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.
2004 Rookie Diaries: Out of the Starting Gate
August 1, 2004
“People think it’s a lot easier than it really is,” says Lori Moreno, 30, a salesperson with ERA Sunrise Realty in Cumming, Ga., about breaking into real estate.
“You learn something new every week,” says William Pecora, 25, a salesperson with RE/MAX Real Estate in Brick, N.J., about his early days in the business.
Over the last six months, Moreno, Pecora, and a third salesperson, Ada Acevedo, 27, of Baird & Warner in Chicago, have been keeping monthly diaries at REALTOR® Magazine Online about what it’s like to be a real estate rookie.
Pecora left his job as a district manager for a large retail company to enter the business in early 2002. Acevedo jumped ship from WorldCom (now MCI), where she was a financial billing analyst, in late 2002. And Moreno, entered the business last summer, having previously worked as an office manager for a construction company. All three found the move into real estate — where hard work and individual initiative tend to trump corporate protocol — liberating.
“The 1 percent or 2 percent annual raises you get in the corporate world are kind of laughable,” says Pecora. “I like the freedom you have in real estate to set your own goals and decide what you want to make.”
Still, the business takes some getting used to. To succeed “you have to be an entrepreneur,” says Acevedo.
“The unpredictability is more extreme than I thought it would be,” says Pecora. “I thought it was going to be more cut and dried: Get a listing, do some marketing, find a buyer, do a little negotiating, and before you know it, it’s payday. I didn’t realize that there are 26 other steps you have to take along the way in order to close a deal.”
All three also say people issues are among the hardest to deal with. “A lot of the work that goes into listing a home has to do with keeping the seller happy,” says Moreno.
“You wind up spending a lot of time with your customers, and it feels like you develop a relationship with them,” says Pecora. “You talk to them every day or every other day; you learn about their finances and lifestyle. But you have to keep in mind that it’s still a business relationship. You still have to tell them things they may not want to hear, and you can’t sugarcoat it because that will hurt them later.”
The ups and downs of the client relationship can be difficult to accept. “The hardest thing to deal with has been clients’ lack of commitment,” says Acevedo. “I feel like my commitment to them is 110 percent. But they don’t always feel the same way. In the last month, I had a couple of clients go FSBO on me without telling me. I try not to let things like that bother me, but I still ask myself what I did wrong.”
The biggest challenge for these rookies — and one that’s hard for many experienced practitioners, too — has been the need to constantly prospect.
Pecora has gone a niche route, aggressively pursuing land sales and new construction. “I love putting the pieces together, the whole art of the deal,” he says. “That’s when my lights click on. I feel like that’s where it gets good and where I’m different from a lot of salespeople.”
Acevedo, meanwhile, joined her company’s relocation team and has resisted advice that she focus on a particular area or neighborhood. “I have the attitude that I’m willing to work with people from all over — the city as well as the suburbs,” she says. “I think about it all the time: Where will my next listing come from?”
Moreno found success by modeling an established salesperson in her market whose face she’d seen on billboards. She started with one billboard and by the end of the period covered in this diary had seven. The success of her billboard marketing has been a double-edged sword. “You’ve got to stay on top of every call, every referral,” says Moreno. “I feel like it’s my major downfall. If you don’t get back to people within two hours, you lose them. They find somebody else. It’s one reason I decided to take on a partner.” Moreno’s sister-in-law, Taralyn Harris, joined her in the business in May.
Ultimately, all say they’re confident they’ll be in real estate for the long haul. Their numbers bear that out. Moreno had seven sales in 2003 and 10 in the first six months of 2004. Acevedo had eight sales last year and 13 so far this year. Pecora, meanwhile, did 16 last year and has completed nine so far this year.
But closed deals aren’t the only motivator. “I like the diversity of tasks and the ability to be local and make money but still have a personal life,” says Pecora, who’s married with a son. The desire for a life — as opposed to a job — was also a major selling point for Moreno, who’s married with two children, and Acevedo, who’s single.
“It’s the helping part I like,” says Moreno. “I had a listing a while ago that had been on the market for more than two years. And I sold it in four months. The owners were so happy with me. Knowing that I made someone happy is a great feeling.”
The Fast Track
How does a rookie overcome an experience deficit? Education.
Our rookies got a jump-start on their professional education from the Chicago-based Council of Residential Specialists, an affiliate of the National Association of REALTORS®. The Council gave Ada Acevedo, Lori H. Moreno, and William Pecora scholarships to its annual ProAct course series. Attendees have an opportunity to complete three CRS® courses in six days, putting them on the fast track to earn the CRS® designation. The series was held June 7–12 in Atlantic City and June 14–19 in Las Vegas.
“I thought it was very, very good,” says Moreno. “I got a lot of ideas from it, and I met a lot of people from around the country who will be good sources for referrals.”
Moreno’s favorite topic? Building a referral business. She plans to implement some of what she learned, including sending cards to past clients and creating informational direct mail pieces.
“As a newcomer to the industry, you don’t always know what will work and what won’t,” says Pecora. “The seminars allow you to bounce ideas off professionals and teachers who’ve been in the business a long time and know the ropes.”
Both Pecora and Acevedo valued the residential real estate investing course. The course compared owning rental units with buying, fixing up, and reselling houses and condos — information that’ll be helpful for both personal investing and working with investment clients, Acevedo says.
