Kelly Quigley is the former managing editor of REALTOR® Magazine.
By customizing your services to buyers or sellers entering a new life stage, you can open the door to a new segment of customers. The key is understanding their emotions and motivations.
April 1, 2006
Debbie Miller learned firsthand — helping her parents, her in-laws, and her aunt through the process — how heart-wrenching it is to leave a home filled with decades of fond memories.
The stress was overwhelming, she says, but it sparked a great business idea. Now, the Arlington, Va., associate broker focuses her business on helping seniors and their adult children. “A lightbulb went off in my head, and I said, ‘I can’t be the only one who’s gone through this,’” says Miller, who’s with McEnearney Associates Inc., REALTORS®. “We’re all getting older, so this is a good market to focus on.”
Since having that revelation more than a decade ago, Miller has made a name for herself in the 55-and-older home seller market.
Miller doesn’t just list homes. She provides much-needed emotional support and orchestrates the myriad chores that have to be accomplished before the home can sell—most important, paring down the years of accumulated belongings. She has trademarked her title, “Lifestyle Transition Specialist,” and draws hundreds of seniors to her twice yearly educational seminars on housing.
She also benefits from a steady stream of referrals thanks to her extra touches during the home sale—for example, creating a photo album of the home so sellers can “take the memories with them.”
“People have likened it to renting a daughter,” Miller says. “My goal is to oversee the entire moving process and eliminate as much stress as possible.”
Practitioners throughout the country have found success by customizing their services to buyers or sellers entering a new life stage. Whether they’re focusing on recent college grads, new couples, growing families, or retirees seeking a home where they can age in place, practitioners say their success comes down to having a keen understanding of their customers’ motivations and the ability to deal with the emotions and special considerations that accompany the transition.
Whether or not you intend to carve a life-stage niche for yourself, you can add a new dimension to your service by adopting strategies used by real estate professionals who have.
A Home That Fits the Lifestyle
Fresh out of college and determined to own, young professionals are a growing force in today’s real estate market. Consumers under 25 made up 14 percent of all first-time buyers in 2005, up from 11 percent in 2000, according to the most recent National Association of REALTORS® Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers.
“Many of them have just landed their first great job. They now have the ability to buy and build equity, but they’re so busy starting their professional life that they’re looking for low maintenance,” says Kathleen Ullo, a marketer for Chicago condominium developers.
By understanding the lifestyle of her target audience — young adults who are serious about growing their career and having fun — Ullo, a vice president with Equity Marketing Services Inc. in Chicago, is able to show them why an urban condo is a smart housing decision.
She goes beyond touting the amenities of each unit to tell prospects about the benefits of living within walking distance to jobs, restaurants, and cultural attractions. She also highlights social perks such as the party room and sun deck. For single women, the security of 24-hour doorman service also is a big selling point, Ullo says.
She relies heavily on e-mail and Web marketing to reach out to the demographic and offers unique purchase incentives that appeal to younger buyers, such as a 42-inch plasma TV or a year of no condo assessments.
Being in tune with customers’ lifestyle is always good policy in real estate. But it’s especially important when working with people who are experiencing a life transition, says housing psychology expert and author Lois A. Vitt.
“Housing affects every area of life,” from commutes to work and social functions to children’s education, she says. To help customers who are entering a new life stage find the right home, she suggests, you must first get a handle on how their lifestyle will be changing.
Susan Barrington, CRS®, GRI, works with couples who are transitioning into parenthood. Five years ago she was busy tackling the first-time buyers market. Today, those clients are using her services again to sell their home and buy a larger one to accommodate kids.
“Almost every one of them has had their first or second child and has run out of room,” says Barrington, a sales associate with Coldwell Banker Advantage in Oklahoma City. “When children are involved, there are new things to worry about,” Barrington says. “How good are the schools? Is the backyard big enough? Is it safe for my kids to run around?”
When the right home in the right school district comes on the market, it won’t last long, says Andrew L. Parker, a salesperson with RE/MAX Mutual Realty in Seattle, who also works with growing families. Parker prepares his clients to be decisive and make their best offer quickly. “In a multiple-offer scenario, you have to show sellers you’re serious to get your offer to the top of the stack,” he says.
Timing is an issue for families with school-age kids — especially if they’re moving to a new school district. In some cases, families put their home on the market as the school season is letting out with the hopes of being settled in their new house before the next season begins. “There’s a lot of juggling that goes on, and it can be very stressful,” Barrington says.
Barrington reassures clients, reminding them that she has lots of experience helping families in the same situation. She also steps up the frequency of communication, sometimes calling daily.
“If there aren’t many homes coming on the market within the first two weeks, I’ll visit with them and see if we can broaden their search criteria.”
