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Friendly Persuasion

As one of the city’s most successful agents of high-end house and condo sales, Janet Owen knows the art of the real-estate deal.

(page 2 of 3)

 

In January 2006, Owen took home Sudler Sotheby’s award for a lifetime sales volume of nearly $500 million.

The owners of 1924 North Dayton happen to own the adjacent lot, on which a decent enough three-flat sits. That house, needless to say, could be toast. Owen, in fact, just happens to have a set of architectural renderings that show 1924 with a two-story wing extending south to form what looks like a museum. Linda pores over the drawings. The addition will include a large courtyard and fountain. The upstairs bedrooms are twice the current size. There’s a four-car garage. This is more like it.

“I suppose I should think about the construction costs,” Linda says as an afterthought.

“Well, you can’t overpay in this neighborhood,” says Owen cheerily.

It was Irene Pritzker who helped launch Owen into the high-end market. That was 1983, a bad time for real estate, and Irene, a former wife of Robert Pritzker, was trying to unload her two-and-a-half-floor condominium at 1555 North Astor Street. One agent after another came through and grimly shook his head. “Janet came in and . . . said, ‘Let’s take a shot at it,’” Pritzker recalled in Real Estate Executive magazine. The condo was listed for almost double what other agents had suggested-and sold within a week.

It has been mostly up since then. For the past 17 years, Owen has been the top volume producer at Sudler Sotheby’s, a Chicago realty firm known for handling high-end properties. In January 2006, at a company gala, she took home Sudler Sotheby’s award for a lifetime sales volume of nearly $500 million. True, there are faster-rising stars on the circuit. Admittedly, last year Owen scarcely topped $15 million in sales (that is, total prices on the properties she sold). Other brokers sniff at her flagging output, although as of June 1, 2006, Owen was already at $25 million. Not everyone, it should be said, is a fan. The dissenters view the cover story in Real Estate Executive as a seven-page wet kiss: friends and colleagues gushing about how nice she is; all that charity work; the saintly ethics. But nobody wants to vent in print. “She’ll kill you with details” is the worst I hear from a broker, who then quickly clams up. That broker, and several others, groan about Owen’s interminably long messages in the midst of a negotiation. “Death by a thousand cuts” is the broker’s way of describing Owen’s strategy.

 

Call it sour grapes, because most top agents have nothing but praise for Owen, with “thoroughness” replacing “details.” It may strike some as odd that there is not more catty gossip, but at the high echelon it makes good sense to stay on cozy terms with so-called rivals. “It’s a small, small group,” says Owen, “and we all know each other. If you say just the first names-Natasha or Elizabeth or Jennifer-everyone knows whom you mean.”

Jennifer is Jennifer Ames, a bright star at Coldwell Banker, another respected big firm. Ames is proudest of her consistency: in sales volume, she has rated among Chicago’s top ten brokers for nine years running. She and Owen are on cordial terms. “It’s very important to work cooperatively with peers,” says Ames. “Buyers and sellers come and go; successful agents are around for the long term. There’s plenty of business to go around. If I don’t get one listing, I’ll get another.”

What distinguishes Owen, says Ames, is her deep knowledge of the market. “She understands buildings; she understands construction.” Owen and Ames share another trait, which both cite as critical. “We’re like doctors,” says Ames. “This is a 24/7 job.”

Ames and I connected on the phone an hour after I left her a voice-mail message. She was in a bathrobe-at an Arizona spa with her mother. “But you see,” she pointed out, “I’m always available.”

It’s no accident that this chummy group of superperformers are all female; real estate, at least in Chicago, is very much a woman’s game. Ames explains: “Historically, real estate was a venue more accessible to women. It gave you the flexibility to scale back if you had a family. We’re in control of our own work schedule. We’re independent contractors.” Another broker, less empowerment minded, calls it “the default job after a divorce.”

Owen may be the exception to both rules: she started selling because she was sure she could do it better. A Connecticut na- tive, she came to Chicago after graduating from the University of Wisconsin and taught first grade. She met her husband when a drapery rod broke in her apartment and a nice fellow tenant she encountered in the building lobby offered his services. She and Rodger Owen, who have no children, have been married for 25 years. After Rodger received an MBA from the University of Chicago, he started to buy and sell property, often complaining bitterly about the real-estate agents he had to deal with. “I thought to myself, I can do that,” says Owen. “And I thought I could do it even better!”

Today Rodger is the chief executive officer of BDG & C, a Chicago builder that specializes in high-end custom-made homes. In fact, Rodger built the house on Dayton. Owen, of course, didn’t sell it-conflict of interest!-but Rodger’s role is no impediment now since this is a resale. He did, however, draw up the extension.

“Everyone thinks I sell my husband’s homes,” she says. “But I made it a policy not to. I don’t want anyone to think I would be more motivated [to sell his homes]. I absolutely would not do that.”

Perhaps you think it’s easy selling a house with snow-melting steps and two laundry rooms. You open the door, you show the spa bath, you talk up the neighborhood, you take a check. It is this kind of attitude, alas, that has drawn a great many brokers into the business. And, guess what: now there are too many. This spring, the Chicago Tribune reported that membership in the National Association of Realtors had swelled from 767,000 in 2000 to 1.2 million in 2005. The competition is rough; in the Chicago area alone there are 16,000 members. Meanwhile, home sales have softened, and commissions are down.

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