Weekly Book Scan
OK, it’s confession time: I haven’t even been in my house for a full two years yet, and it’s already time for a decluttering session. Maybe part of it was moving into a place that didn’t need much work (oh I know, poor me!). When we moved in, my husband and I just got unpacked and settled as soon as we could without putting a lot of thought into how to organize our stuff. On the flip side, it could be the boxes we never unpacked in the move before last, which we just trucked along to our next place where storage was much more plentiful than before. But Amanda Sullivan, author of Organized Enough: The Anti-Perfectionist’s Guide to Getting—and Staying—Organized (De Capo, 2017), would probably point to her belief that pretty much everyone needs to incorporate the habit of continually of decluttering into our daily lives.
“Your home is a living, breathing thing, like a garden. You must constantly weed and winnow items because, with no effort on your part, it will always be growing,” she writes, suggesting readers keep a dedicated bag or box for getting rid of unneeded items.
But what if you’re dealing with sellers who haven’t employed this trick and have years of built-up reservoirs they need to purge before putting their home on the market? Honestly, I’d recommend picking up a copy of this book for them. I was only a few minutes in when I was inspired to go home and tackle my closet.
Despite being the owner of the intimidatingly titled professional organizer/coaching business The Perfect Daughter, Sullivan is exceedingly nonjudgemental and concentrates her advice on making homes livable, rather than immaculate. Indeed, Organized Enough hangs on the principle of FLOW:
- Forgive yourself. “Having a disorganized home does not mean you’re sick or dysfunctional,” Sullivan assures readers.
- Let stuff go. She suggests beginning with with the easy stuff (which is why I’m headed to the closet and not those unpacked boxes in the basement) that will make the greatest visual impact.
- Organize what’s left. Don’t head to the Container Store until you’ve accomplished the above steps! You have to take stock before you know what you need.
- Weed constantly (addressed above).
So keep this one in your back pocket for clients, but I’d also suggest real estate pros read this book on their own. The chapter on seeing one’s home as a stranger is particularly helpful for industry insiders such as yourselves. Sullivan also includes tips to motivate specific types of people (photo journaling or Pinterest boards for the visual learners, using a notebook to craft a narrative of change for the storytellers, questions to ask for those who prefer to talk it out interpersonally, etc.).
Here are three ideas from Organized Enough you can use to help your sellers who need some organizational assistance.
- Ask sellers to take you on a tour, pointing out where they see systems as working and where they aren’t. Meanwhile, take note of places where random things are being squirreled away, spaces aren’t being used to their full potential, or where dust might be gathering. These are spots that can easily be targeted first. Sullivan also suggests looking at spaces through mirrors and photography to help bring a fresh perspective.
- Connect clients with practical solutions for letting go. Put together a handout or resource page on your website that includes contact information, drop-off times, and details about what kinds of donations different charities in your area will accept. Some may even offer free curbside pick-up. Gather a list of links to local groups where neighbors give away or sell used goods (Nextdoor, Freecycle, Facebook parent groups, etc.). Also, find out what the rules are in your area for how to dispose of certain items such as electronics or paint.
- Help them recognize the source of their clutter. Sullivan notes that most overstuffed homes can be traced back to fear. She goes over the different anxieties that feed into this in detail, which can be very helpful to getting to the root of the problem and closer to a lasting solution. In fact, some your clients might be highly organized people who let the ideal of perfection become the enemy of “good enough.”
Despite (or maybe due to) the solitary nature of real estate, it’s one of those industries that runs best when the lines of communication are open. That’s why you see so many mentor-mentee arrangements and cross-professional relationships. But what if you’re new to the business, or if you don’t know which broker, real estate attorney, or home inspector you can trust in your local area?
Allow me to recommend Dear Real Estate Agent, There Are Answers: Six Industry Professionals Share Their Knowledge as a start. It’s an e-book featuring straightforward chapters on what agents need to know from a broker, real estate lawyer, business attorney, home inspector, mortgage advisor, and insurance professional.
Each chapter is different because they’re written by different people. The book (smartly) begins with Katherine Scarim, broker-owner of Island Bridge Realty. It’s a meaty chapter, filled with scripts, sample disclaimers, and checklists of what to do before you start working with clients. Scarim goes beyond the typical pipeline filling advice to lay out the basics not everyone thinks of immediately, but that will bite agents in the you-know-where if they don’t get it down (ensuring they understand every document they ask their clients to sign, red flags to watch for when writing an offer, how to set a marketing budget). She even covers rarer circumstances such as how to represent renters and buyers looking at new construction.
