Success in real estate is making the right call on a series of small decisions. It takes experience, discipline, and being obsessed with every detail and every outcome. Few understand this process like today’s guest. Chris Harburn, Vice President of Sales at Marcon, has built a career advising some of the largest developers and overseeing some of the most advanced sales marketing programs in new construction. Chris sits down with Matt & Adam to discuss industry challenges, what makes Vancouver real estate unique, and why the details will always save you in down markets. Now go get your notepad.
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Who is Chris Harburn? What is Chris Harburn’s history in real estate?
I’ve sampled all the things the city has to offer when it comes to real estate and now work as the Vice President of Sales at Marcon.
I stumbled into real estate in 2006 with zero expectations. My family wasn’t in real estate so I had no idea what it would be like. I started with a group in West Van. Looking back, it was a booming time for resale residential. Things were busy! Because the group I joined was larger, I was able to get a lot of experience in a short amount of time.
If you’re a new agent, you haven’t experienced the different cycles of the market. But it’s the same for new buyers. A lot of buyers are brand new to the market and are experiencing everything for the first time.
Before real estate, I was in the restaurant industry for 10 years and there’s a lot of parallels with restaurants and real estate. I thought I would make my career in the restaurant industry after starting work at 14. But I woke up at 25 and realized I didn’t want restaurants to be my life.
I took a quick detour into the tech industry and then jumped into a real estate licensing course. Real estate seemed to combine my interests in architecture and design with my experience in the service industry. But I had no context of the greater real estate industry.
What inspired your career moves in the real estate industry?
I am inspired by dynamic people. Every career change for me has been based on a driven person who inspired me to make the move. Moving from residential real estate to the agency side was based on a conversation over coffee that I had with a very smart guy. That introduced me to the world of presales. The first project I worked on was the Olympic Village. How do you sell 1,100 homes?
I enjoyed refining my sales pitch and helping people understand things in the sales centres. Once I got into the developer board room, I had the opportunity to present offers to developers. Creating those relationships as you talk developers through a project was very enjoyable for me.
From there, I wanted to learn more about the development process. Once again, another dynamic person helped me to pivot from the agency side to the development side at Anthem.
People in the Vancouver real estate industry don’t realize the access they have to talent. My whole career has been about trying to get myself in front of inspiring people. All of these huge names in our industry are just a phone call away – they’re so accessible. There’s a fear that they won’t want to answer your questions but not enough people take advantage of that accessibility.
How did you transition into working at Marcon?
I always had an awareness of Marcon but didn’t have a chance to work with them. At one point, I was trying my hand at consulting when Nic Paolella reached out to me. They were looking for someone to build their sales and marketing teams.
Nic and I had a very long talk and after our meeting, I realized I had to work with them. There was something happening at Marcon that was so different from what I had ever been exposed to.
I understood that Marcon had the ability to take some risk, which really appealed to me. They wanted to push boundaries and they had a stellar reputation, which allowed them to do something different. I was very interested in that and felt my broad experience in different areas of the industry would be put to good use.
What does a day in the life at Marcon look like?
It’s busy! I’ve been at Marcon for two years and it’s been a very busy and interesting two years. We’re now in a place where our group is very established. Everyone on the team is an expert in their field and knows how to work with everyone else.
On an average day, I get up at 5am. I like having that time in the morning that is just mine. I’m in the office quite early, working on the business instead of just in it. Finding that perfect mix of working on the business and in the business is what helps you progress.
We have a unique office culture with open start and end times. There’s not a regimented time when everyone has to clock in. I’m usually in the office between 7:30am and 8:00am. We have a heavy meeting schedule but we all understand there’s a lot going on.
How is the presale market?
There’s been a dramatic shift in the presale market this year. From January to May 2022, presale was flying! We were chasing launches and couldn’t wait to bring projects to market. But things fell off in the last four months with all of the interest rate rises.
At Marcon, we approach our projects differently than other developers; we do our own thing. As a family company, we don’t have a lot of outside investors so we can make the right decisions for the project. We get to stick with our plan through tough markets.
In today’s market, it’s about getting back to basics. We fall back on relationships and creativity. How do we show value to the market? Right now, no one has a strong need to buy; there’s no urgency. But people are still buying where there is value because true value is timeless.
