Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

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I first encountered Keri Shull when I received one of her letters announcing, “A local builder in Arlington wants to buy your home.”Then I began noticing her smiling face on for-sale signs in front yards and huge ads on buses.

Last month I visited Shull in her upper Rosslyn office, where I learned that she is self-confident and thoughtful. And that in running her grand-scale real estate business, she can answer critics who worry that the tear-down trend is depleting Arlington’s middle-class housing stock.

“The biggest frustration for buyers is they can’t find what they’re looking for,” Shull told me after talking firmly with a subordinate over the phone.

The Keri Shull team, she said, has sold $1 billion in homes over six years, topping $210 million in recent years and ranking No. 1 in Northern Virginia in 2015. Her staff of 32 execute 350 transactions annually.

Shull moved 13 times while growing up (her father was a warehouse distribution specialist). That taught her that when relocating for more space, “you need not just the multiple listing service, but door-knocking.” Her team researches property histories, “or else you miss a critical piece of the puzzle,” she said. Their specialty: “off-market homes.”

Shull founded the business when working in sales for a home construction company. “I had seen the mistakes, and I thought I never wanted to be an agent,” she says. But an investor emerged, and she took the risk of leaving a secure job during the Great Recession.

“When I started, I didn’t want [the company] to be my name,” she says, “because when something goes wrong, people call wanting to talk to that name.” But after considering geographic names, her assistant persuaded her to go with Keri Shull. When she goes to a Capitals hockey game, fans recognize her, and a woman she played softball with eight years earlier told her, “I saw you on the back of a bus.”

Shull deploys “a lot of creativity” along with liquid cash in serving buyers and sellers. “I put my money on the line a lot,” she says, citing adjustable commissions. Her guaranteed sale program (“buy this house and we’ll buy yours”) gives her “skin in the game” for a specified time frame. (She even moved into one home that wouldn’t sell). “That wouldn’t work if I didn’t have a name people trust,” she says.

Sellers love it when she says she could fetch another $100,000 if they’ll let her take six weeks first to fix up the house. But Shull also hopes the county will loosen zoning for condos and infill.

She rejects the notion that tear-downs replaced by luxury homes are pricing out the young and middle class. “Baby boomers wanted a picket fence and yard,” says Shull, a millennial. Younger people want the closet space and modern space requirements, but they “don’t want the hassle and headache of a single family home. They’re passionate about hobbies even after they have children, and aren’t interested in doing the work” for marble countertops and perfect white cabinets.

Nor do all sellers want their detached homes torn down. “They have memories,” she says, and many prefer to sell “as is” for a lower price because they get attached to a particular buyer. Her advice to buyers: “Write the sellers love letters.”

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Retired art and special ed teacher Marjorie Tapley-Olson just released her first novel, Kindred Journeys.

It grew out of her ongoing blogging project in which she sets out to visit—and capture in prose—the 34 towns named Arlington in 34 states.

“Though many Arlingtons across the country were named for the Lee Mansion, Arlington House,” she wrote last week, “just as many were named for Arlington Cemetery itself.”