Last week’s Latin America Real Estate Conference in Florida was jammed with interesting news on the number of baby boomers investigating a purchase south of the border, the impact of the subprime markets on international funds, and how the U.S. construction slowdown has affected the “remittances” foreign workers send back home.
In the middle of pursuing at least three news stories, I received word that longtime real estate columnist and colleague Bob Bruss had passed away at age 67. The news stunned and saddened me and temporarily moved everything else to the back burner. It was like hearing about the surprising loss of a famous band leader who you thought would never stop playing. You begin to recall when and where you were when the songs were first heard.
I had the pleasure of knowing Bruss, whose work appeared in more than 200 newspapers, on a variety of levels. I found it bitingly ironic that I learned of his death at an international second-home conference — a topic he encouraged me to cover after I co-authored a book about how a second home could be a terrific investment.
“There are lot of people now looking outside the states for investments and second homes,” Bruss told me four years ago. “Not everybody wants to go to Florida or Arizona — or can afford it. Maybe you can show me another way to make profits.”
“Profits” was one of his favorite words and goals — for readers in his columns and in his own investments. Bruss, who earned a law degree in San Francisco, remained in the Bay Area and invested in dozens of rentals near his Hillsborough home. One of the mainstay points in his advice columns was to consider rental properties within an hour’s drive of your primary residence. That way, Bruss would say, you could keep an eye on your investment “even if you have a management company handling your property. If you are not actively managing the property, you can always drive by and see if the manager is doing his job.”
Sometimes known as the “Dear Abby” of real estate, I always anticipated reading the “Best of Bob Bruss” when the Minnesota native finally took a “real” vacation. He never did and continued to churn out advice columns, book reviews and helpful source material until a few weeks before he died.
Two decades ago, in my position as a section editor for a major metropolitan newspaper, I was on the buying end of Bruss’s articles for years. I was responsible for placing the type on the assigned page and often ribbed him for drumming up business by using “consult your attorney (later ‘tax adviser’) for details” at the bottom of his pieces. He also preferred his column picture depicting him as a far younger man. When I questioned him about this he responded, “Tom, you just haven’t seen me lately. I look great. …”
We also were intrigued by the same subjects and often exchanged notes on new developments and Internal Revenue Service codes on common interests such as tax-deferred exchanges, home-sale exclusions and reverse mortgages. And, although we were friends and enjoyed seeing each other at builder shows, Realtor conventions and the National Association of Real Estate Editors meetings, he had a way of letting me know when something I wrote was out of order — always with a velvet hammer. Bruss was all about order — from his ubiquitous blue blazer and grey trousers to his filing of weekly columns.
One year, when I published a book with economist John Tuccillo, Bruss was flabbergasted that we inserted a chapter on tax-deferred investments so early into the work. He felt it absolutely needed to be part of a later section. Here’s what he wrote in his nationally syndicated review:
“What were the authors thinking? Fortunately, the book then gets back on track in the next chapter discussing how to find and acquire a potentially profitable and affordable second or vacation home. …”
Bruss was smart, ethical, thrifty (“I want you to know I spent $19.95 of my hard-earned, writing money on your book — you’re lucky it was worth it”) and eager for you to know where you could save a buck — be it on Broadway play tickets or home services. He was generous with his time, eager to help consumers understand their rights and he went out of his way to explain the pros and cons of owning the roof over your head.
I did not always agree with his advice to readers, but he was usually spot-on. He once wrote that a single woman, a regular reader of his columns, should not be in a hurry to pay off her mortgage — she should wait and “pay it off with tomorrow’s inflated dollars.” The woman called our business news desk, saying she would “sleep better at night” if she knew she owned her home free and clear.
“I hope you told her that her sleep was more important than a few potential extra dollars,” Bruss said later. “I would hate to think I caused her to lose sleep.”
No, Bob, you helped so many of us sleep easier. I will miss your columns and your friendship.
Donations in Bruss’ memory may be sent to: Edina Educational Fund, 5701 Normandale Road, Edina, MN 55424.
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