Eight Months in the Life of Three Rookies

February 1, 2003

First steps

Selling real estate isn’t the easiest way to make a living. It’s one of the most competitive professions around—with no guarantee of a paycheck. But real estate has always offered opportunity for men and women with the pluck and grit to make it against the odds. What counts most are market knowledge, a sincere interest in people, and a willingness to work hard to meet customers’ needs—no matter what the obstacles.

Over the last eight months, three new salespeople—Louisa Enz, 27, of Stark Co. in Madison, Wis.; Ramon Mares, 30, of Realty Executives in Perris, Calif.; and Kristy Payne, 29, of Churchill Brown in Edmond, Okla.—have been attempting to master their market and overcome obstacles in the service of their clients. At REALTOR® Magazine Online, they’ve been keeping monthly diaries of their trials and triumphs. Their experiences provide great lessons for others trying to break into real estate sales. But even veteran practitioners will enjoy this walk down memory lane.

All three rookies began the diary project with goals and plans for the year. Some of these panned out, but more than a few had to be altered or discarded as experience and market conditions kicked in.

Mares, for instance, began selling only houses and mobile homes, but a shortage of inventory persuaded him to try land and investment sales.

The experience, he says, was an eye-opener. “I’m good with numbers and find that I like doing the calculations to figure out if something is a good investment or not,” he says. “It’s become clear to me that what I want to do is get into the investing side of real estate.”

Enz began with a carefully outlined plan for getting ahead. She decided to concentrate on two customer niches—people associated with the University of Wisconsin, where she’s an alum, and people living in one of Madison’s historic downtown neighborhoods. Both sounded like potential profit centers. Neither, however, worked out as hoped.

The university, she says, is too big and decentralized. “We’re talking about thousands of people. There’s no way to target all of them.”

Instead, she uses her connections at the Athletic Department and at the University Hospital to gain referrals. “The key is staying in touch with a few key people via e-mail, cards, and occasional calls,” she says.

As for the historic neighborhood, she found she had overlooked a key point. “I don’t live there, and the neighborhood is saturated with salespeople who do,” she says. “After a few mailings, I realized I’d be better off spending my money somewhere else.”

Payne also had to make some adjustments in her thinking. Her plan was to focus almost exclusively on new construction. She had some success, teaming up with a colleague whose father and uncle are builders. But she also had disappointments.

“I had several builders tell me I was going to get their homes to sell, and then they didn’t come through,” she says. “It was wrenching, and I had to reconsider where I was going to find listings.”

As the year progressed, Payne found herself selling a mix of old and new houses. What she didn’t expect was how much she’d come to enjoy selling older homes. “I love the style and craftsmanship you find in many older houses,” she says.

A financial and emotional roller coaster

Money has been an issue for all three of these young go-getters—both the lack of it and the irregular way it arrives in the real estate business.

“You basically survive on your credit card the first year,” says Mares. “It also helps to have a spouse who supports you emotionally and maybe financially.”

“You wind up paying your bills when money comes in, and sometimes you go months without a closing,” says Payne. “Unless you’ve managed to save some money, you’re in trouble.”

Payne’s goal for next year, she says, is “to figure out a budget and stick to it—put my commission checks in the bank and then pay myself a regular salary every two weeks.”

A challenge for all three has been adjusting to the ups and downs of the business.

“It was slow in April and May, and I was freaking out,” says Mares. “Then, in June, I got bombed with listings and sales. There doesn’t seem to be any way to regulate it. You just have to learn to deal with it.”

“You can’t plan on anything,” agrees Payne. “I might have no closings scheduled for next month and all of a sudden I have two. It can happen that quickly.”

All also were surprised by how emotionally demanding the job can be. “You have to deal with so many different personalities,” says Payne. “The goal is to keep everyone happy and make sure the deal makes it to the table. Doing that is incredibly stressful.”

“The biggest challenge for me was learning to negotiate,” says Enz. “I like to please everyone, and that’s not always possible. I still get a little scared sometimes when I talk to other salespeople who have more experience. I worry about making some big mistake or that I won’t get the best deal for my client.”

Still, says Enz, to her way of thinking, “Success is not about getting another $2,000 out of the buyer. You know you’ve done your job if both the buyer and seller are smiling at the closing table. Success is both sides feeling that they got what they wanted.”

Enz, Mares, and Payne all experienced their own feelings of success over the eight-month diary project. But if there was a common thread in their self-assessments, it was that, to survive in real estate, they needed to be more assertive in their marketing and in their dealings with clients and customers.

“I need to focus more on prospecting—handing out flyers and door hangers, shaking hands with people in the community,” says Mares. “It’s really the only thing that works, but sometimes, especially when you’re busy, you lose track of that.”

Enz says the best advice she got during the year was to ask for the business. “A simple question like, ‘Do you want to buy a house?’ can trigger a whole sequence of questions and answers that result in a sale. But you have to ask the question, which I sometimes have a hard time doing.”

And winning the business is only the beginning, Payne says. Then there’s the matter of being paid, as Payne discovered when she was asked by a friend to take a cut-rate commission. “It hurts,” says Payne. “I’m not saying I won’t ever do it, but I could be a lot more forceful about standing up for what I’m owed.”

As tough as the year was in many ways, all three rookies also experienced overwhelming moments of satisfaction and say they plan to continue in real estate.

“I had four closings in July,” says Payne. “It was my happiest month. I was selling a lot and making great money.”

