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August 2008
Residential Rental Specialists
By Carol Gifford

     Linking family and business is not easy, but one native Charlotte family business recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. T.R. Lawing Realty, Inc., a local property management company, is continuing its impressive growth serving both residents and property owners in the highly competitive real estate sector.

     T.R. Lawing Sr. began his fledgling company in 1957 in uptown Charlotte. His sons, Tommy and Bob, joined the business in 1971 and 1974, respectively, and have built it into one of the Carolinas’ largest property management companies. Today, the company manages primarily single-family rental homes, condominiums, apartments and homeowner associations with a staff of 45 employees and two offices located in uptown Charlotte and Huntersville. A subsidiary company, Executive Home Management, is located in South Charlotte. T. R. Lawing Sr. retired in 1995.

 

Strong Foundation

     While the current economic slowdown has adversely impacted home sales, it has not had a similar effect on the property management business. T.R. Lawing Realty is thriving in today’s economy with its property management focus on middle- and upper-income, executive homes.

     “Business is healthy these days,” says Tommy Lawing. “There doesn’t have to be much upward change in mortgage interest rates to push a few more people into rental housing.”

     The company has also benefited from its strong family ties and longstanding community relationships. The owners’ knowledge of and personal connection to the community gives T.R. Lawing Realty a historical perspective frequently lacking in small- to medium-sized companies, especially in an area full of transplants and newcomers.

     Prominently displayed in the office lobby is a picture of their family church, Hawthorne Lane United Methodist, where five generations of  Lawings have worshipped. Tommy and Bob were active in Scouting, where Tommy served as the chair of the Mecklenburg County Council Eagle Scout Service Project Review Board for many years. Both are longstanding members of their Optimist and Rotary Clubs. Bob just finished a term as board president for Aldersgate, the former Methodist Home for the Elderly, a facility their grandfather helped found in 1948.

     If Bob looks familiar, it may be from his work around town—or because he’s often on television. During the late summer and fall, Bob works weekends as a referee for the National Football League. It’s his 12th year with the NFL, but he’s been an official for 33 years, officiating in everything from Pop Warner to the Southern Conference and the ACC. Bob is Back Judge #17 working games throughout the country for the NFL.

     T.R. Lawing Sr. started the business managing one large multi-unit apartment    building for a friend, the former Laureldale Apartments. For 20 years the company managed other large multi-unit complexes. By the 1970s, the investment market changed and created new opportunities in commercial real estate and the management of many apartment projects.

     “By the early 1980s, few Realtors were interested in managing single-family homes,” says Tommy Lawing. T.R. Lawing Realty had just moved from its early location at Tryon and First Street to its current location on E. Seventh Street in Elizabeth and was looking for new challenges and growth opportunities.

     “People wanted us to enter the single-family home business, and it evolved from there,” says Tommy Lawing. “Growing a property management company is a slow, methodical process. I like to compare us to the tortoise and the hare; we’re like the tortoise. We picked up one house at a time for decades before reaching our current inventory of 2,500 properties.”

     In a business that consists mainly of residents on one hand and landlords or investors on the other, the two brothers who both graduated from North Carolina State University with degrees in economics, split the company duties. Tommy supervises everything “inside” the company walls such as accounting, marketing, IT and human resources; while Bob is in charge of the “outside” areas including vacancy inspections, maintenance and supervision of eight property managers.

 

Building Equity and Relationships

     “We get to work with some wonderful residents,” says Bob Lawing. “Many could afford to buy a house but, for a variety of reasons, have chosen to rent. For instance, they might have moved to Charlotte and aren’t sure yet geographically where they want to live. They might be from an area where they haven’t yet been able to sell their house and, thus, don’t have their equity from it. Or, they’re not sure how long they’ll be here and don’t want to buy anything right now.”

     Resident Winnie Moyer has known the Lawing brothers for years. When she sold her house quickly and needed a place to stay until the family’s new house, currently under construction, was finished, she turned to T.R. Lawing Realty.

     “I called Tommy Jr. and explained my situation,” says Moyer. “Within two days, he found a nice condo that we were able to rent with a short-term lease and prorate it as we needed to until the new house is ready.”

     Major components of any property management company are information, accounting and back office functions. Tommy Lawing handles the technical side of the business and spearheaded the computerization of its operations. “We began with software written for large, apartment management companies and customized it to fit our scattered single-family portfolio.”

     “Instead of preparing multiple statements for the owners of a few 300-unit apartment complexes, we prepare 1,500 statements for 1,500 owners of 2,500 houses, condos and small apartments every month,” says Tommy. “All our systems and procedures are designed to serve individual owners of one, two or three units scattered throughout the Charlotte region.”