The school district usually isn’t negotiable, but the square footage, price range, or home styles may be, she says.
Children aren’t the only complicating factor for couples, particularly those who’ve never owned a home together before. Typically, they’re excited to start a life together, but they come to the task unacquainted with each other’s preferences.
“The real trouble comes when one person is very social and wants to have an extra guest room and the other person is very private and wants an office or a library,” Vitt says. “They’re not on the same wavelength because their priorities are different. You have to facilitate a discussion.”
That’s exactly what Parker says he does in such situations. “My role is to pay close attention to each of their ideas without taking sides. I look for common ground and provide more information about the properties to spur a conversation.”
Rhonda Duffy, ABR®, broker-owner of Atlanta-based Duffy Realty and Rainmaker Realty, offers another trick for working with couples prone to criticizing each other’s opinions. She asks them to walk around the home and evaluate its features without saying a word. Then, each person rates the home on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being the highest. After several showings, she talks with the couple about the homes that earned the highest average scores.
“Anything above a seven stays. Anything below a seven goes,” she says. The strategy keeps the home search process upbeat because couples wait until the end of the day to discuss their likes and dislikes, Duffy says.
Whether they’ve been dating for six months or married for 30 years, couples should be encouraged to open up to one another about their housing history—going all the way back to when they were children, Vitt says. It may reveal hidden reasons for disagreement and offer new insights into housing preferences. For example, a husband may be rejecting all Victorians because they remind him of dreaded visits to his aunt’s house when be was a kid. Meanwhile, his wife equates owning a Victorian with financial success.
The experience of sharing housing histories will help couples identify hurdles and begin focusing on properties that satisfy each person’s needs, Vitt says.
Working Both Ends of the Spectrum
If helping people through life stages sounds like a good approach for your business, take a cue from Brent DeRobertis. He’s crafted his whole marketing strategy around the idea. The sales associate with Coldwell Banker Residential in Reston, Va., has developed two Web sites serving very different niches: www.firstresidence.com and www.seniorabode.com.
DeRobertis spent much of the past several years focusing on first-timers — networking at local bridal fairs, advertising in wedding magazines, and promoting his services to first-time sellers through Babies‘R’Us events.
But he says the pent-up supply of first-time buyers has dwindled after years of attractive interest rates, so now he’s switching to the other end of the spectrum: older homeowners who are preparing for their next, and possibly final, real estate move.
“Seniors are becoming such an important part of the housing market so fast,” he says. “The tricky part is talking to them without making them feel like a senior. Nobody feels like a senior.”
Sometimes the hardest part is breaking down negative ideas about what constitutes senior housing. Kristine Devine, CRS®, GRI, a sales associate with Keller Williams Integrity First Realty in Mesa, Ariz., says baby boomers often associate senior housing with nursing homes and aren’t familiar with the concept of age-restricted active adult communities.
Instead of telling clients about all of the social benefits, show them, she says. Take them on a visit to an active adult community and strike up a conversation with residents. Ask specifically about the lifestyle, common amenities, and programming. Clients are usually surprised by the wealth of social options and vitality of the residents, says Devine. “Every client who has been resistant to active adult living has ended up absolutely loving it.”
DeRobertis has assembled a resource team of experts who can help seniors, whether they’re looking to buy in an active adult community, build a home near their grandchildren, purchase a condo with low maintenance, or move into assisted living. His team includes an attorney who deals with estate planning, a professional organizer, and an architect specializing in universal design. Universal design principles, such as stair-free entryways and wide doorways, allow for aging in place.
Because of their sheer numbers, aging baby boomers have become a prime target for many real estate practitioners. DeRobertis warns newcomers to the niche to be patient. “There’s a longer incubation period, similar to what you have with first-time buyers,” he says. “Don’t expect immediate gratification.”
Debbie Miller agrees, saying that it’s sometimes two years before a home owner she meets at one of her housing seminars is ready to make a move.
“There are the planners and there are the scramblers,” she says. “The scramblers take longer to say good-bye to their house. They don’t realize there could be a one- or two-year waiting list to get into a retirement community.”
Your skillful assistance will likely result in more business, Duffy says, as buyers and sellers refer friends and family going through the same life transition. “The key,” she says, “is to make clients a raging advocate for your service.”
5 Tips for Growing a Life-Stage Niche
1. Hold seminars to reinforce your expertise. Send out flyers or take out ads in the newspaper to promote a seminar on becoming a home owner, selling for the first time, or choosing a retirement home.
