The King of Real Estate

Malibu’s top real estate agent sits down with MM to discuss family, success and his Point Dume childhood.

Written by Holly BielerPhotographed by Julie Wuellner

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There are a lot of ways people wind up rich and living in Malibu. A lot of industries mastered, miracle days on the stock market, inheritances finally assumed. What those who have, however, invariably share, is a good story behind how they did. Chris Cortazzo, who has staked the #1 selling spot among Malibu real estate brokers for the past decade, with over $4 billion in sales since 2000, is no different. Sitting in his sprawling Point Dume estate, a jaw-dropping Martin Lawrence Bullard custom-build flanked by an acre of lush, palm-lined grounds, Cortazzo is quick to point out the incredible trajectory by which he’s landed in his current, enviable spot.

  Before getting his real estate license in 1994, Cortazzo held a number of jobs, working as a lifeguard, masseuse and a model in the early 1990s. 

Before getting his real estate license in 1994, Cortazzo held a number of jobs, working as a lifeguard, masseuse and a model in the early 1990s. 

“Everyone sees me as who I am now, but they don’t realize [my family] struggled,” he says. “Nothing was given to me.” And while perseverance, hard work and austere beginnings are often common elements in the narratives of Malibu’s self-made elite, where Cortazzo’s story sharply diverges is where, exactly, it began. “I grew up next door,” Cortazzo says, gesturing past an infinity pool and thicket of tropical queen palms to a small stretch of land two doors down. “My mom still lives there.”

It’s cheesy, OK, anointing anyone ‘The King of’ anywhere, but on Chris Cortazzo the title feels just a tad less hyperbolic. And while his deep Malibu roots are far from the main reason for his success, Cortazzo credits his knowledge of and love for this community, as well as his idyllic Point Dume upbringing, for helping instill characteristics and experiences which have played pivotal roles in his ultimate success. “[Growing up in Malibu], I have an appreciation for nature, and the ocean, and just being so involved in the community,” he said. “I still have friends I met in elementary school.”

Cortazzo’s parents Vince and Patricia bought the Point Dume plot in 1960, his father longing to be closer to the ocean after a lifetime of spearfishing. Back then Point Dume was still more chickens than people, with only a few families on his block, and over the next few years Vince, a fireman, built a home on the land, eventually moving in Patricia, Chris and his brother Danny, in 1966. Growing up, Cortazzo says his father’s fixed income sometimes left the family wanting financially, however his parents’ love and support provided a deep foundation that would ultimately pay off in dividends. “My mom and dad were the most extraordinary people,” he said. “I’m the luckiest guy in the world.”

  Chris with his brother Chris and parents, Vince and Patricia. 

Chris with his brother Chris and parents, Vince and Patricia. 

He said that as a child he struggled with his confidence and was deeply sensitive, issues which would oftentimes manifest in his schoolwork. His mother quickly realized his deep panic and anxiety over tests, and endeavoring to help him through positive reinforcement, began studying with him everyday for math or spelling tests with treats like chocolate chips. She taught him that his initial test results were ultimately less important than his hard work and confidence in himself. “I’d get home and my mom would say ‘how did you do? I’d go ‘I got one [question] right.’ This is out of 20 [questions]. And she’d go Christopher, that’s fantastic! We have to call your dad at the fire station. And my dad would get on the phone and go, ‘Christopher congratulations, you got one right!’ They always built me up,” he said. “And the next week I got two right, and so on and so forth. They never taught me failure, and that’s a beautiful lesson. They gave me such a strong foundation. I was so blessed to have them as my guardians growing up.”

  Cortazzo's Mulholland Dr. home.

Cortazzo's Mulholland Dr. home.

At 18 Cortazzo left Malibu for the University of Santa Barbara, after which he traveled for a few years, including one-year stints in Italy and in Germany, and a couple years in Sydney, Australia. “I traveled the world,” he said. “I was kind of a hippy.” Eventually, however, his Malibu roots beckoned him home. “[I missed] the lifestyle,” he said. “The community, my family. My family is the heart of who I am.” Upon returning to Malibu, Cortazzo worked various jobs, including as a lifeguard, a massage therapist and a model, before meeting the legendary fashion photographer Herb Ritts at a mutual friends’ Grayfox home in 1992, a chance encounter which would alter the course of his life.

  Design Forward: Cortazzo partnered with esteemed architect Martin Lawrence Bullard in designing his Mulholland Dr. property, which is outfitted in an African-inspired aesthetic. 

Design Forward: Cortazzo partnered with esteemed architect Martin Lawrence Bullard in designing his Mulholland Dr. property, which is outfitted in an African-inspired aesthetic. 

Cortazzo soon became Ritts’ assistant, and while working shoots, high-powered celebrity subjects often inquired with him what neighborhoods they should look at as they mulled Malibu real estate purchases. “They would say ‘Chris, you were born and raised in Malibu, where should we buy?’” he said. “I would say oh, you should buy here or there. I put two and two together and thought, I should go into real estate.” Cortazzo got his real estate license in 1994, and soon after acquired his first client, the actor Richard Gere. Only a few months later he sold Gere a Broad Beach home for $5 million, a big-time sale at the time, let alone a big-time first sale. “You can realize how monumental that was,” he said. “That set the course for my career. Then I listed my first home at $8 million the same year, and my career just took off.”

