Fresh out of the University of Colorado in 1984 with a bachelor's degree in finance and real estate and without any job prospects, David Santistevan sought the advice of a close friend.
"I called this guy, the smartest guy I knew. He was all of 25 years old," Santistevan recalled. "He said, 'If I were you, I'd go to San Diego.' That's the only reason I came. Because he was getting his MBA, I figured he was pretty smart."
So, purely on blind faith, Santistevan acted on his friend's life-changing advice. He came, sight unseen, to San Diego. It turned out his friend was pretty smart, indeed.
Santistevan joined the San Diego office of Colliers International -- one of the world's largest commercial real estate organizations -- in 1984 and it's the only job he's ever had. With his mentor and business partner, Gunder Creager (affectionately dubbed "The Godfather of Land" by Santistevan), he has brokered more than $2.2 billion in residential land transactions. Last year alone, Santistevan brokered 42 transactions worth $212 million, including selling to apartment developer Garden Communities a 384-unit site in Carmel Valley for more than $39 million.
Santistevan specializes in the sale of land, focusing on property suitable for apartment and condominium development, as well as single-family subdivisions. He said that, while 2012 was a "huge year," he expects 2013 will be even better.
"It's a feeding frenzy for good lots right now. Every homebuilder is back in the market so it's fun again," said Santistevan, who has earned annual "Top 10 Producer" honors for 10 consecutive years, including 12 years in the Top 5.
"In 2008, we couldn't do bids because no one would come to the party," Santistevan said, laughing. "[The market] was so down and no builders had money and everyone was out of the market just licking their wounds. Now, you name it, all the publicly traded homebuilders are doing whatever to buy projects. It's incredibly competitive."
Though business is good again, it's not without its challenges, according to Santistevan.
"Land is the hardest thing to do, but it's the most fun because every deal is so different. Everything goes wrong with land, so it's [a matter of] overcoming obstacles," he said. "We think we know every site left in this county that's not developed and we have a file on it somewhere. But it's just making your way through entitlements. We're different than any other discipline in real estate."
Another issue, Santistevan said, is scarcity of lots, scarcity of apartment sites, because San Diego County is so constrained with land.
"We made a great living on the [state Route] 56 corridor. I remember when that was just nothing, there wasn't even a highway and we sold a majority of the sites," Santistevan said. "There are no future 56s. Fast forward five years and there aren't any big parcels left. We can do infill sites and tear things down in North Park, or things like that, but the big deals, the 700-lot deals, are few and far between right now."
That said, Santistevan estimates he currently has more than 100 listings in San Diego and southern Riverside counties.
"It's fun when you can get great interest (in properties) and drive up prices for the seller," he said. "That's what we do and that's why sellers hire us. They know if we put it out, we'll get top dollar."
Santistevan has proven repeatedly that he can get top dollar for a parcel of land. He has no regrets about taking his friend's advice nearly three decades ago.