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Part 2: International Know-How

International business
Looking to heighten your exposure with international buyers? In Part 2 of our two-part series, we look at building business with buyers and real estate brokers in South America, France and Germany.

Adam Adache, president and broker of Adache Real Estate LLC in Fort Lauderdale, began working with South American buyers by selling Miami condo projects. He used that experience to begin researching the best way to build business in Latin America. For instance, to know which brokers to cultivate, he tracked those who represented the most buyers at the projects. “It’s better to establish relationships with brokers,” he says. “We found that we help those brokers a lot on this end, and they help us gather buyers on that end.”

He also attended conferences and trade shows in Latin America and even participated in a 2005 public-private trade mission in Bogotá, Colombia, to promote American products and services. “We had a booth at the trade mission, and we invited a lot of brokers we knew and didn’t know to meet us,” he explains. After participating in the trade mission, Adache opened an office in Bogotá with a Colombian broker partner.

Though he recommends finding a local partner in South America, Adache says it’s wise to be cautious in choosing that partner. “The key is to not rush into things,” he says. “For the same reasons people in the United States are cautious in doing business, be cautious about your Latin American partners.”

“No one marketing tactic in Latin America works,” Adache adds. “You can’t go to one conference, seminar or trade show and meet somebody. You have to go there more than one time, and then it’s a combination of all those things that builds relationships.”

Are you interested in tapping the international market but not sure where to begin? Florida Realtor magazine spoke with Florida real estate brokers and sales associates who’ve cultivated business relationships in South America, France and Germany. They offer their best advice for creating a solid foundation of long-term international business.

Building Bridges to Our Southern Friends
Whether you’re trying to work through brokers or directly with potential buyers in Latin America, the name of the game is relationship building, says Carlos ThurdeKoos, CIPS, ePRO, broker-owner of MCT Realty in Orlando. “It’s relationships plus, plus, plus,” says ThurdeKoos, a native Ecuadorian who left that country more than 40 years ago.

Today, ThurdeKoos works primarily with buyers from South America, mainly Venezuela and Ecuador. “Once you get started with a person from one country, that’s all you need,” he says. “If you really gain that individual’s trust and confidence, that person will provide you with referrals like you’ve never seen.”

That’s exactly how ThurdeKoos has built his international business. One introduction led to another, and with each, he worked to build a strong personal relationship. He’s done that by being meticulous in researching the backgrounds of referrals before meeting with them. When given referrals, ThurdeKoos asks the referral sources for background. “I ask for everything they know about those people,” he explains, “including their likes, dislikes, hobbies, business, favorite food and color schemes in their homes so we know who they are and what they’re looking for.” That attention to detail has helped ThurdeKoos develop many close relationships, and now he works only on a referral basis.

Referrals are critical to building business with South American buyers and brokers, agrees Lou Principe, a sales associate at Keller Williams Heritage Realty in Lake Mary who works primarily with buyers from Colombia. Principe began to work with Colombians about seven years ago when he was representing developers of several condo projects in Miami Beach. For those projects, he placed ads in newspapers in Bogotá, the country’s capital, and began conducting real estate seminars there and in other South American cities on how to buy real estate in Miami. Remember, these activities may require compliance with the licensing requirements, if any exist, of the country where the activities are conducted, so be sure to do your homework. Those early efforts created solid contacts with buyers who now provide regular referrals.

While you’re developing a South American network, it’s important to understand cultural differences so that you don’t inadvertently offend instead of impress. Keep the following tips in mind:

  • “Don’t lump all South Americans together,” says Principe. To understand the differences among people from South American countries, do some research. For instance, Argentineans are primarily of European descent, while other Latin American countries have more of a mix of European and Indian cultures. And Brazilians speak Portuguese, not Spanish.
  • “The worst thing you can do is start talking business as soon as you meet [people],” says ThurdeKoos. “You have to gain their trust, and if you start asking financial or business questions before trust is developed, you’ve just lost a client.”
  • Be respectful, and go the extra mile, says Principe. For instance, his company picks customers up at the airport and drives them to their hotel. Also, call them Mr., Mrs., Miss or Dr. until they tell you to call them by their first name.

    Another way to be respectful is to print marketing materials and attempt to speak in the prospects’ native language. “When Colombians recognize you’re trying to speak to them in their native language, they appreciate it,” says Principe. “If you show you respect their culture, they’ll meet you halfway.”

Vive La Difference! Dealing with the French
“The French are very sophisticated,” says Daniel Kijner, CIPS, CRS, a sales associate with Suncoast International Realty in Sarasota, who’s French himself. “They’re well educated about real estate but not necessarily our local customs.”

In France, Kijner was a developer and builder and is still a director of FNAIM, the French equivalent of the National Association of Realtors® (NAR). Now he operates in both France and the United States and has worked with the Florida Association of Realtors (FAR) and NAR leadership to strengthen relationships between American and French brokers.

One of the main differences between the real estate business in France and that in the United States, he says, is that in France, brokers—not sales associates—control all real estate decisions. Florida law is similar as the broker controls the transaction unless he or she delegates authority to the sales associate, which in many cases happens. “Brokers in the United States can work only with brokers in France,” he says. “Never would French brokers let salespeople make decisions.”

