REALTOR® PROfile: Rocky DeVon

Rocky DeVon - REALTOR PROfile

REALTOR® PROfile: Rocky DeVon
Spring 2016

Fighting Fires & Selling Real Estate from Mountaintops

By Bridget McCrea

The summer of 2014 wasn’t very kind to Oroville, WA, nor did it spare very much of the region surrounding this 1,740-resident town. In July of that year, the Carlton Complex Fire severely impacted Okanogan County—a rural region situated south of the Canadian border—nearly bringing the entire community to its knees.

Burning more than 250,000 acres in total, the fire destroyed 300 homes in and around the towns of Pateros and Malott, as well as in rural Okanogan County. As it carved a path of destruction through the state’s largest county (by area), the fire destroyed businesses, homes, farms, and other vital pieces of infrastructure. Ignited by lightning strikes, the Carlton Complex Fire stands as the largest single wildfire in Washington State’s recorded history.

Before it died out, the Carlton Complex Fire would burn 256,000 acres of land and 312 homes—45 percent of which were uninsured. Known for their pride and independence, residents of the impacted areas weren’t likely to ask for outside help on their own. “It’s about 50 miles from my office to the nearest traffic light,” says Rocky DeVon, broker-owner at RE/MAX Lake and Country in Oroville. “We’re pretty accustomed to handling things on our own.”

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A Second Devastating Blow

Just when DeVon was starting to think that life could start returning to normal, history would unfortunately repeat itself the following year. In August 2015, the Okanogan Complex Fire—comprised of five separate fires—would have a devastating impact on Oroville and the surrounding area, burning an astounding 509,739 acres.

One out of every 10 homes threatened by the fire would wind up succumbing to it. “Our firefighters were pretty amazing; they fought the fire while the windows and siding were literally melting off the homes,” DeVon recalls. “They repeated this process on 300 to 400 homes, 189 of which were completely lost to the fire.”

To put the scene in perspective, DeVon uses the Seattle Space Needle and its surrounding area to paint a picture of what his beloved hometown looked like during the tragic event. “Imagine going up into the Space Needle and walking around the observation deck,” says DeVon, “and seeing fire in every direction as far as you can see. Even that isn’t far enough to see the end of this fire.”

The county has lost 2-1/2 percent of its housing stock over the last two years—a significant number in a region where there were only 19,000 houses to begin with. The loss has greatly impacted the rental market, which is “basically nonexistent at this point,” says DeVon. So while real estate markets across the country and throughout the state of Washington are being positively impacted by overall economic recovery, Okanogan County is not. “Rural America is struggling, and we’re still recovering from back-to-back, far-reaching fires,” says DeVon. “It’s a tough situation.”

Rising from the Ashes

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Originally named “Oro” in 1892 because of the surrounding gold mines and the gold panning and dredging in the Similkameen River, Oroville’s name was changed to its current iteration in 1909. According to the city’s Chamber of Commerce, gold gave way to Red and Golden Delicious apples and now cherries, grapes, and other fruit irrigated by the abundant water supply found in this watered desert that receives under 12” of rain a year. Situated at the west end of the Okanogan Highlands, a region known for its rolling hills of forest and natural meadows, Oroville encompasses much public land, three local wineries, and one brewery.

Like many rural American towns, Oroville has faced more than its fair share of challenges over the last few years. In addition to the devastation inflicted by the fires, the town is home to a large number of residents who live below the poverty line (28.9 percent versus a statewide 10.6 percent), a high disability rate (27 percent versus 13.9 percent for the state), and a median worker income of $19,315 (versus a $29,701 national average). The region’s lumber industry was hit particularly hard in recent years, according to DeVon, with sawmill closures removing about 200 jobs from the market. “When you’re talking about a town of 4,500,” says DeVon, “the loss of 200 jobs is huge.”

The situation in Okanogan County right now breaks DeVon’s heart while also pushing him to play an even more active role in helping the hometown of his youth return to some semblance of normalcy. For example, DeVon helped provide disaster relief for victims of the fires. Working with the executive director of the region’s REALTOR® association, he learned about the REALTOR® Relief Fund and helped make application for funding at both a state and national level (the latter of which had to approve a “match” for the funding).

“We got on a phone conference with everyone and I explained how this fire had ravaged our county for 43 straight days,” says DeVon. “We were literally cut off from the rest of the world for 10 of those days. Once they heard that and understood our story, the funding was approved.”

In real estate for 14 years, this broker-owner at RE/MAX Lake and Country in Oroville was born into a family of apple orchardists and cattle ranchers. When the apple industry went through a major downturn in 2000, DeVon was forced to stop producing fruit on orchards his family had been farming for 111 years.

“My family is older than the statehood,” says DeVon, who for 10 years served as a reserve deputy sheriff for the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Department. Married to a real estate broker, he decided to take a similar route and later opened a RE/MAX office with his spouse, Cindy DeVon. “RE/MAX has 50 percent of the market share in Canada,” DeVon explains. “We knew that the name recognition with Canadian buyers/sellers would be much higher if we went with this franchise, so that’s why we picked it.”

