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Burnaby realtors in the business of selling churches

Burnaby realtors Rav Rampuri and Leonardo Di Francesco outside the sanctuary of one of their listings, the Sikh temple at 7271 Gilley Ave. The pair have carved out a niche for themselves over the past 15 years specializing in the sale of churches and temples. - Wanda Chow/NewsLeader
Burnaby realtors Rav Rampuri and Leonardo Di Francesco outside the sanctuary of one of their listings, the Sikh temple at 7271 Gilley Ave. The pair have carved out a niche for themselves over the past 15 years specializing in the sale of churches and temples.
— image credit: Wanda Chow/NewsLeader

You're a shrinking congregation, or a growing one. You're thinking of selling your church or temple. Or buying one. Who are you going to call?

In B.C., the names likely to come up are Burnaby realtors Leonardo Di Francesco and Rav Rampuri.

The two realtors have worked out of Sutton Centre Realty on Boundary Road for almost 30 years. For the past 17 years or so, they've become specialists in transactions involving places of worship, selling almost 100 of them in that time.

"We are the Bob Rennie of churches," said Di Francesco, referring to the Lower Mainland's "condo king."

And the sales partners believe the market is only heating up. That's led them to launch their first website, churchrealtors.com, a few months ago after years of getting referrals only by word of mouth.

With condominium developments creating denser communities, congregations of all faiths are growing, they say.

And finding a property to build a church on is difficult, said Rampuri who lives in Coquitlam. Land in the region is so expensive, it's tough to find properties with the right zoning that are big enough to accommodate the parking that's required by city hall.

That's what makes existing church properties so appealing.

Meanwhile, many Christian congregations are shrinking, causing them to consider unlocking the value of their properties and ridding themselves of the cost of maintaining them.

That's where Rampuri and Di Francesco come in. They put together people in opposite situations to swing a deal.

In fact, that's how the pair first fell into the niche business.

Rampuri had a listing for a commercial site on Hastings Street and a potential buyer asked if a church could be built there. Turns out it wasn't big enough, but when he got back to his office, he asked Di Francesco if he had any churches for sale.

He didn't but when Di Francesco was visiting St. Helen's Church in North Burnaby that weekend the priest suggested they check out a church at 140 S. Esmond.

At S. Esmond,the woman there told them they'd just sold their church but told them to contact another church in Capitol Hill.

"We jumped in our car, went up there, banged on their door," Rampuri recalled. "They let us in, they sat down and talked to us and said, 'we are interested in selling.' That was sort of our kickstart to getting into this game."

Selling houses is still the realtors' bread and butter, and between them, they've sold over 4,000 homes over the years. But churches make up about 30 per cent of their overall business. They've sold 90 per cent of the churches that have changed hands in the Lower Mainland over the past 15 years or so, said Rampuri.

And they could probably sell more if there were more properties available, he added.

Di Francesco, who lives in North Vancouver, stressed that it's nothing like selling houses. "Selling churches is a totally different ball game."

For one thing, there's often more than one decision-maker involved. In addition to the congregation and its board, there's often someone in another country that needs to be consulted.

Di Francesco said he's had to stand up in front of entire congregations and explain why their properties can only command a certain price. And there's a lot of waiting involved, either to get the right parties together or even for congregations to make their decisions.

In the case of a church at 248 E. 11th Ave. in Vancouver, he said, the previous owners overextended themselves in doing a massive renovation of their property. They had to put it up for sale to stay afloat but many members were against the move.

Di Francesco and Rampuri sat in the church office while its board members took an offer to the congregation who were waiting in the sanctuary.

"For one hour, they prayed," Di Francesco recalled. "We sat inside that office and it was out of our hands."

"What they were looking for was a sign from God, they wanted some direction," added Rampuri. "They called us back in. We were thinking, 'no way, [the sale is] not going to happen' … They turned around and said, 'we've got our sign from God, it's time for us to move, we're selling. Where do we sign?'"

Today it's home to the Gold Buddha Monastery.

While about 20 per cent of the churches they sell do get redeveloped into something else, the other 80 per cent continue on as places of worship. That's one of the reasons they do it.

"I feel a warmth, a gratitude, a comfort that I am keeping the house of God alive," Di Francesco said.

The pair were involved in helping keep Burnaby's oldest church standing—St. John the Divine Church on Kingsway across from Central Park.

The 1895 building was in rough shape. The roof was leaking. And it was a heritage site that couldn't be demolished.

They worked with the then-owner and Burnaby city hall on a deal. In exchange for the owner spending $1 million to renovate and restore the church, council approved a plan to build a seniors care facility at the rear of the property.

The property was eventually sold for $6 million. The new owner is leasing out the church and plans to eventually build the seniors home, they said.

As for the former owner, he took $2 million of the sale's proceeds and used it to build an orphanage in Thailand. The realtors are obviously proud to have played a role in making it happen.

The pair make a good team, they note. Di Francesco is Catholic and generally looks after clients representing Christian churches. Rampuri is Sikh and is the point person for deals involving other faiths.

"It's a good mix," Rampuri said. He noted that their different perspectives help accommodate different congregations. "But at the end of the day, we're just selling real estate."

Their business partnership has deep roots.

Di Francesco enjoys telling the story of how they first met. One summer when he was about eight years old he left his own neighbourhood in East Vancouver to check out youth activities happening at a park several blocks away.

He recalls saying something to a boy several years older than him. That boy took offense and ended up chasing Di Francesco until he got away.

Years later, Di Francesco started working as a brand-new realtor at Sutton Centre Realty. A couple weeks later he suddenly realized why he recognized Rampuri.

He recalled with a laugh asking, "Did you ever chase a guy off a park?"

Rampuri remembers thinking about it and, amazed, saying yes.

"It was a sign and we're still together."

wchow@burnabynewsleader.com

twitter.com/WandaChow

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