’s staging or investing in curb appeal. It’s such a competitive market that people have to take those extra steps to put their property in pristine shape.

S-R: What advice would you give buyers?

Murphy: Work with an agent who really knows this market. The seller is paying for that service, so have someone do the research for you and help you negotiate. A lot of people don’t like to wheel and deal, but I love haggling.

S-R: What change would you like to see in the industry?

Murphy: A higher barrier to entry. One of the hardest things for me to overcome when I got in the business is the perception that real-estate agents aren’t very professional. Anybody can get a license if they have $1,200. There are 1,500 agents here, and only 400 of them sold more than three homes in all of 2010. Think about that: If you’re going to get knee surgery, are you going to the guy who does it every day or the guy who says, “I did a knee surgery back in March, so I’m pretty sure I’m up to speed on how this thing goes”?

If you look at any other professions – CPAs, attorneys – their criteria for being inducted into the industry or continuing to be licensed is high. I’d love to see the bar raised a little bit in real estate.

S-R: Do you plan to franchise Choice Realty?

Murphy: We’re only three weeks in, but so far the reaction has been wildly successful. So I can absolutely see it franchising, especially within Washington. It makes the most sense for higher-end homes, where saving 1 percent can mean $5,000 or $10,000 more in your pocket.

Spokane freelance writer Michael Guilfoil can be reached via email at

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