Be 'Religious' About Keeping Your Clients Focused

Part of being a great real estate professional involves keeping your eyes on the prize, even in unusual circumstances. Pittsburgh practitioner Kat Barry discusses how she managed to stay cool, calm, and focused following an unexpected turn of events.

October 1, 2010

One thing I learned very early on in the real estate business is that you never know what the day is going to bring you. I’ve found this to be particularly true when I’m on the job with real estate investors helping them scope out the right investment. You may walk in on an unsuspecting college student in a smoky apartment or see an old lady’s taxidermied cat perched on the davenport (both of which have actually happened to me).

Pittsburgh, where I live and work, is a 250-year-old city in the midst of a major overhaul. All over the area, dilapidated neighborhoods are getting a facelift and former slums are becoming the coolest parts of town. It’s very exciting to be a part of, and I like to think I’m playing a small role in bringing a great city back to its former glory by selling people the merits of urban living. That said, there are definitely some wacky situations I never in a million years would have thought I’d find myself in. I know I’m not the only person going through this, and I thought sharing some of my stories would help others realize they aren’t alone in this crazy business!

Before I get into my first story, there are a couple things you should know about me: First, I’ve always done whatever I can to keep up with the boys. I have two older brothers and I always thought that if they can do it, then I should be able to as well! Second, I’m a total girly-girl. I think this combo is what contributes to my success with investors. One of my clients told me when I showed up one morning to show him a foreclosure on the edge of a rough neighborhood: “Kat, you’re the only person I know who can maneuver a gutted house in a pencil skirt and heels.”

One of the most far-out experiences of my real estate career happened a few years ago. I was showing an old church in Pittsburgh’s South Side, a community that was once the heart of the steel mill district and is now an ultra-hip spot. When the city’s population declined, many churches all over Pittsburgh shut down. Some have already been converted to breweries, condos, and other developments. There are still several old churches for sale in the South Side area, but this particular one is in a prime location and is part of an upscale condo development. There were four buildings on the church property: the church itself, a rectory, a nunnery, and a school. The old school and rectory had already been converted into luxury units. The church was originally slated to be torn down and replaced by townhomes, but when sales stalled the developers changed their minds and decided to sell it separately. I had three new real estate investor clients interested in it, so I arranged to meet them all there at once.

It was the middle of January and it was cold and snowing. Fortunately, I’d dressed sensibly and was wearing riding boots and long johns under my dress pants. I’d never worked with any of these developers before and I wanted to impress them. But it didn’t get off to the best start, as I fumbled with the padlock in front of an audience of tough guys. I finally got the doors open, and we stepped into a little piece of Pittsburgh history. I’d been in churches that had already been redeveloped but I’d never been in one that had been gutted and left to rot. I was excited to see what was behind those doors.

Walking into a cold, deserted church can be awe inspiring. There are many beautiful, old churches in Pittsburgh but this one was simple, cold, and stark. All the pews and the altar and been ripped out. The space was about 900 square feet of emptiness. The stained glass had all been destroyed and plywood now filled the windows. The only vestige of the church’s former life were the words “Come to Me All Ye Who Labor” written across an arched wall above where the altar had been, which was fitting given that this had been a working man’s church. I could totally envision weathered immigrant mill workers kneeling there on the one day a week they had off.

We explored for a while and tried to figure out how to convert the space into either apartments or a single-family home. There was nothing really left in the church but we could see where the choir room had been and where the confessional was. After we explored the choir loft and the main floor, it was time to head to the basement. I was recently telling this story to a friend and he asked me why I would ever go down there. “You have to explore the basement to know what’s going on with a property and what you can do with it,” I told him.

So down I went, a former sorority girl from the University of Michigan, following three clients down the rickety steps of an unlighted, century-old church basement. I always try to act tough, but I have to admit that I was a little freaked out. I’d been in tons of dirty, old, unfinished basements but not a church with a dirt foundation and no lights! Thankfully, with a flashlight in hand, I had come prepared. This impressed my clients, as only one of them had brought one.

As we headed down into the main portion of the basement, you could see it was filled with debris. When I reached the bottom of the stairs I heard the guy who was leading the way exclaim, “Oh my God!” But he definitely wasn’t expressing any religious sentiment. I shined my flashlight across the space and couldn’t believe my eyes. “Wow,” was all I could muster.

Apparently when the demolition crew gutted the church they threw everything from the sanctuary in the basement. Consequently, nearly the entire space was filled with shattered stone statues of religious icons. The four of us stood there frozen for a second. It was completely dark except for the beams of two flashlights, and all we could see was the dust from the dirt floor, statues of the Virgin Mary with the babe ripped from her arms, a headless Jesus, and similarly “massacred” Biblical figures. The men were standing there with their jaws dropped saying things like, “Look, the Wise Men!” It was quite a scene: Standing in a dark basement filled with shattered religious statuary, I felt like I was on the set of a horror film.

We were all completely distracted by the old church relics. The guys started wandering around but they weren’t looking at the building at all. They were exploring to see what other crazy remnants of the church’s past life were down there. Meanwhile, I was standing there petrified — I wanted to get the heck out of there. I pulled myself together, thinking, Ok, I have to snap out of it. I have to be a professional. Let’s see what we need to see and get out of here.

I pointed to the wall facing the street and told the potential buyers that the city had already approved curb cuts for five driveways on the site. Since the floor was dirt, it would be fairly easy to dig down a little bit and install underground parking to service apartments. This brought the buyers back to the business at hand, and we proceeded to have a discussion about the potential cost of the parking project. We took a few more minutes to find where the sewer lines came in. It’s crucial to know that when figuring out where and how to place bathrooms in the building. All the while I remained calm, cool, and collected. The investors saw what they needed to see to make an informed decision, and I knew I wouldn’t have to go back down there with them.

Ultimately, none of the developers bought the building. One group wanted to convert it to apartments but they decided it would be too expensive to create surrounding parking spaces and put in a second floor. The other developer wanted to make it a single-family home but churches are tough because of all the “dead” space in the rafters. Also, it didn’t really have enough architectural character to be a stunning luxury conversion.

While the developers didn’t buy that property, they were all impressed with my fearless exploration of the church that day. All of them have bought and sold other properties through me since then. The church is still sitting empty today. I often pass by it and remember the time I faced my fears, kept my focus, and made my way through uncertain surroundings. It may not have paid off that day, but it certainly has in the long run.

Kat Barry

Kat Barry is a writer and proprietor of Kat's Hot Cakes, a vegan bakery in St. Joseph, Mich. Formerly a real estate practitioner based in Pittsburgh, she was featured on HGTV’s “My House is Worth What?” and was named one of REALTOR® Magazine’s “30 Under 30” for 2009.