Master Class In Intermediate Markets: Meet Real Estate Broker Cindi Bulla

As the state of Texas continues to grow, intermediate markets are changing and the owner of Realty Central Services in Amarillo says realtors are a vital resource during important community conversations about sprawl and housing.

According to an analysis of recent data released by the U.S. Census Bureau, Texas had a net domestic migration gain of 230,961 people in 2022, ranking second in the nation behind Florida at 318,855.

Cindi Bulla is a regional vice president for the National Association of Realtors and a past chair of the Texas Association of Realtors. She has more than 20 years of experience in the industry, as well as prior careers in mortgage origination, banking, and construction.

Bulla recently sat down with Editor Kimberley Haas of The Mortgage Note to talk about what she is seeing in her area, how zoning conversations are pulling people together to solve problems, and to offer her advice for buyers and sellers dealing with the current housing market.

Haas: You’ve seen your fair share of growth.

Bulla: Yes.

Haas: And have things been slowing down a little bit or do you think that Texas is a market that’s going to continue to grow into 2023 and forward?

Bulla: I do think Texas will maintain a level of strength that might outpace some of the other markets.

Texas has already demonstrated that it is kind of the recipient of some of the intrastate relocations. We’ve seen a level of growth that has outpaced some of the others. And I think that will continue for a lot of reasons.

Part of which is just space, and our level of unemployment is lower than some. I think we have decent employment numbers throughout the country, but Texas in general kind of outpaces some of the others. So that’s attracting a lot of people to Amarillo and the state.

Intermediate markets like Amarillo are seeing a really nice surge since Covid. Coming out of Covid, a lot of people are able to work from home. And so when they can, some of them are beginning to opt for less urban areas.

Some of these intermediate markets are really being embraced by some of our young people who are moving, some of them back home, and others choosing those intermediate markets, because they can. They have all those things that they were otherwise missing, plus a little less traffic and a little bit lower cost of living.

Haas: Now, when you say that it is that kind of just the coming of age of those people, you know what I mean?

Like that they would be looking to relocate from an urban area, because maybe now that they have a couple of children, they’d like to have a place with a yard.

I mean, it seems like a pretty natural transition for people in their thirties to move from a more urban population to a more suburban population if possible. And I mean, of course, as you mentioned, COVID has definitely allowed more people to search out those options.

But do you think some of it is just a natural thing based on your experience in the industry?

Bulla: I do think that there are tradeoffs and I know some of our intermediate markets in years past have lost ground population-wise because some of our youngest potential residents were choosing those urban areas because our intermediate markets, especially in Texas, we’re falling behind on the cultural arts and maybe some of the educational offerings, and some of the really high-tech jobs.

Our market tended to be a more traditional market with jobs and opportunities that you’ve seen in a lot of intermediate markets.

A decade or so ago, we began to recognize that we were losing our next generation for the absence of some of these things.

So, some of these markets have really made a commitment to improving quality of life issues and providing support through nonprofit and community awareness. We’re supporting some of those things that were causing us to lose our youngest generation. And as a result, we’ve seen a resurgence of high-tech jobs.

We’ve seen more of our youth staying in the area after they graduate from college. And we’ve seen others move just randomly to Amarillo, Texas.

I have actually entertained quite a few clients over the last three or four years that just literally chose us off a map.

Haas: Why?

Bulla: Why else? Because of the central location, because of the international airport, because of some of the things we had to offer. And because they didn’t want to go to a small town, but they didn’t necessarily want to be in a Dallas or Austin or Houston.

So, yeah, there are people actually making those choices. Some of those have been folks who are relocating from California and have jobs that they can work from home. They only have to go into the office maybe once a week or so. And with air travel being what it has been, it’s a pretty easy and quick commute to get to wherever the office is.

Haas: I just moved from New Hampshire. I don’t know if you’re aware, but New Hampshire’s motto is “Live Free or Die.” We have no sales tax, we have no income tax. And that’s attractive to some people.

Do you think that some of the people that maybe moved from more liberal states are seeking some of that freedom? I know I talked to a realtor in Florida who said, especially during the pandemic, buyers just wanted to get away from all the restrictions and be able to go out to restaurants again.

Bulla: Yes. I do think that’s been part of the attraction. Although I will say that the attraction to Texas seemed good. Like it was going pretty strong before Covid and before some of the restrictions for the reasons you cited.

We do have a franchise tax here in Texas, but it’s limited. And for businesses, it’s been a pretty attractive location for large businesses.

Our urban areas have always been the main attraction because of the pool of potential job seekers, they’re skilled people who could fill those jobs centered there.

But the reason I think we’re seeing some resurgence in these intermediate markets is now those recent graduates, that skilled labor force, is finding these intermediate markets more attractive for a lot of reasons.

The ability, like you said, to own a yard.

Density is such an issue in the urban areas. And it will begin to be an issue for us in the intermediate areas. We’re having those zoning conversations throughout all of the areas right now about what does a single-family home look like and can we embrace a condo-type living or a much smaller footprint?

