Successful real estate agents have a broad knowledge base and diverse skill sets. They are business people who analyze market trends and property values. They are community advocates who understand the impact of land use policy, preservation of open space, and sustainable development. They have artistic sensibilities in regards to architectural styles, landscaping, and design trends. They function as mediators (or even therapists) when buyers and sellers are understandably emotional about their life-impacting decisions.
In Big Sky, last fall, Aaron Kampfe of Western Home Journal sat down with Martha Johnson of Big Sky Real Estate Co., Vivian Bridaham Banta of Big Sky Sotheby’s International Realty, and Peter Young of AmeriMont Real Estate—three top real estate agents in southwest Montana. They shared their observations about the current real estate market, insights from their years of experience, personal approaches to negotiating difficult transactions, and senses of humor. While their job titles might be “real estate brokers,” they are also part-time economists, politicians, design experts, and psychologists.
whj : What is fueling the strong real estate market in your respective areas?
Vivian: In Bozeman, the hipness has been discovered. While a lot of people come for the safety and top-rated schools, many come for the cultural aspects that Bozeman has to offer—the symphony, museums, Emerson Center, art galleries, university, and restaurants. I would characterize this as “the mountain town urban experience.” It has become very hip.
One type of buyer is seeking a property that is within or close to the downtown corridor. The result is a demand for new or remodeled townhomes, mid-rise condos, and renovated historic buildings—like the Willson Residences on Main. If the properties are well-designed with good architecture, they will maintain their value for years to come.
Peter: In Gallatin County, access to recreation is fueling the market. Buyers want to be able to easily fish, horseback ride, hike, and ski. Much of America doesn’t have access to such a variety of recreation. The Gallatin River Ranch is a perfect example of a property that offers it all—access to a beautiful river, miles of hiking and horseback riding trails, and skiing within an hour at Bridger Bowl and Big Sky. I’m originally from back East, so I get it—the lifestyle, mystique, and mountains of Montana. That lifestyle is driven by recreation.
Martha: When I first moved here 30 years ago, Big Sky was a sleepy, guest ranch community with a ski hill. The natural beauty was gifted to us from Mother Nature—blue-ribbon trout streams running right through town, vast tracks of wilderness, proximity to Yellowstone National Park, and a truly world-class ski experience. We had an amazing asset but without the business acumen to bring it along.
Over the years, it has been fun to fit the puzzle pieces to make it come together. I think for Big Sky the core anchors are the school expanding to 12th grade and having the added layer of an International Baccalaureate Program; something as simple as a supermarket; and the hospital. These anchors give our client base, mostly second homeowners, a comfort level.
One thing about Big Sky is that you’re not anonymous. It’s not like arriving in Vail or another big resort where you’ll go into the market and no one will ever recognize you. Here you go someplace two times and people will make an effort to know your name—even if you’re in for just a week’s vacation.
whj : What are buyers looking for in terms ofarchitecture and design?
Vivian: I find that buyers are looking for more contemporary houses. The architects in Bozeman are responding to that demand and designing homes that have a Montana rustic charm with a modern feel.
Peter: I see both ends of the spectrum in the Gallatin Valley. One type of buyer is looking for classic, older homes that have the small-town comfort—that historic charm. These homes are usually smaller and more affordable to buy. Other buyers are looking for high-tech features like solar power and in-floor radiant heat.
Martha: In Big Sky the most important thing is the view—what you see out the window. Bar none, no matter where we are, I ask people, “Are you a nester or a percher? Do you want to get nestled in the woods or see the views of the mountains?”
People are more conscientious of having a sustainable home. We’re finding that geo-thermal heating and cooling is really big. Reclaimed materials are very popular even in the very high-end homes. I’m seeing organic materials that say “Montana”—log and hewn timbers and native stone.
whj : What new developments are coming online or are already online that get you excited?
Martha: Up in Big Sky new neighborhoods within Moonlight offer a variety of options—lakeside cabins, slopeside townhomes, secluded custom houses, and larger buildable lots. Within Spanish Peaks are The Highlands, a neighborhood surrounded by old-growth pines; Inspiration Point, which are townhomes; and larger tracts of land that function as generational family compounds.