     “For instance, a property manager can enter an address into the system and find everything about that property—its residents, rental history, payment history and often, its maintenance records for the past 10 years.”

     He also directed the development of the company’s Web site where their entire vacancy inventory is available. “Whatever you want to know about the property is right there—a photo, rental price, directions, neighborhood, schools, maps, etc.,” said Tommy Lawing. “You can even fill out a rental application online or pay your rent electronically.”

     The Web site was also the first Realtor site in the Carolinas to be PDA-friendly, “helping potential residents find information about a house when they are literally standing in its front yard,” says Tommy Lawing.

     Nice homes are an integral piece of T. R. Lawing Realty’s residential property management business with many units in the $1,200 to $4,000+ a month range. “These include many of the top neighborhoods in the Charlotte region from Waxhaw to SouthPark to Lake Norman to Cabarrus County and back to Uptown,” says Bob Lawing.

Joan H. Zimmerman has a 20-year history with the company and calls the property managers “true professionals.”

     “They do everything from A to Z,” says Zimmerman, who says the company manages several properties for her. “They interview potential tenants, check backgrounds and credit and make sure the properties are in impeccable move-in    condition. They do a superb job of finding good, reliable people who will respect their new homes.”

 

Diversifying the Portfolio

     Bob Lawing says many people now want to include real estate to diversify their personal wealth portfolios. “About half of our new accounts are from out-of-town investors buying rentals in the Charlotte area,” says Bob Lawing. As early as 1998, the company began to see several investors, especially from the West Coast, who would purchase properties sight unseen, and then look for a company to manage those properties.
     T.R. Lawing Realty stands ready to provide complete property management services “as if you left the country and we handle everything 24/7,” says Tommy Lawing.

     “Every owner is assigned an individual, licensed property manager who is also an active Realtor and will personally work with him or her for many years,” explains Bob Lawing. “We work hard to reduce the owner’s risk and liability with credit, criminal, sexual predator and rental background checks on every applicant to make sure we recommend a resident that is a reasonable risk.”

     He says most residents sign a 12-month lease and can then continue longer or on a month-to-month lease. The average length of time that a resident stays with the company is 18 to 24 months. “Many of our clients re-rent their units multiple times for 10 to 20 years,” comments Tommy.

     “One of the hardest things any property manager does is to say no,” adds Tommy Lawing. “For instance, we might see an applicant who, because of bad luck, is not creditworthy and we’re not able to accept them.”

     “The company has done well in its management services and residents are often repeat customers,” Bob says. “One of the best compliments we receive is when someone calls and asks us to manage his house because he first knew us as a tenant.”

     One sometimes dicey problem is dealing with emergencies. T.R. Lawing Realty asks each owner/client to give it authority to make specified emergency decisions up to a certain dollar amount. Each property has its own individual manager so owners can get in touch with him or her 24/7, and residents always have around-the-clock assistance in case of emergencies. Because the company has contacts with many local contractors, it can deal more quickly with routine or emergency maintenance issues than most individual owners can.

     Gary Silverstein has used T.R. Lawing Realty for more than 25 years to manage his properties and says he is “more than pleased” with the company and he appreciates their caring attitude.

     “They spend my money on repairs like it was their own,” says Silverstein. “They are genuinely concerned when your property is vacant.”

Owner Joan Zimmerman agrees.

     “We give them carte blanche to handle all repairs and requests on our behalf without calling for permission,” she explains. “We know they will be honest, get the work done in a quality fashion as quickly as possible and, most importantly, keep the residents happy.”

     The company works closely with local Realtors including broker Leigh Brown who has several properties managed by T.R. Lawing.

     “They’re the best management company in town,” says Brown, who owns four properties, located in Harrisburg and Indian Trail that are currently managed by T.R. Lawing. She will soon add another. “Property management is a high headache, low margin business and their systems are critical to managing the process, especially when it comes to delinquencies and repairs.”

     “Our company began because our Dad’s friends trusted him with their properties,” says Tommy Lawing. “It grew because other friends shared their advice and confidence with us, while other great team players from the region joined our firm.”

     “No one event creates or sustains a company but because our parents and grandparents were involved in Charlotte’s churches, PTAs, civic clubs and charities, their daily lives revolved around a network of friends who were also their business associates,” Tommy continues. “In many ways, we’ve succeeded simply because we’ve tried to follow their examples.”

 

Carol Gifford is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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