Chapter Two: Getting The Property Soul’d
Early Lessons in Real Estate
After I spent several months learning the basic tools of the trade, Paul Newell thought I was ready for a referral. The client was a high-profile lawyer, who was recently divorced and had two teenage sons. At the time, he was staying in a short-term rental—all the signs of the perfect buyer— financially qualified and under a time restraint. When he walked through the door that Monday afternoon, I was taken by surprise. Stunningly handsome, tall and lean with dark almond eyes and a bronze-toned complexion, this man had the same exotic look as Omar Sharif in Dr. Zhivago. I almost tripped over myself as I extended my hand. So much for a graceful introduction.
“Paul Newell tells me you are new to the area,” I said, “Why don’t we step into our conference room and you can tell me more of what you are looking for?” I attempted to pour each of us some coffee. The cup made it to him, but not without some of the hot black liquid dribbling down the side. “Sugar?” I asked, willing my hands to stillness.
His voice was soft and sultry. He took his coffee black. Silently I bet myself he didn’t eat quiche and in the bedroom he….
“I need a three-bedroom family home for my two sons,” “Omar” said, interrupting my lust-filled daydream.
“Two children make only two bedrooms,” I said, chuckling at what I thought was a good joke, “but then I was never very good in math.”
Omar’s facial expression was unchanged. I wondered if he was already onto me. This was my first face-to-face meeting with a client. Switching to my most professional mode, I asked, “What else is important to you?”
Omar put his coffee down and looked me straight in the eye, serious and businesslike. “Whatever it is that teenagers need—a yard, a garage big enough for their sports stuff and a good school district.”
“All the schools in Laguna are pretty good,” I said. “Anything else? View? Fireplace? Architectural preference?”
“All nice to have, but not essential. Of course, we’ll want our own bathrooms and an additional half bath for guests.”
“That’s it?” I asked.
“That’s it,” was his reply. Boy, if being a real estate agent was this easy, I thought, I am going to love this job!
“By the way, did Paul Newell tell you I’m a trial lawyer? I do not have a lot of free time for going around looking.”
“That’s fine,” I said. “I can preview all the houses that meet your criteria ahead of time.”
Omar pulled himself away from the table, said goodbye and was gone in a flash. I probably forgot to ask half the questions I should have, but I was flying-the-sky thrilled. I fantasized about being taken away on a white horse to Arabia or wherever he was from and living a life of excitement, travel and luxury. To expand on the fantasy, I reminded myself that my boyfriend, Ted, was nothing more than a poorly paid professor who was difficult to live with. And I was definitely not in love with him. What could be more serendipitous than an encounter with such a well-qualified, good-looking client! I guess you could say that I wasn’t exactly focused on the career-oriented task at hand.
Regardless, I faced the grimmer facts of life when I paid for my groceries the next day. Ted was insistent we go half on everything. Nothing like a quick glance at my bank balance for a reality check. Peanut butter and jelly looked like my main fare until I sold something. Forget romance with handsome strangers.
I previewed several different neighborhoods and included all architectural styles—Spanish, Contemporary, Craftsman, Bungalow, Ranch—as long as the floor plan was suitable for families. The most popular family neighborhood was located on the top ridge of the Laguna Hills called Top of the World. These ranch homes were built in the sixties with large yards, two car garages and good square footage—certainly enough for a family. Some even have ocean views, so I showed these, receiving a lukewarm response from my client
Another possibility was the more expensive remodeled beach community in the center of town. These homes were my favorites—charming, well-kept bungalows with lovely manicured front lawns within walking distance of schools, shopping and restaurants. Surprisingly, Omar was not impressed, and I was perplexed. Perhaps because they were too small? He did not explain and naively, I didn’t ask. Then there were those few precious homes located right on the beach on the other side of Pacific Coast Highway. Forty or fifty years ago these paradise estates were built within steps of the ocean. Equally prestigious were the newer gated communities of Emerald Bay, Irvine Cove and Three Arch Bay, again right on the beach. Those he loved, but he still did not write an offer. Next I showed a contemporary home in Bluebird Canyon, which seemed to appeal to Omar, but once he learned the area was prone to landslides, he changed his mind. I would need to expand the search to the surrounding townships.
