Ski Bums Gone Rich

Mountain Life
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It's a tossup as to who leads the more charmed life: the Wall Streeter who can afford to fly to Vail for the weekend or the ski bum who's pouring the visitor's drinks and tuning his skis. A ski bum's life is generally simple, his wants few: powder days off and enough money to cover rent and a few cocktails (which might come from the last condo he cleaned). He's probably living a three-job, four-roommate existence, but that's OK, because in between shifts he's skiing.

For most people, that uncertain lifestyle eventually runs its course. In an attempt to find a balance, ski bums either head for the "real world" or change career paths. One of the few ways to bleed money out of ski-town economies is to sell real estate. It's not a sure thing. The competition is fierce-many towns actually have as many real estate licenses as dog licenses-and there's no controlling the market. The floor can drop out at a moment's notice, but some of the top agents are clearing $1 million a year and a six-figure income isn't unrealistic for those who are dedicated and tenacious.

Former ski bum Billy Haupert ( moved to Tahoe in 1992 and spent his first three years juggling four jobs, working as a ski instructor, hat maker, bouncer and EMT. "All I wanted to do was make enough money to buy a season pass, party with friends and stay out of debt. And I didn't want to answer to anybody." His temporary fix was to join the U.S. Forest Service Hot Shot crew, fighting fires six months out of the year. "I worked hard all summer and skied my fanny off all winter," he says. "But after my third year of inhaling smoke, burning myself and dodging pissed-off rattlesnakes, I decided to explore my options."

He did his homework. "I tossed around every job and looked at the older, more established people around me. I considered how much they smiled or frowned, the cars they drove, the skis they skied and how much they drank. What I found was that real estate agents had all the goods with the least amount of hair loss." Within six months, Haupert had secured his real estate license, joined the Board of Realtors and bought a laptop and a lockbox key. In doing so, he leveraged himself to the hilt, blowing through his savings and maxing out all of his credit cards. It cost him close to $5,000-not taking into account the loss of income. Haupert's career move was a gamble, but it has proven a profitable one. The 33-year-old realtor sold 10 homes his first year, taking a 65 percent cut of the 3 percent broker's fee. In Tahoe, where the median price of a single-family home is $439,000, that's a pretty good haul.

But it's peanuts compared to what the top agents in snow country make. Bob Ritchie of Reid, Coates and Waldron is one of the most successful brokers in Aspen, Colo. In 25 years, he's sold more than half a billion dollars in real estate, and his listings are typically north of $8 million. He currently has a $63 million listing (see Hot Property, page 152) one of the most expensive in the country. Ritchie is at the point in his career where he takes only repeat clients and referrals and skis almost every morning. (His office is a one-block commute to Aspen Mountain's gondola.) He takes day-trips to Phoenix for golf and jet-sets to Canada's Selkirk Mountains to heliski at least once a year. Life is good in Ritchie's world.

That's not to say he doesn't work hard and hasn't earned the fat life. Ritchie moved to Aspen in 1971 after getting his Ph.D. from the University of Colorado in particle physics. "Aspen had the most overeducated group of ski bums in the world," Ritchie recalls. Residing in a humble garage-apartment, he took his time looking for work. He skied every day and eventually put his Ph.D. to rest to bang nails. He became a general contractor and started his own construction company. And, by happenstance, he entered the world of real estate.

Against the advice of veteran reaaltor friends in town, Ritchie bought a lot in Snowmass (the boonies at that time) for $33,000. To their surprise, he sold it 11 months later for $200,000. Next, against the same friends' adamant advice, he bought a condo in Snowmass for $95,000 and was offered $240,000 two years later. With that, his buddies offered him a desk in their real estate office and begged him to get his license. His career has boomed ever since.

But it's not easy work, and most agents (starting with Ritchie) who work for brokerage firms will tell you that they don't get paid enough. Three percent of the sale goes to the listing agent, three to the selling agent and each cut is then split between the agent and the broker. (If Ritchie sells Mandalay Ranch, he'll walk away with just about a million-boo hoo.)

Don McLean (now with Telluride Real Estate Corp.) moved to Vail in 1977, when he was 22 years old, with 87 cents in his pocket. Following the sage advice of the head of Vail Resort's real estate department, he joined the ski patrol to allow himself time to "mature." His first year in town, he skied 135 days, he recalls. "Every night was Saturday night and every Saturday night was New Year's. When he finally got his broker's license in 1981, the market hit the skids-prime was at 21 percent and the Wall Street Journal had just declared a recession. He pulled in less than $5,000 the first year.

That's the harsh reality realtors face. They can go months without a paycheck-or spend months putting a deal together only to have it fall apart. In a resort market, demanding, successful clientele are looking to buy second homes. They have money, and they're used to getting their way. You need to know about building and zoning codes, snow loads, tax ramifications and mining claims. With so many realtors, the competition is thick, says Pete Seibert Jr. of Slifer Smith & Frampton in Vail (and the son of Vail's founding father). "You have to put your career first and make it your full-time job in order to keep up with the listings and laws. But if I want a raise, I know who to talk to."

Though there is more money to be had as an independent realtor, it helps to be associated with a brokerage firm. The company takes care of the overhead, including marketing and legal fees, disclosure forms and documents, office equipment and administrative help. "I see the value in being part of a high-profile brokerage firm. We've got name recognition. Business comes to us and that frees me up to show people houses," Tahoe's Haupert says.

If the market is grim and the pipeline is dry, Haupert takes it in stride. "I can't beat my head against the wall," he says. "If things aren't happening, I get on my skis. I like to keep my hourly rate high."

Selling real estate isn't entirely different from ski bumming. It affords flexibility and bestows the same uncertainty of how the next paycheck will arrive. But when sales are robust, at least the returns are more rewarding than a meager wage in the service industry. And the flexibility can't be beat. "I really like this new career change that enables me to go to the gym whenever I want," Haupert says. "I guess some people probably think I'm a sellout because I cut off my dreadlocks and now bust out oxfords every morning fresh from the dry cleaners. But that's better than sweaty, smokey clothes that haven't been washed in months."

Real estate is where many of the external funds of the ski world land, and it's going to land in one pocket or another. As Don McLean puts it: "The people who gave me the most grief about going into real estate are now brokers, too."