I particularly like how she lays out her brand of common sense in a way with which you just can’t argue, as in this choice quote: “Early on, I kept a cleaning caddy in my car so I could tackle anything too horrible before showings. By doing this, I avoided having to have an uncomfortable conversation, but I also devalued my time by becoming a cleaning lady instead of an agent.”
In chapter two, real estate lawyer Gregory Cohen spends a fair amount of time working to convince real estate professionals that his colleagues aren’t just there to be deal-killers. However, he does include helpful anecdotes and specific examples of deals gone awry that could really only be put back on track by attorneys. He also includes red flags to look for to ensure the lawyers in your transactions are drafting contracts that are accurate and fair to your clients. Much of his advice could be helpful to folks who have been in the business for awhile, such as this gem: “Preprinted language in contracts is a bit like background music. At a certain point you don’t hear it anymore.”
He’s also a straight shooter. I love his reply to clients who say they don’t want to pay for title insurance: “I reply I would have to charge them far more for my time to prepare a disclosure document explaining how ridiculously stupid the idea of forgoing title insurance is, than it would cost them to obtain the actual title insurance.”
Gerald Pumphrey, senior mortgage advisor for Waterstone Mortgage Corporation, tends to overuse italics, bold type, and punctuation, but he also offers concrete questions to help real estate agents qualify a prequalification (“You should never just accept a pre-approval letter and assume the loan officer did their job… A pre-approval is only as good as the loan officer issuing the letter.”) He walks readers through basic loan types and explains each step clients will typically have to follow to get from the pre-approval process all the way to closing time.
In chapter four Guy Hartman, owner of Your Inspector Guy, goes through all the elements that are typically examined in a home inspection. He offers insider tips that both buyer’s agents and listing agents can pass on to their clients to make the inspection go more smoothly. He also includes a multitude of case studies that will be helpful to read no matter where you are in the transaction. His comprehensive checklist of traits to look for in a home inspector could prove quite helpful for any real estate pro looking to create a list of recommended providers, but in general, he advises readers to “look for an inspector who can help put the inspection and inspection process in context, who can confidently explain what they are doing, why they are doing it, and how to interpret the results.”
Mark Shanz, broker-owner of Seegott Shanz Insurance, leads readers through the many types of insurance homeowners might choose, explains ways they can save on their insurance, and details possible deal killers in the binder period before the deal closes. He goes into what may very well be more detail than a real estate professional will require in day-to-day work. But just as readers might be tempted to skip forward to the last section, he addresses the considerations agents and brokers should keep in mind when shopping for E&O, auto, general liability, and umbrella insurance.
Finally, business attorney Kelly Sturmthal talks through the common the legal structures for real estate businesses and outlines the questions that should be resolved if you’re looking at creating a real estate team, for example.
While the group does its best to generalize, this book will be more useful to real estate pros working in Florida, as all of the writers work in that state. It’s not that they exclusively talk about the laws and regulations governing Florida, but that many examples the writers cite originate there. However, Shanz betrays some serious geographical blind spots when he writes that “a home 30 years or older will be a tougher sell to insurance carriers… Finding affordable coverage for an older home is one example when having an experienced, local agent that represents multiple carriers will prove crucial.” As the owner of a home that is more than 100 years old, I can tell you that when shopping for home insurance no one blinked once when I told them the age of my home (likely because I bought in the practically geriatric city of Chicago).
Aside from being your built-in business advisors, this self-published book boasts another helpful feature in that it’s easily updated to reflect the ever-changing world of real estate. Scarim noted when she sent a copy my way that since they initially published, the FHA’s national conforming loan limit rose, meaning they needed to update the text. “A publishing house would never allow for biannual changes, as it would be far too costly for them. It would be silly to be preaching to agents that they have to keep up-to-date with the industry in a stagnant book,” she wrote. “Once revised, I have the ability to have Amazon push the update to the customers who already purchased the e-book, so their version will be replaced with the new one. You have to love technology!”
At the International Builders’ Show in Orlando, Fla. last month, I had the chance to sit down with two authors who know a ton about generating customer loyalty. One was Jason Forrest, a sales trainer and coach whom I’ve known as a regular contributor to REALTOR® Magazine over the years. He introduced me to Paul Cardis, founder of Avid Ratings, a reputation management and customer service firm for the homebuilding industry. The two co-authored a new book, Service Certainty: The Secret to Customer Loyalty (MJS Press; Dec. 15th, 2016). Here’s an edited transcript of the interview.
Tell me how the idea for this book came about.
Jason: The idea came about just like any book comes from the need to solve a problem. My primary focus was on the sales side and helping homebuilders increase their sales. The problem was, we found that by increasing their sales, their customer satisfaction will go down.
Huh, really? I guess that makes sense, though it’s certainly an unintended consequence!
