from Florida Realtor Magazine, September 2007 | by Heidi Russell Rafferty | page 24
Know Your Snowbirds
It’s selling season for much of Florida. With a new flock of snowbirds flying south for the winter, what are you doing to capture these sales?
Northerners who do business with Blair Douglas Russell are definitely snowbirds of a different feather. Russell, a sales associate with Coldwell Banker in Miami Beach, sells to a sophisticated clientele from the Hamptons and New York City. Since 1991, he’s sold more than $100 million in luxury Miami real estate, mostly to clients from up north.
His customers don’t meet the typical snowbird definition. People with lots of money looking for third homes for weekend getaways, they include the CEO of Victoria’s Secret and David Caruso, the star of “CSI Miami” (who’s bought more than $10 million worth of property through Russell since 1995).
To make the connection, Russell immerses himself in the lifestyles of his clientele. In 2001, he bought a unit on New York’s Fifth Avenue in order to connect socially with his Big Apple customers, who spend an average of $850,000 on vacation properties. “It’s a completely different real estate world up here,” says Russell, who goes to New York at least five days a month to market. He also spends summers in Long Island by renting a bedroom in a house. “I go to charity functions,” Russell says. “I’m usually tanned and dressed [more casually than] everyone else, so I stand out!”
Who Are the Snowbirds? With baby boomers hitting retirement age in 2011, Florida will most certainly see a population surge, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. By 2025, one in five people in Florida will be elderly. The state is expected to gain 6.5 million between now and then.
But the definition of snowbird is broadening, to include a more diverse group of people, according to evidence from Florida real estate professionals. The National Association of Realtors® (NAR) agrees. Although specific statistics haven’t yet been collected, NAR has assigned them a new identity: the “splitters” (split off from the traditional snowbird market.)
These people range from the hip 30-something New York City investor, to the Chicago baby boomer looking forward to active twilight years, to the family of four from Buffalo seeking a refuge from lake-effect snow.
Your goal is to sell a dream to the person escaping life elsewhere, and in doing so, you have to take into account all sorts of snowbird demographics. In short, sell the assets that are universally appealing—and, like Russell, sell those that are appealing to your target market. Here’s how to nurture the snowbird niche:
Find a Common Thread First, make sure that the areas you’re selling are compatible with the snowbird’s current lifestyle, says Alon Barzilay, vice president of the Klein Co., the site developer for the $40 million Oasis development project near Orlando. His staff builds relationships with real estate brokers to sell the units, which start at $375,000.
“Think about what makes your submarket special—activities that you do all the time. Your biggest competitor is the 30 years that the snowbirds spent in their hometown,” says Barzilay.
And position yourself so that people understand that you know where they’re coming from, Russell says. A big chunk of Russell’s business is derived from his involvement in the art world. He’s active in the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Guggenheim Museum, both in New York City.
“A lot of my buyers say, ‘Hey, I have these art collections, but I need a high-end place to display them,’” Russell says. “The loft market is hot in Miami, and [many buyers want] high ceilings and large spaces. They want edgy and hip, yet refined.” Even if you don’t have the cash to finance a two-city business, you can still become ingrained in your snowbird market’s background, Russell says.
“Don’t overlook [places] like museums [and cultural events], because generally a person who’s sponsoring the opera house in Miami is cultured and edgy,” he says. “In order to get the niche market, you have to be creative.”
Where to Market Hit nontraditional markets, says Eric Block, a marketing expert with Duffy & Partners, a Minneapolis design and branding agency. The firm markets Mona Lisa at Celebration, a luxury condo and hotel development near Walt Disney World in Orlando.
“Everyone says, go to New York, Washington, Chicago, Detroit or Minneapolis. But there’s another tier of cities with an equal number of people who want a second home,” Block says. “What about Duluth, Minn., or Bloomington, Ill.? It’s much less expensive to market in those places, but those areas represent a large percentage of potential customers.”
Nicole Persley, owner and broker of Homage Real Estate of Florida in Boca Raton, hit on that very idea by targeting alumni of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where she went to art school. Persley joined a UM alumni club for Dade and Broward counties, which hosts a number of charity fund-raising events and other social gatherings.
“I’m active in those circles, and it’s the best way to get referrals. A friend of mine (another alumnus) now lives in New York and referred three people to me alone,” she says.
Persley’s sales average $500,000 to $600,000 each, and about 25 percent of her customers come from Michigan contacts. Besides the alumni group, she receives leads from family members in Michigan and Wisconsin.
If you’re lacking a personal connection, you can still appeal to people in mid-sized–city markets. One way is to offer story ideas to local newspaper editors about Florida real estate opportunities, Block says. You can fuel interest in your area and make yourself the go-to sales associate or broker if you can become the quoted expert in an article, he says.
“The weather and events of the last few years have people nervous about the market. I think writing positive things in local newspapers and magazines should be what [sales associates are doing],” he says. “Anything that is topical and current is of interest, and it’s important for an editor or a writer to hear another perspective. Not all of Florida has been leveled by hurricanes.” And, more inventory means a greater variety of properties from which to choose.
