Cotty Lowry is a real estate agent and broker who is perhaps best known for the constantly changing — and often graffitied — billboard that’s been bearing his likeness at the busy corner of Franklin and Hennepin avenues in Minneapolis for nearly 25 years. But Lowry, who grew up in Idaho, is also known for his physical pursuits, including a college stint fighting forest fires and, more recently, circumnavigating some of the highest peaks in the world. At nearly 70, he has taken up mini-triathlons, but his next big challenge is a one-year reign as president of the Minneapolis Area Association of Realtors (MAAR). Some excerpts from an interview:
Q: There are growing concerns a reduction in the government’s purchase of mortgage-backed securities could increase mortgage rates. Are you concerned?
A: Yes I am. It’s going to make properties more expensive. We already have rising prices and inventory is at unbelievably low levels. However, this is a coin that has two sides. It’s great if you’re seller, but it’s a zero-sum game because you have to have some place to go if you sell your house. That’s the logjam.
People are afraid to put a house on the market because they don’t know where they’ll go. That’s mostly true in the lower bracket. The upper-bracket market is more balanced.
Q: Someone in your office just got 15 offers on a $200,000 house that just hit the market. Any ideas about how break this logjam?
A: Add more listing inventory. But that’s easier said than done. Affordability is a huge issue, hence very high demand at the lower price ranges, but it’s this chicken-and-egg problem. It would be nice if there were more creative financing vehicles out there so that people could buy before they sell.
Q: After nearly four decades in the business, do the dynamics of this market feel familiar?
A: The combination of a lack of inventory and low interest rates hasn’t happened simultaneously in my 36 years in the business. And no condos are being built to help ease the inventory shortage.
Q: Speaking of condos, many developers won’t touch them because they’re worried about the liability that’s associated with the state’s 10-year construction defect laws. Will you take part in any effort to change them?
A: Yes, I think we will. MAAR is adding a new government affairs person this spring.
Q: You’ve said that you want both Realtor members and the public to get a better understanding of the work MAAR does; what’s the most important message?
A: We do so many good things — a lot of agents and even the public doesn’t know. The value I think our Realtor members offer as consultant/advisers is to help our clients understand the subtleties of the market. If you want to buy Tesla [stock] today you know the value is about $250 per share. But with a property, each one is unique. Discerning the best way to get it sold and truly understanding the subtleties of the market is one of the greatest things we as Realtors can offer.
Q: How has the agent’s role changed now that so much information is at a buyer’s fingertips?
A: We were gatekeepers of the information, but that’s all gone now. Anybody can get info about a property, whether it’s on the market or not. Now we interpret what they see on the internet for our clients. I’ve always seen myself not as a sales person but as a teacher and a counselor. … I helped the buyers do the transaction, or I helped you make that decision to sell the house and to facilitate that in an efficient and most expeditious way.
Q: What else do you hope to accomplish?
A: One of my desires is to increase the work of our MAAR Foundation. For the last 15 years or so we have been giving money to local organizations that provide safe and supportive housing to those who need it most. Last year, we gave about $70,000 and I would love to push that to $100,000 in 2017.
The other one I hope we endorse is [Minnesota Rep.] Frank Hornstein’s proposal to limit cellphone use in cars. Our Multiple Listing Service board of governors created an ongoing campaign, “Drive Focused,” after one of our longtime MLS employees, Hugh Trimble, was killed last year.
Q: You started renting that infamous billboard on the side of what was then the Burch Pharmacy long before the arrival of the internet, when agents had to get more creative. What was the original impetus for that?
A: People didn’t know if I was a man or woman, so that was part of it. I wanted to personalize myself. I also saw it as an opportunity to have a partner — the idea was that if it could help market a house it could be my partner and could generate income by getting it sold for a client.
Q: You’ve rented that wall for nearly 25 years. Has it been worth it?
A: When you think about all the people and the number of cars that go through that intersection every day … it’s about 150 to 175 million impressions. It’s worked out way better than I ever thought.