With a market that’s different from the past five years, what can you do to stay successful? Some long timers tell you how they did it.
Sue Flaig has seen it all in the past 20-something years—interest rates in the double digits, lack of affordable homes, homes sitting on the market for months and homes flying off the market within hours. “I thought a lot about quitting when interest rates were excessively high and the only deals you could make had an assumable loan,” she says. Thankfully, Flaig didn’t quit. In fact, she tweaked her business plan and set in motion a career path that continues to work for her today.
“I learned a valuable lesson during an earlier market shift,” says Flaig. “[I realized] that this [the 1980s down market] was simply a business cycle. A good sales associate will be prepared to work [in] every type of market.”
With combined experience of nearly 150 years in real estate, brokers Jo Carter, Sue Flaig, Mike Prilliman, Alan Riley and Gina Stuart agree that success in real estate requires hard work, knowledge of the market, the ability to get along with all types of people and the flexibility to adjust to different markets.
The experiences of these veterans prove that attending to the basics of business in every type of market can lead to long-term success.
“There’s nothing magical about any part of what we do,” says Sue Flaig, broker of Coldwell Banker Residential in Clearwater. “It’s called hard work.”
In spite of all the hard work, a clear message comes through from each of these real estate experts—a love of the business makes the work easier.
Integrity Is Key
“I love real estate. I love the profession and I love to see the fruits of my labor come true for buyers and sellers,” says broker/owner Gina Stuart, of KB Connor Real Estate Inc. in Marianna.
Stuart believes a secret to success is maintaining a high level of professionalism.
“My father [a retired real estate professional] was always thought of as ‘Mr. Integrity,’ as the most honest person in town. The hardest thing for him was when the real estate board was formed and he couldn’t do business just on a handshake anymore,” says Stuart. “We’ve tried to carry on that tradition of trust because that’s what people expect.”
Flaig believes that all sales associates need to learn how to trust others, to stay aboveboard themselves and to stop complicating transactions unnecessarily.
“Our motto is [the Golden Rule] ‘Do to others as they would like to be done to,’” says Flaig. “Every real estate professional should think every day about what they’re doing to be professional and to develop a reputation for honesty.”
Focus on Referrals
Broker/owner Jo Carter, of Jo Carter & Associates Inc. in Naples, says that selling in an area she loves has contributed to her 33 years of achievements in real estate.
“People come to Naples and fall in love with it and buy a home here; then they want all their friends to move here, too,” says Carter. “I’ve built my business by always putting people first and treating people right. I have what I call a ‘servant’s heart,’ and I give my all to every customer. I have a great respect for integrity.”
As with most successful professionals, Carter’s business accomplishments depend the most on referrals from satisfied customers. Most of her out-of-town buyers are referred to her by [the buyers’] friends, who also become her friends.
Sales associates with longevity in the business have an established network of referrals that they can turn to when the market slows. Flaig says that 95 percent of her business today comes from referrals from other real estate professionals and from her database.
“The first thing you need to do when you start in this business is to create a database and treat it like it is gold,” says Flaig. “Every month I send something of value to everyone in my database and follow up with phone calls and letters. I identify my A-plus clients and keep in touch with them all the time.”
And, many long-time real estate veterans learned early in their career what would keep them in business. Broker Alan Riley, of RE/MAX Affiliates in Seminole, always tries to provide the best possible service, is an advocate for his clients and focuses on building a referral base.
“For the past few years, we didn’t have time to go back and contact past clients, and we didn’t have to find buyers because they just came to us,” says Riley. “Now, [sales associates] need to get back to the basics and work on building a client database.”
Riley says that those without a database need to start contacting people in their sphere of influence and start prospecting for clients and customers.
Find New Niches
“Back in the 1980s, it was difficult for people to qualify for a mortgage because the interest rates were so high, but we found out that first-time-buyer programs could offer lower interest rates or a buy-down of the interest rates,” says Riley. “We looked for a niche of potential buyers and found them among the first-time buyers. In some ways this market is the same: if the average person is unable or unwilling to buy, then you have to find someone who can. There are programs today for first-time homebuyers and ‘neighborhood hero’ programs to help police officers and teachers get into homes. You need to find a price range that’s selling, even if it’s $200,000 condos. Not everyone can sell million-dollar homes all the time.”