Jason: Yeah, definitely. I started formulating these ideas about why this might be happening, but I didn’t actually know if they were evidence-based. So since Paul is the industry expert and the wizard behind the curtain when it comes to the research, I really wanted to work with him on this problem. I would basically run my ideas by him and say, “Hey, this is what I believe will improve customer satisfaction. Do you believe this would work too?” We worked through that and then ended up coming up with 15 best practices to make it happen and increase customer satisfaction, service certainty, and customer loyalty.
Paul: Avid’s been working with builders for 25 years measuring customer satisfaction and customer experience, and Jason here has been an amazing leader in helping our clients to change their cultures improve so it was really just a natural fit to put these two worlds together and come away with a more practical book. With more than 30,000 books on customer service out there today, we were going into very red ocean. But one point that we both agreed upon was that making customers happy in an imperfect world hadn’t been written about. And in our business in real estate and homebuilding, let’s face it: We deal with a lot of imperfections in the process, and there really wasn’t a book that was realistic. Jason and I put something together here that I think does that.
Yeah, a lot of the books I’ve read talk about how to improve customer service in a perfect world. But they often lack best practices for real-life situations.
Jason: That’s what is so great about the book. So I’m a sales guy, and the normal trend is salespeople don’t like service. Like, if you’re really great at sales you think, “I want to sell you something and move on to the next guy.” So I had to learn how to convince myself first before I could convince anyone else. What’s great about this book—and this is why it’s so small that you can read it in an hour and a half or less—is that we wrote it in a way that it’s the minimum effective dose. Think of it this way: Water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit and if you increase the temperature to 213, 214, or 216, it’s still boiling. So you’re wasting energy doing that. We decided to make the book super simple so it’s applicable even to the person who says, “I really don’t like customer service. I don’t want to mess with it.”
What’s a way where sales-focused folks are getting service wrong?
Paul: One of the common problems we see is people who think the solution is, “Well we’ll just go and tell our customers to give us good reviews.” They try and game the system, and they get frustrated in the gaming. That mindset is also evident when you’re thinking “Buyers are liars.” You get mad at the buyer because they’re not happy, as if they came out of the womb that way. Well no, we created them. Of course, there are some buyers—a very, very small percentage—that are just difficult people. But in general we create these difficult customers, so getting your mind right is really an awesome thing and without having your mind right, you can’t move on.
Jason: Yes. It’s also important to think about the service journey. As soon as a customer signs a contract with you, that’s the highest level of emotional engagement they’re going to have with you. Think of it like getting married. The second a person gets engaged, they’re basically saying, “O.K., that’s it. I believe we should be together for the rest of our lives.” Well when you give the girl a ring your goal is to make sure that you provide an experience that’s just as good up to the point of her saying yes to the ring. You know the couple doesn’t need nine months to plan a wedding. They could do this thing in a couple of days, right? It’s a way to put them through purgatory to make sure they don’t do anything to fall short of expectations. It’s called an engagement, but it’s really a test! In the industry, on the day of signing that contract it’s like the engagement ring. You have to get to the move-in day, which is like the wedding day. The customer can easily take the ring off and cancel the wedding any time along the way if you don’t live up to the same promise you did in the dating-to-engagement time as the engagement-to-wedding time.
In gathering the examples you use in this book, did you guys get them from people in the field or did you create hypothetical situations?
Paul: It’s all real stories of actual builders and clients dealing with problems, and a lot of them were pretty interesting too. One particular story that we put in there was one that I affectionately call the “Lemon Man.” We had a customer who dumped 10,000 lemons in their own front yard and let them rot. They wanted to make a statement to the world to say, “Hey, this is a terrible builder and I’m very upset!”
Wow. That’s some serious conflict there.
Jason: Oh yeah. But I think one of the coolest concepts here, which is very provocative, is that a customer sometimes needs conflict in order to generate loyalty. Say a real estate professional takes a buyer out and the buyer is completely in control the entire day. Then buyer thinks they don’t need the help. They’re asking the real estate pro, “Why am I paying you so much money?” That’s why the agent must get into position of strength; they must be in charge. Now I’m not saying you want to actually cause problems, but you do have to create conflict. You have to set clear boundaries and sometimes that creates pushback from the customer. One of the things that we found in the research is that the more the customer is in control, the worse the service scores end up being. Along those same lines, proactively bringing up the conflict and extracting the concerns increases customer loyalty too. If a buyer calls and says, “I have a concern about such-and-such,” and the agent solves the problem then it’s one point to the customer. But let’s say the agent calls the client and says, “Hey I’m curious. Has there been anything that kept you up at night about this purchase you’re about to make?” And the buyer says, “Oh actually yeah…” Well if the agent then solves that problem, that’s one point to the real estate pro. It’s about you bringing it up. You bring it up, you solve it, and you get the credit. If they bring it up and you solve it, you will get no credit.
