When first meeting John Lawrence, the 2012 Realtor of the Year, it's easy to see how and why the broker/owner of Oak Park-based Weichert Realtors – Nickel Group was selected by the Oak Park Area Association of Realtors (OPAAR) to receive this top industry honor.
With a warm handshake, sincere smile and earnest gaze, Lawrence epitomizes a home-grown businessman and committed community guy who enjoys giving back to Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park.
Peers say the 41-year-old family man is a successful real estate pro because of his commitment to excellence in business as well as the common good where he lives and works. These attributes he attributes to the role-modeling he received from his compassionate and civic-minded parents, Dr. Gene and Evelyn Lawrence of River Forest.
The fourth in a line of six kids, Lawrence attended St. Luke Catholic School in River Forest, and is a 1989 graduate of Oak Park and River Forest High School. He went on to earn an undergraduate degree from the University of Illinois Champaign and a teaching certificate from Concordia University in River Forest. He currently resides with his wife Pam, an early childhood special education teacher, and their 9-month-old daughter in River Forest.
Nine years ago, he shifted careers from being a special education teacher himself in River Forest School District 90 to real estate, first working for other offices, then opening his own.
An active member of the Oak Park-River Forest Chamber of Commerce, in 2012 he became its president. Lawrence also serves as treasurer on the board of OPAAR, and sits on the board of directors for Opportunity Knocks, a community organization that serves teens and young adults with developmental disabilities.
"Being Realtor of the Year is not necessarily because the recipients did the most amount of business or the most transactions," says Gerri Keating, CEO of OPAAR. "The Realtor of the Year is the person everybody else can look up to, somebody who is an all-around good person, professionally and personally. John will be given another plaque in Springfield on April 17, and honored, so it is a big deal."
WJ recently sat down for a conversation with Lawrence in his offices at 101 N. Oak Park Ave.
How did your new real estate office survive the recent recession?
Well, we opened up on Dec. 1, 2006, not knowing we were about to go into a real depressed period. It did get a bit hairy. I lost one partner and then another a couple of years later.
We started out lean, and we stayed lean … and the money was well managed, so we weren't feeling that real pinch. Throughout everything, we also kept a very positive message and dialogue going in the office. As a result, every single year we have out-performed the market by a large margin. At the very end of 2008 we affiliated with Weichert Real Estate, and that played a role in our increase in business. For example in 2009, when everybody was losing it in real estate, we had a 40 percent increase in business and were able to attract good, quality, producing agents.
What is your business philosophy?
People want to work with good people they feel are going to treat them right. So it is important to me to make this a place where agents want to do business, and for the community to see that we give back to it. For example, we are a strong supporter of Opportunity Knocks, so our agents are given the opportunity to make a donation after every closing, and the office matches it. We also do food drives … [for the Forest Park and Oak Park food pantries] and we will continue to do that.
How's business so far this year?
[In the third week of March], the inventory across the board in Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park, is down 33 percent over the same period last year.
And our contracts are up 47 percent. Well, we did have a little bit of excess inventory a year ago, but now our inventory is so low that it is a different world, and we are running into a different challenge. Before, [a buyer] could take [his or her] time; you could be picky. With everything now when you see something in a house that you want, you better get on it or it will be gone. So if homeowners would get out there and sell their house at a realistic price, it will sell pretty darn fast.
What about house values?
They are coming up. I don't have any specific data to show any recent price increase over a sustained period yet because all the frenzy, the buying, started in late January and early February. A lot of those deals haven't closed, or are getting ready to close now, so we are going to start seeing that price increase in March, April and May.
I think we will see a 5 percent increase in value, but it could be higher because of the way this all has taken off. But the condominiums, that is still going to require more time for those values to come up. What happens next will all depend on the appraisers who are always dealing with trailing numbers. Will they get these houses appraised at the values that are increasing when we don't have all the data to show it yet?
So is the real estate market starting to rebound?
Yes. I think that there is going to be more demand than supply. I believe there is going to be an increase in units sold. However, the lack of inventory will make that increase more modest than it could be.