From The Washington Post
By Malcolm N. Carter
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, April 3, 2004; Page F01
Balance Is Essential For Reaching the Top
How an Agent Found Time to Thrive
The defining moment in my still-fledgling career as a real estate agent came at our office holiday party in December, when superstar agent Phyllis Alexander gave me some of the best advice I have ever received.
I had been telling her how surprised I was by my volume of sales and how exhausted I was working seven days a week for 12 to 16 hours a day. Fixing her blue eyes on me, she said: "Hire a full-time assistant."
An assistant had occurred to me, but what a responsibility, what an expense.
No, no, no, no, no, Alexander explained. An assistant functioning as a buyers' representative would free me to bring in more business.
"The assistant will pay for himself," she said.
As I wrote in this section last May, I learned in my first year in real estate that selling houses successfully had less to do with charm, for example, than with building a business. Investing the necessary time and money to lay a foundation for the business, then running it, was the hard part.
That has remained true in my second year in the industry. It has meant buying and mastering new technologies, creating systems that result in efficiencies, and acquiring the edge in education and experience that helps me compete with the thousands of other agents in this market.
How competitive is it? The Greater Capital Area Association of Realtors, which represents the District and suburban Maryland, has more than 7,000 members. Long & Foster Real Estate Inc. alone has more than 12,000 agents. The National Association of Realtors recently signed up its millionth member, though not all agents are members.
I received my license in July 2002 and began devoting myself full time to real estate in late fall as I gradually left my "real" job and interviewed with various brokerages. Size, culture, location and treatment of new agents all mattered. The office I picked and its sales manager, Marj Rosner, turned out to be the perfect match for me.
Still, at the end of 2002, I had only one sale - - and that one was shared with a generous agent who was mentoring me. Such a slow start is typical.
"It is not unusual for smart new agents to start a bit slowly," said Rosner. "There is a tough balance between wanting to learn everything before they venture out with clients and waiting so long to venture out that they go broke. A certain amount of risk-taking is necessary. That's hard for people who come to the real estate industry after having been extremely competent at something else."
With her advice, training and support, my business began growing beyond my most optimistic projections. In the first half of 2003, I had six sales worth a little more than $1.5 million. By the end of the year, the total was 24 transactions worth more than $6 million.
Yet if I divide a conservative estimate of the hours I worked into my commission income minus expenses, my earnings come to a little more than $3 an hour. Even if I halve the number of hours worked, it was still around the minimum wage. It was not until September 2003 that the column of red on my Quicken balance sheet flowed into black.
So much business was wonderful, but I was running a marathon, breathlessly behind every day with deadline after deadline looming. Time management was perhaps my biggest failure. On what felt like a stolen vacation on Cape Cod, I found myself answering my cell phone while bicycling through the sand dunes. I was beginning to resent my clients, and I hated myself for that.
My experience was far from unique. "I was running around like a chicken with its head cut off," Stacy Berman of Weichert Realtors recalled. She completed 24 transactions worth $9 million in 2003, her first full year as an agent. "I realized I had to put in controls for both my personal life and my professional life. My husband and I now have 'date night' every Tuesday or Wednesday, and we stick to it."
Along the way I made my share of mistakes. For example, early on I turned up in College Park for a home inspection. Only when it ended did I discover that the inspector always is paid on the spot. With my client checkless, guess who fronted the payment?
One of my worst mistakes was taking on a client I came to believe was emotionally unbalanced. I let my financial insecurity get the better of my judgment. This client kept calling and calling and calling with repetitious questions, grew increasingly distrustful of me, and finally began holding impromptu sit-ins at my office. That ate up hours of my manager's and my time. Consummate patience and understanding enabled Rosner to deal with her better than I could, authoritatively but sympathetically.
Then there was the month I was so busy that I had forgotten until the settlement to have an earnest-money deposit banked. That same month I didn't think to schedule a walk-through until hours before the closing. I was, as Rosner said, fried.
