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Part 1: International Know-How

Want to build your international clientele? This is the first in a two-part series on establishing business relationships throughout the world. Read on for tips for working with buyers and brokers from the United Kingdom and Asia.

International people
Part 2 will offer advice for connecting with buyers and brokers from South America, France and Germany.

Sean J Ferguson, CIPS, TRC, a sales associate with Classic Homes Realty Inc./GMAC Real Estate in Clermont, says he’s sold about 150 homes to British buyers, and he hasn’t done any large-scale marketing programs to attract them. “Quite a few people from the United Kingdom travel to the Orlando area, and they were in my back yard,” he says. “I just focused on selling in the communities [in which] they [were interested].”

Are you thinking about expanding your horizons? If you’ve been pondering how you can do business with buyers from other countries, you’ve probably realized that you need to start from the beginning. You’ll need to know some basics about the real estate systems in the countries in which you’d like to get a foothold, how to network with brokers or buyers from those countries and the cultural differences that could make or break your relationships with foreign contacts.

Florida brokers who work with prospects throughout the world say that buyers from the United Kingdom, South America, Germany and France are the most likely to be interested in buying real estate in Florida. In fact, a National Association of Realtors® study that broke down the regions of origin of international buyers of Florida real estate found that the largest proportion—33.3 percent—come from the United Kingdom, followed by those from Western Europe and South America, with 21.2 percent each.

Here, Florida brokers who’ve established a foundation of business with buyers from those regions tell how they’ve built networks with international buyers and brokers and offer their best tips for impressing contacts from those markets.

Making Inroads in the United Kingdom
“I obviously have an advantage, being British and having knowledge of the British system,” says Andrew Batty, founder and president of The Florida Consultancy and a sales associate with RE/MAX Gulfstream Realty in Sarasota. “But there are a number of very successful Americans who are marketing in the United Kingdom.”

Batty was a chartered surveyor, the common name for real estate professionals in the United Kingdom, for 35 years before moving to Florida in 2000 to live full time. He and many other real estate professionals who specialize in working with British buyers have gone the independent route. In other words, they market themselves directly to U.K. buyers instead of creating formal alliances with British real estate companies to generate referrals. “With the Internet, it’s possible to market quite easily through Web sites to seek buyers,” says Batty.

Taking a more formal broker-to-broker route as she tries to break into the U.K. market is Caroline Saigol of Brandon. The Styles & Styles Co., Realtors®, sales associate has teamed up with a real estate company that specializes in luxury second homes in the southwestern tip of England. Her goal is to target British buyers interested in Florida vacation and investment real estate. The twist is that the head of the British company for the last 20 years has been her sister, Jackie Stanley.

“I’m targeting my sister’s client base,” says Saigol. “I’ve sent her clients a letter introducing myself, and we’ve talked to local press.” Saigol has also joined the International Consortium of Real Estate Associations (ICREA), an alliance of national real estate organizations throughout the world. She’s been certified by ICREA as a transnational referral source (abbreviated by ICREA as TRC), which allows her to participate in its formal system for paying and receiving referral fees. Florida’s real estate license law precludes a sales associate from collecting a referral fee directly from a broker/brokerage other than whom the sales associate is licensed.

Whatever route you take to connect with British buyers, keep in mind the biggest difference between the real estate systems in the United Kingdom and the United States—there’s no buyer agency system or areawide database of properties, like a Multiple Listing Service (MLS), that all U.K. brokers use to share listings. “The majority of U.K. buyers have no understanding of the U.S. system, where they can have an agent helping them with every aspect of finding a home,” says Batty.

That means one of your first steps in working with these buyers is to explain that they don’t need to go to different sales associates to view properties. “In the U.K., if you want to sell a house, agents do the same as they would in the United States,” he explains. “But if you want to buy, you traipse around [sales associates’] offices looking at signs in their windows, and agents in England will try to sell you only the homes their firm has for sale. Then, when you’ve found a home, you’re totally on your own in negotiating the contract and handling all the procedures of buying.”

Because most U.K. buyers don’t know about buyer agency or about the MLS, which eliminates the need to deal with multiple real estate companies, they may seem more likely to contact more than one brokerage. “You’ll need to educate him on the benefits of using a buyer’s agent,” says Ferguson. “And saying I could show them all the properties through the MLS was beneficial.”

