That is the name of a story that recently appeared in a National Association of Realtors (NAR) trade magazine about my real estate practice. You see, I didn’t come to real estate in a conventional manner. For many years previously, I was an on-the-ground, community organizer for RTC and I’d often hear from property owners who lived next to an abandoned railroad that if the proposed rail to trail project got built, bad things would happen. Starting with the fact that the trail would make it more difficult to sell their house someday. So, of course, when I left RTC, I became a Realtor with a special niche—selling houses near to Rail Trails.
I am the first Realtor in the U.S. with this niche and last month, almost 15 years later, I was selected to receive a national award for this innovative niche and 21st century branding. Click here to read the article by the U.S. Green Building Council—a section of NAR.
Or just read below here.
The Accidental REALTOR®
Craig Della Penna is something of an accidental real estate practitioner.
After spending his early career in the rail freight industry, he eventually landed at the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) as a political lobbyist and organizer. There, he developed an expertise in community organizing and bringing rails-to-trails conversions to fruition.
He routinely entered the fray when there were community disputes about rail-to-trails conversions and Della Penna GREEN, CRS, GRI, EcoBroker, Associate Broker at The Murphys REALTORS® in Northampton, Mass., and a 2017 EverGreen winner, has helped to build 1,000 miles of rail trails in communities across the Northeast.
But when his local RTC office closed, Della Penna was out of a job. He and his wife had been renovating an 1865 house—something of a blight in the community that local kids called a haunted house--and converting it to their home and a bed and breakfast inn. The Sugar Maple Trailside Inn, in Florence, Mass., a village of Northampton, is situated just eight feet from a rail trail, and Della Penna discovered that lots of his B&B guests came to town for biking trips.
Prospecting over bagels He spotted an opportunity: Della Penna got his real estate license in 2004 and decided to specialize in marketing and selling historic houses and those located near rail trails. It’s turned out to be the perfect niche. It lets him pursue all the things he’s passionate about--preservation, rail trails, and biking. And making a living.
To find new clients, he found that he didn’t need to look far. He was sharing a roof with some of them at the inn.
Every year, five to seven of his guests turn into clients. “Through the B&B, I’m building an inventory of future buyers,” he says.
Della Penna frequently capitalizes on that biking passion and tours clients around town on bikes and to showings.
It gives them lay of the land and it’s a subtle way for Della Penna to illustrate just how walkable and bikeable the community is. “People can get a feel for traffic, the connections to the trail, and they see how safely their kids could bike to school or to the library,” he says. And for some, the local trail could be a route to work a couple towns over.
Sharing expertise Even as his real estate business grew, Della Penna stayed involved in the rails-to-trails movement. He’s an expert on the topic and remains an in-demand speaker.
He helps communities create “Friends-of-the-Trail” groups and advises its members on building community support, working with public agencies and officials, plowing through the bureaucratic morass, and figuring out how to ferry a project from inception to completion.
Staring down adversity He says that getting a trails project built can be complex, messy, difficult, long, and contentious. For one, there’s always vocal opposition. Residents often fear an influx of traffic, think that trails are a magnet for criminals, and worry that a trail will destroy the privacy of their yards and their property values.
Thus, he’s gotten adept at facing down angry crowds, remaining calm, and delivering persuasive pro-trail arguments.
“As REALTORS, our job is to keep clients off the roller coaster, keep them in the game, and avoid having them melt down,” Della Penna comments. That’s especially true in multiple-offer situations. Years of making his case for rail trails during pressure-packed public meetings has delivered an inner calm to Della Penna that helps him when a real estate transaction turns tense.
Millennial gold He also taps his rails-to-trail knowledge—he’s also written several books and delivered 1,200 lectures on the topic—for speaking gigs and continuing education classes for REALTORS®.
He relies on case studies, thousands of photos, and a slew of data to illustrate the value of trails to naysayers. And he’s able to draw direct connections between rail trails and topics like smart growth, land preservation, and desirable communities. His own research shows that homes that tout their proximity to the rail trail sell more quickly and a higher percentage of list price than the rest of the inventory in the market.
One of his most compelling arguments is how trails can help to draw Millennials to a community. “They don’t want what they grew up with—suburban track housing with cul de sacs,” comments Della Penna. He sees Millennials wanting communities with sidewalks, porches, village centers, and historic building that have been converted to offices and housing. And the ability to hop on a trail to easily get from home to work and to play? Golden.
“The neighborhoods of the past are the neighborhoods of the future,” he says. “And that’s my specialty.”
A magical thing And he deeply believes that these rail trails benefit every community and that they can bring value and quality of life to a place.
“Sustainability is not just insulation. It’s also about living sustainably and being close to recreation and your place of work,” says Della Penna. “So these trails are both recreational and utilitarian.” His commitment is so strong that Della Penna doesn’t charge a speaking fee and will bring his knowledge anywhere--to any Rotary Club meeting, REALTOR® association event, or real estate company staff meeting if someone will spring for his airfare and house and feed him when he’s on the road.
“This is a magical thing that has happened in my life,” comments Della Penna. “Someone once described me as a Johnny Appleseed. Planting the seed and building these rail trail projects is my passion. And I’m having so much fun.”
Click on the image to go to a PDF
In early 2006, I sent a report to the Massachusetts Multiple Listing Service--MLSPIN--the transmitter of data for REALTORS. This report showed pretty unequivocally that houses near rail trails sold quicker than the general inventory of houses in the communities surveyed. Click here or on the image to get the entire report.
HOUSES HAWKED ON BIKEWAY Boston Globe 11-6-2005
Forget about putting the house "For Sale" sign on the front lawn.