Acevedo has joined the Council and plans to pursue the CRS® designation. “I’ve already learned a lot of information that will be helpful in listing presentations,” she says. “And, of course, it looks good on the résumé.”
In the beginning...
Acevedo: I found Baird & Warner by posting my resume online at Monster.com, a job site. One of their brokers called me, and I started that fall in one of the company’s suburban offices. It was intimidating to say the least. Even though I knew the job was commission-based, it didn’t really dawn on me until the first week that I wasn’t going to get a paycheck until I sold a house. That realization was a real wake-up call to get moving. But it still took a while. I didn’t have a sale for six months.
Moreno: My first sale was a month after I started. A friend of my husband’s wanted to buy a place. I took him around for a few weeks, and he found a house he liked. I was so new, though, that I really didn’t know how to proceed. I knew I was supposed to negotiate, but I didn’t know where to start. So I called my broker and he told me to find out the rock-bottom price and offer $5,000 less. I did, the seller accepted, and I was on my way.
Pecora: After high school, I worked for a shirt company and then moved to Philadelphia to be a retail district manager. But after four years, I started to get disillusioned. I realized I didn’t want to live that way anymore — the 60-hour workweeks, the constant travel, never having time for my family. I had some vacation time coming, so I decided to enroll in real estate school. Back then, my apartment wasn’t too far from a RE/MAX office. Two days before I got my license, I walked in and asked to see the broker. I started a few weeks later.
Problems and opportunities...
Acevedo: I came close to a listing and then lost it to another salesperson. What happened was, I approached a FSBO, a woman who said she needed to sell her condo relatively quickly. In the meeting, she insisted the apartment be listed for $300,000. Looking at the comps, that seemed to be at least $25,000 more than it was worth. Well, I didn’t get the listing, and I saw later that a competitor did and priced it at $300,000. I’m wondering if I could have handled this differently.
Moreno: I’ve got my first problem listing. This couple called last month — they got my name from one of my billboards — and asked me to sell their house. It’s been on the market since August. It’s a nice house: four bedrooms, two baths, and a big lot. The price is $154,900, which is low for the neighborhood. But it’s not selling. I have done ads and flyers and even had the owners pressure-wash the exterior because it looked a little dirty. Nothing has worked. And we can’t cut the price because the owners still owe $151,000 on the mortgage. Do we just wait it out? Would changing the MLS number help? I have no clue what to do.
Pecora: Recently I’ve been going to a lot of town zoning and planning commission meetings. I think I’m on to something. There are always builders in the audience. They come when they need permits or variances or zoning changes for their projects. Over the last few months, I’ve identified three builders with whom I’d like to work. I haven’t yet been successful in getting their listings, but they know who I am, they take my calls. Let’s say I’m hopeful.
May: Up, down, over and out...
Acevedo: You know, it’s amazing what you learn on this job. For the last month or two, I’ve been working with this couple who are looking for a house. They finally found a place they like but it’s down the road from a sewage treatment plant. I didn’t know if that was a big deal or not so I arranged for the three of us to take a tour of the facility. Some guy showed us the concrete pools where the sewage gets filtered. It looked like a very clean, well-run plant. I could tell my buyers were relieved. A few days later, they put money down and eventually closed on the house.
Moreno: I’m taking on a partner, my sister-in-law, Taralyn Harris. We’ve been talking about it for a while. I think she’ll be a big help in terms of prospecting. Right now, I depend mainly on billboards and the Internet for leads because I’m a relative newcomer to the area and don’t know that many people. But Taralyn grew up here and has lots of contacts. I think we’ll make a great team.
Pecora: The land deal I’ve been working on seems to have fallen apart. The property is 29 acres. Most of it is wetlands, but the owners and I thought there might be a buildable acre or two. We found a buyer, who signed a contract contingent on the completion of an environmental study. Well, the study now indicates that the only way to develop the land is to build a road through the wetlands, which is illegal in New Jersey. I guess we need to talk to an attorney to see what our options are. Very disappointing after all the time and advertising money I put into this. (In June, Pecora reported that the land sale did go through.)
July: Onward and upward...
Acevedo: I got a contract on my Lake Shore Drive listing! And not only that, but I’m getting both sides of the transaction. This is the first time that’s happened. The only awkward moment came when my seller asked me to reduce my commission. I stood my ground, though. I told him having both sides means doing twice as much work and that I don’t work for free. Ultimately, he saw my point.
Moreno: I’ve made some big changes with my billboards. I was up to three but was unhappy with the location of one of them since it was outside my selling area. So I traded it for three smaller boards. Then I contracted with a different company for two additional boards. So now I have seven! We’re on just about every main road coming and going into town. It’s going to be hard to miss us.
Pecora: I finally decided to get serious about farming. The neighborhood I’m concentrating on is my own. It’s called East Dover and consists of about 500 houses, most of which were built in the last 30 years. The average selling price has been about $300,000. Part of what has gotten in my way in the past has been my own perfectionism. No postcard was ever good enough. No message was compelling enough. Consequently, I’ve avoided making a decision and nothing really got done. I’ve come to realize that perfection doesn’t matter. Just send something. Do it.
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