If you zoom out on the market, you get such a different context. So that’s what we’re trying to do.
Is there another moment in real estate history that reminds you of today?
Real estate markets are cycles. We saw it in 2008/2009, again in 2012/2013 and in March 2020. It’s a moment of: What do we do?
So you can take comfort knowing that this too shall pass. A lot of people are talking about how Vancouver real estate will never recover but of course, that isn’t true. Those sentiments change so quickly.
As developers, our timelines are 8-10 years long so our scope is bigger. That context matters. You have to take a step back and have confidence in the variables you have in place. With Marcon, I know we have that strong base of quality. You’ll have challenges wherever you go but it’s what you do when those challenges come up that matters.
Is Marcon pivoting right now or is it business as usual?
It’s business as usual at Marcon. We have a lot of confidence in the things we commit to and bring to market. A lot of our decisions are made in-house; the only thing we have to outsource is consulting relationships. So since everyone is at the table, we get to have a lot more confidence in our decisions. We look at things on our own terms.
We make decisions based on our internal variables more so than external variables. At Marcon, we focus on what we have the ability to control.
A lot of launches are being paused or stalled right now. Is that happening with Marcon too?
We’re kind of full steam ahead with everything. We’re growing the Marcon Development side of our business. We’ve done three project launches this year and have big plans for the future. We have a tower in Surrey, wood frame in Burquitlam, rentals in Vancouver, a masterplan community in Coquitlam, etc. It’s all moving forward.
People tend to look at supply and demand as quite binary, but that’s not really the case. Right now, there’s ample supply but all of the buyers have stepped back. But the peak of the market is when people are frenzied and prices are high. Right now, when there is more access to product and prices are lower, people are waiting.
From a presale standpoint, we can’t be that reactionary. We have the choice to launch now or hold off until the spring and we’re seeing a lot of developers do that. But that pent up demand won’t last forever.
I’m surprised that buyers don’t engage more with developers during this time when each sale means so much. Developers need to get to that financing stage so there’s an opportunity for buyers to come in and take advantage of this calmer home buying experience.
Is now the time to buy presale?
Timing the market is such a fallacy. It’s the same as investing. But if you step back from trying to make it perfect and focus on the variables you can control, I think now is a good time to buy presale.
With presales, you’re purchasing today for a product that might complete in four years. In a busier market, you would have minimal access to product and incentives, and less time to make decisions. But now, you have that access and the time. You can decide what makes sense for you.
Everyone is uncertain. Presales are an easier bet because you have more in your favour as a buyer right now.
Who is this market most challenging for – small, medium or big developers?
It’s hard to say. I think everyone shares a bit of the risk and there are different risks at different levels. For small-medium developers, it’s tricky. You have a lot of your own equity tied up and not a lot of clout to move. But you might be more nimble. Bigger developers have more control but sometimes have to answer to more people.
Regardless of the scale of the developer, the ones who focus on thoughtful product will do well. The market will identify you as someone who is doing more than just filling a demand need. Buyers are looking for a reputable brand that offers stability.
Quality product still matters in a busy market, but people forget that. That consistency and persistence is what keeps you going in a quieter market. For Marcon, we’ve made thoughtful decisions from the beginning so we don’t have to make too many changes when the market shifts. We can see projects through.
What areas in the Lower Mainland are you excited about?
We’ve been successful with a lot of projects in Langley and the Tri-Cities, and have dabbled in Vancouver. For me personally, it’s been very interesting to watch what’s happened in the Greater Vancouver presale market over the years. There used to be a big difference between product in Coquitlam and in Metrotown. These days, things are looking more similar.
I get excited about unique product no matter where it’s built. We love being thoughtful about what we’re building. The stuff we’re doing in Langley and the Tri-Cities is exciting because it’s a big pivot for the neighbourhood. It’s placemaking.
I also really like the smaller, boutique projects and seeing people build smart in-fill projects in Vancouver. It brings different ideas and architecture styles to pockets of the city.
When it comes to location, we want to look for where the opportunities lie. For me, it’s based on confidence in the builder, the local market and the product. People have to remember that real estate is tangible and liking the product is important.
