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Watford City, North Dakota. Looking west on Route 85. Temporary housing and road constructed for oil and gas workers. (Image: National Parks Conservation Association via Flickr)

Expanding the Bakken realty market in a drilling downturn

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In 2010 Bill Murphy and Mitzi Bestall traveled from Colorado to Williston, North Dakota, trying to capitalize on the real estate market in the burgeoning economy associated with the Bakken oil boom. Attempting to jump from the tails of the recent financial and housing crisis and hit the ground running, they eventually moved (like many others) to try and cash in on the sudden influx of drilling activity by creating Bakken Realty.

Their hopes, dreams and hard work have been realized in the years since their move with their real estate office becoming a major player in the regional market. Beginning with a single office in Williston, North Dakota, the company has grown into the RE/MAX Bakken Realty it is today, operating with over twenty agents and an approximate 38 percent share of the residential market. Along with the company’s continued expansion, the firm recently opened a new office on Main Street in the boomtown of Watford City, North Dakota.

Bill Murphy, head of marketing and business development for Bakken Realty, said, “I grew up in the oil business. My dad was working at oil plants and in the oilfields. I worked on drilling rigs when I was a kid during summers of high school through college.”

Related: Bakken boom-town aims to become more family friendly

Commenting on the current volatility of oil prices he added, “The one thing that I know from living in that kind of household is that prices go up, they come down and they go up again. Life isn’t a straight line, and oil prices aren’t a straight line. The first response that I think a lot of our clients and people in the area had was, ‘Is this the bust?’ But after a little bit of time and adjustment, people realize that the downturn is only temporary.”

Their venture into the Bakken Formation, though, wasn’t unlike many other’s experiences. They too, struggled with the lack of housing and infrastructure. During the recession, Bestall said, “We were starving for business. We were looking for all the options when a developer asked us to assist with marketing The Timbers subdivision in Williston, it’s first in 25 years.”

To help with the marketing project, Bestall and Murphy made the trek in 2010 to Williston, traveling in a borrowed RV and parking it behind a small thicket of trees, much like many of the stories depicted by the media around that time. “One port-a-potty, 40 guys and one gal. It was an experience to say the least,” Bestall said.

After completing their work on marketing The Timbers subdivision, the two traveled back to Colorado where they reflected on their past six months in the Bakken. They recognized the opportunities that could come with opening a real estate office in the area, and in the spring of 2011, they relocated to Williston.

Upon arrival, with no connections and no real office, they staked their only five real estate yard signs into the ground, utilized Linkedin, networked and made cold calls. In due time, they closed their first deal. Bestall commented, “That first commission check was a major milestone and really got us going.” The rest is history, and the company continues to expand in the Bakken area with its new office opening in Watford City.

Related: North Dakota housing growth rate tops in the nation

Despite North Dakota’s rig count recently hitting the lowest level since December of 2009, there are still over 900 Bakken wells that are awaiting completion and production. Amidst regional layoffs and slowing production, though, many companies are relying more on local and permanent workers. Boomtowns such as Watford City are trying to adapt to the changing landscapes as well.

In preparation for the upcoming construction season, Watford City has plans to cater to its growing permanent population by becoming more family friendly. A recent article by the Forum News Service reported that the boomtown is planning its future projects with the longevity of the oil and gas industry in mind. Recognizing that many wish to remain in the city, the community is adapting with plans for the construction of a new high school, events center and health care facility.

City officials anticipate Bakken well production to continue for decades into the future and are hoping to attract oilfield workers that hold long-term positions. McKenzie County Healthcare Systems CEO Dan Kelly told the FNS, “The reality is our community is changing … we need to change our focus. We really are positioning ourselves to be a community that is attractive to family.”

According to Murphy, many people working in the area are hoping to move away from the usual workforce housing, RV Park and apartment building living spaces. As companies begin to rely on more permanent employees rather than transient residents of the oil patch, there is more incentive to transition to stable housing. Murphy said, “We have people that have been living in [workforce housing] and apartments for several years now, and most people, families in particular, would like to expand into a space where their kids and pets can have a backyard to run around and play in. Already the emphasis on single family homes is becoming reality.”

To learn more about RE/MAX Bakken Realty and available listings, click here.

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