Closing Angel

Pro bono transactions can be the most rewarding.

November 1, 2009

When Fran Hoover, ABR®, GRI, joined RE/MAX Masters of South Lake, Texas, in 1986, one of her main goals—as it is for most practitioners—was to maximize her income as quickly as possible. After a few years, her annual earnings reached six figures, a memorable milestone to be sure. But as time passed and her sales volume grew, Hoover realized that her professional satisfaction did not necessarily correlate with the size of her commission checks. Something was missing.

A potential client with the unlikely name Parole Rags Dale unwittingly helped Hoover figure out what that was during a listing appointment in October 1994. Hoover sat across from Dale at her small kitchen table in the crumbling home that the widow in her eighties needed to put on the market to make ends meet. Dale’s late husband had no life insurance, and the house was her only significant asset. As Hoover listened to Dale’s tearful saga, she glanced at the ceiling around the fireplace in the adjacent living room. The brick had separated from the wall and the ceiling was about to cave in above the mantle. When Hoover asked her if she was aware of a roof leak, Dale acknowledged that water had been seeping out for ages. But she had no means to do any repairs nor any family who could help her.

Knowing that the house couldn’t be sold without a new roof, Hoover sprang into action. She called her son, a roofing contractor, and they came up with a plan: Hoover would pay for the roofing materials and her son would handle installation at no charge. When the house was sold, Dale could reimburse her the $3,500 for supplies at closing. Hoover also told her she’d waive her portion of the commission.

Dale was grateful, yet incredulous. "What if the house never sells and I can never repay you?" she asked.

"Then you’ll be dry," Hoover responded matter-of-factly.

As soon as the roof work was done, she listed the house, and two weeks later a Dallas firefighter made a full-price offer. Hoover completed the transaction without charging any professional fee because the buyer had not been working with an agent.

"Of all the successes I’ve enjoyed during my 23 years in real estate, this stands out as my most satisfying transaction. Even after 15 years, I still think about that sweet little lady who smiled all through closing," she says.

It also taught her about the powerful effect of pro bono work. Over the years, Hoover, now 69, has continued to waive commissions from time to time for other financially strapped widows and families struggling with life-threatening illness, mounting debt, or other setbacks. She’s also helped members of her church avoid foreclosure—without collecting a dime. "I realized that I was in a position to make a difference in people’s lives, to give them the break they needed." Her generosity earned her the nickname "closing angel" with some of her clients.

Hoover expected no special dispensation herself, however, when she was diagnosed three years ago with a rare form of breast cancer. Pressing ahead with work, she was at a client’s home to sign a listing agreement the night before her first surgery. The house was valued at $1.7 million, she recalls. So she was surprised to learn that her RE/MAX franchise would waive all her fees for six months while she underwent cancer treatment. The program, begun in the mid-1990s, is available to all RE/MAX associates.

RE/MAX’s largesse prompted Hoover to ratchet up her own commitment to pro bono work. "It became my goal to find at least one family a year to provide top-notch service to free of charge. If there’s a real need, my commission takes a back seat," she says. By Hoover’s count, she’s put in more than 15 percent of her as unpaid hours and forfeited commission checks that would have totaled thousands of dollars.

After years of keeping her pro bono work largely private, Hoover has more recently come to realize the value in spreading the word. While the practice of waiving fees for charitable causes is fairly common in the legal world, it’s admittedly a more novel concept for real estate pros. Hoover hopes that will change and now encourages others to extend a hand if they can afford to.

One of the few people who has long known of Hoover’s beneficence is her broker Kristina Hayes, ABR®, CRB. Hayes has never hesitated to waive Hoover’s commission to the brokerage on pro bono transactions. "I don’t consider it a loss of income on the brokerage’s part because I believe karma comes back to you tenfold. It truly represents to our communities that we are human beings passionate about what we do," says Hayes.

Even Hoover admits she’s a bit surprised by her own pro bono passions. "I never used to think I had an altruistic bone in my body. When I first got into real estate, I wanted to make money and lots of it," she says. But times change. Now she views her success through a different sort of lens. "I am in an awesome position to give people a hand up, a little push, and a little hope. That’s the legacy I’ve wanted to build in this business."

Katherine Tarbox is a former senior editor with REALTOR® Magazine. Previously, she was editorial director for Washington Life. She is the author of the international bestselling book A Girl’s Life (Dutton, 2000) and has made hundreds of media appearances including The Today Show, The Oprah Winfrey Show, and CNN.