For Carolyn Barmeier and Myron Davis, the decision was easy: Plant the sign in the backyard. The Lexington couple lives at 23 Byron Ave., along the Minuteman Bikeway, which, with 2 million users annually, is the nation's second most traveled recreational trail.
That's a lot of potential buyers.
"We live in a cul de sac," said Barmeier. "We get more traffic on the bike path than the street in front of our house."
As the Greater Boston housing market shows signs of cooling from its red-hot sales of recent years, homeowners are capitalizing on any asset to give their property an edge. For many homeowners in Arlington, Lexington, and Bedford, they are turning to the Minuteman Bikeway.
Marketing properties as being near the bike path has long been a tradition in newspaper real estate ads and trade listings, but placing for-sale signs where they are visible from the path is a fairly new practice in Lexington, real estate agents say, although it's more established in Arlington.
"I think it's been more prevalent since February or March of this year" in Lexington, said Charla Coleman, a realtor with Carlson GMAC Real Estate, whose Lexington offices are steps away from the Minuteman Bikeway. "It's a great additional way to market a house. It gives prospective buyers a different perspective. It's a great way to bring new life to those houses."
The 11-mile trail starts at the Alewife MBTA station in Cambridge and weaves through Arlington and Lexington centers, past several ponds and meadows, and behind oodles of houses and condominiums, before ending in Bedford. Many of those houses have gates to the path providing homeowners with a "green driveway" to America's new Main Street, one that is free of motors and filled with bicyclists, in-line skaters, and joggers pushing baby carriages.
Like popular highways in the area, such as Route 128 and Route 2, at rush hour, the Minuteman Bikeway is jammed with users in the late afternoons and early evenings. Walkers and bicyclists bump into friends on the path, and catch up on gossip. Many others use it to get to and from work. Larry Andersen, who lives near the bike path in Arlington, hops on his bicycle 10 months a year to get to his job as a video editor on Newbury Street in Boston.
"It's a nice way to beat the traffic," he said. "In the morning, it's peaceful. In the afternoon, it can be crowded with bikes and rollerbladers. It gets a little clogged in Lexington and Arlington centers."
Andersen said he can remember when the path was first proposed in the 1980s, and how many homeowners along the path tried to stop its construction along an abandoned railroad corridor.
"People were objecting to it being in their backyard," he said. "They felt it wouldn't be policed well, and unsavory types would hang out there."
But the path, which is mostly in Arlington and Lexington, has seen little crime. The most notable event in recent years occurred in the fall of 2001, when Arlington police beefed up patrols along the path and urged women not to walk there alone after receiving reports of a rash of indecent assaults against women between 4 and 6 p.m. weekdays.
Arlington police Captain John Serson said it's highly unusual for a major crime to take place on the path. He said the department occasionally fields complaints about people exposing themselves in front of bicyclists or joggers.
"As a cynical old man, it surprises me how little crime there is," Serson said.
In Lexington, police and medical workers mostly respond to calls of injuries sustained during bicycle or skating collisions, said police Lieutenant Michael O'Connell.
Being on or near the Minuteman Bikeway can increase the value of a home by 4 or 5 percent, said Brian Greeley, a realtor with Bowes GMAC in Arlington.
"The old saying in real estate is location, location, location," Greeley said. "The path is one of the crown jewels in the area. We're in an age where physical fitness is a high priority. Having access to a bike path is analogous to years ago of having a house across from a park or playground."
Owners of homes and condominiums in Arlington and Cambridge were the first to start marketing property sales along the path, beginning not long after the trail opened in 1992, according to interviews with real estate agents and local government officials there. Those areas are more densely populated, with several large condominium and apartment buildings along or near the path.
Even homeowners who live off the path, but nearby, will advertise open houses on the path, followed by a series of signs with arrows that eventually lead users off the path and to the front door.
"The signs are kind of a frequent occurrence," said Jack Johnson, chairman of the Arlington Bicycle Advisory Committee, which is appointed by the selectmen to oversee the trail. "If you're looking to sell property fast, you use everything you've got."
In Lexington, where the trail is more of a countryside tour, for- sale signs have just started being used with regularity this year. Barmeier and Davis, whose house is on Byron Avenue in Lexington, got the idea of placing a sign near the bike path one day this summer while clipping hedges and mowing their backyard lawn.
"We heard someone ride by and heard them say to someone else, `This is such a great area. It would be a great place to buy a house,' " Barmeier recalled.
At the time, the couple was thinking about selling the house because of Davis's job possibly relocating him to Colorado. A couple of months later, he got the job, and up went the sign in front of their backyard fence.
The appearance of for-sale signs along the Minuteman Bikeway is not unique. Signs are going up on other paths across the county, but it's not known how widespread the practice is because nobody tracks the information, said Katie Magers, a spokeswoman for the Rails-to- Trails Conservancy, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., that promotes rail trail construction.
Magers said she uses the W&OD Railroad Trail in the Arlington, Va., area, and occasionally sees house-for-sale signs there. The trail is the most popular in the nation, drawing 3 million users annually.
"I guess it's an easy way to house shop," she said. "Since so many people use the trail, it makes sense."
The growing number of for-sale signs along the Minuteman Bikeway is raising concerns in Lexington that it might detract from the natural beauty of the area. Stewart Kennedy, chairman of the Lexington Bicycle Advisory Committee, wrote a letter to selectmen this year about for-sale signs cropping up on the path. A couple of signs this spring were placed in the right of way, near the path's pavement, which is forbidden.
Kennedy, however, said selectmen are not considering any zoning changes that would prevent homeowners from advertising house sales on their property.
"It's like a ride through the country, even in the town center a commercial zone you see trees and the back of houses," Kennedy said. "We don't want it to look like an advertising or commercial district. It would be like riding down Route 1 in Saugus."