It may not come as a surprise to those of us who live in and love Texas and the Alamo City, but the CNBC television cable network recently ranked Texas as one of the best states for business in America, and RelocateAmerica.Com named San Antonio as No. 5 in both its lists of “Top 100 Places to Live for 2010” and “Top 10 Recovery Cities in America.” What does all this mean for the Alamo City? Well, it certainly gives us more than just bragging rights — it says the word is spreading nationwide that San Antonio is on the upswing after a tight economic past few years. Most of all, it means that more people are going to be flocking here to relocate, work, become local consumers and invest as area homebuyers and property owners.

But no one knows this better than our own local real estate professionals, for they are seeing day to day the impact this is making on those buying and selling homes in the area. And as we spoke to Realtors, the message was clear: We should all remain cautiously optimistic, reliably realistic and extremely excited about the future of housing here. From moderately priced homes, to starter houses for first-time buyers, to high-end properties in gated communities outside the loop, to older homes and even high-rise condos in downtown areas and Alamo Heights, all are seeing movement and improvement in the market. We spoke with four San Antonio Realtors who specialize in each of these areas to learn more about today’s changing and growing real estate market, along with the challenges home sellers and buyers need to consider as they navigate the long and winding road back to the right track as we consider the state of San Antonio real estate. We asked about everything from an overall look at the state of the market in this tight economy, to a discussion of the upper-end home market, to the new home market and, finally, what the buyers are looking for in local homes today.

Jennifer Browning Shemwell
President, Phyllis Browning Company

Jennifer Browning Shemwell, president of the Phyllis Browning Company, is daughter of company founder Phyllis Browning, who began this thriving family business in 1989 and is now celebrating the company’s 21st anniversary. The largest independently owned real estate brokerage in town, the company has four offices with over 160 agents and a premier farm and ranch division. They also work closely with Christie’s Great Estates and Leading Real Estate Companies of the world, which aid them in attracting affluent buyers for higher-end real estate listings. But it wasn’t nepotism or luck that landed Shemwell at the helm of the business. An Ivy League education and years of hard work starting on the ground level plus a long association with San Antonio made Shemwell the perfect choice for company president.

Born and raised in Alamo Heights, Shemwell studied at Yale University and ended up working in Seville, Spain, for a short time. “After returning from Spain, San Antonio was still one of the nicest cities I had ever known, and I decided to make it my home,” says Shemwell. “My mother’s real estate company was four years old and growing, so I gave real estate a try and worked closely with her,” says Shemwell. Now, 17 years later, she says she can’t imagine doing anything else.

Shemwell is not only the president, she’s also one of the company’s top agents. But she is quick to add that the most important job she has is being a busy wife and mother. Married to Bob Shemwell, an architect and partner in Overland Partners, she has three children, ages 10, 8, and 7. When asked about the current state of the real estate market in this still quite tight economy, Shemwell says she definitely sees an upturn in real estate and the local economy: “The market is picking up. The real estate market is better than it was last year, and it is getting better every day. I truly think I’m having the best year in this business that I’ve had in years! People are putting their money in real estate rather than into the stock market. They also have confidence in the market here. It is still a great time to buy right now with interest rates being very low.

“If a home is priced correctly, it should sell in less than six months if it goes on the market in the early spring. If it does not come on the market until fall, it sometimes can take up to eight or nine months to sell because things tend to slow down a little during the holidays.” When asked what homebuyers are looking for, Shemwell says, “Every buyer has his own unique set of needs. The requests that I hear most often are for a swimming pool and a nice backyard for entertaining. People also want big kitchens that open onto a family gathering space, a comfortable master bedroom with plenty of closet space and spacious bedrooms. Granite countertops and stainless steel appliances are still popular. Separate closets in the master bedroom, instead of a joint larger one, seem to be gaining popularity, too. Media rooms are considered very popular in the luxury market, and so are wine cellars and ‘man caves.’ Guest houses seem to be more important because parents are starting to live with their children again.”

Shemwell considers herself an expert in the high-end market, but is quick to add that she doesn’t limit herself to just high-price-point properties. “I really love relationships and helping people, and that has always been more important to me than any price range. I am proud of my knowledge of so many beautiful and diverse neighborhoods in San Antonio. Our company specializes in really personal service. We are experts in selling houses and knowing how to market them and have a tremendous ability to reach potential buyers through the Internet,” she says.

The best part of being a Realtor? “So often I become best friends with my clients. When I help people reach their dreams and goals, help them make good investment decisions, it is a wonderful feeling,” says Shemwell.

Debra Janes
Kuper Sotheby’s International Realty

Debra Janes, who has been the No. 1 agent for Kuper Sotheby’s International Realty for the past two years, has also held a spot as one of San Antonio’s Top 10 Realtors for the past several years, according to the San Antonio Business Journal’s list of “Top 50 Realtors.” Of course, this year she’s still in the Top 10. So we spoke with her to learn what is happening in the high-end edge of the real estate market in our area and beyond Loop 1604 in exclusive areas such as The Dominion, Anaqua Springs and Boerne’s Cordillera Ranch. But Janes doesn’t see herself as simply a “high-end” property proponent, for even though most of the listing inventory she’s handling right now is in The Dominion, she also lists and showcases homes in all price ranges throughout San Antonio and the Hill Country. She is committed to her work in real estate, which she began back in 1993. Married to Joey Gleitman, a golf professional at the Clubs of Cordillera Ranch in Boerne, Janes was born and raised in San Antonio and loves living now in the serene Hill Country area. Janes first began practicing general real estate in Boerne when the area was first discovered as a popular place to raise a family close to San Antonio, and she says that experience was helpful in allowing her to “learn to work smart and give personal client service.” Today, she is pleased to be working in franchise with the internationally acclaimed Sotheby’s, known for everything from its elite famous auction house to exceptional estate properties.

The well-respected Kuper family bought the San Antonio Sotheby’s franchise in 2005 and now has three locations, including one at The Dominion (where Janes is located), one on Boerne’s beguiling Main Street and their main office in Alamo Heights. Known as a family-owned business with a high level of integrity in the boutique real estate service-oriented market, Kuper Sotheby’s is a good fit for Janes, who is knowledgeable about what today’s buyers are seeking and how they find what they want.

“The biggest change I’ve seen in the past few years is the influence of the Internet: Buyers look online before they go see properties,” explains Janes.

As for the upswing in the market, in the higher-end homes she says things are moving, but not quite as briskly as before; still, she is confident that the market is stabilizing. “The overall consumer fear has subsided from two years ago when the downturn first began. We’ve continued to have a lot of positive influx, as well, from affluent citizens of Mexico coming to this community, many of whom are more conscious than ever about security. This makes gated communities such excellent choices for security-minded home buyers and wealthy clients,” says Janes, who has a full time translator.

What do today’s buyers look for in high-price-point properties?

“People in the very high-end luxury market want big views and privacy, high-end construction with a very high-end/high-quality finish-out and kitchens that are large and integrated to the family area. Cooking has become such a passion now that many times all members of the family get involved and enjoy it together. Of course, entertaining areas that are inviting, both inside and outdoors, are highly popular, as well,” she says. She goes on to say, “Privacy is important to the affluent and to high-profile members of our community, and that, plus lovely recreational areas outside and spectacular views are what the very highest-end buyers are seeking.” Janes adds that convenience and ease into the city are equally important, and even though so many of the luxury homes are located to the north and west of town, she sees the city center as moving that direction as well. Another thing Janes sees as a trend in the high-end market is a leaning toward homes with cleaner, more sleek-lined and slightly more contemporary features in both the décor and architectural style, and this includes homes “where home systems are fully automated by the mere touch of a button. Also, smart floor plans with minimal wasted space, large master retreats — whole master wings are all the rage, too, with ultra-luxe master bedrooms and spa-like master baths,” says Janes.

“There are some great choices right now for high-end buyers — people are pricing more competitively, based on the past two years. So, buyers, don’t miss this window of opportunity to buy when you can because the buyer/seller market is going to continue to rebalance,” Janes advises.

Corie Fuhrmann Boldt
Sales Manager, Rubiola Mortgage & Realty

“Location, location, location!” is the age-old adage about the top three rules of real estate, and Corie Fuhrmann Boldt of Rubiola Mortgage & Realty couldn’t be happier with the location she’s in. A San Antonio resident born and raised in Alamo Heights and a University of Texas at Austin graduate in business and marketing, Boldt adores this community and bringing together home sellers and buyers in her hometown. “Location is still everything — and today three equally important variables in real estate are location, condition and price. In spite of the upswing in the market, buyers are still in charge. Right now the buyer can still — most of the time — have it all because there is an ample amount of inventory available in our area. In past markets, sometimes one of the three variables was compromised,” explains Boldt, who began her career in 2002 working under Phyllis Browning and mentored by Browning’s then-manager, Dave Phillips.
“They trained me very well; I was licensed in 2002, and I started working very hard. I love the ever-changing aspect of real estate. Each transaction is different, but I learn from every one,” she says. In 2008 J.C. and Greg Rubiola of Rubiola Mortgage & Realty hired Boldt as the sales manager who would mentor, manage and support their team of real estate agents. “I’m also still able to sell real estate, which I love and which keeps my head in the game,” says Boldt.
“Since Rubiola hired me, we have grown from about 12 agents to approximately 65 agents and broker affiliates. I am truly thankful to J.C. and Greg Rubiola for having the faith in me to help them with their business. Our approach is boutique-style — personal, friendly, helpful and relaxed. Our mission is to make every transaction as easy and pleasurable as possible,” she says.

When asked what people are looking for in this buyer’s market, Boldt says, “Most buyers think of location first, but I would say, of course, price is driving their decision on location and condition. Buyers are very educated, and a good buyer’s agent is continually informing her buyers about the market — things like sales per square foot, high, low, average — in the areas where their clients are looking. Buyers today are much more educated and informed: We have found that approximately 90 percent of home buyers see their homes online before they preview them with an agent. Real estate is the most searched topic on the Web.
“In this market, unless the buyer is set on just a very specific location, they should be buying smartly. Buyers that want a very specific location and may only have a certain amount to spend may have to opt to buy a house in a condition that may need some updating or remodeling,” she adds. “Another area that the buyer seems to be getting more from is in the repairs of a property. The ‘option period’ in the contract allows for inspections and then a time to negotiate any repairs the buyers feel they may want the seller to address for them. The buyers seem to be asking for repairs and getting repairs done by the sellers, or at least receiving monies in lieu of repairs. Sellers are at the mercy of the buyers because the buyer has the ‘option’ to terminate the contract. This puts the seller in a tough situation because he or she could lose a good mortgage-approved buyer if he doesn’t come to terms with the repairs. I also try to help my buyers make good decisions, and I make sure that they buy right compared to the sales in the last three to six months. If not, we will have a problem when it becomes time to do the mortgage appraisal. The appraisals are tougher than ever. The mortgage companies do not want to be left with a property that is not worth the mortgage on the property,” Boldt explains.

So what do today’s buyers want? “They want it all … a great location, a good price and move-in condition. They love nice updated bathrooms, an updated kitchen, open family areas and a property that is clean and fresh. Another plus is outside living space — covered porches, outside kitchens or grilling areas and even televisions, fireplaces … the works. Of course, they want lots of storage, closets, pantries, inside laundry/mud rooms and garages, too,” she says. Boldt is sincere in her love for her work: “It is a very special gift when someone hires me to find them their home. It is an honor. I am thankful for the opportunity. The greatest satisfaction is that they are happy and can live in peace in the home that I was part of finding with them,” she says. She values a happy home life as a most important part of living. Though Boldt was named by Platinum Top 50 Realtors as manager of the year for San Antonio in 2009, she’s also fully engaged with her own family, including two beautiful teenagers — Hunter, 17, and Samantha, 13. She is also involved in a philanthropic passion for her work with the Cancer Center Council. Says Boldt, “Helping others in need is very rewarding. It also shows our children what is happening in the real world and makes them feel thankful for their lives.”