That may be because to become a licensed real estate broker in France, you must have a bachelor’s degree in a certain field, such as marketing, law or finance, or be a director or officer of a company at which you’ve managed people and business for 10 years, according to Kijner. Licenses expire after 10 years, but the penalties are harsh for those who act as brokers without a license. They face criminal and civil penalties, along with financial penalties, he says.

French law is also heavily weighted toward protecting buyers during the real estate transaction. For example, in addition to regulations dealing with treatment of radon, lead in paint and pipes, and asbestos, there are also requirements governing property measurements, says Kijner. If disclosed measurements are off by more than 5 percent, buyers can void the sale, and brokers can be fined.

In addition, homes are warranted in ways that they’re not here in the United States. “In France, if you do a major structural renovation, a 10-year warranty comes with the home regardless of the owner,” says Kijner. “If something goes wrong, it’ll be covered by insurance.”

Because French buyers get so much protection in their native country, they can sometimes become frustrated if U.S. brokers don’t provide the same level of information on property that they’d receive in France. And if your answer to that dilemma is to recommend that they hire an attorney during the decision-making process, they may become even more frustrated at having to pay for legal advice before they’ve chosen a particular property. “French brokers are required by law to provide assistance and information in the fields that a U.S. licensee will refer to others,” says Kijner. “They don’t understand why brokers can’t give them at least a summary of information. So right away you must explain that under U.S. law, you’re not allowed to speak about certain things.”

To help French buyers inexpensively get the level of information they’re comfortable with, Kijner uses the team approach to selling internationally. “You have to create a team of specialists who’ll prepare a package of basic information they can read in their language,” he says. “For example, we have a certified public accountant and an immigration attorney who’ve prepared information addressing some of the major tax and immigration issues.” Those experts have participated in creating Kijner’s information package in the hope of working with the French buyers who choose to go through with a transaction.

As for cultural differences, Kijner says that it’s important to keep the following points in mind:

  • There are two types of French buyers. Some want a second, “turnkey” home that’s furnished and ready for move-in. Others will furnish the home themselves and prefer to view vacant homes so that they can more easily picture their furniture inside. “They don’t like to see cramped and already-decorated homes,” he says. If you have no option but to show an already-furnished home to French buyers who have their own furniture, let them know in advance that they’ll be seeing a furnished home but that you want to show them “the environment,” says Kijner.
  • Don’t be surprised if French buyers say, “I demand …,” says Kijner. It simply means “I request … .” The French “are straightforward and very eager to tell you what they like or dislike,” he adds, “which is good because it’s easy to determine their needs, wishes and expectations.”

Knowing the German Way of Life
“When I came to the United States, I had a very [frustrating] experience with a real estate sales associate who probably didn’t know enough to deal with foreigners,” says German-born Sonja Beuzelin, CIPS, GRI, who’s a broker with Interactive Realty Inc. in Melbourne. The main issues? Document translation and dealing with the legal requirements that foreigners who live in the United States must maneuver. “That’s why I went into real estate,” she says.

“I believe anybody can break into the international market,” says Beuzelin. “You should have the language or the culture background.” If you don’t, she says, building relationships with German brokers is critical.

That’s exactly what Toni K. Napolitano, CIPS, CRS, a sales associate with Keller Williams Realty Professionals in Fort Lauderdale, has done. The lesson of Napolitano’s success is to seize the opportunity when people from other countries invite you to visit. About 10 years ago, she worked with German buyers in Florida, and they invited her to visit them in Germany. Napolitano, who doesn’t speak German, took them up on their offer and smartly added appointments to make presentations on the U.S. real estate market at German real estate companies. “I used that opportunity to make contacts and create relationships,” she says. “When you’re doing international, it’s all about relationships. People really don’t care about what you can do until they know you care about them.”

Through those contacts, Napolitano has developed a solid clientele. “Once you’ve earned the respect of German clients, you basically have clients for life,” she says. “They’re very loyal, and they send a lot of repeat and referral business.”

If you don’t have friends who can open doors to German professionals, Beuzelin recommends networking with brokers in Germany and getting involved with your local chamber of commerce and local, state and national associations of Realtors. “They offer plenty of education on foreign countries,” she says.

She also recommends getting acquainted with the German traditions. Here are a few basic rules on understanding German culture:

  • Address Germans using their title and last name, such as Mr. or Dr. Schultz. “It’s a big no-no when you meet people to ask their first name,” says Beuzelin. If you have an impressive title, use it. “You gain a tremendous amount of respect in Germany if you’re a director of a company,” says Napolitano. “I was director of international real estate for my former company, and when I’d present my card, German brokers would always take note of the fact that I was director.”
  • It’s just good manners. “Always greet the woman first,” says Beuzelin, “and always open doors for people older than you, no matter the gender.”
  • Be on time. “Germans are very punctual,” says Napolitano.
  • Though most Germans can speak English, learn some common German words. “If you can say hello or goodbye in German, it opens up a door,” says Napolitano. “If the first few words out of your mouth are from their language, people are much more receptive, even if those are the only words you can say.”

With all this talk of breaking into international markets, if you’re still wondering whether it’s worth it, consider Napolitano’s viewpoint: “Being an international specialist has enriched and enhanced my life,” she says. “It broadens my view of the world, and it improves my ability to work with people of all countries.”

G.M. Filisko is a Chicago-based freelance writer.