Surviving Rookiehood: It's Not Easy Being Green

Veteran practitioners recall the gaffes and hard knocks they experienced early in their careers and what those lessons taught them.

August 1, 2004

The quickest way to learn is to make mistakes—and every real estate professional has made at least one on the road to career success. The important thing, everyone agrees, is to do it better next time, and to have a sense of humor about it.

Here, veteran real estate practitioners think back to their early days and share their bumps in the road that taught them valuable lessons about how to—and how not to—work in real estate.

A Listing Heats Up

Jane Beattie Shepherd, ABR®, CRS®, a broker for Beattie-Firth Inc. in Charleston, W.Va., has been in the business for 28 years and will never forget the open house she once held for a vacant property that had a lovely stone fireplace.

“I decided to take a Duraflame log and light it in the fireplace,” remembers Shepherd. “The idea was to create an atmosphere on a snowy day that would sell the house. Well, there was a problem with the chimney, which didn’t draw right, so the house filled up with smoke. Instead of drawing people in, it ran everyone out.”

Shepherd laughs, adding, “The little old lady who owned it had probably never used the fireplace in 30 years.”

The lesson: Always ask the owner before lighting a fire or cranking up a furnace in a cold house, just in case servicing is needed first.

Don’t Make Assumptions

Shepherd shares another valuable lesson from her rookie years, this one involving a tiresome dog chase.

“I was showing a house, and had just unlocked the door when a dog ran out,” says Shepherd. “I told my client to look around while I ran after the dog. Forty minutes later, I got the dog back into the house, and called the listing agent to say I got the dog back in. He tells me the seller didn’t own a dog.”

Apparently, the real estate professional who had shown the place before Shepherd had seen the dog scratching at the door of the house, and thought it lived there, so he let it in. Luckily, no damage was done.

The lesson: Never make assumptions about who lives in the house.

Money Overcomes Loyalty

The most painful lessons, of course, are the ones that cost you money.

David Mansfield, a salesperson for Covington & Co. Inc. in Huntsville, Ala., was brand new in the business when he listed his next-door neighbors’ house, and proceeded to help them find a new home.

After working with them for several months, their house sold, and Mansfield intensified the search for a new home that they could move into before closing on the current one. He told the couple about a house that had come off the market six weeks earlier, and drove them by it.

“They went straight to the occupants of the house and worked out a deal without me,” Mansfield says. “I had no clue that they’d cut me out the way they did. I had a buyer’s agency agreement with them that had expired, and I let it lapse without making them sign a new one because I thought we were friends.”

While Mansfield collected a small commission for being the listing agent on the sale of the old house, he calls the experience an expensive lesson. “When it comes to money, you never know how people are going to act,” says Mansfield.

The lesson: Be aware that money’s a strong motivator for some people. You could be best friends or family, but money may be more important to others than loyalty to you.

Stay Focused on the Deal

Keeping track of where you are in the process of a sale is important, says David Phillips, e-PRO®, a salesperson with Weichert, REALTORS®, in Arlington, Va.

Last spring, Phillips proudly wrote his first contract, two days after receiving his real estate license. The client was his former spouse, who was buying a condo.

“Right after I had a ratified contract, I faxed the paperwork to the settlement firm, but their office and I lost track of the transaction,” says Phillips. “I’d forgotten to make an appointment to sign the settlement papers, and they’d been working on the papers without asking me about the appointment. So I had to scramble to find a branch of their office that could accommodate us that day. I did it, but we ended up going to an office 20 miles out of our way.”

Phillips now keeps multiple calendars, recording important transaction dates in a paper file, on his PDA, and on his laptop.

“I make certain I don’t have a single point of failure,” says Phillips. “If you lose one program, there goes your entire business. I’ve learned to double-check every aspect of a contract with customers and vendors, even if some might perceive it as overly cautious, to make sure things come off in terms of time, place, and cost.

The lesson: Don’t lose track of where you stand in the transaction and double check every detail to ensure the deal goes through as planned.

Expect Surprise Hitches

One of the greatest mistakes anyone can make is counting on a commission before the money’s in the bank, says Peggy Barnes, broker/owner of Pryme Realty in Muncie, Ind. In 1985, Barnes was a brand new salesperson for Century 21 in Upland, Calif., when she was working the desk.

A call came in from a couple who had just accepted an offer on their home, and wanted to look at Upland properties to be closer to their daughter and family. Barnes showed them a house that they loved, and the couple made a full-price, cash offer with one contingency—the successful closing of their current property.

Seven days before the Upland house closed, Barnes says she “proceeded to spend most of that commission on clothes, a downpayment on a new car, and household items.” Then, the unexpected happened.

“Two days before closing, the seller died of a heart attack,” Barnes says.

The transaction was thrown into probate, and the house did not close for eight months. The buyer still wanted the house, but Barnes was out the $12,000 commission, which she had already spent by running up her credit cards.

“At the time, I was a single parent, and wasn’t getting any child support,” Barnes says. “I spent the money and was very foolish. After that, I always knew how much money would be coming in, and would write down what I was going to spend it on, but never spent it till the money came in.”

The lesson: Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.

Emotions Can Take Over

No matter what details must be worked out in contracts and closings, Devin Wood, an 11-year real estate veteran and an associate broker with RE/MAX Champions in Lynnwood, Wash., urges rookies to remember that a real estate professional’s job isn’t just dealing with information and homes.

The second client Woods took on in his real estate career had been widowed about 15 years. The woman had reared a family on her own in the home she was selling, but with her children now grown, she was ready to downsize.

After a home inspection, the buyer’s representative called Wood to ask if he could drop off the inspection report in the seller’s mailbox. Wood said yes, thinking it would be an efficient thing to do.

“Later that night, I answer the phone to a sobbing woman who proceeds to go on for the next 30 minutes about how she has done the best she could to maintain this house since her husband’s death,” he recalls.

The deal fell apart because the seller interpreted the minor flaws detailed in the report as a personal rejection—even though the house was in great shape overall. Fortunately, the place sold a month later, so all ended well.

“Sometimes our job is to soften the blow of bad information,” Wood says. “Since that experience, I make sure that any communication with a seller or buyer always comes to me first.

The lesson: A home sale is an emotional thing. Sometimes you have to be a referee and a peacemaker, as well as real estate practitioner.

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