But that’s scary. I mean, it’s a big thing for an agent to make that phone call and ask if something’s wrong.
Paul: Sure. To be transparent and to own up to problems is a very big deal, because we have all been raised in a perfection mentality. But we are in a different world now, where authenticity matters more. So when things do get screwed up, do we bury them or run away from them? Or do we run at them? That is the key here is that you’re not going to have perfection, and brokers and agents need to embrace that that’s not going to happen.
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At the International Builders’ Show earlier this month, I was lucky enough to meet up with Mina Starsiak at the Owens Corning booth on the expo floor. Starsiak—a licensed real estate pro and REALTOR®—and her real estate attorney mother, Karen E. Laine, have been rehabbing and selling homes in the Fountain Square neighborhood of Indianapolis since 2007. The two recently caught the attention of HGTV, which enlisted them for the upcoming television series, Good Bones.
We talked about family dynamics in real estate, the teardown trend, being bold with remodeling choices, and more. Here’s an edited excerpt of our chat.
What’s it like working with your mom on these houses?
I’m definitely the business end of the partnership and my mom is kind of the dreamer. She’s the one always wanting to do spray-foam installation—which now is standard in all our houses—solar panels, channel glass, and she’s the one who found the colored shingles. She’s the one who really dreams everything up and I make sure that we can get it executed, business wise. So the first time we sold one of our houses and paid someone else commission, I was like, “I can do that too.”
It sounds like your guys’ dynamic is pretty different from how we would imagine a traditional mother/daughter relationship working!
Yeah, it probably is, very much so. I always joke with her whenever we come to these shows that she needs to be hooked to one of those backpacks that they make look like little stuffed animals, but that are actually leashes for little kids [laughs]. She’s so sad she couldn’t make it here, because the home shows are her happy place. She just wanders in to the booths and says “Let’s do this, let’s do that,” no matter how expensive it is. And then I’m like, “OK, we’ll talk about it.”
Tell me a bit about how you guys make your mark but still try to integrate your rehabs to your little pocket of Indianapolis.
Initially we didn’t even realize that we were doing anything special. We paint our houses funkier, different, bold colors. We use different tiles and tried to use color inside, and in different ways. And that fits with Fountain Square; it’s urban, it’s a little funky. We’re not really into that super modern style that’s really boxy. That’s not really what we go for. Most of the houses that we fix up don’t have a lot left to salvage, so we try to choose items we can bring back to life to help the homes stay consistent with the nature of the neighborhood and the block. We even think that through with the color choices outside. We’ll look at the five houses on either side and that goes into the question of, “OK, what color are we going to do here? Well, there are no blue houses on this block so let’s put a shade of blue in that pops.”
We stick in the same little area. We could make a lot more money if we jumped around the city. But we both live next to each other. When we moved in, our block had no fixed-up houses. And now there are only two that aren’t renovated! Our little area has changed pretty significantly, and not just because of us. It’s also other people who are doing similar stuff and it’s completely changed and it’s really cool. We are selling homes to people who are our neighbors.
With some of these really old, run-down homes, is there ever a temptation to just tear it down and start over?
Oh yeah. A lot of the homes we do, people—even our subcontractors—will say, “We should’ve torn it down and built new!” That’s how bad some of the properties are. The problem is, if you tear down and start new there’s nothing to draw your inspiration from. My mom comes at it more from a feeling prospective, and she says you have to have something there to work with. It’s not that the past defines the remodel, but it informs the resident’s decisions in the house.
If it’s a blank slate, for me, it’s almost too many options. I’m the one who does the start of the floor plan. We’ve built two new-construction houses and they were the hardest floor plans I ever did because there’s nothing to start from. When I have a foundation I’m like, “Okay it’s kind of a math equation. I can do this, this, and this. I need a bathroom…” and it just happens.
Even if the financially smarter decision is to tear down and build new, it just doesn’t feel like there’s as much heart in it.
Do you have any advice for people who are rehabbing houses and making bold choices—whether in terms of color and style or avoiding the teardown trend—where subcontractors and others are trying to talk them out of it?
The biggest hurdle is knowing your options. It’s tricky. In general, construction is a man’s world. But my advice would be to just ignore that. Say what you want. Do your research and know what you’re talking about. You can’t come into a conversation and represent your own ideas, thoughts, opinions, and feelings if you don’t know what they are or if you haven’t taken the time to figure it out. Just being informed so you can go in feeling comfortable with what you’re asking your contractor to do.
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