Selling Durham with a Passion

Community service and award-winning consultancy create a winner

LeeEvans_James_4306In everything that it does, Urban Durham Realty strives to stand out from the competition. Managing partner, Courtney James, started the local real estate company in 2009, along with three minority partners, Jessica Sadler, Mariana Byrd, and Susan Herst.

James takes a different approach to real estate by focusing exclusively on a niche area, the Durham market. She says this perspective is in the best interest of the client and is very different from what larger, more corporate real estate firms are doing.

“It felt like there was a hole in the real estate market for a company that was less traditional, and one that was specifically focused on Durham,” says James. “There are not many places where you walk around and see people wearing t-shirts that say, ‘I love Durham.’ People here love this city. And, so, I felt like we needed a company out there that specifically sold Durham. In the past, I’ve been in situations where I’ve worked with clients that had worked with another real estate agent showing them properties throughout the Triangle, and a lot of agents have been reluctant to show clients properties in Durham. And so, I really felt like we needed to do the exact opposite of that and really embrace this.”

The typical clients of Urban Durham Realty are residential buyers and sellers buying and selling in Durham, as well as a very small percentage in Chapel Hill. The targeted market is all residential, but there is some occasional overlap in the downtown Durham area with work-live situations, in which someone might want to buy a building downtown and live in the second story and work in the first story.

James says that she stumbled into starting her business almost by accident. She had been working with Fonville Morisey for six years and the intention was for her to open a satellite office in downtown Durham. When that plan changed, James saw the window of possibility open.

“Because of the fact that we weren’t in a good market, Fonville Morisey decided that they did not want to do that. And so, I was just talking to a few trusted friends and relatives and they finally said, ‘You need to be doing this on your own anyway. You don’t need to be doing this with someone else because it’s not going to be the company you want it to be if it’s associated with a large corporate company. You’re not going to get away from that image.’ I just woke up one morning and decided that I needed to get over the fear and go out on my own.”

In addition to setting itself apart from typical real estate companies by focusing on Durham, James explains that her company is unique in other ways too. “The Great Urban Durham Chicken Chase” is perhaps the best example of the company’s quirky attempt to stand out in clients’ minds.

“What we do is, we hide these little orange ceramic chickens that were made by a local artist in each of our listings,” explains James. “When an agent and a buyer come to see the property, they’re told when they’re scheduled to see the property that this is part of the Urban Durham Chicken Chase. When they find the chicken, they can either text us the location, or send us a picture, or send us an e-mail, or call us. And then, they in turn get a gift certificate to a local company, and we try to rotate through. So, what we’re hoping to do accomplish with that is obviously supporting local businesses, because we get to pick. One month we’re supporting local yogurt, another month we’re supporting this local coffee shop.”

As James points out, when a buyer and an agent go look at several properties in one day, they all tend to meld together. Her goal is to provide the client with a fun and unusual experience that is memorable.

“It’s all about this unconscious feeling when they walk into a house. Does the house feel right? Are they happy when they’re in the house? We’re hoping that if they’ll say, “Hey, that’s the house that we did that fun Chicken Chase in,” that maybe that will contribute to their wanting to make an offer on the house. We’re not under the illusion that because we have a chicken there that they’ll want to buy the house, because obviously it has to have a lot of other things. Again, if we can create a positive feeling when they’re in that house, then we’re accomplishing a lot.”

Urban Durham Realty is comprised of a small team of agents that get their names out by being present in the community rather than being dependent on more traditional sales approaches. This is an important distinction to James.

“I think that one of the big differences is that we are very much more focused on being a consultant than being a sales person,” she says. “I have never encouraged any of the agents here to spend any time cold calling or calling on expired listings. I would tell them in a heartbeat, go out and spend two hours at your child’s school. Go out into the community, go out and do a stream clean-up.  Forget spending two hours on the phone trying to call people. Just go out there and be around people and don’t even ask for it, don’t ask, don’t hand out business cards. I promise, it will come back to you.”

Reaching out to the community like this has been an integral part of James’ mission from day one. In addition to frequently sponsoring local events, Urban Durham Realty is unique in its policy of giving a portion of each transaction’s commission to a local charity which the client chooses. This practice has proved beneficial in unexpected ways, explains James.

“We weren’t doing it originally for marketing purposes, it really was because we wanted to make sure that we were supporting the local community, but I’ve been unbelievably surprised that every time I give a donation I get a letter back from someone saying, ‘I think that this is a great policy that you have.’ So, it’s been a very nice way for us to get to know some of the non-profits in the area, and for them to get to know us.”

Yet another aspect that sets Urban Durham Realty apart from most of the other North Carolina real estate companies, is that it does not practice dual agency, the process by which one real estate broker represents both the seller and the buyer in a transaction.

“There’s nothing illegal about it, dual-agency is very legal, but we feel that there’s a conflict of interest there, so we specifically made a policy saying that if you’re ever in that situation, you’re going to give that client to someone else,” explains James. “We do practice 50/50 with buyers and sellers overall. Some agents are more focused on listings, some agents are more focused on the buying side, but we’re not going to have any agent in the office do both in the same transaction.”

Because James has partners in her business, she says balancing leadership and teamwork is an ongoing pursuit.

“When I started this business I really wanted to involve people that had similar passions, but I talked with my aunt who is in a partnership owning a book store,” explains James.  “She has, I think, 5 partners who are all equal partners. I’d heard nightmare stories about how, if everyone is an equal partner, then it makes it very difficult to make decisions. At least in her case it did, and so I wanted to create a balance between those two. Because I knew that I had very specific ideas in mind that I wanted other people’s feedback on, but I also knew I really was very adamant about some of those things, so I think that we have a really good balance in that ultimately, I’m going to make the decision on this, but I’m not the dictator type, so I very much value the feedback from all of the partners that I have.”

Urban Durham Realty has grown dramatically in its short time in business. It started with three agents and now has

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