Not Such a Rookie

The business-planning skills that Carol Sawdey gained from her prior career in financial services gave her a jump start in real estate.

November 1, 2010

"There's a joke in the industry that real estate is no one's first career," Alison Rogers writes in her book, Diary of a Real Estate Rookie (Kaplan, 2007).

But it's no joke. According to research from the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®, 94 percent of REALTORS® had another career before they entered the real estate business. Making a successful start in real estate as a second career often depends on what you can draw from your previous work experience.

Carol Sawdey, 50, had been a partner at a boutique financial services company in San Ramon, Calif., before leaving the workforce to stay home with her three children. While home, she remained active as a school and church volunteer, and in 2008 she jumped back into the working world with both feet, earning her real estate license and then her broker license. She joined Windermere Welcome Home in San Ramon and closed $6.7 million in sales in her first year. In 2009, the Bay East Association of REALTORS® named her Rookie of the Year. Meanwhile, she continued putting her volunteer skills to good use, organizing mobile blood drives, and for that, the Bay East association recognized her with its Good Neighbor Award.

Clearly, it was a good year for Sawdey—and her background made a big difference. "As an experienced businesswoman, I knew I needed a plan for my first year,” Sawdey says. "In real estate, even if you have a great broker, you are your own boss and you make your own hours. You're running your own business."

Here are her tips for having a good rookie year:

  • Have a real business plan. Sawdey looked to the Internet for guidance on drafting her plan. (The U.S. Small Business Administration offers tips and a template at; click on "Small Business Planner.") She crafted a vision statement, a competitive analysis, and a detailed marketing strategy that included a unique value proposition for customers—she would offer staging services for sellers and free interior decorating consultations for buyers who purchased a home through her. “I consistently monitored my plan and adapted it to what I was learning and what the market was telling me.”
  • Find the right fit. Sawdey attributes much of her success to Gretchen Pearson, crb, broker-owner of Windermere Welcome Home, who taught her how to use her already formidable network for business. “My advice for any rookie would be to meet a lot of brokers. Go to their offices and talk with the agents," says Sawdey. She interviewed with all the major brokers in her area and selected the Windermere franchise because it provided both cutting-edge technology and training in such real estate fundamentals such as farming and marketing.
  • Using training as both a learning and a networking opportunity. At the start, Sawdey took several classes a week. "I wanted to increase my exposure in my community as a sales associate,” she says. Along the way, she learned about Web site development, marketing, and social networking. And after years of being out of the workplace, she needed to brush up on computer basics. She still attends classes to learn about emerging technologies.
  • Be disciplined. When you've previously worked for an employer, entering the unstructured world of real estate can be jarring. It's important to create your own structure, Sawdey says. That starts with setting goals. She set daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly business goals, ranging from the very specific, such as how many prospects to call on a given day, to more general goals, such as total annual sales volume. Monthly goals are centered on where and how much she needs to advertise to meet her sales goals. If Sawdey’s behind for the year, she might increase her advertising in a given month.When she wanted to reach more first-time buyers, for example, she upped her Web advertising on local news sites and In September, she was on target to close around $11 million in sales this year.
  • Don’t use 'rookie' as an excuse. "Clients want answers, and that can be tough when even the brightest economists don’t have all the answers about the housing market," she says. Still, you have to make it a priority to know current market conditions and be able to communicate those conditions to clients in a way they'll understand.She keeps up by following not only real estate industry news but also financial news outlets. Ifyou're stumped by a customer's question, say you don't know but you'll find out. "’I’m new to the business’ should never be your answer," she says.

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.