Tap Into An Exploding Market

March 1, 1997

Immigrants--particularly Hispanics and Asians--are entering the United States at a rate of approximately one million per year, according the Census Bureau.

What does that mean for you? They all have to live somewhere, and if you don't tap into this burgeoning market, ''you're really missing opportunities,'' says Sheida Hodge, who holds a California real estate license. She also teaches real estate professionals--through her company, Professional Training Associates, Irvine, Calif.--how to market their services to foreign-born prospects.

If you've decided to take the plunge and work with immigrant buyers, you're going to need to learn some ways of doing business with people from other cultures.

''When we Americans travel abroad, we often expect people to do as we do. That's why we're called ugly Americans,'' comments Michael Lee, broker of Lafayette, Calif.--based Realty Unlimited and president of Seminars Unlimited, Lafayette, a multicultural training company. ''Folks do want to do like Americans, but it's hard to leave your culture at the boarding gate when you arrive in this country,'' he warns.

Working with foreign buyers requires extra legwork but will be rewarding and lucrative, say experts. What are some of the differences you may encounter working with recent immigrants?

  • Group mentality. People in many cultures--Asians and Hispanics, for instance--are group oriented, according to Hodge. What it means for you: Your prospects may bring along relatives and friends to listing appointments and final walk-throughs, and those people are likely to be involved in making decisions. ''Right from the start, the real estate professional should take the attitude the more the merrier and be hospitable to everyone who comes along,'' says Hodge.
  • Longer selling cycle. An American couple may make a buying decision on the spot. But if 10 people are consulting on the decision, it's going to take longer.
  • More financial hoops to jump through. Many immigrant buyers are secretive about their finances and can't understand why you ask for such private information. ''One of the reasons they're closemouthed about finances is that they don't want their private information to leak back to their communities,'' says Hodge. Getting over the hurdle usually requires cajoling and explaining--early on in the relationship--why it's important to provide such information. Also, spell out that it's financial institutions, not you personally, that require the information.

    Robert Aldana, a salesperson with Contempo Realty, San Jose, Calif., who works extensively with Hispanic buyers, says he encounters a lot of mattress money. ''A lot of Hispanic buyers don't believe in putting their money in the bank. There have been times when I've been writing up offers, and people have tried to give me cash.'' He acknowledges that it's been more of a challenge to get such buyers qualified for a mortgage, but he notes that there are lenders who understand the culture and are willing to cater to it.

    You may also find that several buyers--three or four families, for instance--will pool their funds for a downpayment. It'd be wise if you discussed with your lender in advance how to manage pooled resources.

    Why Bother?

    You may wonder--if there are so many hurdles associated with working with non-native buyers--why bother. Because it's good for business.

    Hodge points out that sellers are becoming more sophisticated and know there are many potential buyers among ethnic groups. ''A salesperson who can deal with ethnic people--both salespeople and buyers--is much more valuable to the seller. The more people a salesperson brings in to see a property, the quicker it'll probably sell,'' she says. If you're experienced in dealing with ethnic groups, tell your prospective sellers that you're sensitive to cultural issues. Use the experience as a listing tool.

    Lifelong Referrals

    Georgette Gillis, broker-owner of Viewpoint Realty, Bellair and Clearwater, Fla., says that in the last 15 years her business has snowballed into an international real estate company. Since her area is a popular tourist destination, she started by meeting people from other countries. ''It was something I enjoyed, and I learned more about working with foreign buyers,'' she says. The more she learned and as foreign referrals increased, the bigger that component of her business became.

    Gillis has taken her business several steps beyond real estate. She not only helps foreigners buy investment properties, houses, and vacation properties but also helps immigrant prospects obtain their driver's license and Social Security card and refers them to immigration attorneys to help them with immigration issues.

    To further cater to foreign buyers, Viewpoint Realty:

    • Retains an on-staff immigration attorney
    • Promotes the company on German, Greek, and Italian radio stations
    • Hires multilingual people
    • Advertises in in-flight magazines
    • Has developed a series of books and tapes on how to immigrate to the United States and how to purchase property here

    ''If you do a good job for foreign buyers, your referral business will be amazing,'' says Gillis. ''When you take them from A to Z and walk them through things they have no idea how to accomplish, they're going to feel you've taken a special interest--that you didn't just make a sale.''

    Larry Salas, broker of Miami-based Century 21--All Stars, who has developed a niche among Hispanic buyers (see sidebar ''Cashing In on Cultural Bonds''), agrees. ''If you take care of them, you will have a customer for life and they won't do anything in real estate without you. If you do a good job, the business will just keep coming, because many of these buyers have large families. Once you sell to one person, you'll find yourself selling to that buyer's in-laws, brothers, and cousins.''

    Cashing In on Cultural Bonds

    Larry Salas has hit pay dirt by tapping into the large Hispanic population in Miami. The Cuban-born Salas says his bilingualism--and that of his salespeople--and his innate knowledge of what Hispanic buyers want and need have helped catapult his Century 21--All Stars into a lucrative business.

    One group he targets is Cuban immigrants (some of his recent prospects arrived in the United States a year ago on a raft) because he's found that ''they tend to like working with someone from their own culture. They want to deal with someone who has the same chemistry: It puts them at ease that we're of the same mold.''

    Step-by-Step--A Niche Develops

    How does that mysterious chemistry translate to practical selling issues? Salas has an instinct about what properties will appeal to his prospects. American buyers and sellers may think a 20-year-old, well-maintained house with perfect wood floors has market appeal. ''But my prospects say, this place needs major improvements--new floors, air-conditioning, and an addition. They're looking for ceramic tile, central air-conditioning, big family rooms, and large lots so that they can build additions to accommodate extended family.''

    Salas' business isn't without major headaches. ''We have to take buyers by the hand,'' he says, ''and lead them step-by-step through the whole buying process.'' He points out that native-born Americans may shop for mortgages, hire inspectors, and manage some of the other nitty-gritty details on their own.

    Not immigrant buyers. ''They're dependent on you, and you have to take care of everything,'' says Salas. ''If there's a problem with a deal, it's not a lender or title problem but the salesperson's fault. If the house has termites, it's our problem and we have to take care of it.''

    Despite the challenges, Salas intends to continue developing his niche. ''The Hispanic population in Miami keeps growing, and I want to capitalize on that. It's our bread and butter.''

Elyse Umlauf-Garneau is a Chicago-based freelance writer and former senior editor with REALTOR® Magazine.

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