Tom Wilkins has seen — and been in the middle of — it all

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Published: Sunday, February 10, 2013


By Wayne Witkowski
Pocono Record Business Editor
February 10, 2013

Tom Wilkins, in his 25 years running a real estate office, remembers the first house he bought — a country cottage in Swiftwater — and the first house he sold in the West End to a New Yorker moving to the area.

“We got it on paper on a Monday and closed the following Friday, a three-page contract,” he said of the sale. “Nowadays, contracts typically are 22 pages. Liability is the biggest thing.”

From there, the market went from prospective buyers who had vacationed here ” and then it changed to ‘my cousin who lives here’ and that’s when it became a true bedroom community. They came here for affordability.”

The primary boom was for six years in the early 2000s, “a helluva run. You couldn’t get the buyers fast enough.”

Champagne days

After breaking out on his own from the early years of four years working in Phyllis Rubin’s Coldwell Banker offices, Wilkins in June of 1988 staffed three people in his first office on Fork Street in Mount Pocono and since then has been through the champagne days of the booming homebuilding market where he said 270 homes would be under contract at a time compared to a low of 45 homes bouncing back up to the 90s in today’s market.

The Wilkins organization, with Wilkins as president and CEO and includes Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate Wilkins & Associates, NEPA Management Associates that began 20 years ago, Wilkins & Associates—Property Management, Pennsylvania First Settlement Services and Wilkins & Associates Commercial Brokers, went from 14 offices at the peak to three in Bushkill, Mount Pocono and Stroudsburg. He remembers getting a “baptism of fire” opening his first office during an economic downturn that was nothing like this one.

“There were days (this time) where I didn’t know if we’d open for a week,” Wilkins said recently at his Park Avenue office in Stroudsburg. “In the early years, we came up with different ideas to bring in business. No one was doing rentals back then and we did them. We got into property management early in my career and others didn’t. I just kept thinking out of the box. Those were the beginnings of this organization that we have today.”

While the economy slowly creeps out of the vicious economic downturn, Wilkins said the foreclosures in data from the Pocono Mountain Association of Realtors that peaked at 35 percent “are about 22 or 23 percent” but it is worsening again on the latest data. This time, it’s not the subprime loans and unemployment driving foreclosures but families falling behind because the wage-earners are underemployed and commuters with slow salary growth are crushed by rising gas prices.

Low prices will stay awhile

Foreclosures have always been around, Wilkins said, but until they’re at a manageably lower level, home prices will continue to stay to the recent low of $127,000 average per home sold, which is affected by townhouses and fixer-uppers.

“That’s a very accurate number, a definite number down from $147,000 a year ago,” Wilkins said. “Prices are lower because the Poconos has always sold affordability. We got homebuyers who are nurses, police officers, the blue collar guy and gal. We didn’t get the Hamptons crowd, the Sea Isle City crowd.

“That’s why we’re a little different in the price lines from other areas. But it’s the proximity. The closer you are to New Jersey, the more it is worth versus a house at a place like White Haven that might sell for $80,000.”

Wilkins said he hears homeowners’ frustration over low property values that prevents them from selling to move to a better home and there’s not much he can do. “I give them compassion and understanding,” he said.

Although Wilkins said the market has stabilized at rock bottom and it’s still a buyer’s market “but it’s turning a corner, the first big step.” Although some real estate sales data looks better, Wilkins said numbers are skewed.

“In the Poconos we’ve been 10 to 25 percent ahead of a year ago in closings and that’s phenomenal,” Wilkins said. “However, the pricing was off (lowered) as low as 45 percent in 2012, which also means lower commissions. We have a good third and fourth quarter here so then by the end of those months, pricing dropped down to 14 to 15 percent different from a year ago.”

Not a ‘flip’ market

And secondary homes are not the hot items they’ve been touted, said Wilkins, who said they make up only 10 to 12 percent of the homes sold by his agency, which Wilkins wants to improve in 2013.

Some people are taking homes cheap as an investment to fix up and then ride out the recession so the sale value appreciates. For now, they’re not the best investment for people who want to “flip” homes, to buy them as a residence and eventually sell them at a profit to buy a bigger home or at a better location.

With the depressed market, that’s not happening right now.

In fact, homebuying may take an even bigger hit because he said he is following discussion on Capitol Hill to remove the interest deduction on mortgages for homeowners. “That would affect any home sale,” Wilkins said.

For now, the real estate industry has gotten away from the glitz, the eye-catching visuals. “There’s not as much flash and dash, but straightforward and clean and pressed and available to them in a form that they can understand and use easily,” Wilkins said. “That’s the change in the market.”

It takes a long time — as much as six months in this region — to sell a house that even is right priced because of the competitive foreclosure bargains.

Educated homebuyers

Homebuyers who come in have been better prepared poking around the Internet. “They’re more educated then ever,” said Wilkins, who said that they can check the tax rates and what homes are for sale in that area and those comparative sales prices and other readily available information. “That really came along over the last four or five years. We’re not strictly selling homes but providing them information to make their decision.”

The real estate workforce has gotten younger as home investors are not looking for the experienced agents but the savvy ones who can navigate through the various online programs to accelerate the deal. “Seven or eight years ago my staff told me I had to learn online or get out of the way,” he said.

But nothing beats the traditional home tour, said Wilkins. Homebuyers still want to see if there is curb appeal, to see if the house “speaks” to them. They want to check out the neighborhood. That hasn’t changed over the last 25 years.

And neither has having office space. It may be smaller nowadays, in what he calls “coffee shops” as Realtors are outside more with more mobile technology but still needing a place to go to talk business and go through contracts in a setting under today’s trends.

“It’s like a little Starbucks where the agent comes in with a laptop and not in a conference room but a living room setting in a 500-square-foot office space that might be in an insurance office or a bank building,” Wilkins said. “You might have 20 agents but they’re not all there working but are working sometimes out of their house. We’re anxious to kick off this new type expansion.”

He said there also are plans to further develop the management division which offers a wide array of accounting, rental, property owner and townhome or condo management services as well as time-share, community management and conversion into Lehigh Valley’s Allentown vicinity and also into the Scranton, Wilkes-Barre area.

Currently, Wilkins is partners with Ron Parasole. general partner and owner of Parasole Property Management & Associates in Scranton, who handle primarily residential investment properties throughout the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre area.

Tom Wilkins from 1988.                 Home off Route 314 in Swiftwater.