In an industry where there’s no cap to how much you can earn, there’s bound to be a lot of competition—who wouldn’t jostle for a chance to make it big in real estate? That’s especially true in a city like Portland, with housing inventory reaching historic lows last year, driving up asking prices accordingly. (Per the Portland Metropolitan Association of Realtors, in 2021 the city’s inventory clocked in at 0.6 month at its lowest, in December, meaning it would take just over two weeks to sell what was available, with the high being 1.1 month, in September. A more balanced market would have four to six months of inventory.)
We canvassed several local agents to ask what drew them to their job and what it takes to keep up the hustle in a perpetually overheating market.
The Design Nerd: Marisa Swenson, Dwell Realty
Architectural detail has always been something Marisa Swenson noticed, even as a kid in an elementary school that happened to be in a Brutalist-style church on SE Ankeny. “Just being surrounded by floor-to-ceiling windows, concrete walls, and the vaulted wood ceilings and stained-glass, it was all very dramatic,” says Swenson.
In adulthood, Swenson parlayed that architectural interest into a career as a real estate broker beginning in 2007, specializing in local midcentury-modern homes and blogging about the experience just as Mad Men emerged as the “tipping point,” says Swenson, for mainstream attention to the style. Back then, Swenson brought her new digital SLR to open houses to photograph vintage tile and trim, educating her blog readers on local architects, and sponsoring Restore Oregon’s annual midcentury-modern house tour.
A community of readers emerged—people with similar homes and love for the style—a mutual appreciation party that’s continued onto Instagram in more recent years. It’s not uncommon for Swenson to get a call from sellers who have a secret architectural gem they want her to see. “Those homes have their own personalities. It’s like they’re treated like members of the family because they’re just so special. And you feel it when you walk in,” says Swenson.
Niches like Swenson’s are common in Portland—from farm properties and floating homes to houses with multiple garages for car collectors. “There was a lady who did airplane hangar homes,” says Swenson. “There really is no threshold for how many brokers can be in the industry.”
These days Swenson has added contemporary modern homes to her repertoire, spotlighting buzzy architecture and design firms alongside the midcentury finds, while continuing to fix up her own 1960s Northwest Regional–style home that joined the Historic Register in 2017. “Every single home has a story,” says Swenson. “And then the individuals who are selling, the individuals who are buying, it’s just layers and layers of fascinating information to me.”
The Jill of all Trades: Michelle McCabe, My PDX Props
After studying merchandising management at Oregon State University, Michelle McCabe managed and trained salespeople at Nordstrom for four years. She liked working in sales and customer service but not so much in fashion.
“Then I took a year and a half off and traveled around South America and Europe and kind of had my Oprah ‘aha’ moment,’” says McCabe. “I swore I would never get into real estate because pretty much everyone I’m related to is in it some way or another.” That includes McCabe’s mom, dad, brother, husband, sister-in-law, and aunt.
Being a longtime Portlander who has lived all over town means McCabe is familiar with the city, but her favorite part of the job is the novelty: each day’s schedule is different. The focus swings from basic business operations to tracking leads and referrals to explaining finances, lenders, and contracts to spotting leaky plumbing or a poor investment. “It’s about a hundred hats,” she says.
“We work so closely together with our clients. We know a lot of information about them that they need to share. Personal stuff, about their finances or their family planning,” says McCabe, whose office is part of Windermere. “So, I think it’s important to feel really comfortable with somebody and know that they can negotiate strongly on your behalf.”
The Artist: Nathan Reimer, Latitude
“Most people talk about being a Realtor as a sales job, which is not something that I ever wanted to do or have. The whole idea of sales is repulsive to me. I really see this more as a service job,” says Nathan Reimer, a visual artist who got his real estate license in October 2021.
When Reimer moved to Portland a decade ago, he rented large warehouses—first on NE Alberta, then in North Portland—for his screen-printing set-up, and subdivided the buildings into studios for other artists to rent. “I was printing wallpaper, T-shirts, posters, and art and running my screen-printing business there. But my creative interest really shifted from the visual to creating space specifically with community in mind,” says Reimer. “Building out that space and curating that community became the art project.”
More recently, Reimer and his wife bought four neglected properties that they’ve fixed up and rented, finding it “therapeutic” to restore them, as well as a good financial investment. Reimer has since joined Latitude, an agency focused on “regenerative real estate,” which means that the listings lead with sustainable features—think solar arrays, edible landscapes, and nontoxic finishes.
“This is really a networking and relationship building business. As a realtor, people are trusting you with one of, if not the largest, financial decisions that they’re going to make in their entire lives,” says Reimer. “So, building relationships based on trust is a hugely important part of being successful.”
The Educator: Beth Silva, More Realty
Beth Silva knew she wanted to be a real estate agent from the time she was a 12-year-old in Corvallis, but got a master’s in education to be a high school social studies teacher before making the decision permanent. When student-teaching started, “I thought, ‘No, this is terrible. These teenagers are not fun,’” says Silva, who much prefers “looking at houses and seeing how people live.” “It’s almost like sociology, archeology, and history, all rolled together,” says Silva.
Having started in the industry in 2008, Silva saw firsthand the impacts of the Great Recession, one day walking into a short sale where someone had just died of an overdose. You have to have “intelligence, fortitude, resilience, thick skin, but also a lot of passion and a lot of love,” says Silva, “because we get right up in people’s family, and business, and money, and drama, and it can get really challenging.”
“It’s a really emotional and personal industry. Seeing it only as 14 percent gains in equity year after year is not the point. That’s not why any real estate agent I know is in it. We’re in it to help our friends and family, and help everybody be in the right space for them and have a comfortable, happy life. That’s the real point.”