Portland's Friendly Real Estate Renegade

How Jenelle Isaacson and Living Room Realty are putting people first.

By Caitlin Feldman April 2, 2014 Published in the April 2014 issue of Portland Monthly

Jenelle Isaacson started Living Room Realty in 2008—not a great time to jump into home sales. But after six years with one of Portland’s biggest firms, she was ready to make her own move—even though the market had crashed and she was pregnant with her second child.

 “It was so difficult,” the 37-year-old recalls. “Banks were laughing at me: ‘What? Do you read the news?’”

She persevered, driven by a vision for a real estate firm that would be, well, different. She wanted to learn about her clients: where they came from, what kind of community they longed for. “There was this rift between my values and where I saw my industry,” she says. “I really wanted to tell a different story.”

As one of her first moves, she established a blog that focused not just on properties, but on buyers’ lifestyles and aspirations. “We should talk about the people we serve,” she says. “The house is just the aftermath. We need to understand the life someone wants to live first, then go out and find the container for it.”

In five years, Living Room has sold about 1,600 “containers,” collectively worth more than half a billion dollars. After starting with two agents (counting Isaacson), her firm now employs 41.

Meanwhile, the company stays true to its founder’s offbeat motivations. Last year, Living Room became the first realty company on the West Coast certified as a B Corporation—an increasingly respected standard gauging a company’s environmental, social, and corporate practices. (Isaacson compares B-Corp status to a fair-trade designation for coffee.) At its NE Alberta Street offices, Living Room offers expert-led workshops on everything from beekeeping to relationships, and may be the only Portland real estate outfit that helps renters find places to live. The clean-lined, modern space even regularly hosts art shows. 

Isaacson was a University of Oregon fine-arts major before moving to Portland with an all-female punk band. She was an excellent salesperson—but also kind of wanted to be a midwife. She bought her own first home at 25, with a $14-per-hour job and $7,000 in the bank, and wanted her free-spirited artist and musician friends to know they could do the same. Real estate was suddenly on her radar.

“Owning a house or an object is one thing,” Isaacson says. “But the life you want to create and the lifestyle that you came to Portland to seek is a lot more compelling to me than the four walls.”

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