'Fess Up

Panicked over writing her first offer, California practitioner Marcia S. Willis took extreme measures to avoid making mistakes. But her client, a real estate law professor, got wise to the plan.

June 1, 2010

Marcia S. Willis turned 40 on Feb. 9, 1987. And if her birthday week was any indication, it was going to be a very good year.

Willis, who's now a sales associate with Star Real Estate in Huntington Beach, Calif., got her license on Oct. 31, 1986. She went to work for First Team Real Estate in Huntington Beach, but her first sale followed several months of "vigorous" cold calls and some serious floor time.

Fortune smiled on Willis in January 1987, when a newlywed couple walked into the First Team office.

"They wanted something unique in the downtown Huntington Beach area. I showed them a few properties. But as we were coming around the corner of Adams Avenue and Lake Street, I caught sight of a For Sale sign out of the corner of my eye. I quickly made a U-turn and pulled up in front of a Victorian-style painted lady built in the 1970s," Willis says.

The home was certainly unique but in foreclosure. So the initial challenge was getting inside the property, Willis explains.

"But once the clients saw the interior, they decided to make an offer," she adds.

As the trio returned to the office to write the offer, Willis felt an overwhelming sense of panic.

"The client was a real estate law professor and didn't know I was new. So you can imagine how nervous I was about writing the offer. When we got to the office, I seated the couple in the conference room and went and grabbed the first agent I could find who had more experience than I. I offered her $500 of my commission to sit in with me," Willis recalls.

Willis returned to the conference room and introduced the "business partner" to the client.

"The law professor wasn't going for it," she explains. "He immediately started asking questions about why this person who hadn't been involved up to this point was now involved," she says.

"I didn't know what to do. I was busted. I had no choice but to 'fess up."

She told the client that this was her first transaction and waited for his response. "He said, 'Why didn't you tell me? I would have helped you.' I told him that I didn't want to embarrass myself. But he was a really nice guy," she says.

Willis and the law professor remained friends until losing touch a few years back. "Still," she recalls, "he always said he was glad he got to be my first client. And so was I."

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

WILLIS: I really struggled in the beginning. At that time I was on a 50 percent split, so I wasn't going to be making that much per transaction. But that was part of the learning process. In the beginning, floor time and office calls constituted about one-third of my business. Open houses contributed another third. And I got the final third from listings. After about six months, I gradually moved into farming and away from cold calls, not my forte.

How did you get started in real estate?

WILLIS: I was a manager for a high-end retail shoe store. But it was time to get out of the retail shoe business; my retail customers encouraged me to try real estate. I researched the different companies for training and went with the one I thought would prepare me the best, First Team Real Estate. I stayed with them until 1994, when the real estate market crashed in California the last time. I joined Star Real Estate in 1997, and I am still very happy here.

How long did this first transaction take?

WILLIS: It took about 45 days. I remember that the client got it for what he wanted to pay because it was a foreclosure, but I really don't remember the sales price.

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

WILLIS: My biggest fear was making a mistake, as evidenced by my actions when it came time to write the offer. The problem in our industry is that when you are new, you don't know what you don't know. And you are scared to death that you are going to lose the client. In most professions, if you make a mistake, you still get your paycheck. But in this industry, a big mistake can cost you a big paycheck. After this first transaction, it didn't take too long for me to build my confidence.

Did you have a specialty or niche when you started?

WILLIS: No. I did everything I was told to do by my brokerage until I found that I worked best with first-time buyers. It took me a long time to feel confident with sellers. And I lost a lot of listings in the beginning when up against more experienced agents. Today, I'm the one with the experience. And despite my nervousness on that first offer, I soon became the go-to agent for help. I make sure to keep myself educated and up-to-date in our business.

What did this transaction do for your professional career?

WILLIS: I realized I didn't need another agent's help at a cost of $500, which was a lot of money 24 years ago. It also taught me the importance of educating myself and trusting my instincts. People should trust their instincts. When we let nerves get involved, we make mistakes or decisions we later regret. In retrospect, it was one of the nicest transactions I have had in the last 24 years. That was just luck. The clients were newlyweds. And the husband's knowledge from being a real estate law professor was very helpful. In hindsight, I didn't regret asking for help with that first transaction.