Sibling Rivalry

RE/MAX Hall of Fame broker-associate Butler P. Ball had listened to a series of varied and colorful stories from five heirs at odds with each other before the deal was done.

February 1, 2010

Butler P. Ball, ABR, CRS, a broker-associate with RE/MAX Northlake Associates in New Orleans and member of the RE/MAX Hall of Fame, cut his real estate teeth on a historic Uptown estate in 1987. The listing was a beauty, but the five heirs involved in the transaction refused to speak to each other and made sure the former camera store manager heard the detailed accounts of internal family conflicts before the estate was settled.

How did you start building your client list as a new sales associate?

BALL:I used contacts from my previous job. I managed a camera store before I went into real estate. One of the heirs involved in the Uptown listing was a customer from the camera store, which is how he became my first client. I also started to give out client gifts every Christmas and still do this today. Baking for my clients at Christmas is one of my standard marketing tools. There are people on that list from 20 years ago. I change what I bake every year. One year, for example, I baked pecan pies. The list is about 100 people now, and it takes about five days to bake and deliver the gifts to all my past and current clients. Sometimes, my wife and I are still delivering them on Christmas Eve.

How did you get started in real estate?

BALL:I wanted to get away from working for someone else. I also was influenced by a friend of a friend from college. He had a real estate license and was a real goof, so I figured if he could do it, anyone could [laughing].

Tell me about the first sale, the sellers and the buyers.

BALL:There were five heirs to the estate. I was a rookie, brand new to the business. None of the five heirs spoke to any of the others. They all signed a listing agreement, so I represented all of them. Each one I went to see explained that the other four "never did anything for mama" and should not even be involved in the sale. None was willing to give power of attorney to any of the others.

So every time I needed an initial or signature, I had to go see each one of the five heirs in person; they didn't have faxes or e-mail. And I didn't have enough experience to realize how hard it was going to be. To make matters worse, they all lived in opposite parts of town. Each time I went to see them I had to listen to how bad the other four were. When I look back, I think I would never agree to that today. But at the time, I was just so happy to have the listing.

The buyers called me on Labor Day. It was a sign call. I was barbecuing at my house and dropped everything I was doing and ran out to go and show them the property. I was so thrilled to have the phone ring that I didn't care that it was Labor Day.

This wasn't my only challenging listing early in my career. I had another client early on, this crusty old man. I brought him a low offer, and that's when the drama began. We were sitting at his breakfast table in the kitchen. As he became angry about the low offer, his huge chow beast of a dog could sense the old man's tension and started growling; the dog looked like it was about to lunge at me and chew me to shreds.

Every time the old man slammed his fist on the table and screamed at me about the offer, the dog growled and tensed up, baring its teeth. It was so frightening that when I went back to the other agent, I told her if she wanted to write another low offer, she could come and present it to the man and his dog with me. Needless to say, she came back with an excellent offer, and both the old man and the dog were happy.

Tell me about the property.

BALL: The home was a large, historic residence in Uptown New Orleans. It sold for about $300,000, which back then was a pretty big sales price.

How long did this first transaction take?

BALL: It took about three or four weeks to sell the property.

What was your closed sales volume that first year?

BALL: I made the million-dollar club my first year. I think I did about $1.5 million in sales. I was always proud of that first year.

What were some of your biggest fears about your first real estate transaction?

BALL: When the time came for the closing, I was expecting fireworks. But despite my fear, I learned something about sellers from this transaction: The level of their cooperation is inversely related to how soon they will be receiving money from the closing. They all sat quietly at the closing table with their hands reaching out for their share. And not a cross word was spoken.

What did this transaction do for your professional career?

BALL: It gave me some incentive to continue in real estate. It also helped me realize the value of my past acquaintances and how important it is to bring previous contacts into your professional sphere. When you're new, you don't have a big sphere of professional contacts, but if you try to include your everyday contacts in your marketing, it can help you build your professional sphere.

I also produced a newsletter early on and did direct mail, which also helped build my sphere. Even now, in this difficult market, I'm going back to concentrating on the fundamentals. I've tried all the fancy ideas over these 23 years, but the fundamentals have always proved to be the most valuable to me.

Did you have a specialty or niche when you started?

BALL: I really learned to concentrate on taking quality listings and passing on the non-quality ones. If the clients don't want to listen to reason, I will decline the listing. I've declined more listings this past year than I've taken. In a good market, you can be a little more flexible about an unrealistic price. But in a weak market, you really need an excellent list price.

I track the ones I've turned down to see if my estimation was correct. And almost always, the ones I've turned down either don't sell or take 18 months to sell—usually at the price I recommended or less. I prefer not to be the one tortured for that year and a half.