Peter: Even in small-town Manhattan, Montana, we’ve seen a boom with a new development downtown and the Pioneer Crossing subdivision. It sat dormant for years, but has recently taken off. The first two phases are nearly sold out. It’s got sidewalks, open park space, and walking/biking trails geared towards families.
Martha: In Big Sky it’s been a slow burn. Nothing happens overnight. I’ve been around since 1988 when there was very little development. Our private powder and fishing in Big Sky has been discovered by those seeking a connection with mother nature outside of lift lines and traffic. Some of the brightest business minds in the country have taken notice and are investing both time and capital to ensure sustainable and desirable growth. Build it and they will come. Essentially it is building blocks. For growth you need the commercial to support residential and you need residential to support commercial. It’s really exciting. It’s fun being able to spend a half a day poking around the shops in Town Center and having restaurant options.
The private club developments—Spanish Peaks, Moonlight, and the Yellowstone Club—provide a community base within a community. Families aren’t alone in the middle-of-nowhere Montana. In a typical ski town, you’re not going to go over to a stranger and strike up a conversation. In Big Sky Town Center and the private clubs, you invest your social capital because you’re part of a community. You’ll see neighbors time and time again. Your kids will see these other kids again. That is also true for the staff members who are also part of the community.
whj : Share a unique listing you’ve recently or currently have.
Peter: Up on the Gallatin River Ranch we had a property on the market that was featured in the Parade of Homes. The house is state-of-the-art and the first of its kind on the Ranch. It’s a 100% solar home that not only leaves a minimal environmental footprint, but is also trend-setting in its design. One of the top features of the Gallatin River Ranch is the views. The huge south-facing windows not only expose the panoramic views of the valley floor, Gallatin River, and several mountain ranges, they also function as passive solar energy collectors.
Vivian: The North Ridge Ranch up at Fairy Lake is the only in-holding within the Bridger Range. It is very rare. A famous conservationist who looked at it this summer referred to it as “Bridger National Park.” There is a two-and-half-mile private driveway into the buildings. The setting is incredibly peaceful as the main compound is surrounded by national forest at the base of the Bridgers. The 640-acre recreation ranch is listed at $4.75M. In addition to the main house, there are two cabins. The property has a conservation easement with the Montana Land Reliance with the ability for four additional home sites. It’s only 30-40 minutes to downtown Bozeman and 5-10 minutes to Bridger Bowl ski area.
Martha: In Big Sky there are so many options from fabulous condos to plots of land to gorgeous ski-in/ski-out homes but one of my most unique listings is a ranch just outside of West Yellowstone called the Deep Well Ranch. It is one of the coolest stories I’ve ever had the opportunity to be a part of. The sellers’ grandfather was Charles Hamilton who started the Hamilton Stores in Yellowstone National Park. The ranch has 1,580 acres and the original family cabin is full of artifacts. The amount of Americana in this ranch is absolutely staggering. People go into museums to see these unique types of items. One example is an 1800s bar that was brought from England on a ship around Cape Horn and then by stagecoach from San Francisco. The family is the biggest donor to the Museum of the Rockies. For me, it is an honor to be asked to handle such a complex and treasure of a family legacy property.
whj : What are some of the political challenges of your respective jurisdictions?
Peter: Within all local governing bodies are people with different ideas of how the land can and should be used. It is a challenging job and sometimes there isn’t a middle ground.
My perspective is that it’s not our land in the long term. The Lord gave us the land to be good stewards of it. When the governing officials take this point of view into consideration, better decisions are made.
Martha: Greater Big Sky is challenging because there is no municipal government and the area spans two counties. If any entity could unite the area into one incorporated district, it would be the resort tax district. We do have a resort tax board and they are all elected. Fortunately, the people here in our community are like-minded in that they want to preserve the open space and identify for clustered developments as well as higher density.
Back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, I was on the zoning and planning board for Big Sky because there was no zoning until the mid-‘90s. In Big Sky, there is always a seat at the table if you’re interested. Each community has its own CCRs (Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions); HOAs (Home Owners Associations); and design guidelines. Just because there isn’t an umbrella blanket government, doesn’t mean we’re not working together with common goals and values. Big Sky has educated and involved community members willing to share their experiences and guidance – it is very collaborative which makes it such an appealing community to live in!