At the time, South Laguna was composed of long-ago vacation cottages with poorly planned additions and referred to in the business as “fixer-uppers.” Too funky for Omar. Laguna Niguel, a fairly new suburban development further south was also a No.
Omar’s reaction to all the houses I had shown him had been one of polite disdain. Since he was so quiet and reserved, I was afraid to pry. I dealt with my client’s apparent lack of interest by continuing to show him whatever new family homes came on the market, hoping he would make up his mind soon. Days turned into weeks, weeks into months. “Find a house as soon as possible” was just not happening. I was slipping into negativity and half-believing the words I had overheard from my cynical office mates: “Buyers are Liars and Sellers are Storytellers.”
Paul Newell was too busy with his own clients to help me, so I approached Sue Bates, one of the more successful agents in the office. Files piled high on her desk, she was on the phone, taking copious notes while another call was on hold for her. I walked by her desk several times, trying to catch her eye. Another phone call came in. I went home, discouraged. Mission unaccomplished.
Knowing I had to salvage this deal for my financial survival, I got to the office early the next day and caught her before she started her day. Sue got straight to the point. “Have you asked your client why all the houses you have shown him didn’t work?”
Confident that I had followed the correct protocol, I told her we had a counseling session before we even went out to look at properties.
“How long ago was that?” Sue asked.
“About four months ago, and he still hasn’t bought anything! I thought he was a motivated buyer.”
“Most clients do not know what it is they want,” Sue said. “As their agent, you have to continually ask questions to help guide them. Did you ask the client for feedback throughout your showing process?”
“I’m sure I must have asked if he liked the neighborhood, floor plan, amenities, you know, things like that.”
“All those questions require simple yes and no answers. You need to get to the meat of the problem—which is why he is not buying. Ask opened-ended questions. Questions like: ‘How do you think today’s house tour went?’ or ‘What are your feelings about the houses I’ve been showing?’ Then he has to give you a more detailed answer. That will require some inner searching on his part. And better feedback for you.” Sue paused. It was me doing the soul searching now. She continued, “Personally, I like to use the word feel. That way I am addressing the client’s emotional right brain. It is especially important with high-powered people as they often are not in touch with their emotions.” Sue pointed to her chest. “Home is where the heart is.”
Was I glad I asked for help! I would never have been able to figure all this out on my own.
She then asked, “Do you think perhaps you are afraid to use open-ended questions? Are you afraid of the answer—that maybe he won’t buy?”
“I’m not sure,” I said, beginning to doubt myself.
“Okay, so we do not have any verbal answers as to why your client is not buying. Tell me—how does he react when you show him houses?” Now Sue was using this open-ended question technique on me! I did not have a simple, easy answer to give her. This was a good start though, because it was forcing me to get to the meat of the problem. Sue continued, “Check out body language, facial expressions, even what your client does not say. Is he avoiding any questions? Non-verbal cues are just as important as what clients say—sometimes more so, because the body does not lie.”
“Ah, so buyers do lie?”
Sue explained. “Not on purpose. Most people have no idea what it is they want. They have a hard time deciding what to order from a menu, so how can you expect them to make a decision when it comes to committing to a big purchase? That is why they need professionals, like us, to help guide them. You say your client is divorced? Perhaps he wants to be perceived as a family man, but underneath he may really be a Bachelor Babe. If that’s the case, you are showing him the wrong type of house, regardless of what he says he wants to see.”
I decided to put Omar to Sue’s test. On my next tour, I included a contemporary townhouse located in Arch Beach Heights. No yard to speak of—instead, lots of decks with stupendous ocean views. The master bedroom was the only one with a door—the other two bedrooms were lofts. The windows were two stories tall—not really a house for kids—instead, the epitome of a bachelor pad.
