By offering up some serious house hacks and a wealth of knowledgeable insights, Realtor Kristina Modares is helping make homebuying in Austin affordable and bringing more millennials to the closing table—all while creating a welcoming community in a real-estate boomtown.
When potential homebuyers walk into Open House Austin, they’re greeted with the aesthetics of the millennial tech generation: ample natural light, an open floor plan and minimalist furniture that is both functional and cozy. With a large wooden deck perfect for parties, a modern design and a large trailer on-site that’s home to LeverCraft coffee, it fits in well with the new buildings and homes popping up in East Austin.
But it has one major difference: Its purpose is not only to serve the young, hip Austin transplants who want to buy a home, but also to provide a community center for longtime East Austin residents and a place where nonprofits can hold events at no cost.
It’s one of myriad ways Kristina Modares, a Realtor with Realty Austin, is leading the charge to transform Austin’s traditional real- estate industry into something that considers social impact as well as profit.
“It’s been my goal to really make it a place for native Austinites,” says Modares, who bought the building with her business partner, Stephanie Douglass, who’s also with Realty Austin, in late 2018 and opened its doors to the public this summer after spending months revamping the dilapidated building into a modern, welcoming space. “We’re figuring out how to attract the longtime residents. We’ve invited a local rapper to perform there. We’ve planned Halloween festivities for the community. It’s very important to me that this space becomes a gathering place for everyone.”
Building community and serving others have been the guiding principles Modares has used to build her career in real estate, both as a Realtor and investor. She’s building her business with a more modern, heartfelt approach, finding her niche customers and becoming an expert in what they need, sharing her knowledge freely through social media and blogs, and even writing a book, How to Buy a House in Austin, so homeowners, particularly first-timers, don’t have to come in blind as they make a huge financial decision.
On her website, openhouseaustin.co, Modares breaks down all the information about her key buyers, from their age (mostly millennials) to their income concerns, whether they partnered with someone to purchase and how much their mortgage is. Her goal is transparency, something she thought was missing when she first started house hunting herself.
“When I was trying to buy my first home here, I was shocked by how little information I was being given,” she says. “I spent so much time looking for a home, and when I finally found it, my agent asked for my preapproval letter. I had no idea that was required and I didn’t end up qualifying for a loan. I realized that if I was having this experience, many other first-time homebuyers were probably too.”
With this experience, a new door opened for Modares. Like many people in their early 20s, she was still figuring out her career path and waiting for her adult life to start. With a degree that helped her hone in on work in the events industry, she worked with various event-management companies in Austin. She then decided to start a clothing line with a friend, and when that didn’t work out, she opened a vintage clothing store on Etsy that brought in just enough money to pay the bills. She knew she had a mind for business and wanted to invest in real-estate properties, but she hadn’t yet found the problem she needed to solve—until she had her own frustrating experience of trying to buy a home.
As she worked for her real-estate license, she decided to dedicate herself to helping first-time homebuyers avoid her fate and, moreover, help people find creative ways to afford a house. It took her six months after earning her license to land her first clients (she had planned the couple’s wedding, so they trusted her to help secure their first home). Many people told her she shouldn’t limit her target customer to first-time homebuyers, but Modares knew there was a huge group of young people who would love to own a home but just needed to learn how to do it in a nontraditional way that would make the investment less risky and more profitable.
“I listened to Tim Ferriss’ podcast and he talked about the importance of your niche audience,” she says. “I knew this was the community I needed to reach and teach them about how to house hack and make owning a home just as affordable as renting.”
It’s advice Modares follows herself. When she finally bought her own small, cheery and cozy East Austin home, she planned to find roommates to help cover the mortgage. She ended up recruiting her boyfriend, Eric Mann, who also owns LeverCraft coffee and rents space at her Open House Austin property for his artisanal brew.
“She is an entrepreneur to the max,” Mann says. “She and Steph had this vision for the [Open House Austin] property, and when I saw it, I was laughing at the thought of even buying the property. I didn’t see what she saw. Having that kind of vision is a gift. She’s a huge inspiration to me in my business as well. I don’t know if I would be where I am if it weren’t for her.”
Inviting LeverCraft and other vendors to rent space has done more than just helped Modares and Douglass cover the mortgage; their presence is also helping create the community space they envisioned. Eventually, more vendors will have a place to set up shop so neighbors and their clients can connect in an environment that invites them to sit down, chat and meet face to face. It’s also a smart business strategy. With the availability of various house-hunting apps that allow buyers to look for listings themselves and even get money back after closing, Modares and Douglass realize they need to offer a more curated experience for buyers and provide them with a network that helps them thrive in their home once they’ve purchased it.
“We’re building a community around owning real estate and also East Austin and women,” Douglass explains. “Once we help you buy a house, you have complete access to our space, our resources, our spreadsheets with vendors, our Facebook groups where homeowners can share tips. It’s not just owning a house, but also having a place where you can lean on others. It’s not just about the business; Kristina always brings it back to community building.”
When Modares made the road trip to Austin to start a new life after graduating from the University of Alabama, she had no idea what path her life would take, but she knew she wanted to find a place where she belonged. Having grown up with a Persian father and Polish mother in a small suburb of Atlanta, she always felt a little out of place at her private Catholic school, where she looked different and had different cultural experiences than everyone else. She craved a sense of community, a place where everyone was welcome. When her parents got divorced when she was 16, after years of a toxic marriage, Modares felt adrift and ready to find a place of her own.
“Growing up, I saw two people who did not have the same values, and I saw how that didn’t work,” she says. “I guess that’s what I’ve been trying to do my whole life: create a home for myself with people who have the same values.”
