by Pete Corbett
A partner in a family-owned North Cambridge real estate brokerage spoke at the May 12 contributors meeting of The Alewife held at the back table at the Porter Square Books store.
For many years North Cambridge was a poor cousin in relation to the rest of the city, said Paul D. Griffin, who owns Griffin Properties with his brother Christopher. “The Red Line changed all that."
Griffin said his family’s roots in North Cambridge are on his father’s side. One of his paternal ancestors emigrated from Ireland in 1892 and purchased a house on Massachusetts Avenue in 1895.
Griffin’s grandfather started in the family’s dairy business pulling a wagon on foot to Concord to pick up fresh milk and dairy products and bringing them back to city, he said. Later, the business grew and the family delivered door-to-door in traditional milk trucks.
When his father, Kevin A. Griffin returned from military service in World War II, he found out the family was out of the dairy business and that his grandfather turned the house into a funeral home.
Both Paul and his brother grew up in the funeral business and as adults pursued their own interests, he said. Chris built a company of retail clothing stores and Paul practiced law and earned an advanced degree in canon law and sacred theology from the Gregorian University in Rome.
In the 1990s, the brothers joined up to start Griffin Properties, he said. “We developed skills growing up in the funeral business that were a natural fit to the real estate business.”
Often, when someone is buying or selling residence, it was prompted by an emotional event, such as a death or children moving away, he said.
There is a heightened sense of propriety that the family carried over, he said. “There’s no right way to do the wrong thing.”
By bringing these personal skills to the real estate business, the Griffins have built a people business, instead of a business business in the neighborhood they grew up in, he said.
A recent example of the personal bond that develops between the Griffins and their customers was when a French couple popped the cork on a bottle of champagne at their closing, he said. “It was the first time we had champagne. But, they do things differently over there.”
Griffin said that while most North Cambridge homebuyers are 35 to 45-years-old, a significant number are couples with adult children. These people tend to sell the home their children grew up in, and use that income to purchase a smaller home in North Cambridge.
Although home prices have fallen, this appears to be the market’s trough, he said.
The real estate market is cyclical, but it also governed by calendar, he said. The busiest times are in the spring through the summer as families try to be in and out of their homes before the beginning of the school year and the slowest season is during the winter. “Since Thanksgiving our business has been non-stop.”
There are four major factors bolstering the neighborhood’s real estate market: a relatively static inventory of housing units and its proximity to universities, he said.
The vast majority of the housing units in the neighborhood were built before the Second World War and there is little of no space to build new units, he said.
North Cambridge, like most of the neighborhoods in the city, benefits from the strong demand from students and employees at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as well as other educational institutions, he said.
There are three regions in the Boston real estate market are relatively immune to sharp downturns, he said. In addition to Cambridge, they are Brookline because of its proximity to the Longwood hospitals and medical schools and Beacon Hill/Back Bay because of popularity with the Boston’s financial services professionals.
Another factor is the lack of speculation in North Cambridge market that tempers price volatility, he said.
Griffin said that his firm does not deal with investors or speculators, people who are buying to profit instead of looking for a place to live.
The first three factors lead to the fourth, which is the flight to quality, he said. Even in bad markets, neighborhoods with price stability will do better.
Griffin said the most expensive area in the city is the Brattle Street neighborhood.
In North Cambridge, the houses around Fairfield and Hollis streets have emerged as wealthy enclaves, he said.
The price ceiling for homes in the neighborhood is around $2 million, he said. Most of the larger homes need expensive upgrades to bring them up to date with modern expectations. “Many people buying homes today grew up with centralized air-conditioning.”
Buyers with the resources to purchase an expensive home often don’t have the time for or interest in dealing with a six-month renovation, he said. “I had a buyer from India who wanted to spend $1.5 million, but he wanted to move his family in right away. I couldn’t find him anything in the city, so he bought somewhere else.”
Griffin said Griffin Properties is different from most real estate agencies because they bring a full-service approach, but use a lower commission structure.
Traditionally, there is a six percent commission on a transaction, he said.
Griffin said they charge three percent on transactions, where they represent the buyer and the seller and four percent, when they represent just the seller. “This gives added value to the customer.”
There is more information about Griffin Properties on the firm’s Web site griffinproperties.com.