“We’ve been in business since 1949, so we’ve actually completed 70 years,” Phillip Varela said. “We’re a third-generation, independently owned real estate company here in Santa Fe. We’re really proud of that.”
Varela Real Estate goes back to 1949, when Frank Gomez, Phillip’s grandfather, sold insurance in the Lensic Building before moving out to Cerrillos Road.
Frank’s daughter, Susan Varela, worked for him when she was in high school (at Loretto Academy) then joined him in the real estate and insurance business in 1972. She bought the business in 1984 and six years later built the current building at 1526 Cerrillos Road.
Phillip talked about the old days, when business was often done with just a handshake. “There were just a few brokers in town and they kind of created the MLS, getting together and it was all done on paper, looking at the inventory they each had.
“You could buy a South Capitol home for $8,000. It’s unbelievable how much it’s changed. It’s cool to talk to a client who says, ‘Your grandfather sold me this home way back when for $2,500 and my payments were $18 a month,’ and I’m actually able to sometimes still help those clients or their kids.”
He spoke with pride about the fact that his mother was one of the few woman qualifying brokers in the United States when she took over Varela Real Estate. Susan is now retired; Phillip took the reins about eight years ago.
Today the firm has 14 brokers and a staff, including Phillip’s wife, Raquel, who works in the business as its bookkeeper. “We’re not all related, but we operate this business like a family,” he said. “It’s all based on service.”
The Varela company is a little different from the average company in town, because of the importance of commercial management. “We manage a great deal of commercial properties. The other brokers that we have do the residential sales and I do most of the commercial sales and management. We keep up the physical integrity of the properties, collect all the rents, pay all the bills.”
He said Varela Real Estate manages hundreds of units today. “And there’s probably not a shopping center in town that we haven’t managed in some aspect.”
Susan Varela liked being involved in multifamily properties, but now the company only works in that part of the industry for select clients.
The real-estate market today is lopsided, with many prospective buyers and few available houses. “The National Association of Realtors says we have the lowest inventory of homes nationally since 1993,” Phillip said. “In most markets there are lots and lots of buyers and not many sellers. I’ve never seen numbers like we have right now.”
Although this imbalance is often described as a seller’s market, the potential seller is inhibited by the same problem: it might be easy to sell your house and get a fairly good price, but you’re going to have to spend more for the house you’re buying, too.
“The economy is good, consumer sentiment is good, interest rates are super-low, there’s like no fear. There are tons of buyers who want to invest, but there aren’t enough sellers to keep up with it. It’s actually kind of scary,” the broker said.
Phillip and Raquel find relief from the challenges of the business world spending time in the mountains and camping with their two children. He also enjoys playing golf and hunting and fishing.
Varela Real Estate engages in philanthropic activities when there’s time. “My mother always did it and we’ve volunteered and made donations, whether it’s the New Mexico Community Foundation, St. Elizabeth Shelter, or the American Cancer Society,” Phillip said. In 2018, the realty gave 100 turkeys to The Food Depot for Thanksgiving. “We try to be part of the community.”
And Varela Real Estate is pretty close to the middle of the community these days. While most realty firms are in the downtown area, this one is a couple of miles out — and a couple of miles closer to the burgeoning south side.
“Yeah, we’re doing a lot of new starts, helping builders and doing leasing and management on the south side,” he said. “We’ve been here for 70 years. I started working here when I was like 12 years old, helping my mom and pulling weeds at our properties.”
Asked how they fared during and after the recession of 2007-2009, Phillip said, “It was painful, but it made you a better broker. Nobody wanted to purchase or sell and that’s when I started looking at all sorts of different ways to use my license to make money because you couldn’t just get fat on residential sales anymore.
“I think there’s another shift coming on and the people who got in the business recently will become better brokers because of it.”