Meet The Brokers Who Wrangle Luxury Ranch Sales
These brokers face grizzlies and avalanches to sell multi-million dollar Western properties
By Candace Taylor
Routinely spending years with clients before they buy, ranch brokers must be equal parts tour guide, park ranger, financial adviser and agriculture expert, adept at representing both lifelong cattle ranchers and urban billionaires, and discussing heli-skiing in the same breath as complex water and mineral rights. “You can be sitting around the kitchen of a third-generation rancher having coffee in the morning, and then in the afternoon you’re in the truck with a very well-known, successful business person from Palo Alto or New York,” said Greg Fay, the founder of Fay Ranches who last year sold newscaster Tom Brokaw ’s Montana ranch, which had been listed at $17.9 million.
He added: “We joke that it’s like being bilingual.”
Ranch brokerage in its current form is relatively new. It was only a few decades ago that moneyed, big-city elites like Ted Turner, Charles Schwab and Malcolm Forbes started buying up Rocky Mountain ranchland primarily for recreational rather than agricultural purposes.
“In the early 2000s, money was so easy, it was just pouring in,” recalled David Halgerson, a ranch broker in southwestern Idaho. In 2007, Mr. Forbes’s heirs sold his Colorado ranch for $175 million—more than 20 times the estimated $50 an acre the patriarch had paid in the 1960s.
But since the 2008 financial crisis, ranch buyers have become much more cautious, and are more likely to scrutinize a property’s agricultural production (or “ag,” as ranch brokers call it) as well as the views, said Wyoming ranch broker Richard Lewis.
Mr. Lewis said he once worked with a client for eight years before he finally bought a ranch for $48 million. Because so many clients don’t end up transacting, at times it feels like “95% of everything I do is a complete waste of time,” quipped Hall & Hall ranch broker Bill McDavid, whose reclaimed-wood office in Missoula, Mont., is decorated with framed fly-fishing photos.
As a result of all this, closed deals can be few and far between. Mr. Halgerson said some years he only does four or five deals. “That can be real stressful,” he said. “You don’t know exactly what your budget is going to be year to year.”
Agents pay for their own fuel, transportation and travel expenses. “That adds up,” said Chopper Grassell of Live Jackson Hole Real Estate. “Nobody’s getting rich doing this—you’ve got to love the land.”