Local businesswoman sets sights on new "Facebook" for home buying

Saturday, May 9, 2015

"Tech rules real estate" blared the front page headline in the April 11 issue of the Oakland Tribune.

And Heather Sittig-Jackson, a Rockridge businesswoman and 13-year resident (who moved in March to the Oakland Hills), hopes to capitalize on it - going even beyond the new 3-D walk-through video tours that prospective buyers now use to get up close and personal with prospective homes.

She and business partner Kristen Policy are about to launch Relola, which Sittig-Jackson calls "the first socially fueled platform dedicated to real estate." Many of the details are still hush-hush, but Jackson explains it as "a more efficient and effective search engine for buyers that will allow real estate agents to stand out as experts."

According to its website, "Relola is determined to provide the most delightful, informative and useful environment for home hunting." It asks prospective clients to think: "Uber and Facebook and Angie"s List = Relola."

Many readers know Sittig-Jackson, co-owner of Toast kitchen+bar restaurant and of Spruce Salon & Spa, both on College Avenue. But prior to those businesses, she founded the real estate company Maison Nouveau, also on College.

Though born in Southern California, "I grew up all over the country because my mother was an army captain," she told me, as we sat at an inside table at Toast. "I love houses. We moved a lot - every two years - which is maybe why I got into real estate."

A bit of a wunderkind, she entered real estate as a 16-year-old high school student, doing research and property management for a San Antonio Remax office. "I collected rents. It was Texas, you know. They get married at 16."

While earning a B.A. in English with minors in geology and architecture from the University of Washington, she worked at an architecture firm and decided "this wasn"t the sexy architectural stuff I want to do."

After a year in Europe, her jobs included real estate development, mortgage loans for Pan American Bank and selling real estate in Berkeley. "I saw there is a better way to do this," she says, and opened Maison Nouveau, at the age of 26.

Her new agency promoted itself as a discount broker and used a team approach to sales. "Our goal was to create a client-centric model to replace the pervasive broker-centric model that is common in our market place," Sittig-Jackson says. Ten years later, she sold her business to McGuire Real Estate and headed in a different direction.

Along the way, she married Sam Jackson, a physician who is an executive director and department head at Dynavax Technologies Corporation in Berkeley. They adopted two daughters from Guatemala, Olivia, now 9, and Claudia, now 8, who attend Escuela Bilingue Internacional (EBI) in Rockridge.

And as Sittig-Jackson and her friend Kristen Policy strolled College Avenue, with their young children, they looked for somewhere they could sit with a leisurely glass of wine and not have to order a meal. When they couldn"t find what they wanted, Sittig-Jackson suggested: "Let"s just open a wine bar in Rockridge."

The result is Toast, which opened four years ago at the corner of College and Chabot, where parents with kids in strollers are a regular sight mid-afternoon sipping wine on its patio under its bright, outdoor umbrellas. Two years later, they expanded into some of the space left vacant when Somerset restaurant closed, and added full-scale dining. "You"ll notice in that list of things I"ve done, I never worked in a restaurant," Sittig-Jackson quipped.

About the same time, Sittig-Jackson enticed her sister, Hillary Spry, to move from Seattle to open and manage Spruce salon in the former Maison Nouveau office at 5327 College. "It was like, hey Hillary, don"t you think this would make a great salon and spa?"

Now, as she prepares to launch Relola, Sittig-Jackson has stepped away from both Toast and Spruce to concentrate on creating a start-up aimed at a national audience. "We"re starting small by just doing the United States," she says. "We want it to be international in five years."

"The biggest satisfaction will be if it is transforming to the industry," Jackson says. "That would be my reward. I already have a great life."

Although Relola will be located in Emeryville and although she now lives in the Oakland Hills where she found a larger property than was available in Rockridge, Jackson is a huge Rockridge booster. "Oh, my gosh, I love Rockridge. I love the weather, the neighborhood, everybody knows everyone. It seems like a small town in a big town.

"Honestly, the nicest people are here. The business community looks out for one another. Everyone gets together." That was particularly evident, she says, as the new minimum wage law was about to take effect and they met to discuss ways of implementing it.

At Toast, "We came up with a hybrid 15 percent service charge that we can distribute to the kitchen," she said. "We invite customers to add a tip if they like that goes to the front of the house. Almost everyone adds the tip."

"Heather is probably the most tenacious, creative, enterprising, loyal and honest person I know," says Policy, about her best friend and two-time business partner. "She"s the perfect person to partner with because she works harder than anyone, yet creates environments of collaboration and care around her.

"There"s never a dull moment being friends with Heather," Policy says, "because you never know what she"s going to dream up to do next. But whatever that thing is, I want to do it with her."

"She"s amazing," real estate broker Ron Kriss of Lawton Associates told me of the former competitor. "She does such innovative things."

Indeed, when asked what she does for fun, Sittig-Jackson said, "I start businesses." Close on the heels of that came, "I hang out with my family and have fun with my kids."

You are invited to comment on this column and suggest subjects for others by e-mailing judyberne@att.net.