Randall Bell is the answer to this trivia question: What do the residences of Sharon Tate, Nicole Brown-Simpson, Jeffrey Dahmer, Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza, and San Bernardino shooters Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik have in common?
For 30 years, Bell has been an appraiser of real estate stigmatized by human killers, natural disasters and high-profile accidents. It’s a niche that has earned the married father of four book deals, speaking gigs, teaching assignments, homes in Laguna Beach and Coto de Caza, and valuable space in the Rolodexes of attorneys, other real-estate professionals and the media.
His career exploded thanks to the latter. Bell—who has a bachelor’s in finance and accounting from BYU, an MBA and MAI with emphases on real estate from UCLA, and a doctorate in human and organization systems from Fielding Graduate University—already had an international reputation among his peers when a sentence about him helping Dana Point’s Lou Brown sell his slain daughter’s condo appeared in the Los Angeles Times‘ “Hot Properties” column during O.J. Simpson’s 1995 murder trial.
“I swear the whole world called,” Bell recalls with a laugh in his cozy Landmark Research Group office around the corner from Laguna Beach’s Festival of Arts grounds. “I had no idea it would be so huge. That was the tipping point. It was just luck.”
After dealing with a Juice-driven media roster that included CNN, all the television networks and The Wall Street Journal, Bell was asked by the Chicago-based Appraisal Institute to write the textbook Real Estate Damages, now in its third edition. Framed clippings about Bell from all over the world adorn his office walls, including one by a Times writer who dubbed him “Dr. Disaster.” But the 57-year-old swears he is not motivated by morbid curiosity. “I absolutely am not interested in seeing crime-scene photos,” he says.
Bell initially gravitated toward real-estate development, learned appraising and was about to go to Whittier Law School when he had an “epiphany” in the pool of the Laguna Niguel home he then shared with his young wife and child. Instead of fixating on what made real-estate values rise like everyone else, he figured, it would be far more interesting to learn why values drop. He faxed Whittier Law the first day of school to drop out. “It totally shocked everyone,” Bell recalls. “I thought it was a good decision, but it was very risky.”
The risk paid off, opening up a career that has him bouncing all over the planet, from nuked Chernobyl to earthquake-ravaged Alaska to post-Katrina New Orleans to methane-gassed Porter Ranch to flooded Malibu, Kauai and Florida to the Marshall Islands to investigate lingering radiation from the hydrogen bomb tests of the 1950s. He has even appraised properties said to be spooked by ghosts. Asked if others do what he does, Bell paused a long time before answering, “A couple do . . . part-time.”
He believes his detailed research and honesty—even in the face of tragedy—have made him a success. While he has no plans to retire soon, he has decided to expand his “recovery” expertise for the greater good. Bell just came out with his seventh book, Rich Habits Rich Life, that, he says, dispels “the success gurus’ cotton-candy crap” to really show people of all stripes how to excel. He also volunteers with Friendship Shelter, Laguna Beach’s nonprofit homeless shelter and rehabilitation center, to help clients apply his principles.
“There is no better thrill than getting someone to set goals and coach them to turn their life around,” he says. “The biggest thrill in life is not seeing a big crater in the ground. It is seeing recovery.”
Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the paper’s first calendar editor. He went on to be managing editor, executive editor and is now senior staff writer.