GRAND RAPIDS — Being named residential Realtor of the year by the Grand Rapids Association of Realtors (GRAR) in January is just one thing that Betsy Westman is appreciative of this Thanksgiving week. The president, founder and co-owner of Westman Realty also is grateful for having such a wonderful family.
Her husband, John, has been her best friend for over a decade and her business partner for a decade. Her children, Chris, Deb and Lisa, are grown and accomplishing things on their own. And her three grandchildren are her favorite playmates.
“That was a very nice break for me,” she said of the award she earned from GRAR. “It was a real surprise, too.”
Westman began her real estate career about 15 years ago. Until then she worked for U.S. Congressman Harold Sawyer, but when he retired she had to find something new. An attorney and close friend gently pushed her toward residential real estate, a shove that helped her pave a new path in what was then a one-sided field.
“This was before the days of a buyer agency. Buyers were represented by the seller’s agent then. Many people were unaware of that. They thought that the Realtor they were negotiating with was working on their behalf,” said Westman.
Back then the U.S. Department of Commerce released a survey that showed most homebuyers didn’t know that their interests weren’t being represented in a sale, and a movement to represent buyers had just started on the West Coast. So before anyone else thought to do it here, Westman began representing homebuyers.
“I was the first to pioneer a buyer agency then in the Grand Rapids area,” she said.
But it wasn’t all that easy for her to get Betsy Realty rolling then.
“It was an uphill fight. At that point, the then-director of GRAR was very opposed to any kind of change. But it was most rewarding,” said Westman.
“I really established myself quite quickly, but in a small way. That first year I targeted a dozen corporations and ended up working with just three or four,” she added. “But that was enough to spread the word, and I really did very well right from the beginning.”
Today, Betsy and John own the business located in the Heritage Hill Historic District, an area in which they also reside. They met while both worked for Sawyer. They got married in 1987. And they became business partners three years later. John is vice president of the firm.
So what’s it like for a husband and wife to work with each other? Especially when they both own a piece of the business? Well, for the Westmans, it works just fine — thank you. But to be fair, you should know they had a pretty good idea that it would work before they tied the knot.
“It’s great. It really is. I don’t think there are too many who could pull it off like we do. But we worked together very closely before. That’s how our friendship developed, working together and counting on each other,” she said.
Westman Realty has remained independent, choosing not to align itself with a national residential broker. That sovereign status has allowed the partners to develop their own image as a company not limited to — but one that specializes in — historic homes.
“We’ve created a nice network of referrals from past clients. Right now we have a listing on the west side and in East Grand Rapids, and we’ve just wrapped up one near Caledonia,” she said. “But most of our listings are in Heritage Hill.”
The Hill, however, is more than just a place to work and hang a hat or two for Westman.
“We just love the sense of community in the historic district,” she said. “It has beautiful homes and a lot of diversity, of not only architecture, but people.”
Westman said the best thing about residential real estate is that the data and detail of the business mixes perfectly with the wants and needs of clients. And after all these years of long hours and evening showings, she said she still gets excited when she fulfills a homebuyer’s dream.
“Especially when they come up to me in the grocery store and say, ‘Oh, I just love it.’ It seems so worthwhile,” she said.
What she wishes she could change about the business is its dependency on factors that are out of a real estate professional’s control. The economy, interest rates and money for schools topped her list of issues that the industry can’t possibly manage, but often has to battle.
“I think that our sales figures will probably look about the same this year as last year. But we do feel the mood of the country is reflected in our business. People are being more cautious, definitely more cautious,” she said.
Besides keeping busy with business and family, Westman also has been active in the city. She has worked on the Historic Preservation Commission and the Zoning Board of Appeals, and currently sits on the GRAR board of directors and Parking Commission.
“I learn a lot at each meeting, that’s for sure. And I have been sensitized to the issues involved in parking, in managing the demand,” she said.
When she isn’t working or serving the city, Westman spends as much of her free time as possible playing with her three grandkids: 8-year-old Casey; 5-year-old Jay; and Maggie, who just turned 3 last week.
“This summer we did a lot of swimming and playing with beach balls. I like to play with those kids. They’re real important to me,” she said. “Casey said that I have things to learn from him and he has things to learn from me, so we exchange our priorities a lot.”
As for her hopes for the immediate future, Westman instinctively reflected the spirit of the upcoming holiday season as she chose to offer hers on a global, rather than personal, level.
“That’s a really tough question because so much has changed in the last few months,” she said “But I think that my hopes are pretty simple. I would hope that this whole terrorism issue will just lessen in importance, and I hope that a lot won’t change.”