As soon as Omar stepped into the living room with the exposed rafter ceiling, wood-burning fireplace and wet bar, his facial expression softened. His eyes scanned every detail. A broad smile formed underneath his black moustache when he stepped onto one of the redwood decks and noticed sailboats with their colorful jibs dotting the waves. He clasped his hands together as if to say,
“This is what I’ve been waiting for.”
Yep, my family man really was a Bachelor Babe.
It was late in the afternoon on a Friday. I had been planning a sailing trip to Catalina Island for weeks. Of course, Omar decided he wanted to write an offer that night! This was the same guy I had been taking around for months without the least bit of interest in buying anything. I figured if he waited this long, he could wait another few days.
“The Barracuda Way place has been listed for a month,” I said. “I have plans this weekend, so why don’t we wait till Monday to write the offer?” Omar agreed. I left for Catalina.
When I walked into the office Monday morning there was a hushed silence as I approached my desk. A sickening feeling grabbed at my stomach. I attempted a feeble, “Good morning” but my mouth was dry from embarrassment. All eyes shifted downward as people addressed whatever paperwork lay in front of them. Paul Newell approached my desk with short quick steps, motioning me to meet him in his office. He shook his index finger in my face. “Mr. Farad wanted that house you showed him on Friday and you left him in the lurch! How could you just go off for a weekend and not have anyone cover for you? Boy, are you lucky he is a loyal client and called me to write the offer.”
I hung my head in shame, knowing I made a colossal error in judgment. I let a task that had been dragging on and on fall to the bottom of my to-do list when it should had stayed priority number one. “No one told me this information before,” I said, looking down at my hands, which were beginning to tremble. “This is my first sales job, you know.”
“Buying a home is emotional and spontaneous. A hot buyer can cool quickly and the opportunity to make the sale can be lost. Like doctors, real estate agents have to be available 24/7.”
“But Mr. Farad just didn’t seem that motivated,” I said. “I’ve been taking him around for months and he hasn’t liked anything.”
“He liked what you showed him the other day, didn’t he? He did tell you he wanted to write an offer, right?”
“Well, he said he did, but he also told me he wanted a family home and that is certainly not what he bought,” I said, knowing I was merely protecting my position, and lamely so.
“Did you ever ask Mr. Farad why he did not like the houses you were showing him?” Back to asking those damn questions! “I want you to read this sentence in bold above the signature line of the real estate contract.”
My throat was parched and raspy. I opened my mouth, but no audible words came out.
“Louder,” he said, his voice elevated and stern
I swallowed hard, “Time is of the essence.”
“What do you think that means?” Paul asked, lowering his voice.
“Act immediately—as soon as the buyer is ready,” I said, still not willing to look up.
Paul continued, “Okay. Important lesson learned. Next time a client says they want to write an offer, do not take the weekend off. You drop everything and write the offer, understand?”
As I made my way back to my desk, I tried to integrate the impact of my manager’s last comment—that he was taking half my commission for all the work he did to keep the deal together.
I figured the math in my head—the whole commission is 6%. Since Lingo was representing the seller and Newell Associates was representing Mr. Farad, our office’s portion was 3%. Since I was a new agent, my split with Newell Associates was 50/50 or 1.5% of the sales price. But now Paul Newell was taking half of that, so all I ended up with was 0.75% on $150,000. How could I survive on $1,125? I had not had any income for eight months! Ted expected me to pay my share of the rent, the groceries, the utilities and gas for the car. I felt like going back and telling Newell Associates how unfair all of this was.
Maybe I would quit. That’s right—I didn’t have to put up with this injustice! I’d go back to a salaried job that would show Paul Newell! Then I remembered the lab with the furry little hamsters, the men getting all the promotions, and the boss constantly leaning over my shoulder. I took a deep breath, grabbed my things and went for a walk. I needed to think all this through. Maybe it was true what Paul Newell had said. If he had not been available, Omar would have found another salesperson to write the offer and I would have ended up with nothing. At least I was getting something.
