7 Recession-Busting Steps to Take Your Business Higher

Get your year back on track with expert advice on improving your mindset, identifying growth areas of your market, and shoring up your finances.

May 1, 2009

Don’t you just love the way Batman and Robin put down the bad guys with a few swift jabs? If only it were that easy to set things right. We’d find the culprits who wrecked the economy, give ‘em the old one-two, and get back to our work and our lives. Of course, even if we could identify bad guys in the current downturn, we couldn’t go back to business as usual. Today, people are approaching real estate purchases with a sober eye.

That’s not a bad thing, but it presents a serious challenge to practitioners trying to earn a living. Still, there are steps you can take to boost your income. As any superhero worth his or her salt can tell you, just because you’re down, that doesn’t mean you’re out.

STEP 1: Decide to be successful. 

So you haven’t reached new heights in your business this year. Maybe you haven’t even reached the old heights. What’s holding you down?

The real question is, who is holding you down, suggests business coach Maya Bailey of Del Mar, Calif. The answer is probably you. "It’s a big myth that the economy is controlling your success," Bailey says. "Your success depends on your mind-set."

"Your mind is the most powerful machine ever created," agrees Bruce Nemovitz, CRS®, SRES, a 31-year real estate veteran with Realty Executives Integrity in the Milwaukee suburb of Whitefish Bay, Wis. "If you think you can or you can’t, you’re right."

Bailey coaches real estate practitioners to get past their self-limiting beliefs. Those beliefs are programmed in your childhood and can be difficult to overcome, she says. For example, messages such as "Don’t talk to strangers" or "Don’t be too forward" can turn into self-limiting beliefs that prevent you from prospecting for business.

"I hear all kinds of self-limiting beliefs around prospecting," she says. "For example, ‘If I call someone, I’m bothering them.’ Your beliefs create your reality. If you believe you’re going to bother people, people will feel bothered. If you believe you have a valuable service to offer, people will be happy to hear from you."

Some people, she says, don’t have total faith in themselves as a real estate professional. "They don’t believe they’re the best real estate practitioner around. They think they’re lacking something," says Bailey, who practiced psychology for 20 years before becoming a business coach 12 years ago.

To help her clients "reprogram" negative thoughts, Bailey asks them to write down their positives. "What makes you good? Are you good with details? Do you like to read and stay up to date on the industry? Remind yourself of those positives when you pick up the phone to prospect."

For some, the whole notion of success is discomfiting. "So many people on a conscious level say they want to be successful. But underneath, they have self-limiting beliefs," she says. "They may think that all rich people are bad—or they’re worried about the sacrifices or compromises they’ll have to make to succeed."

Her bottom line: "If you’re struggling in real estate, it’s not your fault. But it is your responsibility to make a change. Start getting excited, and convey that excitement to your prospects, and you’ll do just fine."

To stop being held back by self-limiting beliefs: 

  • Write a paragraph about what makes you a good real estate practitioner.
  • Make a T diagram. On one side, write your self-limiting beliefs. For example: "I’m not as knowledgeable as other salespeople in this market." On the other side, write empowering beliefs: "I enjoy finding answers to people’s questions."
  • When you pick up the phone to prospect—and real estate coach Maya Bailey suggests committing to two hours of prospecting per day—remind yourself of your empowering beliefs.

STEP 2: Figure out where your market is going

Remember Wayne Gretzky’s quote about great hockey players skating to where the puck is going?

For many practitioners, in recent years, that has meant specializing in short sales and foreclosures. This month’s "Masters" video at REALTOR.org/masters illustrates a case in point. In 2001, Mary Berry, CRB, CRS®, broker-owner of Century 21 All Pro Realty in Oklahoma City, decided to refocus her successful practice exclusively on foreclosures. Last year, she closed 699 transaction sides.

Berry, who’s on track for a significant increase in sides in 2009, was clearly ahead of the curve. But, it’s not too late to take her lead.

For better or worse, there’s still plenty of life in distressed sales. At the RE/MAX International Convention in Las Vegas in March, founder Dave Liniger told attendees that learning to work skillfully with lenders and buyers on short sales and REOs should be at the top of their to-do list—especially for real estate practitioners in the hardest-hit areas of California, Nevada, Florida, Michigan, and Ohio.

One of those hard-hit places is Culver City, Calif., in western Los Angeles County. Like much of California, Culver City saw a big run-up in values in the first half of the decade, followed by a steady drop in sales and prices. So Realty Executives Westside broker Peter Bledsoe, ABR®, decided on a straightforward approach to helping distressed sellers: He opened a foreclosure center. The new office opened in February—complete with "Foreclosure Center" signage, a foreclosure hotline, and a team of salespeople trained for the task.

Foreclosures and short sales aren’t the only business out there. Linda Swan, a salesperson with Coldwell Banker in Kenosha, Wis., has seen a big drop in the number of sales-people in her market. "There were more than 700 of us in Kenosha County. That has dropped to between 300 and 400."