Since then, Cortazzo has achieved a bevy of both local and national accolades as his sales record has skyrocketed. In 2000 he became the #1 agent in Malibu, and in 2009 the #1 Coldwell Banker agent in the country, both positions he holds to this day. In 2016 he was named the top Coldwell Banker agent internationally, number 1 out of more than 91,000 people, a position that he maintained for 2017 as well. He credits his work ethic and deep-seated belief in integrity as a few of the integral reasons for his success.“When you do a great job for one person, they refer you and it just kid of spreads from there,” he said. “And now, after 20-something years, I have a name that people recognize. And I have such a great support staff, I’m so fortunate. We run a well-oiled ship.”

  Mountain Retreat: Cortazzo describes his Mulholland Dr. property as magic. "I call it the holy land," he says. "It's the most beautiful property ever." 

Mountain Retreat: Cortazzo describes his Mulholland Dr. property as magic. "I call it the holy land," he says. "It's the most beautiful property ever." 

After such an illustrious and event-filled 20+ years, what advice would he give his 27 year-old self as he was just starting out in the industry? “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride,” he says. “Real estate is a lot of work. It’s a 24/7 job, literally. I’m working everyday except Christmas and New Years Day. But I love what I do,” he added. “It doesn’t feel like work, because I’m so passionate about it.” Being able to live and work in a community that has played and continues to play such a principal role in his identity also fuels his passion for real estate, he said. “It’s a really special place because we have a community [here],” he said. “How many people can say that, in New York City, or anywhere else? And seeing the families, and the children grow up and go off to university, it’s wonderful. It’s really an amazing spot.”

Indeed, there is perhaps no better cheerleader for this community than Cortazzo, in many ways the consummate Malibu-ite. A surfer, he says he begins every morning in the ocean at 7 a.m. “I love to do anything that has to do with the ocean,” he said. “I love to be in the water every day if I can. [It] just washes it all away. All the stress, and everything else.” His all-time favorite restaurant in Malibu is perennial local favorite Cholada, and he stays in touch with many of the friends he grew up with in Point Dume. Even his vacation home, for those days when he needs a change from the Point Dume Bali estate, is in Malibu, a 30-acre ranch up Mulholland that he describes as “pure magic.” “I always say it’s really wonderful to have your vacation home within an hours’ drive, and that’s only 17 minutes door-to-door,” he said.

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“Suddenly I’m in a whole different environment. I call it the holy land. It’s the most beautiful property ever.” The Mulholland Dr. estate, a refurbished ranch home designed by Bullard as well, is a distinctly different style than his Point Dume home, featuring an African-inspired aesthetic and photographs shot in Africa, as well as items collected from some of Cortazzo’s frequent travels. “That’s my retreat,” he says. He pauses, surveying his spectacular light-filled Point Dume living room, and laughs knowingly. “From here.” And while Malibu prices continue to rise, Cortazzo says he is confident as ever in the value of property in the community.

“I love Malibu, I invest in Malibu, and I think Malibu’s only going to increase in value,” he said. “I’m the biggest believer in that. It’s an amazing investment. If you look at the prices compared to what you get for your money in London, New York City, I think Malibu is a bargain. Who wouldn’t want to be here? I would buy more [Malibu property] if I could,” he added. “But my business manager’s chaining me down.” And while he contends there isn’t exactly much affordable real estate to be found in the area, he says the community still has deals if buyers know where to look. His affection for and roots in Malibu, however, have also afforded Cortazzo a deep understanding of the profound ways Malibu has changed over the past decades. He isn’t blind to the fact that more middle-class families like his own could never dream of the Point Dume upbringing he had, or how starkly different everywhere from Trancas to Cross Creek now look as property values have skyrocketed in recent years.

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“You know, a lot of the old ranch homes are starting to be taken down,” he said. “The essence of the older neighborhoods is changing, but I don’t think change is bad. It’s inevitable. We’re always evolving. And it’s nice for people to be able to fulfill their dreams and to raise children, as I was raised. You have a new generation that is appreciating this beautiful spot.” And for older families that have called this special place home for years, he reminds of the incredible silver lining at the heart of all this change. “Yes, if you’re a schoolteacher it’s going to be very difficult to buy in Malibu [right now],” he says. “But if you have been established here and you can sell your home and make such an amazing amount of money to give yourself freedom in life, it’s wonderful. It’s a lottery ticket. And then you have all the wonderful memories you’ve made here.” He points to his own family’s experience. “My parents paid $11,000 for their property,” he said. “When you have old-timers here that are able to sell their home on Point Dume for $5 million and set their family up for their future, what a wonderful gift.”

“I have to say, the greatest thing about my success is being able to supply a lifestyle to my friends and my family,” he added. “It’s been the greatest gift to give back to them.” MM

Holly Bieler