It had not been a year since I left my familiar East Coast surroundings and moved here. That took some guts. I also had the bold courage to put myself through college when my parents gave me no emotional or monetary support, probably hoping I would take the easy marriage route. After graduation I procured a job in a city which was unfamiliar to me. More guts.
Sales offered me the lifestyle I wanted—independence, lots of interesting learning experiences and an opportunity to do well financially. I told myself that gratiﬁcation was not going to be instantaneous in this line of work. I may not be a natural-born salesperson, but I still graduated with honors despite the fact that I was not a natural-born student either. Believing I had the courage, tenacity and confidence to be successful, I decided to give sales another chance. Or maybe it was to give myself another chance at sales.
It’s a Dog-Eat-Dog World Out There
Rachel Simmons swept into our office like a whirlwind. Wispy, shoulder-length, strawberry hair framed her angelic heart-shaped face as she gave everyone a wide engaging smile. Her tall angular body and long legs reminded me of one of those New York City runway models. She extended a gracious hand as she was introduced around the office and gave the impression that she was more a VIP than a new agent. Whereas my self-esteem had been earned through hard work and accomplishments, hers was apparent by the way she moved. How nice it would be to be accepted by just being you and not having to prove anything.
I showed her around, took her on tour, and helped her with the basic questions any new agent had. We went to the title company parties together, not only to have fun as Paul Newell suggested— his belief being that, “a happy salesperson is a productive salesperson”—but also to start forming our team of professionals of title officers, escrow coordinators, lenders and contractors whom we would rely on during the sales process.
“The best way to choose who you wish to work with is to meet them in person,” Paul advised. “Besides, networking with other agents is essential so you know your competition up close.”
I should have suspected something was amiss when we attended our last office meeting. Paul Newell lauded my praises to everyone present for getting my first sale. Rachel did not sit with me at the meeting, which was our custom and purposely shunned me when I approached her. I told myself she’ll get over it. It all seemed so high school. Then came the inevitable day when we both had clients for one of our office’s hot new listings. Rachel planned to show the house ﬁrst, promising she would leave the key underneath the mat. (The listing was so new that the lock box had not even been installed yet).
I arrived shortly after with my client, James Wallace, a fellow I met at an open house the week before. He was thrilled when I described this house over the phone. It was in a perfect location for him, close to his family, friends and his job. Also, it was in his price range. Since this would be his starter home, he did not mind that it was small and needed work. He was ready to move. He had been diligent in saving his money for the down payment, so I had a willing and able buyer who had already been preapproved by a bank. Besides having saved 20% for the down payment, he also had another 3% saved for closing costs, such as title and escrow fees and building insurance. He also had a 33% debt to income ratio and a good 760 credit rating. As I fumbled for the key underneath the mat, James told me how appreciative he was that I found something for him so quickly. He stepped around to the side of the house, rubbing his hands together, eagerly anticipating what was inside.
“It needs a little work like I told you, but it’s really charming,” I said brightly, hiding the disgust I was feeling as gritty dirt was now underneath my newly polished ﬁngernails. I reminded myself to remain upbeat, calm and collected. This is a great house and I have the perfect buyer. So what if I have to get a new manicure?
I looked up from my awkward kneeling position with a happy face. “You will not be disappointed, I assure you. Just give me a moment.” Where is that damn key? Throwing polite decorum to the wind, I tossed the welcome mat onto the grass, intensifying my search. “It’s got to be here somewhere,” I said.
“Paula, are you sure your friend said the mat? Let’s look under the plant boxes,” James said, trying to be helpful. The key was not there, either. Next we tried the back door mat and the frame above both doors. Then we got the brilliant idea of trying to break inside. We checked out all the windows, hoping to find one unlocked. There was not. James tried to pry one open, but I was afraid he would break the glass and told him to stop. Looking for a solution, I pointed to the small dog door in the back. “Do you think either of us can ﬁt through that?” I laughed, trying to see the humor in a disastrous situation which was making me more uncomfortable by the minute.
