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Pamela Civitillo and Barbara Z. Sanders
Flea Market Fortune

Most people go to flea markets looking for a bargain. Barbara Z. Sanders found a fortune—in real estate sales.


The flea market might seem an unlikely place to get real estate business. But not to Barbara Sanders, a sales associate with M&M Realty Property & Management in Englewood, who set up a real estate information booth at The Dome Flea Market on S.R. 776 in Venice.

She tells of the time when a woman asked her for directions to the ladies’ room, then came back a few minutes later and said she and her husband wanted to relocate to the area. With Sanders’ help, the couple soon bought a $250,000 house.

Sanders’ booth costs $192.70 a month, and every Friday, Saturday and Sunday she and her business partner, Pamela Civitillo, split the9 a.m. to 4 p.m. workday. Of course, per Florida Real Estate Commission (FREC) regulations, they can’t do business at the booth. But by simply being there, talking to people and providing useful real estate information, the women have generated nearly $15 million in business so far.

Here’s how they do it:

1. Be Visible
“I have a laptop with [an extra] monitor to search the MLS and a printer to provide listing information to potential buyers,” says Sanders. “They look at the screen and tell me which ones interest them.”

Although a 10- by 12-inch sign with the words Real Estate Information in huge black letters clearly states what Sanders is offering, shoppers often mistake her for a help-desk attendant. But she’s not complaining. She gets 99 percent of her business from the booth, which makes the long weekend hours worthwhile.

2. Willingly Help Out
Some of the least likely prospects have become clients or customers. One time, “a lady walks up and asks, ‘Can you tell me where the doggie sweaters are?’” says Sanders. “We have almost 400 booths in this flea market, but I know most of the [vendors].” As Sanders explained that there weren’t any doggie sweaters, the woman noticed the booth’s display. “She said, ‘Oh, real estate info! Is there anything for sale in Englewood Isles that has a western view, a dock, a seawall and a pool?’” Sanders says.

After a quick MLS search, Sanders found one listing matching her request. “I handed her the printout, she thanked me, said she would talk to me later and left,” says Sanders.

Within an hour, the woman called and asked Sanders to take her and her husband out to see the house. “I called the [listing] agent, we saw the listing and the next thing I knew we were writing a contract for a $500,000 house,” says Sanders. “As [the woman’s] husband wrote a $50,000 check for the deposit, she said, ‘I swear, honey, I was only going to buy a doggie sweater!’”

3. Make Small Talk
About a half million people “roam The Dome” each year, according to the flea market’s Web site (www.thedomefleamarket.net). And Sanders meets as many of those passersby as possible. “You can’t sit with your face in your laptop; I make eye contact and say hello to everyone,” she says.

One day a man walked by, mumbling, “I’m not buying anything.” But Sanders approached him anyway. “I said, ‘Sir, I’m not selling anything. If you noticed my sign, I’m here to give you information.’” A month later, at the closing for his $200,000 house, Sanders teased him about not wanting to buy. “He said, ‘Barbara, you talked to me without trying to sell me.’”

4. Promote On Site
Sanders doesn’t advertise her booth, but she uses two magnetic dry erase board signs. Each day, she writes a real estate message, such as “Open House,” on the signs, attaches them to her car doors and parks near the flea market entrance. “People have come looking for me because they’ve seen my signs,” she says.

“We also do a lot of giveaways,” she adds, “like free pens with my logo on them and little boxes of M&M candies.” When people ask if they can have one, she strikes up a conversation. She finds that giving away her maps is a big draw, especially with men. “It’s usually the husband who wants to stop and talk because they love maps,” she says.

5. Follow Through
Sanders prefers to stay in touch via e-mail. And it pays off. “I get a lot of residual business that most agents [probably] don’t,” she says. “One guy I talked with two years ago just called me to list one of his $399,000 properties. And there’s also a woman from Ontario, Canada, that I talked to in April, and she just e-mailed me because she’s looking for a home.

“I don’t know how to explain it,” she concludes. “I’m just talking to people while they’re leisurely shopping.”