The Turnaround: No One Said it Would Be Easy

Ten years ago this month, Mary Wallace became a real estate professional. Her first six months were brutal. But she stuck with it, which she says was the best financial decision of her life.

July 12, 2013

At 20 years old, I thought real estate would be a great way to make some extra money while I was getting my Master's degree in counseling.  My friends were not buying at that time, so I had to figure out other ways to garner clients. I wrote down a list of everyone I knew and went online to find their addresses. This was a difficult task, since it was way before the ease of finding people on Facebook. But I knew I needed to get my name out there, and after a couple weeks I had a “sphere” of around 200 contacts.  

I read Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People and tried to be as charismatic as possible when out with friends and family. But it wasn’t an act; the mere thought of having a client brought me so much excitement that I could barely contain myself.

My first client came from a trusted source: my folks. Being retired, they enjoyed visiting garage sales. At one particular sale, my dad overheard the home owner say his mom had passed away and that he needed to sell the house.  With my business card in hand, my dad went over to the home owner and said “My daughter is the best agent in town.” Little did this unsuspecting home owner know, he would be my first client.  

As he signed the listing paperwork, my first client told me that the neighbor with whom he shared a driveway also wanted to sell, and that he planned to give her my card. Within days, I listed both houses. I was so excited; I was in real estate for less than two months and already had two listings! I was awesome in my own mind, but that was all about to change.

The house that belonged to the guy with the garage sale went under contract within a couple of weeks. This infuriated the driveway-sharing neighbor, because her home was nicer than his. But her home was also listed at a higher price point, which generated more interest in the lower-priced place next door.

A few weeks later, on my 21st birthday, the woman called to tell me that I was giving her a “heart attack,” and that she wanted the listing canceled immediately. She uprooted my lawn sign and discarded it by a tree in the parkway, and I spent the rest of my birthday explaining to my broker why this listing had to be taken off the market as soon as possible.

That dreadful experience taught me early on how difficult it can be to deal with clients during such an emotionally charged time. As the months dragged on, my initial excitement about real estate turned to dread. Every time I visited my listing next door, I also had to pull into the driveway of a woman whom I had failed.

The other side of the driveway became hostile as well. The first offer on the garage sale guy’s home fell through due to home inspection issues, and the second deal collapsed under financing problems. As the transaction stumbled along, I developed a fear of calling my client unless I had good news (which tends to not always be the case in real estate transactions). Finally, after a couple months of what felt like listing torture, we received a cash offer and closed. In the end, I knew better than to add this client to my “sphere,” since he was definitely not pleased with my amateur performance.

By the end of 2003, I had been in real estate for about six months. I had only closed three sales, which barely covered my startup costs, but I was totally worn out. I sat at my parent’s kitchen table, sobbing like a baby about how hard real estate was. My Irish-born dad looked at me and said, “You better toughen up, Mary. You’re going to have to learn to be thick-skinned if you want to make it. Or else just quit because I’m sick of all your ballyhooing.”

That stern talk from my dad was exactly what I needed. In a planning session at my brokerage, we were instructed to write down our sales volume goal for 2004, and then figure out how many transactions we’d need to initiate and close in order to reach that goal. I decided to think big, and proudly wrote “$10 million,” knowing that our office’s top agent closed around that much in 2003. The real estate professional next to me (who had at least 15 years of experience under her belt) looked at my worksheet and said with a laugh, “Wow, you’re really aiming high with that goal.”

Well, I didn’t exactly reach my goal of $10 million, but I did close $6.2 million that year. I also won a company cruise and various awards, which I proudly displayed in my 5-by-5-foot cubicle.  

But one of the proudest moments of my life came a few years later. After I finished my Master’s Degree in Counseling, a financial aid officer called to set me up with a student loan repayment plan.  

“How much do I owe?” I asked.

“$30,000,” she answered.

“Can I make a payment over the phone?” I countered.

“Sure,” she said. “How much do you want to pay today?”

“The full $30,000.”  

Silence. I thought we had been disconnected, so I said, “Hello?”

She was just dumbfounded. Her tone of voice changed, and in a lower tone, she said, “but you just finished school.” I told her that I had been working as a real estate professional through grad school and had saved almost everything I earned. She gave me a hearty “Good for you!” and then got her supervisor on the phone because she couldn’t authorize a payment that large. I was beaming. I never would have been able to pay back all my student loans at once if I had given up when times got tough.

So, yes: This job is challenging. But there is no other career quite as rewarding as being a real estate professional, and no one ever said it was easy.

Mary Wallace, 30, is with Coldwell Banker in Oak Lawn, Ill. She closed 213 sales and 59 leases in 2012 for a total sales volume of $25.6 million. So far in 2013, Mary has closed more than 130 sales and 36 leases, exceeding $21 million in closed volume. She is currently serving her second term on the Oak Lawn Park District board.