More Clever Ways to Spend $1,000 (or Less!)

You don’t need to spend a fortune to get big results. We asked readers to send in their best low-cost ideas for ramping up business, and here’s what they said.

September 1, 2007

If you haven't noticed, being a real estate practitioner can cost a lot of money.

In 2006, the typical REALTOR® spent $7,060 on business expenses, according to the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® 2007 Member Profile. Brokers and broker-associates spent even more — a median of $10,380.

Where does all that money go? After vehicle-related costs, which are the biggest expense for practitioners, marketing and promotion tops the list.

That’s not too surprising, given the crucial role marketing plays in the success of any real estate business. However, not all great marketing ideas have to come with a big price tag.

To help you save a little cash, while still getting the marketing exposure you need, we recently asked readers to send in their very best business-boosting idea for under $1,000. The feedback was impressive: the vast majority of ideas that poured in were far less than $1,000, and many of them were free.

The most promising idea, according to REALTOR® Magazine editors who reviewed the entries, came from Steve Saunders of The NextProperty Group in Geneva, Ill. He developed a simple but clever e-mail newsletter called "Fat Mouth News" that puts the power of co-marketing to work for his brokerage. You can read more about Saunder's idea in the September 2007 print magazine article, “Your Best $1,000 Investment.”

Here's a sampling of the other unique marketing ideas readers said they’re using to get noticed in their markets, without breaking the bank.

Adopt a Highway

Mark Redd, ABR®
Weichert, REALTORS®
Great Falls, Va.

The goal: To keep my name fresh in the minds of everyone who lives in my farm area. I also wanted prospects to see me as a concerned and proactive citizen who happens to be a REALTOR®.

The idea: As I knocked on doors to introduce myself as the “neighborhood specialist,” I noticed quite a lot of trash collecting on the side of the roads. I decided to research and apply to "Adopt-A-Highway" with the Virginia Department of Transportation. Under the program, volunteer groups, businesses, and individuals “adopt” a two-mile or longer stretch of roadway and make a commitment to pick up the trash at least four times a year. I selected a street running through my farm area and was awarded the sponsorship. Within several weeks, VDOT erected two signs — one at either end of my section — that have my name and brokerage on them. Instant advertising! There is no expense other than my volunteer time.

The result: It’s working! Whenever I perform my volunteer duties — pick-up the trash and walk the highway wearing my company T-shirt — many of the drivers beep their horns, smile, and wave. I’ve even had drivers stop and offer cold bottled water, and a driver once offered to help me collect trash. In conversations with prospects, several have mentioned they’ve seen the highway signs.

A Contest That Gets People Talking

J. Steve Urner, GRI, Broker-owner
Urner Realty
Bakersfield, Calif.

The goal: As a newly retired deputy sheriff in 2005, I wanted to make a big marketing impact on a small budget and keep my name associated with law enforcement.

The idea: I proposed to take over a long-standing contest that the Kern Law Enforcement Association had done in its monthly newsletter: If a deputy could find his or her badge number in the pages of the newsletter, that person would get a $25 gift card to a nice restaurant. The association’s board approved my idea, so I became the official sponsor. To get more people to participate in the contest, I upped the gift card amount to $50 ($600 yearly). I also made a deal with a popular Bakersfield restaurant to sell me 12 $50 gift cards for the price of 10 in exchange for the advertising mention in the newsletter. I gave the extra gift card, one each 6-month period, to the association secretary in return for her putting my business card in the newsletter every month with a note that says "The contest is courtesy of Steve Urner at Urner Realty." This year I increased the amount to $100, with two more free cards for the secretary, for a total cost of $1,000.

The result: There are approximately 500 deputy sheriffs and district attorney investigators who belong to the association and get the newsletter—all who are potential clients for me. Since I took over the contest, I’ve seen a major spike in the amount of contacts and sales I receive from law enforcement. Newer deputies have called me, either asking for advice or wanting to purchase or sell. Also, I’ve been referred to children or other relatives of law enforcement personnel. It’s fun to hear some deputies tell me they never paid much attention to the monthly newsletter, but now they’re devoted readers.

Helpful Open-House Handouts

Ronald Rowley
Exit Real Estate North
Spokane, Wash.

The goal: To build a client base of buyers and gain exposure by working open houses.

The idea: I’m fairly new to the real estate business, and the fastest and most economical way for me to meet buyers is by holding open houses on the weekends. I’ve learned that 99 percent of the time, the person visiting the open house is not going to buy that house. So after I determine that open house visitors are not working with an agent, I give them a packet of at least 16 other homes in the area that are in the same price range as the open house. I hand them this information with a cover sheet that tells them who I am and reiterates that "My Services Are Free" for a buyer. Under the cover sheet is a one-page guide of the buying process, with a “How Much You Can Afford” chart and information about our company’s mortgage loan expert. The expense is minimal: The cost of copying the packets and the time of assembling them.

The result: At one open house I gave this packet to a prospective buyer and 10 minutes later he called on my cell phone and asked if I could show him one of the homes. I met him at the home listed on the handout and he made an offer that day. At another open house, a visitor called me and said thank you for giving her a list of the homes in the area, and asked that she be entered into my e-mail notification program to learn about new listings.