Rebecca Whitehurst
Marketing Coordinator, Sitterle Homes

A Louisiana lady from Shreveport by birth and a Texan by choice, Rebecca Whitehurst of Sitterle Homes graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts. Recently having relocated to San Antonio, Whitehurst explains, “Although my dad is originally from San Antonio, this city has been a home-away-from-home to me for my entire life. And while I am new to real estate, I enjoy managing marketing for Sitterle Homes.” She is engaged to be married in January and enjoys hiking, running and taking her chocolate Labrador retriever to San Antonio’s lush local parks.

Sitterle Homes, which was founded back in 1964 by Frank Sitterle, has been family-owned and operated for 46 years and has recently expanded into Austin and the Rio Grande Valley. Its product line consists of garden homes, traditional homes and custom homes. The firm is active in the San Antonio community, having sponsored and constructed the North East Youth Soccer Organization’s entrance to its soccer complex on Bulverde Road. Sitterle Homes also frequently sponsors local community charities. Because Sitterle homes built in our area generally range from the $190’s to one million dollars, it is mainly a new-home construction company that specializes in garden and traditional homes and thus caters to different types and age ranges of homebuyers, explains Whitehurst.

“In today’s market, customers are looking for quality. Sitterle defines quality by providing continuous and consistent customer service, building homes to be more energy-efficient and using top-of-the-line materials. Our eight communities in San Antonio offer variety and appeal to the different wants and tastes that residents may desire in a new home,” she says. “To prepare a home that is going onto the market, we hire a professional photographer to take photos of our model homes and specific features of the community that we wish to highlight. Flyers, e-blasts and newspaper ads are created to help generate public awareness about the exciting new inventory homes we have available,” says Whitehurst; this is something that all the Realtors with whom we spoke now do as well.

Another important element that homebuyers remain interested in is the “green” quality of new homes. “Homebuyers today are more environmentally aware and are looking for more energy efficiency. That’s why we use only Energy Star appliances in Sitterle houses, and all our homes are Energy Star-certified. In Campanas at Cibolo Canyons, we build according to San Antonio Green specifications. In Austin, we use a recycling program that re-uses 75 percent of our construction debris. Being good stewards of our environment has always been very important to Sitterle Homes,” says Whitehurst.

“The hardest part about being a new-home builder is keeping the edge. To stay ahead of competition, we constantly work to listen to the demands of the market and strive to meet their wants. Over time, new products have evolved to meet the growing needs of the San Antonio market. For example, we have expanded into communities in the Helotes and Boerne areas to accommodate San Antonio residents who look to have a home removed from the hustle and bustle of downtown urban areas and city life,” says Whitehurst. “I would have to say that Sitterle Homes’ best-kept secret would be the power of our brand in San Antonio. We hope that locals associate the brand with elegance, quality and affordability. This powerful reputation also translates as newcomers to the San Antonio area search for a homebuilder. We are so confident in the quality of our homes that we put our name on the front porch of every home we build. The greatest achievement as a team is to see our combined efforts succeed. We enjoy providing optimal customer service and strive to meet all expectations head-on. For example, Sitterle Homes has won numerous awards at the Greater San Antonio Builder’s Association’s Summit Awards gala, ranging from best product design to salesperson of the year,” says Whitehurst.

So there we have it from some of the best in the business. Things are looking up for both buyers and sellers in local real estate. In these tight times, it’s good to know the future looks bright, and it’s wise to look at our options as the buyer’s market begins to level off and the seller’s options start looking up.

Where would San Antonio be without such dedicated women in business? On the country’s top lists of recovering cities and best places to live? Well, maybe, but after speaking with these knowledgeable leaders, we’re confident that the work they do helps San Antonio grow and thrive as we attract newcomers who will come to love our city as much as we do.