Riley recommends the baby boomer niche as a good one to tap into. “Many of them are taking early retirement and they have built equity in their homes, so they offer a good opportunity as sellers and buyers, especially in Florida,” says Riley. Still others, according to industry experts, are trading up—buying smaller, but more expensive homes.
Reach Out to Others
In addition to building a network of customers, Carter, currently president of the Naples Area Board of Realtors®, recommends becoming involved with the local real estate association for educational opportunities and networking. Working cooperatively with other brokers has been extremely important in expanding her referral business. Carter is also involved with her church and suggests that other real estate sales associates get involved with community groups to expand their network.
Mike Prilliman, broker/owner of Mike Prilliman Realty, Inc. in Zephyrhills, says he’s stayed active with the Florida Realtors and the National Association of Realtors (NAR) in order to keep up with trends and to network. Prilliman tries to get to know as many people as possible, including fellow sales associates, home inspectors, termite inspectors, mortgage lenders, attorneys and title companies.
“I’ve had lots of business come through my participation in the local Realtor association and community groups, and civic activities such as the local chamber of commerce,” says Prilliman. “Real estate is a people business. When you’re out of sight, you’re out of mind.”
Stuart says she is a “people person” and believes that being able to work with other professionals on a friendly basis is vital to a successful business.
“If you want to work with another [sales associate] and show their property to a client, you have to be their friend, not their enemy,” says Stuart. “I’ve even seen offices that don’t work [well] together, much less with other [sales associates]. We won’t allow you in our office unless you come in with a good attitude and a smile!”
Flaig says she believes that “givers gain,” and she’s stayed heavily involved inside the real estate community on the local, state and national level as well as in her own community. When she started her real estate career, the market was slow, so she attended conferences and classes and earned several designations early in her professional life.
Prilliman teaches principles and practices of real estate at the local community college as a way of making sure he keeps up with changes in real estate law and doing additional networking. He also says real estate professionals should make sure they understand changes in the marketplace.
“[Sales associates] should work very hard at knowing what the property values are and getting their sellers to list their homes at an appropriate price,” says Prilliman.
Riley recommends that sales associates educate themselves about every aspect of the market and learn how to convey that information to consumers.
“The more you know, the more you can provide to your customers,” says Riley. “Most [sales associates] have time on their hands right now since the market is slower, so [they] should use that time to work to improve [their] knowledge and get ready for the next cycle.”
Stuart encourages real estate professionals to stay abreast of changes in their community as well as the real estate market because consumers will often ask their sales associate about developments and how market conditions will affect property values.
Use the Web
As more and more buyers turn to the Internet to start the buying process, more and more real estate professionals should be tweaking their Web sites to encourage surfing.
“NAR statistics indicate that 80 percent of people who consummate a real estate transaction start the process on the Internet,” says Riley. “Having a good, solid presence on the Web is key, especially if you have a desirable property. This is a great time for you to work on improving the quality of you Web site.”
Save Your Money
“It’s been such a journey,” says Flaig. “I wish I could tell you that I started with a clear plan, but I didn’t even talk about business plans when I started,” she says. “All I know is, you have to be prepared to work a lot of hours [and learn how to manage your money].”
And that includes better budgeting and saving enough money during the hot markets to last through the lean times.
Flaig says that associates need to have a budget and to stay within that budget to make sure they can pay their bills. She normally does a monthly profit and loss statement, reviewing how much she’s making, how much she’s spending and, most important, how much she’s keeping.
“I hope everyone banked the money they made during the ‘steroid cycle,’” says Flaig.
Expand Your Horizons
Both Stuart and Prilliman work in small towns and balance business cycles by handling more than residential real estate.
Prilliman says, “In a small town like this, it makes sense to diversify the business, so we do it all: property management, appraisals, commercial real estate and residential real estate.”
Flaig’s strategy now is to “kick in all my systems,” staying on top of keeping in touch with clients and customers, and working with diligence to generate business, knowing that seeing the results of this work can take a long time.
“[You] need to focus on the fact that whatever you do today will have at least a 90-day delay,” says Flaig. “You need to think about what you want to see in terms of productivity in 90 days or longer, after you’ve given time and advice to a potential seller, waited for them to fix up the house for sale and then put it on the market.”
Regardless of market conditions, these five successful Realtors keep their focus on providing quality service to their clients and customers.
“The most important thing of all is to stay in touch,” says Stuart. Pick up the phone and let people know what’s going on. Buying or selling a home is such a scary thing. People need to find someone to whom they can trust their future.”
Michele Lerner is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer.