In Commercial, ‘You Make Money When You Buy, Not When You Sell’

SARASOTA — Just about anyone could sell commercial real estate in the first six months of 2006.

Motivated by potential profits from rapidly appreciating property, investors ignored the fundamentals and rushed to buy everything from office warehouses to strip malls.

But now that the feeding frenzy is over, it takes a different kind of salesman to move commercial property — someone with knowledge of different product types and the experience to value them appropriately.

Meet Jeff Button.

The 40-year-old commercial real estate agent spent 14 years working for well-known Sarasota appraiser Larry Sewell before joining the Kleiber Group in 2004.

“Larry appraised everything from rock mines to shopping malls,” Button said. “If there was anything at all unusual about a property, he would get a call. So we ended up doing a wide variety of valuations.”

Button believes the experience he gained from working with Sewell is exactly what investors need when it comes to deciding what to buy and at what price.

“The more information a buyer has, the better off he will be,” Button said. “It’s like the old saying: You make money when you buy, not when you sell.”

Born in upstate New York and raised in Tallahassee, Button graduated from Florida State University in 1989 with twin degrees in economics and real estate.

He went to work for a Clearwater eminent domain appraiser, John Calhoun. But Calhoun developed health problems the following year and had to let Button go, but not before helping him get a job with Sewell in Sarasota.

“Larry Sewell had the same kind of practice,” Button said. “He did eminent domain valuations and other real estate litigation work.”

Button’s job was to research commercial properties.

“It wasn’t like doing a mortgage appraisal, where speed is essential,” Button said. “When you go to court, you have to be correct, so you can take your time.”

That meant more than just finding out what someone paid for a property from court records. It meant finding out the motivations of buyers and sellers.

“We were encouraged to find people who did not always want to talk about their motivations, that did not want to say they had to sell because someone was sick in the family or there were debts that had to be paid,” Button said. “Public records don’t tell you that.”

In 2003, Button married Jennifer Kleiber, and a year later they had their first child.

Jennifer was working for her father, Bill Kleiber, at the Kleiber Group and often suggested that Jeff join the family business.

“I wasn’t sure I wanted to work for family,” Button said. “I’d always heard stories about working for relatives, but this has worked out really well.”

Button said his wife began to withdraw from the business to take care of their children — they have two now — and she introduced Button to her clients.

“Bill introduced me to his contacts too, and that really gave me a leg up,” Button said. “I didn’t have to start from scratch, and with my background, I was quickly able to figure out what properties were worth and help clients buy, sell and lease them.”

Late last year, Button helped real estate investor Stanley Riggs sell the 185,000-square-foot Airport Commerce Center on Tallevast Road to a Miami-based commercial real estate management firm for $15.25 million.

“Stanley had an excellent model of how to keep the center full and tenants happy,” Button said. “He wasn’t after their last dollar. He kept prices reasonable.”

More recently, Button sold a 34,000-square-foot warehouse on 15th Street near the airport to 84 Lumber for $3.575 million.

It took only 10 days to make the sale, and 84 Lumber nearly met the asking price of $3.7 million.

“They came in and had to have it because it was on the railroad,” Button said.

Going forward, Button expects sales and leases to be harder to come by.

“Two years ago, buyers had to be able to write a check at the end of the day for property that was even remotely fairly priced,” Button said.

“That gradually changed. Today, money has tightened. People are no longer buying solely on appreciation. They are looking at cash flows and making sure they are buying right. It has gone back to the old way of doing things.”

If properties are priced right, they will still sell, Button said. But that is the trick. You need to find someone who can price them.