But be careful when you talk up the benefits of working with only one sales associate, says Batty. When he began working with these buyers, he emphasized that it didn’t cost them anything to have him work directly for them in finding a home. He found, however, that Brits became suspicious of his something-for-nothing promise, so he’s toned down that portion of his marketing message. Instead, like Ferguson, he focuses on his experience and the convenience of working with one sales associate.

Though there aren’t many cultural or language barriers in working with buyers from the United Kingdom, a few are worth keeping in mind:

  • “We’re a lot more reticent than Americans,” says Batty. “Even if Americans say, ‘Tell me what you really mean,’ the British [may] sit there quietly, and you don’t realize that they haven’t understood what you’ve been telling them.”
  • Many Brits with whom Ferguson has worked have been very deliberative, he says, so determining their motivation to buy takes longer. “[Many are] very analytical, and where I might work with a U.S. buyer for three to four months, I’ve worked with U.K. buyers for up to two years before they bought.”
  • Do background on the history of the United Kingdom and the area the prospects are from before meeting them. “Don’t ever categorize anybody, because there’s a big difference [between people] from Northern Ireland and [those from the Republic of] Ireland,” says Ferguson. “There’s also a big difference between people from Wales and those from England.”
  • Remember that “we’re two nations divided by a common language,” says Batty. “Don’t assume people know what you’re talking about.” For instance, a down payment is called a deposit in the United Kingdom, a home inspection is called a survey and a closing is called a completion. To avoid confusion, Saigol has, on her Web site, a list of U.S. real estate terms translated for British buyers.

Looking to the Far East
Though Asian buyers have traditionally concentrated on buying property on the U.S. West Coast, they’re now expanding to other areas, including Florida, says Kimberly A. Kirschner, CIPS, CEO of Kirschner Realty International Inc. in Hollywood. That’s why she’s been working to build relationships with brokers from such Asian countries as China, Japan and Singapore.

Kirschner builds her business by networking with international brokers. “Seldom do we try to do direct sales in any country,” she says. “It’s much better to network to present the product and share commissions with a broker or to set up a referral system.”

She’s built her networks by participating in local, state, national and international real estate organizations. For instance, she says her local Association, the Realtor® Association of Greater Miami and the Beaches, “makes it very easy for members” to make international contacts by doing such things as facilitating participation in international meetings. She also participates in events arranged through her local chamber of commerce. Most of the events she attends, however, require travel. “If you want to network to find foreign buyers,” she says, “you’re going to have to go to other countries.” Kirschner practices what she preaches, having recently attended an international real estate conference in Hong Kong.

To make inroads in Asian markets, Kirschner has learned that it’s best to approach Asian brokers through intermediaries in their own country, including attorneys or brokers “who have a much deeper understanding of the culture,” she says. “We very much believe in the team approach. The best thing we do is to try to find attorneys who work with brokers from those locations, and often it’s the [Asian] attorneys who understand our laws or U.S. attorneys who know [their] culture.”

To find attorneys in an Asian country, she recommends asking for referrals at trade shows. To find their counterparts in the United States, Kirschner suggests asking for referrals from such groups as the American Bar Association or your local bar association. Another reason it’s helpful to rely on attorneys, Kirschner says, is to avoid giving foreign buyers legal advice.

“It’s a huge liability, and even if people don’t end up suing you, you can ruin transactions.”

Kirschner offers the following advice for dealing with cultural differences once you’ve networked to find Asian brokers:

  • When presenting your business card to Asian customers, use both hands. “It’s a sign of respect if your business card is translated [to their language],” adds Kirschner. Also use both hands when you receive a business card, and treat it with care. Take the time to read it in front of the person presenting it to you, and don’t write on it or stash it in your pocket.
  • There’s a definite hierarchy in groups, and you must address people according to the hierarchy. “If there’s a business group, address the person with the most influence or the person who holds the highest rank,” she says.
  • If you’re making a presentation, make sure your materials are translated. “With the Chinese, it’s not a bad idea to translate to the most common of the Chinese dialects,” says Kirschner. “It’ll give you a bit of an edge.”

The key to establishing yourself as a professional in any country is how you communicate with buyers and sellers. Take the time to cultivate your relationships, and you’ll quickly build a bank of international buyers who have confidence in your abilities.

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