Where do you think is the next up and coming investment neighbourhood?
I think there’s something interesting happening in Coquitlam. A lot of development has happened around Burquitlam thanks to its access to transit. But if you go a little east of that, there’s some great opportunities. There’s a lot of land ripe for a new city and easy access to the skytrain, West Coast Express and the highway.
Outside of the Lower Mainland, I like markets like Kelowna. We grew up skiing at Big White, so I’ve always liked the Kelowna area. It’s a really neat city that is being developed. We don’t do a lot of work in Victoria but it’s an interesting city to me with the convergence of government, university and tourism. I’d love to see Marcon jump into that.
With Marcon, we know where our influence is best applied, so I don’t know if it’s right for us to move into Victoria and Kelowna. We have a lot going on in Greater Vancouver. But who knows where the future will bring us? We’re looking across Canada and the US as well. We’re also looking into different asset classes. But you can’t just copy/paste a product that has been successful in Vancouver into other markets and expect it to work.
What is happening in the suburban markets in Greater Vancouver?
It’s interesting to look at what is happening in the suburban markets outside of Vancouver. It used to be that we only had one project launching per month. So people would have to go where the project was launching, regardless of if they wanted to invest in Coquitlam, Surrey, etc. But now we have lots of projects launching at the same time.
We’re also seeing more elevated product across markets these days; you can’t see much difference in terms of what is being developed. Show me a development right now that doesn’t have quartz countertops, high end appliances and great amenities.
So as a developer, how do you differentiate? You’re no longer the only developer launching this month. Buyers can look at multiple projects in the same location with very similar product offerings.
For us, we rely on our brand and we approach things with a thoughtful application of how we bring products to market. We’re dismantling the traditional process and only bringing things back that truly serve the process of homebuying. What do people actually want? What will make us stand out?
How important is feedback from consumers for developers?
We literally had a two hour meeting yesterday about this very thing. How do we understand what people mean when they come into our presentation centres and what can we do with that feedback?
From a sales team standpoint, we all do things pretty similarly. So at Marcon, we’re trying to dismantle that and ask what the market actually wants.
You have to try and understand what the market actually wants from you in the feedback loop. The closer you can get to the frontline, the better decisions you’re going to make. If you’re not engaging with your frontline and with your customers, you’ll make decisions in the dark.
Can you tell us how Marcon is doing sales different at Hue with Outpost?
With our Port Moody project, Hue, we launched a concept called Outpost. Partnering with local brands, we were able to authentically bring things to the community like a coffee shop, brewery, retail stores, etc. We asked what the community would want to engage with and then built a space where local brands could reach the community before we even built our sales centre.
Developers often get a reputation for being disingenuous. With Outpost, we wanted to approach this thoughtfully and commit to the community before we asked them to commit to us.
The real estate market is in need of difference. So when someone does step out of the box, there’s a ripple effect. We’ve had people come into Outpost who don’t usually go to presentation centres just to check out what we’re doing.
About the teams at Marcon:
There’s risk when you bring everything in house like we have done at Marcon. You’re bringing together a lot of experiences and personalities. But that’s where the magic happens. If I can get out of the way, people can apply their talents and the “Marcon way” will emerge.
What is happening with appraisals, completions and assignments in the presale industry?
If you zoom out, Canada has done a good job of insulating itself against some of the shocks that have happened. There’s a level of stability we can rely on.
We don’t have any completions internally this year at Marcon but we had a very heavy completion year in 2021. What I realized is people figure it out. If a developer is reasonable, they can help you make it work.
There’s a lot of confidence going forward with these next completions. We haven’t had many defaults but we have seen a lot of assignments in the past. And many of those assignments were within a family.
We’re learning that real estate is a family decision. Families want to share in the success of the market and they’re there for each other when the market is more challenging. Family investors are big for us; they’re the dominant investor in the city.
By the time we complete, I believe the appraisals will net out for the most part. We’re not too worried about that. The assignment market has been largely curtailed by a lot of legislation that has come out. It’s a massive administrative cost to do something as simple as add your partner to the title.
Find out more: https://marcon.ca/en/