When Robby Collins graduated from Wake Forest law school in 2000, his only plan was to start an office in Wilmington. With an undergraduate degree in engineering, he knew he liked numbers, and some previous work on real estate law set him on his path.
“You come out of school as a lawyer. I started my own practice the day I passed the bar,” Collins said of his first office, a 100-square-foot space on Walnut Street downtown. “I had just a taste of real estate law. I liked the transactions more than the adversary position.”
This was September 2000. The late 90s tech bubble was just about to burst. This was a year before a group of terrorists changed the daily feeling of being an American, and many years before a housing craze infused with exotic mortgage products would turn the global economy upside down.
“I decided real estate (law) was the direction to go,” Collins said.
Collins began work as a closing attorney, finalizing mortgages for a $500 fee, the industry standard in Southeastern North Carolina.
“We are responsible for the buyer getting the right property free and clear,” Collins said of his role as a closing attorney. “We are the hub of the wheel for the money. All the money comes in, and we’re responsible to get it to the right places.”
Collins work started slowly.
“The first couple years you start, you’re doing six closings a month. Then 12 closings a month,” Collins said.
Then things began to change. In 2002, Collins’ younger brother Andy joined the firm from Wake Forest law school. Collins and Collins was born. Things really began to change in 2003, Robby Collins said.
“We saw the big spike in 2003,” Collins said. “The market starts to grow really quickly.”
Before 2003, according to Collins, interest rates hovered around 7.5 percent. In 2003, for the first time in years, rates dropped.
“It dropped from 7.5 to 6 percent. A 1.5 rate boom? Everybody (refinanced). (Rates) had been steady for so long, when it got to 6 percent everybody did it,” Collins said.
“We were slammed.”
Collins said his workload increased dramatically. From 2003 to 2006, the firm averaged more than 75 closings a month. The story has been repeated many times now, but as rates continued to decline, housing prices kept rising at a dramatic pace.
“2005 was when people started buying and flipping. The market was going up so fast,” he said. “There would be bidding wars on a listing. It was insane.”
As business grew, Collins and Collins needed more office space. In 2007, the law firm purchased a 2,500-square-foot office on Racine Drive. But Collins began noticing the business losing steam.
“It never just dropped. It just slowly went down. In 2008, I realized people were done,” Collins said.
In 2008 and 2009, Collins said people started to realize the homes they had purchased no longer were worth the price they paid. Many homeowners found themselves upside down on mortgages, and the housing market, and economy as a whole, suffered because of it. Collins and Collins was not immune to market conditions.
Towards the end of 2008, some attorneys at the firm went without pay, however, administrative staff continued to receive their paychecks. Closings dropped 50 percent from previous levels in 2006.
As the firm struggled, Andy Collins pursued another interest and took the patent bar.
“The market kept declining on us. (Andy) ended up taking a job with the U.S. Patent Office,” Collins said.
“We struggled to keep our business. We watched a lot of our competitors go out of business,” Collins said.
“Since then we’ve been able to adjust our business. We had to cut cost,” Collins said. “We had to tighten the reins down. We were able to keep our office and all of our staff. We were really lucky.”
“We were able to weather the storm because we were established. We had five years before the boom really hit us. We had our systems right,” Collins said.
Collins said that business has since picked back up.
“I don’t want this to sound like a sob story. Things are going well. We are moving forward.
“In the last 18 months we’ve seen a huge influx of short sales, foreclosures and REO sales,” Collins said.
“We’re doing more volume. The business has gotten a lot more complicated,” Collins said. “There’s a lot more work in the sales.”
Collins said it is important for homeowners to know how to handle each unique situation. He stressed the importance of working with the right Realtor with short sale knowledge to prevent a foreclosure. And he knows from experience.
Collins bought a beach property in Brunswick County, and when the development went into foreclosure, Collins knew it was time to unload the property.
“You pay to get out of it, but you’re happy to be done with it,” Collins said of the short sale of his Brunswick County property.
He said his experience allows him a broader perspective working with clients now going through similar situations. But, Collins also stressed that homeowners need to work with experts.
“I’m a transactional attorney,” Collins said. “I’m not in the business of negotiating short sales. I do closings. We do short sale closings.”
Collins recently gained certification from the North Carolina Bar as a short sale specialist and he recommends sellers look to local firms to handle negotiations.
“I’ve seen it from every angle. There are so many scams out there,” Collins said, imploring Wilmington residents to use local experts rather than 800 numbers or out-of-state businesses.
“For consumer protection, start with… (a) local, reputable company,” Collins said. “I’m certainly not an analyst. I‘ve just seen things. We’ve been through it.”
Looking back, Collins had no idea how things would play out when he opened that office on Walnut Street.
“We’re still a real estate law firm,” Collins said. “We’re stubborn and hard fast set on doing it.”
Collins considers the future bright at his firm. He expects his brother to return to Wilmington in a few years and apply his patent knowledge.
“I think people are no longer scared to buy. It’s good,” Collins said. “It’s why purchase numbers are starting to improve.”
Collins sees a lot of young couples and military personnel looking to buy houses in the Wilmington area, though his experience makes him skeptical that the market has bottomed out.
“I believe we’re approaching the bottom of the market. Realtors might be upset with me, but I wouldn’t bet that we’ve hit it. It’s scary for me to say that,” Collins said.
“We’ve got to make that turn,” he said. “Hopefully, prices will recover quickly.”
Regardless if or when the market bottoms out, Collins navigated his law firm through the same turmoil that took down Wall Street titans and other real estate law firms.
“Since we started on a such a high note, we were able to pay off school loans and business debt,” Collins said of the boom years at his firm. “We have no business debt. We paid a lot of our office loan down during the peak.”
Collins is also reaching personal milestones. On May 14, Collins married his longtime girlfriend Sabrena, and last month Collins served as the Secretary of the Azalea Festival. He is scheduled to be Azalea Festival president in 2016.
Collins said that 2010 ended very strong, though the first quarter of 2011 was a struggle.
“The second quarter of 2011 has been very strong. The last two years have been better. Over the last four months interest rates on government loans dropped a full point. It brings us back to a point where people are excited to buy again.”
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