Still Selling

By Hannah Wallace October 31, 2007

Last year, in a bleak period for real estate, Howard Rooks opened a real estate office on St. Armands Key, Rooks-Morris Realty, and sold millions in luxury homes and commercial properties.

And although Rooks says sales are slow right now, he seems to be doing more than just holding his own in a cold-as-ice market. “We moved our office to St. Armands less than a year ago,” he says. “During that time, we’ve done in excess of $50 million.”

While he admits that impressive figure includes some deals that haven’t yet closed, Rooks remains excited about his company’s progress. “We now have a staff of 14 agents and we really haven’t recruited; we’ve been highly successful in a short period of time,” he says. “You have to consider the fact we’re a new company and it’s been a down market.”

Rooks, who, at 73, has devoted 45 years to the business of real estate, says there’s no secret to his success. “I work hard—always have, always will,” he says. “I flunked retirement. I could never just stop and do nothing. It’s that insatiable need to feel productive.” As evidence, he recently journeyed to the wealthy country of Dubai in an attempt to create an interest in Sarasota’s high-end real estate market.

His own roots are not nearly so glamorous, and his career wasn’t always an uphill ride. Originally from North Carolina—he remembers long days spent picking tobacco on his parents’ small farm—Rooks relocated to northern Virginia after graduating from East Carolina University. To this day, he’s very supportive of his alma mater, where he has set up a scholarship fund. “They even named a lecture hall after me,” he says.

During the early 1960s, Rooks was a teacher completing graduate work at the University of Maryland. He and his wife were in the process of purchasing their first home. And that’s when the truth about the realtor who sold them the house hit home.

“That guy made more in one day than I could in a month as a school teacher,” Rooks says.

Almost immediately after, he earned his realtor’s license and landed a job at a local office. After five years there, Rooks was ready for more responsibility. “I was a minority partner, and I felt that certain things weren’t being revealed to me,” he says. “So I left and started Mount Vernon Real Estate in 1968.”

He also took 27 out of 28 employees with him. “I had to rush out immediately and open a second office,” he says. “I’m blessed that people seem to enjoy working with me. I stress with me and not for me.”

Over the next two decades, Rooks grew Mount Vernon Realty to more than 2,000 agents in 35 offices. “We covered a 50-mile radius—the entire Washington, D.C. area,” he says. “It was a lot of hard work. [The growth of the business] took place over a period of 20-plus years; it wasn’t an overnight thing.”

But then, in 1989, Washington, D.C.’s once-booming real estate market crashed—hard. According to the Washington Business Journal, Rooks got into trouble with his own real estate investments and filed for personal bankruptcy in 1991, listing $108.2 million in liabilities and $36.1 million in assets. He told the Journal his own money problems had nothing to do with Mount Vernon.

Today, Rooks refuses to discuss the bankruptcy, focusing instead on tenaciously maintaining his optimism for what lies ahead. “It doesn’t do me any good to dwell on the past and not the future,” he says. “I sold the company; I stayed on to run it. Once the market came back, I made some good investments.”

Rooks sold his interest in Mount Vernon in 1991, but continued to manage the company through 1996. “At the end of five years,” he says, “I was ready to do something else.”

Rooks had been coming to Sarasota since 1970 (he opened a Mt. Vernon office here in 1984), and his “retirement” after 28 years at the company he founded meant he could now live on the Suncoast fulltime. He moved here in 1999, and then slowly began to get involved in a few development projects.

His daughter, Lisa Rooks Morris, and son-in-law, Robert Morris, often visited from Indianapolis, and moved to Sarasota four years ago. Rooks-Morris worked for Michael Saunders before she started Rooks-Morris Realtors with her father and husband two years ago.

“We began with real estate investments,” says sRooks. “When we first started, it was primarily our own transactions; then we had other people who wanted to join us. As we developed our sales staff, we began brokering transactions for other people, and then formed a brokerage company. We had a few good people join us. It’s a boutique business, specializing in high-end properties.”

Today his company holds the lion’s share of listings in Lido Shores and also boasts choice properties on Siesta and Longboat keys. “We’ve got listings pretty much all over town,” he says, “with a focus on barrier islands and downtown.”

Rooks invests in both commercial and residential high-end real estate, and is one of the developers (the others are contractors Pat Ball and Rick Carlisle, and architect Guy Peterson) of The Houses of Indian Beach, a modernistic enclave of 23 single-family homes going up in one of Sarasota’s oldest neighborhoods, just south of the Ringling Museum.

Although the project is a couple of years old, no pre-sales have been recorded, and the original plan that had Peterson designing a specific home for each lot has evolved into one where buyers can hire their own architect. “We slowed down because of the market,” Rooks says. “We’re finishing the infrastructure. Then we’ll start a model house; interested people can buy and do their own thing, or we can build it for them and Guy can design it for them if they wish.”

According to Rooks, delays in the project were due to permitting issues and neighborhood opposition, which, he says, “were uncalled for, frankly. But it’s going to be a wonderful project. It’s becoming a sought-after area.”

Rooks’ partnership with Peterson came about because of a mutual respect for modern design, and many of Rooks’ listings are designed in that style. “He’s a patron of modern architecture and is helping to support it. Our landscape will benefit from it,” Peterson says. And Rooks respects Peterson’s work enough that he had him design his own home on Morningside Drive in Lido Shores.

Peterson also designed last spring’s high-profile Symphony Designer Showcase home in Lido Shores. “I was contacted by the West Coast Symphony,” Rooks explains. “Every year, their main fund raiser is a showcase house; each room is furnished by various designers. [During the home tour] 5,000 people came through in three weeks.” (Incidentally, at press time, the 8,200-square-foot, six-bedroom, eight-bath waterfront home, which boasts a home theater, party room, wine cellar, three-car garage and beach access, is still on market. It can be yours for $9,875,000, even though it is appraised at $10.5 million, and Rooks says he is “highly motivated to sell.”)

Rooks’ business philosophy has always been about maintaining a positive attitude—no matter what obstacles lay ahead—and surrounding himself with the best people. “At the risk of being trite, the glass is half full,” he says. “I seek out advice of people around me. If I have a good staff, then the company will do well.”

The growth of his new business is already evident, even during this slow time: Rooks-Morris Realtors now employs 14 agents. Rooks recently brought on board Stephen Weeks, a former Florida Budget Realty realtor who specialized in selling modest modular houses made by Palm Harbor Homes. “There’s certainly a market for prefabricated homes,” Rooks says. “It just gives us another arm for our services.”

And in September, Rooks opened a second office on St. Armands Circle. “The new location is across the street from Foxy Lady,” he says. “There’s much better visibility; people can see us, park and walk in without having to go upstairs.”

As far as the current market goes, Rooks advises people to strike before the iron gets hot.

“I do sincerely believe it’s a great opportunity for people to buy,” he says. “I believe prices have pretty much bottomed out; I think a year from now we’ll be really swinging again. I’ve been in this business 40-some years, and I’ve never seen a time when residential real estate was worth less three years later; within five years there’s always an increase in value.”

If Rooks’ logic holds true, the market should begin to show significant signs of improvement in 2008.

“I’m not saying it’s not OK to wait,” he says. “I just wouldn’t wait very long!” 

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