Also, don’t overlook the obvious: current snowbirds who have already closed a deal. If your experience with them has been positive, they’ll have no problem referring you to friends and family. After all, they’ll want to surround themselves with people they know, says Barzilay.
Joe L. Vargas, of Esslinger-Wooten-Maxwell in Hollywood Beach, derives about 40 percent of his business from snowbird customers in Canada, New York and New Jersey. “Once you get to know the people, they’ll tell their friends or family or neighbors, who will move here and then refer more people to you. Their experience is the best way for them to find a [sales associate],” Vargas says.
A New Yorker who was Vargas’ neighbor in Hollywood, Fla., bought an apartment through him for about $260,000 and then referred three other New Yorkers , who bought units through him averaging $250,000 each. “She was the person to move down here first, then later told them how great the weather was, and then people she knew decided to buy here,” Vargas says.
Close the Sale, Not the Relationship So you’ve done your homework, and a prospective buyer is traveling to meet you to look at properties. The first rule: Be organized and impress them in a short time, Barzilay says.
“They say, ‘Take us around—you’re the expert. You have to impress me. How different are you than anyone else with the knowledge of the area?’” he says.
Art David, of Coldwell BankerPreviews International in Naples,has been courting a Connecticut buyer who’s seeking a $3 million to $4 million second home and happens to be an avid golfer. So is David, who touts his golf community knowledge on his Web site, where the buyer found him.
The buyer recently brought his friends to Naples to play some courses and check out properties at the same time. David joined them, setting up tee times at golfing communities.
The buyer still hasn’t found the perfect house, but he’s been back, with his wife, to continue looking. “For me it makes sense, because you see as much or more about a property from the vantage point of a golf course,” David says. “You develop a friendly relationship rather than saying, ‘Here’s the house.’ It’s a way of breaking down business barriers. Most of my clients who play golf ask to set up a tee time, and we play.”
The second rule: Help the snowbird see how the property and resulting lifestyle will mesh with their lives, Block says. “Make it as [attractive] as possible, and bring forth testimonials from other clients to debunk negative perceptions and raise their confidence that they can do this,” he says. “Owning a second home or an investment property throws a level of complexity into their already-complex lives. Help people think about it in a way that considers all the benefits.”
All in the Family Fred Spring with Coldwell Banker Previews has been a broker-associate in Sanibel since 1982. The Sanibel community is unique in that it’s a wildlife preserve and therefore attracts a unique clientele. Spring’s customers are family-oriented and want peaceful getaways for their broods. Spring makes each client feel part of his family. He does everything from providing them holiday meals to setting up their Christmas trees. He and his son/partner, Shane, also treat their clients to an annual tree-trimming party, the “Turkeylerkee Day” (a Thanksgiving barbecue party) and a Christmas Eve party. He invites about 70 current and past clients to each. The result has been a loyal following. Eighty-five percent of Spring’s clients are from out of town—including people who bought second homes back in the 1980s and now live in Sanibel full time as well as people who are just now making the investment. His children have grown up with clients’ children. They’ve been invited to weddings, funerals and christenings in the Midwest and Northeast. One couple from Massachusetts became so close to Spring that they stuck close to him after his wife died. They’ve bought and sold five properties, and they’ve also referred a sister, a cousin and friends. “When you like people, it’s easy,” Spring says.
Mesh with the Local Style Sue Swanson, of Century 21 Baytree, also finds it easy to help people mesh into the local lifestyle. Originally from New Jersey, she spends about eight months of the year in Florida and four up North. She lives and sells in Heritage Isles, a Melbourne community that will eventually be home to 2,000 families. In fact, she was the first to sign a contract there.
The community has a strict rule: No one can live there unless one person in the residence is at least age 55, and no one under age 18 can live there full time. It appeals to people who want an adults-only place to live. “You don’t ever have to leave the community. People look to buy here because it’s so close to all of the shopping, and they can get to a golf course without ever driving on a street,” she says. Swanson keeps in touch with New Jersey customers via e-mail and helps them with moving details and even selecting furnishings. “I know how it is and can advise them on places to go,” she says.
And Nancy Sheehan, of RE/MAX Realty Advantage in Lady Lake, also goes the extra mile by greeting her snowbird customers with the key to their new home—even if it’s in the middle of the night—and helping them with furniture-storage issues. She sells properties in The Villages, a sprawling retirement community northwest of Orlando.
“It’s not a business where you treat the customers or clients like you would in a lot of businesses. I have been told many times that I’m very personable, and it’s very important. You’re not dealing with selling a pair of shoes or a lamp. You’re talking about a very emotional type of business,” Sheehan says. “You need to be accommodating.”
Barzilay notes that it always pays to put yourself in the snowbird’s shoes. The salespeople at Oasis similarly educate buyers about the community’s assets—shopping, movie theaters, libraries, schools and universities. But more importantly, they show snowbirds how different their lifestyle will be from their home state.
“You want it to be an exciting place for them to live, and that’s how you compete,” he says. “They’re not coming to an old-age farm. Offer a lifestyle that people aspire to have. It’s a lifestyle change. They’ve lived in a regular house for 30 years already, so show them the differences.”
Heidi Russell Rafferty is a Kentuckybased freelance writer.