Michele Marano remembered the client well. He was moving to Houston from New Jersey, and wanted to find a three-bedroom home, on at least an acre of property, in the Galleria area.
“I said, ‘Who told you that you could get that in Houston?’” she whispered one afternoon at the West Alabama Ice House, widening her eyes at the memory. “‘This is not Detroit.’”
Welcome to the world of energy industry–driven real estate. It’s crazy, fast-moving, occasionally nerve-jangling—at least these days—and presided over by Marano, who spends most of her days 1) helping clients buy and sell houses and 2) familiarizing them with their new hometown.
“People are coming here not really understanding our market,” the director and founder of Real Estate for the Energy Professional, Champions Real Estate Group, went on in her conspiratorial tone. “It’s not cheap here. Yes, we’re 2 percent below the national average. But we’re not as inexpensive as some people come here thinking. I am their reality check.”
At first glance, it may seem as if reality bites, but Marano truly admires her clients, who, misperceptions about Houston notwithstanding, are savvy, she said, and like her because she speaks their language. “I don’t even meet people from Texas anymore,” she laughed, referring to the 90 percent of her clients who are connected to energy in some way, from executives to traders to engineers to landmen, for companies like Conoco, Technip, Fluor Daniel, Exxon, Chevron, Repsol, and Koch. Many who have traveled from far and wide—Europe! The Middle East!—come in search of the Galleria area. Marano is glad to facilitate deals in this location, of course, although these days The Woodlands and neighborhoods along the Energy Corridor are equally in favor.
In her pre–real estate days, Marano worked for 15 years as an energy commodities broker, mostly in New York state. But she did do two tours of duty in Houston in the ’90s, during which time she always wished there was someone to call to help someone like her. “It led me to thinking, okay there is a need here,” she said. Still, once she permanently relocated to Houston in ’98, it would be more than a decade before she acted on the idea of targeting such a specialized clientele.
What makes a great realtor-to-the-energy-professional? A knowledge of other markets besides real estate. “There are correlations between real estate and the price of oil,” said Marano, who is continually surprised at how many real estate agencies don’t keep up with the price of crude. Knowing how much a barrel commands can be an icebreaker of sorts with the right client, after all. Moreover, she said, sipping her Diet Coke, it helps her predict the future—her own, that is, but also the real estate market’s, and, well, the city’s.
“There could very well be an oil bust,” Marano said, noting how much oil prices had declined since June of last year. “The [real estate] market has shifted already. Things are softening. It’s more of a buyers’ market. It was a sellers’ market, up until about June. What happens with oil prices—we’re in a record low right now—real estate is the aftereffect. You don’t see it right away. I know things are going to start adjusting.”
For now, however, on this mild day in December, Marano didn’t seem alarmed. All the talk was of shifting and adjusting and softening, nothing more. She thought back to ’08 and ’09, and a pair of foreclosures on the market in Tanglewood. “They were snatched up immediately,” she said. “In Houston, there’s always somebody somewhere who can afford it.” She thought too of all the potential buyers out there who’ve been sitting out an overheated market. They may well jump in now that things have calmed down.
And if all else fails, “there’s always somebody coming, somebody leaving, somebody temporarily leaving and coming back.” She mentioned a guy she worked with, who six months later left for Qatar. As long as there are still people like that, there will be a need for her services.
“I’m not worried,” she said. “I never worry.”