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Wisdom Gained from Experience in Real Estate

August 24, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

What Life Teaches

In a world where everything’s done at Internet speed, there’s valuable wisdom to be gained from past experience.

By F. Harry Stowe June 2009 (Source REALTOR® Magazine)

One is a former minister. Another spent years perfecting crème brûlée French toast and other signature dishes at his Austin, Texas, restaurant before taking the plunge into real estate sales. Two others have spent more than 30 years in the real estate business.

What all these real estate pros share is life experience. That experience, they say, plays an important role in their success. Their sales tactics may not differ greatly from those of our “30 Under 30” class of 2009 But with richly varied resumes and memories that predate Internet communications, they have important lessons to offer about cooperation, patience, and taking the long view.

Patrick Dixson has been in residential real estate just four years (after a stint many years ago in commercial). But the 56-year-old owner of RE/MAX Capital City in Austin, Texas, is leveraging his 20-plus years in the restaurant business in New Orleans and Austin.

“In a restaurant, you have to have a good relationship with your customers in order to support and grow your business,” he says. “That takes constant work, constant tinkering.”

Dixson began his restaurant career working in New Orleans for famed chefs Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse. There, he learned quickly how word-of-mouth referrals could fill restaurant seats. When he and his wife, Sharon Watkins, opened Chez-Zee Bistro Grill in Austin 19 years ago, he would work the room by night and build a customer database by day.

His wife still operates the restaurant; meanwhile, he’s applying that experience to his new career. “In the restaurant business, you’re on stage. And it’s the same in real estate. Once you learn the technical side of the business—the contracts, the legal requirements, and those sorts of tasks—the biggest part of this business is relationships. You have to build a network and then do such a good job that your customers refer you to their friends and associates.”

A thousand miles north of Austin, Mike Royce, 56, has been plying his trade for 31 years. When he started in real estate, Jimmy Carter was president and a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage carried an interest rate of about 18 percent. But, like Dixson, Royce says the lessons he learned early in his career inform his work today.

“Back then, it was all about having a clear understanding of your market,” says Royce, CRS®, the broker-owner of Realty World–Royce & Associates in Dayton, Ohio. “Fundamentals were the key then and they are now. If you let that get away from you, you’re going to struggle in any kind of a market.”

In addition to knowing the market, these business veterans say, you need to:

  • Set goals.
  • Hold yourself accountable.
  • Manage your time well.
  • Be devoted to customer service.
  • Have a laser-like focus on business planning.
  • Know when and how to adapt ideas that are shaping this and other industries.

You can’t keep up on all those fronts alone. That’s why Royce is a member of the Mason Mentoring Group, named for the Ohio town where he and about 10 colleagues from Ohio and Kentucky meet roughly once a month. Members found each other as they pursued their own educational needs.

“We’re in the same region, but we aren’t really in competition,” Royce says. As a result, they’ve referred business to each other on a number of occasions. “The referrals are nice,” he says, “but they’re actually just a side benefit of this group. Our first goal is education.”

Networking is essential, agrees Vickie Brockelman, 53, especially at a time of tremendous turbulence and great technological change. Brockelman is a sales associate with Commonwealth Real Estate Your Way in Mount Pocono, Pa., a growing market west of New York. “Meeting your colleagues in informal groups is one of the best ways to test ideas and grow your network.”

Listen to This One

But even more important than sharing your ideas is being a good listener, Brockelman says. “When I talk to people who are new to this business, I emphasize how important it is to listen to their colleagues and their customers,” she says. “It’s really one of the most important skills anybody can have in this business.”

After recently meeting with someone who wanted to list a property, Brockelman advised the prospective seller to reconsider. “The more I heard, the more I realized that he might be better off waiting to list the property. It was the best option for him.” She advised him to go to his lender and try to modify his loan. “It was right for him, and I hope he comes back to me when the time is right for him to sell,” she say.

