Since the end of the recession in 2009, business has been booming in Charleston, South Carolina. The economy throughout the city is prospering and the area around King Street in particular has become a bustling center of dining and shopping activity. As a result, Charleston is now being recognized nationally as a premiere tourist destination. And as the founder of Domicile Real Estate Brokerage, an innovative firm responsible for investing in under-utilized properties on King Street and placing a healthy portion of the street’s retail businesses in recent years, Jennifer Davis is at the forefront of this commercial and cultural renaissance. In addition to their work in the commercial sector, Davis and Domicile have a successful history of brokering grand historic houses — many of which also happen to be national monuments — in downtown Charleston.
Prior to founding Domicile in 2007, Jennifer spent 15 years as the general partner for Ibis, Inc., a historic real estate development partnership which she co-founded. During her tenure with Ibis, she purchased, restored and marketed more than 20 historic properties. Under Jennifer’s leadership, Ibis won the prestigious South Carolina Honor Award for Historic Preservation and her projects were featured in magazines such as House Beautiful, The New York Times and Home Style.
Jennifer boasts a strong desire to protect and preserve the city of Charleston, which has led to her becoming a board member of several non-profit organizations, including The S.C. Coastal Conservation League, The Palmetto Conservation Foundation and the Historic Beaufort Foundation.
When she’s not brokering real estate deals, Davis can often be spotted cruising around Charleston on her shocking pink bike. To learn more about Davis and Domicile Real Estate Brokerage, visit www.domicilecharleston.com.
What was your upbringing like, and how did it shape who you are today?
My unconventional parents, who I adore, gave their only child one bit of advice: “Use every ounce of what God gave you. Make the best of it and shame on you if you don’t. There is much to accomplish. Now go and have a lot of fun and make sure to stir things up.” I’m still laughing and stirring.
How did you initially become interested in real estate, and how did you get your start in the business?
New York City, circa 1985. I met the man everyone called Gotlieb at Gotlieb’s Bar on Bleecker Street. Gotlieb owned the bar and he owned half of the West Village. He knew I was on a hunt for a real estate investment in the neighborhood. It was not hard not to know; I talked to everyone about the possible buys. He called one day, and gave me a shot. There was a house that was going to come on the market in a few days that had not been on the market for 100 years.
Together we went to see an 1840s Greek Revival townhouse on Charles Street, and he immediately turned to me and said, “Write them a check before we leave this building or I will.” I knew he meant it. I wrote the check, I restored the house and had my first child, Henry, while we lived there. It was heavenly. Now Sarah Jessica Parker lives there.
Gotlieb’s sage advice to me was, “Try not to have an investment partner; they are more unpredictable than banks. And do your homework, so that when the right deal pops up you can move in an instant.” He was right.
How were you and Domicile Real Estate Brokerage affected by the bursting of the real estate bubble and the subsequent recession? Were you forced to adjust your approach in order to stay afloat?
The unmentionable time. That horrendous downturn turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to my business, Domicile Real Estate Brokerage. Years before, when I was giddy and gushing about the market, a well-seasoned commercial investor and good friend told me to pay attention, “when the market changes it happens so fast that you suddenly feel like you are caught in quicksand.”
My focus at the time was high-end residential downtown Charleston historic properties. Those houses did not get clobbered but the sales volume vanished, because nobody was trading. The air was sucked out of the market. I could sink by doing nothing and let Domicile coast to a stop or I could start swimming and swim fast. That’s what I did. I expanded our focus.
If the residential market was at a halt and the commercial investors were offering to unload their best properties to keep all their other properties afloat, we started buying. We bought notes, and we bought commercial properties. Banks wouldn’t loan, even to the guys who were sure to pull out of it. Their doors were closed. We played fair, and offered bankers rates. We were not sharky. We learned quickly. It turned out that I loved the commercial side of our business, especial the retail and hospitality sector.
Domicile stayed true to our brand and focused on downtown Charleston. And the best of all was that the market research (for the new division) was right up my alley. Shopping, talking, eating out, talking, talking, talking and never stop talking and listening to who needs what. I did not do it on my own. I had a mentor. He would talk and I would listen for hours. Drove the poor man crazy. He’d ask, “don’t you ever get bored?”
Today our commercial division is as strong as our residential division.
From your perspective, what are the biggest differences between Charleston in 2002 and Charleston in 2015?
There are six giant cranes at work in downtown Charleston right now. In 2002, there were none. These days I hear “Ciao,” “Ola,” and “Guten tag” a few times a week. In 2002, the biggest stretch from Hello was, “Hey, girl.”
You’ve stated that one of your goals is helping independent retailers find locations on King Street. Why is this important to you, and with rising real estate prices, has this become more challenging over the years?
Charleston is seductive, and fascinating. Why should the shopping and dining be anything less? As for pricing, the great independents are very successful and can out-produce the nationals in markets like King Street.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
Finding a sleeper and snapping it up.
In your opinion, what are the biggest issues facing Charleston in the coming years?
Maintaining the magnificent quality of life that Charleston is known for will be an on-going challenge. Luckily there are a vast number of people, both locally and globally, who love this city and are determined to protect its fragile balance. What are the threats? Uninspired developers, mammoth cruise ships, straying politicians, and trashy reality shows.
If you could only eat at one Charleston-area restaurant for the rest of your life, which one would you choose?
The rest of my life? I get jittery ordering engraved stationary with my address on it. Who knows, I may move tomorrow. As for eating at one place for the rest of my life, I’ll have to go with a restaurant that has stood the test of time. Fulton Five. It’s hidden and seductive in every sense.
For you, what was the most unexpectedly rewarding aspect of having children?
They promise you nothing, and give you everything.
What advice would you offer to someone just starting out in the real estate industry?
Be my next assistant. 843.720.7771.