2. Seek out underserved groups. Speaking to couples expecting a child, Brent DeRobertis of Coldwell Banker Residential in Reston, Va., realized the first-time seller niche wasn’t garnering much attention in his market. “No one else was marketing to them as first-time sellers,” he said. “They knew selling could be a daunting process and wanted to work with someone who could provide some education.”
3. Provide special touches. Miller creates a photo album of the family home to help her clients say goodbye, and she uses eBay to help sellers get rid of unwanted but sellable items.
4. Encourage buyers to ‘test it out.’ If a buyer says she wants to live in a high-rise condo to watch the sun rise over the city skyline, bring her to the building at dawn, suggests Rhonda Duffy, ABR®, of Duffy Realty and Rainmaker Realty in Atlanta.
5. Be prepared for extra emotions. “It’s not at all strange to see an older person shed a tear or two at the settlement, regardless of whether the memories are good or bad,” says Debbie Miller of McEnearney Associates Inc., REALTORS®, in Arlington, Va.
The 4 Housing Factors That Shape All Decisions
Don’t assume you know people’s housing preferences based on their age, life stage, or profession, says housing psychology expert Lois A. Vitt, author of 10 Secrets to Successful Home Buying and Selling: Using Your Housing Psychology to Make Smarter Decisions (Prentice Hall, 2005).
In every decision, four factors are at play—financial, social, personal, and tangible issues, she says. “All buyers operate on these four factors as their means of making a housing decision, whether they know it or not.”
During different life stages, certain factors can take precedence. But because every consumer has a unique housing psychology, you’ll never know what’s driving a decision unless you make an effort to learn about the four factors. A wealthy retiree may well be serious about keeping within a tight budget. A recent college graduate could be more concerned with the architectural styling of a home than with location or price. For a sample of the questions Vitt asks to pinpoint people’s housing priorities, take the quiz below.
To help consumers pinpoint the factors that matter to them most, housing psychology expert Lois A. Vitt developed a 20-question housing profile quiz, similar to a Myers-Briggs personality inventory. Here’s an excerpt. (The entire quiz is available on Vitt’s Web Site, www.realtystudies.com.) Choose one answer per statement, and consult the answer key on page 46 to see whether your housing decisions are influenced more by financial, social, personal, or tangible issues.
1. When people see my home...
a) They have no idea whether I’m financially successful because that doesn’t necessarily show up in my personal surroundings.
b) They can learn a lot about who I am.
c) They know that my family and community take priority in my life.
d) They know I take great pride in the comfort and beauty of my home and its surroundings.
2. When I look around my community...
a) I will move on to my next new address when the time is right to reap whatever profit I can from the sale of my current home.
b) I feel somewhat connected to the area, but I know I could put down roots if I chose to live somewhere else.
c) I enjoy knowing my neighbors and others in my community, and I would look for another home nearby if I were to move.
d) I would move only if I could find another home that was more beautiful or that offered more style and comfort than my present home.
3. To feel satisfied with my housing, I need...
a) To know that my home represents a good investment, as well as being a comfortable place to live.
b) A place where I can live as I please and that reflects the “real me” to the outer world.
c) To know my family is 100 percent satisfied and comfortable in the home.
d) A different location or more physical space to expand into than I have in my present home.
4. If the home I wanted was not within my budget...
a) I would figure out a way to afford a home in a similar environment at some point in the future.
b) I would decide I don’t really want it, or I might buy it on impulse even though it might make me feel very uncomfortable later.
c) If I thought it was good for my family and would allow me to be near friends, I would sacrifice to buy it. I would scrape together the down payment and work harder—maybe take another job—so I could make the payments.
d) I would figure out how to adjust my budget if the home, the environment, and the neighborhood were extremely attractive to me.
5. I tend to deal with my housing priorities...
a) On a bottom-line basis. Do I have enough money to make a comfortable down payment, and can I handle the monthly payments without worrying that I might not make ends meet?
b) In terms of lifestyle. I keep reworking my ideas about my next home to figure out what it is that I really want for myself.
c) By regarding the home as the center of my family and social life, a place here I can entertain and my children will have room to hang out with their friends, too.
d) In terms of physical space. Will the home have enough amenities? Is there a fireplace? Is there enough light?
Tally your answers. The factor you most often chose in the quiz is likely to drive your housing choices. If you most often chose ...
a) You are focused on financial factors. These represent how you value money or other material goods—not how much you actually have.
b) You are focused on personal factors. These are subjective factors, such as what the home says about your identity, autonomy, safety, and other aspects of the real you.
c) You are focused on social factors. Your concern lies with others, such as your spouse, partner, children, other family members, friends, neighbors, and community members.
d) You are focused on tangible or physical comforts of the home itself, including the architectural style, commuting time, views, and roominess.