What Social Work Taught Me About Selling Real Estate


It’s a point of pride for Carey Larsen that she doesn’t have a sales pitch. “I think people often hard-sell in this business,” said Ms. Larsen, 42, an agent at Citi Habitats who spent seven years as a domestic violence counselor, an occupation, she said, that taught her the value of being a good listener. Ultimately, she decided that she wanted the flexibility of self-employment.

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Hank Orenstein, an associate broker at Corcoran, worked as a counselor and a director of a family shelter.

Credit
Danny Ghitis for The New York Times

“When brokers say to a client, ‘Isn’t this a wonderful view?’ before they have a chance to discover it for themselves, I think it’s just annoying,” Ms. Larsen said. “I’ve taken people to an apartment with a full-on view of the Statue of Liberty, and I didn’t point it out. I waited for them to see it and react before I said a word.”

Hank Orenstein, 59, an associate broker at Corcoran, worked as a resident counselor for adults coming out of psychiatric facilities, and as a social services director at a family shelter in the South Bronx before deciding, 11 years ago, that it was time for a change — time for a more remunerative occupation. And after all, he had sort of grown up in the business: His father was a real estate tax assessor for the city.

His skills, he quickly learned, transferred well. “We have a technique in social work called ‘being where the client is,’” Mr. Orenstein said. “If, say, a parent is angry and upset that her 14-year-old is out of control and cutting school, you need to find out what’s going on with the child. But first you need to deal with the parent’s distress and make clear that you understand how the parent is feeling and that you’re not judging.”

“How that translates to real estate,” he added, “is listening to people’s criteria and not dismissing those criteria out of hand, no matter how unattainable.”

Recently, Mr. Orenstein worked with a woman who was insistent on a doorman building in a specific part of the Upper East Side of Manhattan, at a specific price point, with a washer and dryer in the apartment. “I didn’t tell her, ‘That’s not going to happen,’” he said. “I told her the percentage of co-ops that had what she wanted, but that we would stick with the plan of finding such a place.” It took a year; the place was found.

Mr. Orenstein also relies on his mastery of what’s known in therapy as cognitive reframing: pointing out that there’s a gap between what people say they want and what they’re willing to do to achieve it. “I might say, ‘On one hand, you’re telling me you want to live in a large one-bedroom apartment with a doorman in the heart of the Upper East Side. But on the other hand, what the market is telling us is that what you’re willing to spend isn’t going to get you there,’” Mr. Orenstein said. “That’s better than saying, ‘You’re not being realistic.’”

During her 15 years as a private adoption consultant, Mary-Jean Gianquinto worked with many women who had made the decision to become single parents. She had always been interested in real estate, she said, and after investing successfully in several properties, she felt the time was right, last summer, to go into the profession full time. Now an agent at Halstead, Ms. Gianquinto, 56, who has an M.S.W. from the University at Buffalo, has made something of a subspecialty of working with single women looking to buy an apartment.

“When a single woman makes a decision to create a family, she is making a statement to the world,” Ms. Gianquinto said. “A single woman who’s looking to buy an apartment after a lifetime of renting is making a statement, too. In both cases, there’s a lot of angst and trepidation.”

She recently found a co-op near Prospect Park in Brooklyn for a single woman “who kept saying, ‘Who am I to be doing this?’” Ms. Gianquinto recalled. “She felt she wasn’t supposed to be doing this without a partner. I would tell her that it’s O.K. to make the decision on her own; it’s O.K. to feel you deserve something.”

The client who finds fault with every property? The one who drags her feet about signing a contract? The fight over a sconce — “It’s staying!” “No, it’s going!” — that threatens to derail a closing? Who better than someone with clinical experience to get to the bottom of an issue without losing the client or the commission?

Joan Kagan, 48, the sales manager at TripleMint and a former counselor for developmentally disabled people and their families, recalls working with a woman whose recent divorce required her to vacate a grand apartment on Park Avenue. She was now downsizing to a co-op in the same neighborhood.

But the deal had stalled. Ms. Kagan’s client was upset about a small crack in the ceiling. She complained that the door handles were cheap and that there was a problem with one of the electrical outlets in the bathroom. It was a very nice, affordable apartment, and the seller was getting frustrated that the contract hadn’t been signed.

Photo

Carey Larsen, a salesperson at Citi Habitats, spent seven years as a domestic violence counselor.

Credit
Danny Ghitis for The New York Times

“I asked my client, ‘Is it the ceiling crack that’s bothering you? Because we can get that fixed,’” Ms. Kagan said. “I got her to acknowledge that it was really about the loss of a very extravagant home and what that had all meant to her. It wasn’t that there was no electrical outlet in the bathroom. It was that she was scared.”

A background in counseling is hardly a guarantee of real estate success. And, obviously, many sales agents without such experience do just fine. Some may be excellent listeners by nature, with the empathy of Oprah.

If not, however, a few real estate firms have courses designed to help them. The orientation program at William Raveis NYC includes role-playing as a way to help new agents “understand a client’s psyche,” said Kathy Braddock, a managing director of the firm. And Douglas Elliman’s “DE University” offers professional development seminars on topics like “The Power of Words,” “The Art and Science of Persuasion,” “Meeting Clients in Their Model of the World” and, cutting right to the chase, “The Psychology of Sales.”

Counselors-turned-brokers could lead a seminar of their own: Reassuring the First-Time Buyer.

“I’d say, ‘Don’t rush into anything,’” Mr. Orenstein, of Corcoran, said. “Allow time to explore different neighborhoods and be open-minded. People put themselves into boxes, so the social worker in me wants to say to them, ‘Expand your horizons.’”

For her part, Ms. Gianquinto, of Halstead, wants those new to the market to remember that they have choices. “This should be an empowering experience,” she said. “Trust your instincts. When it’s the right apartment, you’ll know it. You won’t necessarily know why it’s right, but you’ll know it is.”

And, Ms. Gianquinto added, “Don’t be afraid to say no. You’re not there to please anyone.”

Including your real estate agent?

“Especially your real estate agent.”

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