Despite the rift in her family, Modares has maintained a close relationship with her father and younger sister. Both also happen to be co-investors with her. When she wanted to buy her first piece of property in Atlanta for $50,000, her father, who is a broker in commercial real estate, offered to split the cost.
“He asked me if I wanted a wedding or property,” Modares says, laughing. “I said property.”
When she finally found her Austin home, her sister, who has a salaried job and could easily qualify for a mortgage, co-signed with her. Her family’s belief in and support of her have paid off. The value of her home has increased tremendously, and her other property investments are bringing in positive cash flow. It’s all happening as she also dominates the first-time homebuyer space in Austin.
Now, her father says, with her investment properties and booming career, she can afford to pay for her own wedding—if and when she wants one.
“She is an inspiration for me,” says her father, Nick Modares. “She is doing so well that I call her for ideas and suggestions. I think the secret ingredient for her is she enjoys enabling people, which is what I enjoy, and helping folks realize the power they have within themselves.”
Nick Modares says his daughter incorporates that passion into everything she does. When she was a volunteer for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Texas, he says he encouraged her to pass on that empowering attitude to the little girls she bonded with, to teach them there is always a way to make the life you want, no matter where you start. With a little bit of confidence and a lot of hard work, buildings get built and dreams get realized.
“When I first moved here, 22 years old and broke, I would go listen to my favorite local artist, Tameca Jones, perform every Thursday night,” Kristina Modares says. “Just a couple of nights ago, a friend held an event at Open House and Tameca came to sing. It was a surreal experience to see her at our event space. It just shows how life can come full circle. I feel lucky it’s all worked out.”
But it’s not just luck that has made Kristina Modares stand out in her industry. One of her mentors and now co-investor, Brent Underwood, notes it’s her ability to sit down and do the work that sets her apart from others.
“We were at a bar and I casually mentioned, ‘Hey, you should write a book about how to buy a house in Austin,’ ” he says. “A week later, she called me and said, ‘I’m working on the book. Can I send you the first draft?’ ”
Underwood believes Kristina Modares’ work ethic will keep her in business if and when Austin’s housing market cools off, though that doesn’t seem to be an imminent threat, given such factors as Austin’s continued growth, Apple Inc.’s recent announcement of a new $1 billion campus and Google’s plan to hire more high-wage employees. While some of Austin’s neighboring towns are booming even more than the capital city itself, in part, due to lower-cost homes and great schools, Kristina Modares believes there are still ways to afford buying in the city.
“I also tell people to partner with someone if you can, or at least have the conversation,” she says. “There are lots of ways you can make owning a house in Austin affordable. I have friends with tiny houses but big enough backyards where they can park an Airstream to rent out to people.”
Despite many people warning Kristina Modares she was making a mistake by limiting her prospective customers to first-time homebuyers and concentrating so much on house hacks, her vision is in line with national trends, as more adults are house sharing than in generations past. It turns out that if you grow up during a major recession and then graduate from college with $40,000 in student loans, you become a little more cautious with expenses. It’s a dilemma Kristina Modares understands all too well because she had the same fears before she started delving into the world of property investment. That’s why she offers as much information as possible to her potential customers.
“We grew up having to think of a Plan B,” she says. “It’s important to break down the mortgage for people and show them how owning a home isn’t that scary if you treat it as an investment and share the cost with others.”
Cautious and shy by nature, Kristina Modares admits she’s probably not what most people would think of for a job that is predominantly sales-based. But perhaps that’s the secret to her thinking outside the box and finding new ways to reach customers. A need to constantly learn and being detail-oriented, she says she taught herself a lot of what she knows about investing and remodeling from podcasts and books. (Robert Kiyosaki, author of Rich Dad, Poor Dad, is one of her favorites.) In fact, it was that quest to learn from others that brought her together with business partner Douglass.
“When I bought my first house, I didn’t know many women in Austin to turn to for help,” Kristina Modares says. “I reached out to male investors, but most of them thought I was trying to date them. I found Stephanie on Instagram, documenting a remodel with her mom, and I reached out to her.”
Kristina Modares believes success lies in collaboration, not in trying to do everything alone. She found her own success by reaching out to people who knew more and learned all she could. She helps her clients do the same, showing them that with a support network and people to turn to with questions, buying a home for the first time isn’t as terrifying as it seems. You just need a few good neighbors to lend a helping hand.
“I always used to feel really shy and small,” she says. “But now I realize you don’t have to have a big voice to be heard. You just need to find your group of people, your community.”
Austin Woman: Do you think Austin’s real-estate bubble could burst anytime soon?
Kristina Modares: “No. Maybe it’s because I’m from a bigger city, but I see so many people still moving here.”
AW: What do you think about the issues with gentrification and displacing longtime residents in East Austin?
KM: “I’m very sensitive to that. On one hand, I worry that we’re pushing out that culture, and on the other hand, I know, for many people, this area is the only part of Central Austin where it’s still affordable to buy a home. I think we need to be sensitive when making a decision. When I bought my home, I met with the lady who owned it first. She had inherited the home from her grandmother, who passed away, and she wanted to sell it. So, I felt good about it.”
AW: There are reports that millennials aren’t buying houses like previous generations. Is that the case in Austin in your experience?
KM: “I would say 90 percent of my clients are millennials, so they’re definitely buying houses. But that’s who we’re targeting and educating. We’re showing them how it’s possible to afford a house.”
AW: What about buying something that needs to be fixed when you don’t have any experience flipping houses?
KM: “If you’re super scared of fixing things, there is a big confidence boost that you get from buying a house and going through that process. There are so many free ways to learn, and part of what we do is educate people on that. We have a Facebook group for all of our clients. We host events for them and keep people in contact. We are going to do quarterly dinners and we encourage people to share contractors.”