Independence lessons

It’s not easy being independent.

It’s been three years since I said goodbye to a steady paycheck and joined the nervous but optimistic ranks of the self-employed.

It’s worked out for me, but not as I had planned. My vision of my writing not only to enrich my soul but also to pay for the mortgage and groceries proved unrealistic. So I went to plan B. I took the required courses and got my real-estate license.

The good news is it’s proven to be a very good fit: interesting, varied, social. The activity is emotionally and financially rewarding often enough to make it fun.

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The bad news is that it’s a business. My business. Like any business, it demands management skills, ones I’ve had to learn on the fly.

Without recognizing and finding a way to deal with the challenges, real estate can quickly become an exhausting business. Mental-health professionals rank buying or selling a home as one of the top ten life stressors. Anyone in the business of facilitating that kind of transaction has to be there, to be organized, and to be able to stay cool under fire.

Owning a business offers great flexibility. You can make your own schedule. You can work from home or go to the office. You’re in charge of marketing yourself. And with Zillow, Trulia, LookeyLoo, LinkedIn and a host of others online venues, the opportunities to spend money marketing yourself is practically limitless. What to choose? How much to spend? How to know?

I asked a few of my colleagues for their tips to thriving as business owners and professionals.

First, let’s talk about time. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I wouldn’t last long if I kept taking business calls at 10 p.m. “I didn’t expect to get you,” the caller would say. “I was just going to leave a message.”

Amy Lonas at Coldwell Banker Village Green told me she had faced the same challenge. “I forget to smell the roses,” she said. “Now I force myself to take small breaks during the week for rejuvenation, such as an hour at a friend’s pool or a class at the gym. I try to schedule at least one vacation with my husband each year so I can unplug from all the technology, at least for most of the days.”

Joan Hagedorn, associate broker at Westwood Metes and Bounds, finds it simple. “You just have to say no and say yes more,” she said.

Lisa Halter, a perennial top producer at Coldwell Banker Village Green, found it made sense for her to hire help. “It’s so important to learn to delegate tasks and manage time wisely,” she told me. “I have found that I can service my clients more effectively by hiring an assistant to help with the day-to-day tasks.”

 

Trust and connections

Service is a theme that came up with every real-estate professional I polled. Broker Dorothea Marcus joked that the memory of a salaried job with benefits seems like a fairy tale of the good old days which she would tell her son. But she said she loves her life: “I have created a low-overhead lifestyle to minimize financial anxiety. I am connected and trusted.”

Eric Amaral of Coldwell Banker Village Green said he too relies on the personal touch. “You can use all the technical skills to help with your business but basic hospitality and wanting to help goes a long way.”

Nan Potter of Nan Potter Realty has learned to be selective with advertising. She’s figured out which print and online opportunities work for her. For promoting herself and her business, she relies on personal referral. “After so many years in the business, that’s really what happens,” Potter said. “You get to know people, they refer their friends, clients refer their friends, and old clients come back when they need real-estate help again.”

Faye Storms, a licensed salesperson at Ruth Gale Realty, has backed off on Internet marketing for self-promotion. “I’m out there enough, with my other business [she owns the Blue Barn Emporium on Route 28], as a Shandaken town board member, and with activities at church. People know who I am. They may use the Internet to check up on me, to get to know me as a broker, but it’s the personal contacts that bring me clients.”

Halter believes that technology paired with service is what leads to business growth. “I think one of the keys to my success has been a significant investment in Internet marketing tools that get my seller’s properties in front of as many buyers as possible,” she said. “The other is keeping that friendly, warm, human connection with buyers, sellers and other agents.”

 

Evolving business

Other agents? Have you been told real estate was a cutthroat business? Not among its best practitioners. Good working relationships are good business. The reality is that real estate is a business with no paycheck until a transaction closes. It often takes teamwork with another broker to get there.

Marcus said her family likes to rib her about the nature of the business. “We’re always joking about the seeming insanity of often expending enormous time, effort and gas with no financial reward.”

Lonas rode out the sluggish economy by having savings. “I have maintained an emergency fund in case we have a winter like last winter,” she said.

Brokers in some parts of the country now routinely charge a retainer fee to prospective buyers. Buyers get a credit for that fee when they close on a house. Internet boards are full of discussions on the topic. Does charging a retainer drive away business? Or does it filter out the window shoppers?

Like most service businesses, real estate is evolving. There are more boutique agencies, like the one I work for, which specialize in niche markets and cover a broader geographical region. Smaller independent agencies are merging into bigger ones. And there are attempts to bring all real-estate professionals into one central New York State Multiple Listing Service instead of the existing patchwork quilt of regional MLSs.

When my children were small, our broker in a small upstate town didn’t belong to any listing service. He’d walk up to a house we liked, knock on the door, and ask if the owner would consider selling.

 

Imagine.

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