High-End Buyers are Hard to Find

DeVon, who has a full-time assistant and would like at some point to add more brokers to his company’s roster, depends heavily on Canadian business that’s recently been impacted by the uneven exchange rate. “They’re getting 70 cents on the dollar right now, so there really are no Canadians coming across the border to shop—a trend that’s impacting a lot of our local businesses,” DeVon explains. “On the real estate side, that has reduced the number of high-end buyers coming here to buy lakefront property.”

When currency rates are more favorable, Canadian buyers typically seek out homes in the $500,000-plus-price range—a significant increase over Oroville’s average home sales price of $115,000 (20-acre properties sell for an average of $35,000). “You have to sell a lot of those to make a living,” says Devon, who closed 46 transaction sides in 2015. “At this point, I’m relying strictly on the locals and Western Washington buyers that come here to buy retirement homes or 20-acre recreational properties.”

One of DeVon’s most interesting deals involved lake-development properties that he was able to help get annexed into the city of Oroville. The exercise was made easier by the fact that DeVon spent eight years as the city’s planning commissioner. And while he had already moved on from that position when the annexing started, the experienced he’d gained helped the process advance much more smoothly. For example, he knew that even though the new development was situated across the water from Oroville, water was not a barrier to annexation.

As a result, the property in question transformed from farming grounds worth $50,000 and into a $1.1 million development. “I didn’t join the planning commission to help my real estate career,” DeVon points out, “but in this case, having that knowledge and education really played out well in helping the project come to fruition.”

Climbing Mountains, Tackling Challenges

The fact that his town is Mayberry-esque by 2016’s standards hasn’t stopped DeVon from fully adopting and using technology to run his practice. On top of the typical tech tools like a lead-generation site, tablets, smartphones, and a social media presence, DeVon learned early in his career that technology could have a profound impact on the way he ran his business. Early on, for example, he was hired as a land agent but didn’t have much experience pinpointing specific, rural properties on a map.

“That was beyond my capabilities,” says DeVon, laughing. To solve the problem, he started using the DeLorme Topo terrain, road, and GPS maps. The product allowed him to “scout” destinations (as if he was physically there), and use 3-D and aerial imagery to pinpoint the properties in question. “I had a laptop with aerial photos on it, and I would ‘split’ the screen (a necessary step because the DeLorme product didn’t show specific parcel lines),” says DeVon, “and then use it to compare where I was versus where I wanted to be.”

As such systems evolved, DeVon integrated geographic information systems (GIS) into his technology stable. Designed to capture, store, manipulate, analyze, manage, and present all types of spatial or geographical data, GIS allowed DeVon to export relevant corner coordinates for any property to his handheld GPS. “I now have the entire county’s parcel map on my GPS and on my phone,” DeVon says. “No matter where I am—or how remote the location is—I can accurately pinpoint the corner coordinates for anyone’s property.”

This type of geo-mapping comes in particularly useful when DeVon is doing something that urban brokers can’t relate to: Sitting down and working with property owners who don’t have Internet accessibility (either Wi-Fi, wired, or 3G/4G wireless access) out in the country. The same system proves its worth when DeVon is climbing mountains in waist-high grass to survey properties in his rural marketplace.

“As far as I know, I’m the only agent in the valley who uses a GIS to identify property and build out my maps,” says DeVon, who also relies heavily on remote access programs that he taps into while away from the office. “I have a virtual private network (VPN) to the office,” DeVon explains. “I’ve been out on the top of a hill where I happened to have cell service. My client asked me for a copy of the map, and I logged into the office from the top of a mountain and emailed him a map from my phone.”

Standing Out from the Crowd

To say DeVon wears a lot of hats would be an understatement. A father of four children, he’s a director for the North Central Washington Association of REALTORS®, a state director for the Washington Association of REALTORS®, and a 20-plus-year Cub Scout and Boy Scout leader. He’s also a three-time past president of the Pacific Northwest Trails Oroville Chapter, a past board member of the National PNTA, and a RE/MAX Hall of Fame award winner.

And if all of that weren’t enough, DeVon is also the only REALTOR® in this marketplace. “Everyone else is a state licensee,” he says. “Being a REALTOR® in a non-REALTOR® market is a big advantage. Not only does it give me access to our association education and knowledge, but I also share referrals back and forth with other members.”

Unlike some other Washington municipalities, Oroville’s real estate market was heavily impacted by the national recession—a long-term event made more challenging by the current Canadian exchange rate. As such, DeVon considers his company—which at one point employed seven brokers—to be in the “rebuilding” stage. For even as one of just two dominant brokers in the area, he says competition for business is fierce. “The Canadian dollar drives major development economy in our area,” says DeVon, “so basically the more favorable exchange rates a few years ago was a once-in-a-lifetime shot.”

Later this year, DeVon hopes to add a few new brokers to his team. For now, he’ll continue to work as a solo broker with the help of an excellent assistant to whom he owes “a large portion” of his success. “I have an incredible assistant,” says DeVon. “I usually introduce myself as working for her; she’s the one who really cracks the whip and gets things done.”

Wildland Fire Photography by Kari Greer

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