The thinning out of the ranks has helped her attract the kind of business she wants. In more than 60 closings last year, only four or five were distressed sales, she says. Her secret: Have pricing down cold—and be willing to educate sellers and buyers.

Remember Napoleon Hill’s words from his seminal 1937 book Think and Grow Rich: "Every failure brings with it the seed of an equivalent advantage."

To find out where your market is going, track such factors as:

  • Months’ inventory and closed sales.
  • Direction of prices. Are they leveling off?
  • Percentage of sales that are distressed. Is it going up or down?
  • Local employment trends. Is your market affected by the national unemployment increase, or is it holding its own?

STEP 3: Get the knowledge you need.

Do you know salespeople who’ve attempted to facilitate a short sale—and vowed never to do it again? That’s too bad, because even a bad first experience can be a great teacher.

If you don’t have the knowledge you need to close sales today—lender requirements for short sales; new tax provisions; changes in federal, state, and local laws—you’re jeopardizing your career.

With knowledge comes the ability to be creative, which is essential when closings are on the line, says Bill Rimsza, broker-owner of Rimsza Realty in Phoenix. For example, Rimsza, with 26 years in the business, is dealing with today’s tight lending environment by cultivating a network of "B money lenders," individuals with cash on hand who are willing to fund loans with a large down payment (typically 20 percent to 25 percent down) and the promise of a healthy return.

To keep your knowledge current:

  • Visit REALTOR Magazine and other Web sites where you can find industry updates.
  • Invite guest speakers—lenders, short-sales specialists, technology experts—to your sales meetings.
  • Look for low-cost education opportunities through your association or online. As part of NAR’s Right Tools, Right Now program, REALTOR® University—NAR’s online learning center—is giving discounts on many courses.
  • Participate in REALTOR® magazine’s free Webinars. Upcoming sessions are promoted in our Business Tips Newsletter, sent via e-mail, in the last week of each month.

STEP 4: Get out of your shell. 

One of the worst things you can do during a downturn is to try to solve your problems in isolation—whether as a result of pride, hopelessness, or fear of embarrassment. If you can’t acknowledge what you’re going through, you’ll have a difficult time getting the guidance or help you need.

That’s an issue Realty Executives Integrity’s Nemovitz knew he could do something about. Nemovitz is a successful guy by any measure. A 31-year veteran of the business, he was recently named a "Top Gun" by his company. But last October, as news of the financial market crisis intensified, he recognized that others in his association weren’t so fortunate.

With permission from the Greater Milwaukee Association of REALTORS®, Nemovitz sent an e-mail solicitation to salespeople asking if they would be interested in forming a support group.

"My agenda was just to have a place where people could express their concerns and their solutions in a positive way, where we could work together to help each other get through this period," he says.

The group—which calls itself R.E.A.L., for REALTOR® Exchange and Learning—meets every other month and has grown steadily, Nemovitz says.

From the very first meeting, people opened up about their situation, says Owen Buske, of Realty Executives Elite in Hales Corners, Wis. "I can tell you that there have been people concerned about making rent and mortgage payments, people concerned about being able to buy food, people having to borrow money from their children. There are people who had thought about taking their own life."

Participants have gained more than a sympathetic ear, says Buske, who believes Nemovitz’s efforts have been nothing short of heroic. "He’s not out to play psychologist. He’s offering a forum where people can solve problems. We’ve shared great ideas for cutting costs, attracting business, and staying positive."

For example, the group brainstormed a long list of reasons people would want to buy in the current market and reasons people would need to sell. The members have also discussed Internet strategies that could save marketing dollars. "I’ve gotten some great ideas myself," Nemovitz says.

And R.E.A.L. has become something of a lifeline for some of the 25 to 30 salespeople who regularly attend. At the first meeting in October, one woman said she planned to get out of the business and viewed the meeting as a last-ditch effort. In February, she gave the group an emotional thank you. "She told us if it hadn’t been for this group, she would have gotten out," says Nemovitz. "Now she’s busier than ever."

To organize a support group in your area:

  • Contact your local association and ask whether you can send a notice to members.
  • Find out whether your broker or association will let you use a conference room or classroom for the event.
  • Encourage honesty by being honest. Share your challenges and ask group members to do the same and to brainstorm solutions.
  • Assign a note-taker to capture solutions, or suggest that people take their own notes.
  • End each meeting on a positive note, thanking people for sharing.

STEP 5: Give prospects a compelling reason to work with you.

Ken Baris, CRB, CRS®, of Jordan Baris Real Estate in West Orange, N.J., lives in an upscale community appropriately known as "The Grand," a neighborhood of 81 homes built about a decade ago. But even in the state with the highest median property taxes in the country (more than $6,000 per household in 2007, according to the Tax Foundation), his tax bill seemed out of control. So in 2008 Baris pulled together the necessary comps, submitted an appeal to his county assessor, and shaved his bill by nearly 25 percent.