It was around then, in the late summer of 2003, that I realized how much I needed help. Thanks to an online course meant to increase my Internet capabilities, the help I found was a "virtual" assistant. (My flesh-and-blood assistant joined my team later.)
Her name is Carrie Gable and she lives in Chicago. Although we never have met, I have come to know her well through e-mail and telephone communication. I also depend on her profoundly. She sees that everyone receives needed documents, checks in with lenders and title companies, connects the dots, and otherwise prevents things from falling through the cracks. Busy as she already was, astonishingly I have become her biggest client.
As time passed, I began to appreciate the axiom of having to spend money to make it. I decided that whatever saved me one hour was worth many dollars. My oft-revised business plan took this into account.
The plan included a number of investments. For example, I acquired sophisticated equipment - - an auto-feed scanner, laser color printer, digital camera, replacement cell phone, desktop computer and tablet computer, among other things. The total for 2003: $7,600. This year, I am buying another desktop computer, for my flesh-and-blood associate, and a portable printer to go with my new tablet computer. My various cell phone, e-mail, BlackBerry and other communications expenses reached $3,200 for the year. I spent $1,300 on software, plus $3,600 for Carrie, a computer technician and other labor. My advertising bills came to $3,811. With 2,400 peak cell minutes a month and other services, my connectivity is running close to $500 a month. But I believe it is worth it to have instant access to information and to be accessible to my clients immediately.
The benefits of education also seem undeniable to me. I spent $1,150 - - and 125 hours in the classroom - - to study for advanced professional certifications.
Given my earlier careers, I also knew how essential it would be to invest in marketing. I tried direct mail at least monthly through August 2003. It didn't work for me. I also placed small ads in a theater program and a neighborhood newsletter. Those didn't work either. Poorer by more than $3,000, I also was wiser from what I considered noble experiments.
What did work beyond all my hopes was my e-mail newsletter. I shamelessly try to obtain e-mail addresses from almost everyone I meet - - my cell phone salesman (who became a client), a police officer who responded to my call to help a homeless person, other guests where I stayed on vacation (one of whom also became a client last week). There now are about 550 subscribers; usually 40 percent of them open that e-mail every week. One example was a couple who called me after someone I do not remember passed them a copy. They entrusted me with the sale of their condo and the purchase of another.
I also am committed to raising my Web presence and thus pay close to $500 a quarter to have my site appear high in search engines. That is working for me, too: Three new serious buyers have come to me that way since early February. I am planning to overhaul my Web site by June. That effort will probably cost around $1,500.
This year, I began another advertising experiment, and it is paying off. I decided I would run an ad every other week in neighborhood weeklies. In the first month, I obtained a listing from that ad and signed up a new buyer from it. A couple bought a condo from me last Saturday, just 24 hours after they spotted my picture in the ad, which has also attracted new subscribers to my newsletter. Not surprisingly, friendship has played a key role. It is nice to have forged relationships with fellow agents who have, in my rare absences, shown newly listed properties to clients, written contracts and offered me the opportunity to profit from their needs as well.
"Networking is important," said Nancy Shalett, another agent who works with Rosner. "You need to have relationships with like-minded individuals. It's otherwise a lonely business."
Finally, there is the newest member of my team, Aelita Brolis, whose support in her first two months already has significantly helped with my time management issues. I actually am getting back to the gym, making dinner plans I can keep and looking forward to long weekends and two weeks away this year. She is proving to be a capable buyers' representative and supremely able right hand.
Despite the work, I am not complaining. The satisfaction of building my own business, seeing clients through an intimidatingly stressful process and succeeding on my own terms is compensation enough. Grueling it can be, but finally I am working for myself. It's fun.
Malcolm N. Carter is an agent in the Logan Circle office of Long & Foster Real Estate Inc. His Web site is www.ServiceYouCanTrust.com.