DIY Keep-In-Touch Program

Deborah Strader
Exit Realty of the Valley
Huntsville, Ala.

The goal: To keep reminding my past clients of my name and service, and build referral business — but without paying for expensive agent-for-life programs or a contact-management system.

The idea: I pulled together my records of each client's birthday, home purchase anniversary, and other important dates, and entered this information on a form. Then I bought an accordion file and hundreds of greeting cards, and set up the file by month. Each time I get a new client, I fill out the cards for his or her birthday or anniversary, address the envelopes, and put the card in my file under the appropriate month. At the beginning of each month I take out the cards and mail them. I also include my business card with the mailing so they will have it to give out. The cost? I bought a brown accordion file for $7, I bought 200 cards for around $300, and I bought 200 stamps for $78. The total expense was about $385.

The result: Last month I sent a one-year anniversary card to clients who later called and told me how thoughtful I was. Then they asked me to start looking for two to 10 acres of land they could buy for a future homebuilding project. I also had two calls from other clients telling me it was sweet of me to remember their birthday. I like the fact that the cards are a nice warm fuzzy for my past clients, and I hope it will encourage them to give my name to their family and friends.

Turn Your Wheels into a Billboard

Liz Caraway, ABR®
RE/MAX Integrity
Issaquah, Wash.

The goal: To get noticed in a memorable way by people in my community and let everyone in my sphere of influence know that I’ve become a REALTOR®.

The idea: I spent $500 and had my PT Cruiser wrapped with logos that made it look like a RE/MAX stock car. I also paid $50 for design and $100 for the printing of business cards that had a caricature of me driving the car in front of the space needle.

The result: With my colorful car, prospects saw me everywhere around town. In fact, they couldn't miss me! A few people, agents mostly, thought it was a corny idea. But most other people seemed to appreciate my creativity. I would be stopped at stores and gas stations and asked about my car. People learned about me and my profession very quickly.

Be a Garage Sale Guru

Kimberly Donahue
RE/MAX Atlantic
Absecon, N.J.

The goal: Listings, listings, listings … and lots of neighborhood exposure for my real estate services.

The idea: One of my listings in a nice development went under contract, and the sellers wanted to have a yard sale before they moved. That gave me the idea to invite the entire neighborhood to participate in a "development wide" yard sale — a perfect prospecting opportunity for me and a community-building event for everyone else. I created flyers and decorated them with some garage sale clip art, a RE/MAX balloon, and a note that said the newspaper ads and the signage would be compliments of me. My client really liked the idea, and offered to distribute the flyers to each of the homes during her morning walk. Every time that she mentioned to a neighbor that her home was under contract, it was like an endorsement for my services.

The result: The development is near my house so the first morning of the sale, I slapped my business magnets on the side of a golf cart and I made my way through the neighborhood to stop at every sale. I chatted with all the home owners who participated, and left my business card with each of them. I also made sure I spent at least a dollar at each sale, whether I needed the item or not. By the end of the first day, I had a listing call. The client signed a contract that following Monday morning. The overall cost was cheap: $44 for an ad in the local paper for two days, $3 for the sign at the entrance of the development, a nominal fee for printing the flyers, and $35 spent at the garage sales. This is something that I will do again and again!

Renters Wanted Campaign

Nadene Evans
Truckee Realty
Truckee, Calif.

The goal: To get my name in front of more buyers and sellers, build my prospect database, and tap into the big second-home market in my area.

The idea: I started a "renters wanted" campaign for second-home owners. I approached owners of local resort-style condos via direct mail (at a cost of about $375) and asked them if they would be interested in generating revenue when their homes are vacant. I told the owners who called me about how all of the potential buyers in my database also are potential renters, and how I would use that database to put interested renters in direct contact with the owners. This also gave me a great new reason to send a flyer to my database of buyers, asking them to tell their friends and family who may want to rent a ski condo this season to call me. I chose to handwrite the envelopes and hand-stamp them to give a personal touch to my mailings.

The result: Within four months, I had six hot buyers and I was actively showing property to prospects. I also got two new listings to show for my efforts! Total cost: $775. Hot prospects to feed into my database are the foundation of closing any deal. I was pleased to add over 100 people to my databases after this effort.

Put it on Craigslist

Rod Gary, ABR®
Century 21 Holley Realty
Decatur, Ga.

The goal: To get some interest in my properties; to find renters for some of the homes, condos, lofts, and townhouses I manage; and to get lots of new clients.

The idea: I post For Sale and For Rent ads on Craigslist several times a week. It takes five to 10 minutes per property, at the most — and it’s free. Almost all of my 25 rental sides last year came from Craigslist postings. So far, most of them this year have too.

The result: I measure my success by the number of properties in my inventory that are rented or sold this way versus typical listings in MLS, paid ads, mailings, etc. This produces my best results over any other method I use. I rented about 12 properties this way last year. I’ve had three closings with buyers who saw my Craigslist ads, and I earned an extra $12,000 last year from rentals. Plus, my phone rings a lot more, and the e-mails are constant from prospects requesting more information.

Note: Readers’ ideas have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Kelly Quigley

Kelly Quigley is the former managing editor of REALTOR® Magazine.