Then Baris began looking around his neighborhood and realized he might be able to help his neighbors do the same thing. "I moved into the neighborhood in 2003, but I didn’t really know the vast majority of my neighbors, so I decided to throw a tax appeal party."

To his amazement, 85 neighbors showed up for a night of wine, cheese, and tax appeals. Baris was ready with a computer, printer, and 24-inch monitor. "I’ve never seen such enthusiasm. I assisted with more than 60 appeals."

Baris managed to get in a pitch for his company. "I told people I was having the party for three reasons. No. 1, I want to be a good neighbor. No. 2, our company has been involved in about 14 transactions in the neighborhood, and we want to be sure our customers remain happy with their decision to buy here. And No. 3, as a neighbor, it drives me crazy to see other people’s signs in the neighborhood!"

Now some of his associates are following his lead. In March, one associate had plans to do a tax appeal party in a 450-unit condo complex. "They’re giving us their all-purpose room, they’re providing the coffee, and we’re bringing the computer."

As a result of the first party, some of Baris’s neighbors have told him they’d never go to anyone else to sell their property. Now he’s providing refinancing information to neighbors, and he’s planning his next party.

Use your imagination to come up with compelling events that match your expertise to the opportunities in your market. Here's how: 

  • Offer credit-repair or short-sales clinics.
  • Host seminars covering local and federal incentives for home buyers.
  • Team up with a local interior designer for an evening devoted to low-cost decorating ideas, or partner with an architect for a talk on the historic homes in your area.
  • Develop a workshop for people thinking of investing in foreclosed properties or for new landlords.
  • Don’t feign expertise. Invite other professionals, such as attorneys or mortgage experts, to help round out your knowledge.

STEP 6: Shore up your personal finances.

Real estate practitioners are particularly vulnerable to financial troubles, says Realty Executives Elite’s Buske. When their income dries up, it’s without the benefit of severance pay, unemployment insurance, or job counseling. Short of taking another job, he says, "there’s no way to access any other kind of income."

Indeed, in an April poll at REALTOR® magazine’s Web site, 32 percent of respondents—nearly a third—said they were having a hard time paying bills. After years of prospering by selling others a piece of the American dream, some practitioners now find themselves in the tragic position of losing their own home.

Buske counts himself among the lucky ones who are doing OK. If you’re not, don’t wait another minute to start getting your finances under control. It may be simply a matter of taking a sharp pencil to your family budget.

If you’re in deeper trouble, consider working with a qualified nonprofit consumer credit counselor. Your mortgage lender should be able to refer you, or you can visit the National Foundation for Credit Counseling’s Web site (www.nfcc.org) for a list of professionals in your area.

A credit counselor will negotiate with your creditors on modifications such as interest-rate reductions, lower monthly payments, and elimination of late fees. Credit counseling isn’t free—typically, you pay a service fee over a span of months—but it can help you avoid bankruptcy and get on a better track.

To get your finances under control: 

  • Slash unnecessary costs.
  • Pay off your debts, starting with your highest-interest-rate debt.
  • Shop for better terms on your insurance and credit cards.
  • Visit www.annualcreditreport.com for a free credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus.
  • Learn more at the National Foundation for Credit Counseling’s consumer site, www.DebtAdvice.org.

STEP 7: Refresh your image. 

When was the last time you took a good look inside your closet?

Try it. If you have a lot of worn, out-of-date, or ill-fitting outfits, start purging. Get your wardrobe down to a few well-maintained, well-tailored outfits, and start projecting an image that says success.

"I know image may seem frivolous in the wake of such dire economic news," said Diana Pemberton-Sikes, in a recent edition of her e-zine, The Clothing Chronicles (www.theclothingchronicles.com), "but the reality is that having a proper image can give you a huge advantage. Clothes don’t have to be expensive, but they should be appropriate for your position."

Don’t stop with your closet. Approach your image top to bottom. Properly fitting undergarments, a sensible bag (for women), good posture, and a flattering, current hairstyle are all important, says Pemberton-Sikes.

While you’re at it, take a look at your car. It doesn’t have to be new, but make sure it’s well-tuned and spotless inside and out.

A new image doesn’t have to cost you a fortune. To refresh your image: 

  • Ask a trusted friend to help you clean your closet and make a list of what you need.
  • Sell some old things on Craigslist or eBay, in a garage sale, or at a consignment shop. Use the money to buy yourself some practical basics.
  • Choose a hair style that doesn’t require expensive upkeep.
  • Set aside an hour each week to clean out and wash your own car.
  • Stand up straight—and smile.
Stacey Moncrieff

Stacey is executive editor of publications for the National Association of REALTORS® and editor in chief of REALTOR® Magazine.