Many people — especially those who owe more on their homes than they are worth — think we are deep into the worst real estate market in modern memory.
Sandy Hartmann is not one of those people.
"This is an absolutely fabulous, exciting market,'' Hartmann declared last week before a group of her fellow Realtors. "We are never going to see another market like this so long as we live.''
Amen to that, but Hartmann wasn't done yet.
"You guys who are all doom and gloom, get over it. The market is always shifting, so shift with the market.''
Hartmann, who has been selling real estate in Pinellas County since 1979, is a top producer at Keller Williams Realty Gulf Coast, the event sponsor. (Company founder Gary Keller's latest book, Shift: How Top Real Estate Agents Handle Tough Times, was a centerpiece of the session.) Listening to Hartmann and the other real estate pros on the panel talk about staying positive in hard times at times sounded part Oprah, part Chicken Soup for the Real Estate-Battered Soul.
But as the nine panelists shared their experiences, I had my own, as Oprah might put it, lightbulb moment. Realtors are among the canaries in the coal mine of our current economic woes. They've been adapting to tough times longer than many of us. And hearing how those who have stayed in the game are coping was pretty interesting. A few highlights:
Focus. Keep a clear vision of your goals, and those of your customers. Asked what she'd do differently if she could turn back the clock 12 months, Hartmann didn't hesitate. "I'd be slower to hire, faster to fire and more aggressive in pricing.''
DON'T UNDERPRICE YOURSELF. Wendy and David Lockhart of Keller Williams got into real estate just over a year ago, right when many others were bailing. They sent out a mailer saying they'd sell houses for 4 percent commission. No one called. Now their listings are either 6 or 7 percent, and new as they are, their business is good. "You don't have to be desperate,'' said Wendy.
GET REAL. The agents said there's still a lot of magical thinking among home sellers, even those who are not upside-down in their mortgages. When Susan Orneck of Prudential Tropical Realty has a client who insists on asking too much for their home, she agrees to try it their way for 10 days. When they inevitably drop the price, she said, "I compliment them for reaching a larger segment of the market.'' Straight talk was a major theme. "I ask (sellers), would they really purchase this house for what they're asking?'' Debbie Lockhart said. "Or, what's more important to you, going to Missouri to be with your grandchild, or getting $5,000 more for your house?''
Get out of the bunker. Everyone on the panel stressed the need to look for new business every day. Remax agent Sharon Simms talked about using social networking, texting and instant messaging to reach younger buyers, as well as hiring "virtual assistants'' so international clients can always be in touch. Citrus County Keller Williams agent Debbie Rector and others said the best money they've spent is hiring people to generate sales leads, rather than pulling back.
Be careful of nostalgia. Sure, it was easier to make money in real estate a few years ago. But now there's time to build for the future by working on education and relationships. Experienced Realtors like Orneck recalled the days of mandatory 20 percent down payments and 18 percent financing with less than keen enthusiasm. Plus, she said, she has more time now for clients, her family and herself than she had during the boom. "Emotionally, this has been my best year,'' she said.
Stay positive. Orneck dealt with a negative workplace by working at home. Simms suggests cutting whiners off before they even get going. "Don't ask, 'How are things?' Say, 'Tell me something good that's going to happen today!' "
What if your customers are the problem? "If you have a client that's negative, and doesn't appreciate your value, fire them!'' Simms said to applause from the audience. "Don't let them take your energy down because it will affect every other client you have.''
Take care of your people. Rector didn't cut her assistant's hours as business drooped. "I gave her a raise and a percentage of what I made,'' Rector said. Result: "A big increase in her productivity.''
Take care of yourself. If watching the news or reading the paper first thing in the morning bums you out, try a different routine. Exercise, eat a good breakfast, read something inspirational. "You must take care of your mind and your body,'' said Sue Flaig of Coldwell Banker. "If you don't, you can't keep your emotions balanced in order to go out and deal with the disappointments — and successes — we have some days.''
Keep up. There was a lot of talk about communicating facts about the market to clients, and some mild media bashing. Several agents said they avoid TV and newspapers because they think the reporting is unnecessarily negative.
Now, I agree that it truly is depressing to read about the global financial crisis and the real suffering it is causing. There is just no way to put a positive spin on some things. But having bought and sold a few houses in both up and down markets, I always appreciated the pros who sifted through many sources of information to get answers for all my questions. After all, if you don't know where your clients are getting their ideas, how can you help them with what may be the biggest financial decision of their lives?
Charlotte Sutton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8425.