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Luxury niche fits two Smith & Associates real estate agents

Mitzi Gill, left, and Dina Sierra Smith have learned patience on the way to becoming two of the top sellers of million-dollar homes in Tampa Bay. Smith and Gill joined forces in 1994 while working at Avila Realty.

LARA CERRI | Times

Mitzi Gill, left, and Dina Sierra Smith have learned patience on the way to becoming two of the top sellers of million-dollar homes in Tampa Bay. Smith and Gill joined forces in 1994 while working at Avila Realty.

Dina Sierra Smith and Mitzi Gill rode the real estate wave in 2005 to more than $40 million in deals on 38 Tampa Bay area mansions.

But since the housing market crashed, the agents for Smith & Associates Real Estate in Tampa closed only three deals in 2009. They never expected the housing downturn to last so long after the bust.

"It weeded out the weak," Gill said.

As high-end buyers return to the market flush with cash, they are finding steeply reduced prices on the nearly 700 homes priced at $1 million or more in the bay area. The two closed 13 deals last year, and five this year.

Selling a mansion isn't like selling the average $250,000 home. The high-end houses could sit on the market for years before selling. Homes priced above $2.5 million are the hardest to sell, Smith and Gill said.

The pair had the listing for the most expensive home in Tampa Bay — gold dealer Mark Yaffe's 29,000-square-foot Avila estate listed for $17.5 million. The home has been on the market for two years.

In January, the women represented the Dallas businessman who bought former NBA player Matt Geiger's 28,000-square-foot palace in Tarpon Springs for $8 million, the second-highest home sale ever in Pinellas County. The house took four years to sell.

Smith and Gill joined forces in 1994 while working at Avila Realty. In 2004, they switched to Smith & Associates after homes in the north Tampa Avila community sold out. They have more than 40 years of combined experience representing buyers and sellers in the luxury market.

Smith and Gill spoke recently with the St. Petersburg Times about the challenges in selling luxury real estate.

How hard is it to sell mansions in a housing downturn?

Smith: The challenge in a downturn is educating the seller on current market conditions in their neighborhood and market area. There are fewer active buyers, and they are taking their time making a decision, so homes are taking longer to sell. Also, buyers are beginning negotiations by making low offers; sellers should be prepared for this and not take it personally, but think of it as a business decision. A good percentage of the time, we find there can be a meeting of the minds.

How do you persuade a seller to drop the price of a house?

Smith: Understanding what motivates a seller is very important in pricing. Everyone has a different reason for selling. What does the future hold for them? Is the seller downsizing, relocating or moving? What is the equity in the house? Do they have to sell? Whatever their situation, the price must be compelling. There are different sellers, some who understand the market and know they are only going to get what the current market will bear; some who want to sell but financially don't have to; and some who will wait the market out to get their price.

What do you tell sellers to expect when listing high-end homes for sale?

Gill: We start by giving them ideas and tips on how to get their homes ready for sale, while also pointing out any negatives that could keep the property from selling faster or at a higher price. But most of all, we tell them that it is taking longer to sell in today's market, and the homes must be priced right.

How do you find buyers for these homes?

Gill: We are both from Tampa and have a large network of clients and friends, so we use that sphere of influence and build from there. We have worked together as a team in this market for almost 17 years and have accumulated a large database of people who like to hear about new listings. And we utilize everything from the Internet to listing services to direct mail to build that database and continually grow our audience of potential buyers.

What is the secret in dealing with rich buyers who like to remain anonymous when buying notable homes?

Smith: We work to gain the trust of our clients and feel that it is not our role to be the person to tell the world who bought which house. We want to continue doing business with each of our clients and feel that putting the client's wishes above our own publicity is very important to ensuring future business.

Mark Puente can be reached at mpuente@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow him at Twitter at twitter.com/markapuente.

Luxury niche fits two Smith & Associates real estate agents 06/26/11 [Last modified: Sunday, June 26, 2011 6:30pm]
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