Vivian: Our non-profits and conservation groups have a very important role in how land is developed and managed. I was a charter member of the Gallatin Valley Land Trust that started in 1990 and now, years later, the trail system and preservation of open space is a driving force behind the success of Bozeman and the Gallatin Valley.
whj : What are some of your strategies with buyers and sellers to keep emotions in balance?
Martha: Whether it’s twenty dollars or twenty million, there are emotions evolved. My job is to boil down options, present the best, and talk through the pros and cons of each one. The due diligence leads to the end result. If one has done the meaningful research and shared this with the client, there are no surprises. Surprises, even if it is good news, rock emotions and delay progress.
Vivian: I get buyers to get out and walk on the land. Being in nature reduces their stress and allows them to see possibilities.
Peter: When dealing with people—be it buyers, sellers, other agents, lawyers, or accountants—I want to respond, not react. Anyone involved in the transaction might already be emotional and if I have a knee-jerk reaction, it can only fuel already high emotions. Instead I consciously take a beat and am careful with my comments. I’ll say something like, “That is a good question. Let me think about it and I’ll get back to you.”
whj : Share a funny experience you’ve had while selling real estate.
Martha: I have some funny stories about showing real estate when my boys were really little. I couldn’t afford daycare and there weren’t very many options available in Big Sky back then. Charlie, who was four at the time, was in the back seat, the third-row seat. We had clients in the car. After seeing some lots, they were exasperated and asked, “What’s your favorite piece of land, Martha?” And Charlie piped up from the back seat, “Mom, show them Big EZ Lot Seven.”
Peter: When you’re first starting out in this business, you’re gung ho. In your excitement, you don’t always think through details.
I had a couple who wanted to see a house and I hadn’t been there before. So I get directions from the office and out we go. I’m driving and they’re following me in their car. Unknowingly, I pass the turn-off and keep going about four miles before I realize I’m lost. When I pull over, get out of the car, and speak with the clients, the husband is boiling mad. I say, “I think I missed the turn-off.”
He says, “I know. We’ve been flashing our lights at you for four miles!” So we turn around, see the house, and I never saw them again after that.
Vivian: You learn a lot from your clients. I was working with a heavy-duty CEO on a ranch purchase. I always feel it is important to get out and walk on the land. I was showing him a 640-acre ranch near Fairy Lake along the Bridger Mountain Range. We went out walking on the property and after a while I said, “Let’s turn left here and head to the western boundary.”
He said, “No, that is north.”
Well, you don’t want to argue with a client but you don’t want to get lost either. So after a few back and forths I had to acquiesce and admit I wasn’t 100% sure of where we were. Fortunately, he had a better sense of direction than I do. He really knew where he was. We laugh about it to this day and our friendship continues.
Martha: I was showing a 160-acre tract to a very famous actor. It’s spring and it’s wet and it’s muddy. We go out in a Ranger and get bogged down in mud; we’re stuck. I don’t have the right shoes. I always have my heels on. The client says to me, “You can’t walk out in those.”
I say, “Oh, yes I can!”
And he says, “No, you can’t.”
He was right of course. He then says, “Get on my back. I’ll give you a piggy-back ride.”
I only could say, “Okay…” We’ve laughed about it for years.
whj : Location. Location. Location.
The Real Estate Round Table was held at a Big Sky residence called New Moose Creek. When the home was completed in 2006, a pregnant mama moose wandered into the backyard that first spring and gave birth on the lawn while the human family watched. Thus the home was anointed New Moose Creek.
John Seelye of Big Sky Build was the contractor who built the house. He says, “New Moose Creek is one of my favorite projects in my twenty-plus years of building homes in Big Sky. The house is the type of home where I’d like my family to live. The owners put so much passion into designing the house and were intimately involved in every detail. They selected a very well-respected architectural firm in Bozeman—Comma Q. Architecturally, there are a lot of lines to the house and hidden structural components, but everything is high-quality and solid. The owners were ahead of their time in terms of materials and building practices. They didn’t cut corners.”
The property is currently on the market for just under $3M and listed by Tallie Lancey of Big Sky Sotheby’s International Realty. Tallie says, “The 5-bedroom/5-bath home sits on 6 acres with the Middle Fork of the Gallatin River running through it. You can walk, bike, or cross-country ski into Town Center and be downtown within minutes. You have all the amenities of Big Sky yet in a private cul-de-sac.”