Enz’s moment had deeper implications. “I came to realize that real estate practitioners play an important role in their communities,” she says. “They know people, they have influence on what gets built or doesn’t get built, and they get involved in projects that benefit everyone. It makes me proud to be a REALTOR®.”

Go-Getters’ Sales Tools

Like mountain climbers, salespeople need the right equipment to reach the top. Our three young go-getters received sales and marketing tools from some of the most recognized names in the industry.

Ramon Mares received a personalized Web site (www.ramonmares.com) and marketing systems from Quantum Leap Systems/Craig Proctor Program (www.quantumleapsystem.com) and magnets from Magnet Street (www.magnetstreet.com). The Web site generated inquiries from around the country. “It made me realize that leads can come from anywhere,” he says. The magnets also were a plus. “Getting your name out there is what it’s all about, and this is still one of the best ways to do that.”

Louisa Enz received magnets from Magnet Street and a radio transmitter from Talking House/Radio Technologies (www.talkinghouse.com). “Madison is a big college football town, so I knew football schedule magnets would be a hit,” she says. As for Talking House, “The technology can help you manage multiple listings, as well as give people the impression that you’re technologically up to date.”

Kristy Payne received personalized contact postcards from Postcards4You (www.postcards4you.com), client contact newsletters and client follow-up programs from The Personal Marketing Co. (www.tpmco.com), and magnets from Magnet Street. “One thing I’ve learned is that marketing is incredibly important,” says Payne. “I’ve received two listings so far as a result of the mailings I’ve done. It’s something I plan to keep doing in the future.”

Dear Diary

From June 2002 to January 2003, rookies Louisa Enz, Ramon Mares, and Kristy Payne posted monthly updates on our Web site.

JUNE: In their first diary entries all three discussed their first sales . . .

Enz: I sold two houses relatively quickly, one in August and one about a month later. It was a very nice way to start but also a little deceiving. I came out of it thinking, “Gee, this isn’t that hard. If I do one of these a month, I’ll be set.” I’ve come to realize, though, that part of that was beginner’s luck.

Mares: I ran into an old friend from high school whose mother worked at Realty Executives. I told her I was looking for a job, and she said, “Why don’t you talk to my mom?” It was that quick. I sold my first house three months later, in January of 2000. I listed it on Saturday and sold it the next day. The commission allowed me to buy a computer and get my home office running.

Payne: I sold my first house in three weeks. Actually, I sold three houses pretty quickly. The first was a buyer my broker passed on to me, and the second was an open house for a $275,000 bank repossession. The buyers walked in, told me they wanted to buy the place, and they also wanted me to sell their old house. It was wonderful.

AUGUST: Things were looking up for Mares, while both Enz and Payne found themselves facing not-uncommon dilemmas . . .

Enz: I think I’ve got a problem. I listed a big house a month ago, thinking it would be an easy sale, and nothing is happening. In four weeks, we’ve had one showing. The answer, obviously, is to reduce the price. But I don’t think my sellers are ready to hear that yet. Meanwhile, I’m putting a lot of advertising money into it and not getting anything in return.

Mares: Boy, it’s funny how things can turn around in real estate. I went from listing nothing the previous month to having my best month ever—more than $1 million in new business. Most of that is one property—an $875,000 listing for 20 acres of vacant land near the airport, zoned for manufacturing. The seller is a walk-in.

Payne: I had four closings the last week of the month involving two clients, both of whom were selling their old homes and buying new ones. I was so worn out by the end. The first involved a friend who originally was going to sell FSBO. He didn’t want to pay a full commission, and because this started out as a very limited transaction, I didn’t press the issue. I now realize this was a mistake. If you don’t get full fee, you feel—I do, anyway—that you’re cheating your family and your business. I won’t do that again, even if it’s for a friend.

SEPTEMBER: For two of our rookies, there seemed to be more questions than answers . . .

Mares: I’m trying to market the $875,000 listing I got last month, the 20 acres of vacant land near the airport. For a week or two after I listed it, there were a lot of calls. Some were serious, and some were just the neighbors checking out the price. Nothing really came of any of it, however, and now the calls have stopped coming. How do I get people interested again? The signs are up, and we’re in the paper. Aside from that, I’m not really sure what I should be doing. The buyer is probably going to be someone from outside of Perris—but who? And how do I reach him or her?

Payne: I had a sale fall apart at the last minute this month. I was representing the sellers—a couple who are getting divorced. Three days before the closing, the buyers backed out. It’s the first time I’ve had to take down a Sold sign and put a For Sale sign back up. Could I have done anything differently? I don’t know. We did take the house off the market after the buyers signed a contract. Was that right? Maybe I should have kept selling it.

NOVEMBER: All were back on track . . .

Enz: Don’t let anyone tell you that volunteer work for community organizations doesn’t pay off. Thanks to my involvement in Junior League, I made the front page of the local homes magazine this month! You couldn’t miss me if you tried. And I’ve already gotten a referral out of it.

Mares: A real surprise: I won an award for being the most profitable salesperson last month! I closed out three escrows and made about $8,000 in commissions—the most of anyone in the office. The award is a plaque, and I also got my name in the local paper for being a top producer.

Payne: There’s no predicting this business. Last month, I was down to one listing and getting nervous about whether I would make my goal for the year. This month, I picked up four more listings, one right after another. All of a sudden, I’m not feeling too worried about the end of the year.

Robert Sharoff is an architectural writer for The New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and Chicago Magazine. With photographer William Zbaren, he has produced books highlighting the architecture of Detroit and St. Louis. He is a former senior editor with REALTOR® Magazine.

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