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West side, best side: Rob Karp turns blight into opportunity, one house at a time

Rob Karp is a bearded, gravelly-voiced 30-something with a downstate accent, a permanent flannel and a dozen tattoos. He’s prone to fist pumps for emphasis, and tends to leave his Subaru Forrester at home in favor of a ten-speed to navigate the city.

He's not necessarily what you'd expect from a real estate agent with $5 million currently under contract.

While Karp looks more like a laid-back record store employee than a high-powered, cell-toting salesperson, he’s been a vocal, instrumental force in turning Buffalo’s West Side from the city’s fringe to one of its most sought-after neighborhoods.

As a real estate agent, Karp represents people who are selling their house or looking to purchase a new one. But he also buys West Side homes that are in rough shape, completely rehabs them, and sells them to new owners. His homes are not the hastily done, money-grab flips you hear about; instead, they’re tasteful and high-quality. He said he won’t put anything on the market that he wouldn’t live in himself.

The real estate bug hit Karp early. When he was around 8 years old, he would regularly watch real estate listings on the local public access channel in Rockland, NY, then tell his parents how much their house — and other people’s houses — were worth.

He came to Buffalo to major in media studies at the University at Buffalo. He interned with the Maury Povich Show in New York and the studio offered him a position after graduation. There was one kicker: the job was unpaid.

“I couldn’t really afford to make no money and have a $1,200-a-month rent payment in the city,” said Karp.

So he stayed in Buffalo and continued his college job at Zumies in the Walden Galleria, where he quickly got promoted to a full-time position with a raise and benefits. One day he sold a mutual acquaintance a whole snowboard outerwear package and a bunch of clothes – a big sale. The guy was a mortgage broker, liked Karp’s sales skills, and offered to get him a brokerage job the next day. He did, Karp took it, and then worked as a mortgage broker for five years.

At the time, Karp was living on Elmwood Avenue with a $550 rent payment. When the Lexington Co-Op, Globe Market, and a series of other new stores and cafes were built on the strip, his landlord — and many others in the village — raised the rent. That was in 2006.

“So here I was getting all these other people mortgages, and figured I should probably buy a house instead of paying more [in rent],” said Karp. “I bought a place a block away from Richmond and my mortgage was only $400 — way less than my rent. I still own that house.”

After his first real estate purchase, he started buying doubles on the West Side, fixing them up, and renting them out. Then he started selling his houses instead of being a landlord for an increasing number of apartments. He got his real estate license in 2008 as a way to save money buying and selling the houses, rather than paying agents’ commissions on each transaction.

“I really had no plans to be a realtor, but it just made sense,” said Karp.

Now, Karp buys single and multiple-family homes in need of improvement through foreclosures, auctions, and the open market. Then he acts as a project manager with a team of skilled subcontractors who handle everything from plumbing to architecture, electricity to paint. Sometimes the homes are simply outdated, and sometimes they look like a war zone — copper pipes ripped from walls, windows boarded over. Karp goes to extra lengths to preserve the architectural details – like original flooring, woodwork, marble fireplace mantles, and stained glass — and says he won’t cut corners.

“First off, it’s just not right,” explained Karp. “Secondly, you hire the wrong people because they’re cheaper, but then you get what you pay for. A short cut always takes the longest. Plus, we have a more educated clientele now — they’ll call you out on it. That’s why the guys who do crappy work aren’t really doing anything anymore. No one’s going to pay good money to buy a house that’s crappy. You have to put all your effort in, use good materials, and good contractors — it’s the only way to do it.”

Karp acknowledges that the market is getting crowded with people buying, fixing, and re-selling houses as part of the West-of-Richmond movement.

“There are practically no houses on the market anymore for two reasons,” he says. “One, whenever a house does hit the market, it sells in a minute. And two, no one wants to leave the West Side now. It’s a great place to be. It used to be that you were still within walking distance to Elmwood, but now Grant Street is picking up and you’re within walking distance to everything going on there. Connecticut Street. The Five Points. Who cares about Elmwood anymore? Elmwood’s got its own scene, now the West Side has its own scene.”

Karp says that contrary to popular belief, it’s not just young hipsters moving to the West Side. He also sees empty-nesters, refugees, and a lot of people from out of town. He even has people selling their houses in the Elmwood Village and buying equally sized, less expensive homes on the West Side.

Karp says he first fell in love with the neighborhood because the area’s diversity reminds him of where he grew up, and he’s genuinely excited about every new café, shop, and restaurant that opens in the neighborhood. He also participates as a board member of West Side Neighborhood Housing Services, a local non-profit that provides grants for homeownership and home improvements, education, and foreclosure prevention.

In the near future, Karp sees the West Side’s success pushing even farther west.

He thinks the lower portions – such as Prospect Avenue, Fargo Avenue, the D’Youville College area — will turn over faster than other parts; noticeable revitalization there has spread almost to Niagara Street. As Grant Street becomes more of a destination, the streets west of Grant will become more enticing, he said.

“It’s really exciting,” says Karp. “Especially since people were calling me crazy for living on the West Side. They’d say, ‘I don’t even want to come to your house to hang out.’ And now all those same people probably live on the West Side.”

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