And I think, I think we’re ready to begin to do that, especially with prices being what they are and the need to really hone in and focus on housing that is affordable to our primary workforce.

Haas: And it’s not just the primary workforce. I mean, when I think about especially condos or smaller homes, there’s always people on the other side of the market that are downsizing.

But, like you said, you’re having these zoning conversations. What has the overall sentiment been in your particular market?

Bulla: We have recently had a very broad zoning conversation and a complete rewrite of our local zoning that made it almost to the finish line. We ended up putting it on hold to revisit our city’s comprehensive plan before we pulled the trigger to make sure that our new zoning would be consistent with what the comprehensive plan was.

I was disappointed that we put that off because I thought we had it almost to the finish line.

I will tell you that even in what is traditionally a very red-leaning political area that values elbow room and space – I mean, we’re Texas and we have horizons as far as the eye can see with nothing to disrupt us so the appearance here is that land is abundant and there’s no need to scrunch up together – we have those really hard conversations where we talk about the cost of sprawl and if our city spreads out, what is that cost us all in the form of property taxes?

And then if we don’t spread out and people become more rural, what services do they lose? I think we had very healthy conversations about the value of those services. The efficiencies of having city services for water and sewer and trash pickup and those things that cities usually traditionally provide.

So, I think we’re in the process of a very healthy density conversation that will find a healthy middle that would permit accessory dwelling units and recognize mixed-use spaces.

The traditional zoning has all the commercial parked over here at one place and all the industrial at another place and office in another place, single-family detached here, and townhouse is there.

It’s about how the conversation originates, and perception is much as what actually happens. Because if you go in and say, “We’re the government and we want you all to live on top of each other in a condo because we don’t have space,” it doesn’t go over as well as if you say, “Okay, community, let’s have a conversation about the costs and benefits of sprawl versus allowing a little bit more density.”

And I’m really proud of Amarillo in that. I think it’s approaching it that way. And I think we’ll be very successful.

Haas: I talked to a woman that does a lot of development work in West Palm Beach in Florida, and she was talking a lot about the same concept. People don’t want necessarily to remove green space from their area. Her big push has been to relook at like some of these strip malls and other businesses that aren’t as successful and consider maybe rebuilding on that property to put up an eight-floor apartment building that’s within a walkable location to some of these major companies that are coming into the area. So I’m excited to hear that the conversation is happening nationally.

Bulla: It is. And the National Association of Realtors has been a very positive force in that conversation. Not necessarily pushing one side of the conversation over the other but pushing great facts and talking points that help equip those of us who are realtors out engaging in those conversations in our individual communities.

They’ve done a great job of equipping us with the tools we need to have healthy conversations that hopefully will result in the citizenry saying, “This is what we want.”

We really have done a great job, and I’m super proud of NAR for this, of cultivating conversation that is resulting in movement in I think, the right direction all over the United States.

We know we’ve got some good messaging and some good guidance to lead those conversations. And that’s what realtors do. I mean, we help people buy and sell their homes. But one of the things that the organization itself really is laser-focused on is markets, healthy markets, because we’re all competitors.

So, we’re going to be competing against each other, but everybody wins if we work together to make sure that the markets are healthy and the consumers are winning, and we cultivate trust in the profession and get our realtor members involved in those local government conversations too.

Haas: Of course. So, Cindi, what advice do you have for buyers and sellers in your market right now? I know a lot of people are thinking, 2023, 2024, what’s that going to look like?

Bulla: Pricing is the most complicated part of the current market. It is extremely important to have a professional involved and to make sure that you interview enough professionals to feel confident that the professional, and when I say professional, I do mean realtor, of course, that the person that you hire is, extraordinarily well informed about the local market.

We’ve said this for decades. All real estate is local, and that has never changed.

Because the market is moving so quickly right now everywhere it is almost impossible if you’re not right there to understand it, grasp it, and be able to track it.

We do a competitive market analysis, and generally we’ll use properties sales information and sales data. That’s as much as six months old. But the market has moved so much even in the last 60 days in some places that a six-month-old comparable could cause you to make a mistake, a big mistake.

So what you want is to have those conversations with your professional that has access to the trending data and ask about hyper-local and hyper-time sensitive changes in the market, nuances in that market. That’ll help you make good buying and selling decisions.

You want to make sure your professional can guide you to the professionals you need to talk to about financing options that might fit your per personal circumstances.

There are some loans that were made a year or so ago that are consumable by the buyer. So if you’ve got a 2% loan on your home right now, or a 3% loan on your home right now, and it is one of those consumable loans you have a very valuable asset that you want to price into your ask if you’re a seller.

Sometimes you need your realtor to give you a list of questions to ask because you don’t know what you don’t know.

Haas: Absolutely. It’s a huge life decision and it’s an investment that you’re going to have to live in.

Bulla: It’s a great wealth builder and it’s a great life builder. It’s a great community builder.

We want to have a nation full of owners, not renters. Not that there’s anything wrong with renting, but the dream is to own. And we want to make sure that we as the realtor organization do everything we can to make sure that that happens.

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