“Paula, I’m really disappointed. I had to call in sick today and left my boss short-handed. It is really difficult for me to get off time from work. Can’t you do something?”
“I am sure there has been some misunderstanding. Let’s go back to the ofﬁce. Perhaps Rachel forgot,” I said, making sure I remained positive. I hopped in my car, praying that I had misunderstood Rachel somehow. James followed in his car as we drove back to the office. No key there and no Rachel either. I asked around the office, checking if anyone had seen her. No one had. I left a message for her at the front desk and one at home. I shrugged my shoulders as James gave me a reproachful look and headed out the office door. “Call me as soon as you ﬁnd out,” he said.
“I promise,” I said with a smiling, wilting farewell, wondering if this was the last time I would ever see him.
Rachel never called me back. The next day I asked about the key when I saw her scurrying
around the office with paperwork flying here and there. My suspicions were conﬁrmed when she said, “My client wanted to write an offer so why should you bother showing it—it would have been just a waste of time!”
I felt the blood rising to the top of my temples and turned away lest I say something I would regret later. That’s it! I thought. I don’t care how pretty she is—our friendship is nothing more than past tense! With Paul Newell’s permission, I moved my things to another desk and asked him to do something, hoping for some sort of compensation. “I cannot undo what is already done, Paula. The house is sold. Money has already been placed in escrow. Remember, as agents, we are not officially part of the contract; we are only the bridge between the buyer and the seller.”
“But what if my buyer wanted to pay more?” I said, exasperated over this unfair treatment of my client.
“That’s unfortunate. But to tell a seller that now might mean a lawsuit involving not only two of my agents, but also the listing agent. A lawsuit would be a black mark against our company and you wouldn’t want that, would you, Paula?”
“Of course not,” I said. “I just feel like I’ve been screwed—especially after all the help I’ve given her.” Maybe I should not have been be so explicit with my wording, but I was upset and I wanted Paul to know that.
“Be more careful next time and call the listing agent directly. I will say something to Rachel, but keep in mind she is young and inexperienced.”
“That’s not the point. What she did is unethical.”
“That’s conjecture only. She told me she was so excited that she just plain forgot about leaving the key.” I looked up, trying not to show my pain. Paul got up from his chair and gave me a warm handshake and an encouraging wink. “Fine—it’s all settled then.”
James did not return my calls for several days. When I ﬁnally reached him, he told me he had found another real estate agent who was more reliable. I was back pounding the pavement, looking for business to replace the sale I lost. I walked my neighborhood, held open houses, sent out mailers and got as much ﬂoor time as I could. I tried my best not to get discouraged—remembering past successes. I realized there were those salespeople who would do anything to make a deal—kind of like cheating in college. I had learned that I could not expect management to get involved with what they consider petty problems. From then on I would be much more vigilant in observing other people’s behavior and, honestly, to be more wary of their motives.
So the sharks stayed and the rest of us ﬁsh tried to either keep out of their way or, better, to be a bit more clever in order to stay one step ahead of them.
Lessons Learned from Chapter 2:
SEEK HELP FROM EXPERTS Confident people know it takes time to become an expert in any field. There are a lot of successful business people out there. Gather up your courage—swallow your pride if you must—and ask for help.
PRIORITIZE Realize that you may have to make choices between work and your personal life to be successful. Do not procrastinate or put off tasks because they are time-consuming, stressful or daunting. When you are not available for a client, ask a trusted colleague to help you.
BE BOLD – ASK QUESTIONS Listen carefully to what your customers tell you, but do not stop there. During the sales process, ask probing, open-ended questions. Remember, circumstances are always changing, so be open to the answers, which may surprise you.
FACE REALITY HEAD-ON There are unscrupulous people in all businesses. A pretty smile, flattering words and an aura of self-importance does not give a person character. Learn to discern who you can trust and who you cannot.
GO AFTER WHAT YOU WANT Do not allow other people’s visions to get in the way of your success. You are the only one who holds the key to create the life you want.