When it comes to being a good listener, Lynda Conway sees a strong parallel between real estate and her earlier career, leading a congregation of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). “As a minister, I learned that, to get to the bottom of an issue, I had to carefully ask certain questions and then listen to each side.

Often, I was faced with very emotional situations,” says Conway. For 13 years, Conway’s full-time gig has been selling real estate as a partner in The Turner Team, affiliated with J.B. Goodwin, REALTOR®, also in Austin. She and partner Bettye Turner close between $10 million and $20 million in sales annually, she says, and she regularly draws on her background to help people facing tough real estate decisions—and to counsel colleagues.

Lately, Conway has been advising other sales pros to become more financially savvy now that lending and borrowing has become more difficult. “Our clients are expecting us to help them in this time of difficulty, and we should be able to answer their questions about finance. They’ll know if you’re trying to fake it.’’

That’s where Elise West Greenberg’s college economics degree comes in handy. Greenberg, ABR®, CRS®, is a practitioner with Weichert, REALTORS®, in the Philadelphia suburb of Blue Bell, Pa. She offers mortgage trend information at her Web site, with a clear explanation of why now is a great time to buy.

“It’s very important that you provide useful information that is easy to access,” she says. The 50-year-old has been in real estate sales only five years, but her economics background and previous career marketing high-end kitchens have served her well in real estate.

Use Down Time Wisely

Randy Keleher, too, learned valuable lessons in another arean that he applies in real estate. For 30 years, Keleher operated a ski shop in Connecticut. Today, he’s a sales associate with William Raveis Real Estate, Mortgage and Insurance, in Shelton, Conn.

At his ski shop, he learned the importance of making your marketing plan fit “both the overall market conditions and the individual client.” He also learned how to prepare for both busy and slow times. Off-peak months in the ski business, he says, taught him the value of sharp business planning and operational skills.

“We’re in a tight market right now, but we still see opportunity,” says Keleher, who has been in real estate six years. “If I had any advice to give, it would be that people in our business should use this time to their advantage—to educate themselves about their market and work on building their client base. It’s really a time to lay a good foundation for when things turn around.”

Keep Learning

Although experience is a great teacher, it’s important to never let your knowledge get stale. Dixson has spent considerable time recently focusing on the art of negotiation. He has even begun formal training to be a Certified Negotiation Expert, a designation offered through the Phoenix-based Negotiation Expertise LLC.

“It’s a tool that many of us need to work on,” he says. “My experience has been that many people not only have a tough time saying what they want to say, but they also have a tough time actually understanding what the other person wants.”

In addition to seeking out training opportunities, Dixson has paid attention to developing real estate mentors, who’ve helped him get beyond the basics and set stretch goals. His highest priority, he says, is to talk to 50 people every week.

Whatever your age or past experience, “mentors are critical in this business,” says Elise West Greenberg. For the past three years, Greenberg has been a corporate trainer for Weichert, REALTORS®, training associates in 20 offices. Her first bit of advice to students is to develop a business plan—but she realizes that’s easier said than done. “There are plenty of people out there who will gladly help you create and monitor your plan. Go to meetings of your colleagues. If you build a network, you’ll start to get referrals.”

One area where experienced practitioners might benefit from reverse mentoring—that is, seeking advice from younger practitioners—is in the use of new technologies.

“To be very honest, I don’t know how Twitter can be useful to me and my clients,” Charryl Youman, a practitioner with Prudential Florida Realty, in Venice, Fla., says with a laugh when asked about the microblogging service that allows users to send and read short messages on computers or other Web-enabled devices. Those short messages, known as “tweets,” are shared with communities of users around specific topics, and have been adopted by some in real estate as another means to stay connected with clients and prospects.

Although she’s a LinkedIn user, Youman says Twitter is still over the horizon for her. But that doesn’t mean she’s dismissing it altogether.

“During my days in marketing in the legal profession I was expected to keep learning,’’ she says. Youman spent 25 years in legal marketing, including seven years at a national law firm that specialized in real estate. “There is no difference in this profession. It’s all about adapting and growing, and thinking like a business executive.”

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