Fall Real Estate 2005

Publication Date: Friday, October 1, 2004

Choose me, choose me
Local agents strive to differentiate themselves

by Terry Tang

Homing in on an efficient real estate agent amid a sea of referrals and advertisements can be an overwhelming process. And nobody knows that better than the agents themselves. Like any service industry, the real estate business is populated with agents trying to distinguish themselves from the property-selling pack.

Over time, Joy Valentine, a broker associate with Coldwell Banker in Los Altos since 1997, noticed that a majority of her elderly clients faced difficult issues that had nothing to do with price negotiations. For many senior sellers, the idea of having to sell the home where they spent most their adult life can provoke intense emotion.

"They might have shared it with a spouse who has since died. They might have raised their children there," Valentine said. "There's a huge identity, a lifetime, that gets connected to that home. For someone to move from that is a huge, huge trauma."

A family counselor for 20 years, Valentine ended up giving older homeowners a special level of attentiveness. She found they showed higher levels of anxiety about moving. Valentine also saw how important it was to address senior clients' concerns, but in a way that maintained their autonomy during the whole process.
"Often, families are impatient, have (their) own agendas no matter how well-meaning they are," she said. "They're not very focused on helping parents make decisions."

With the goal of reaching out to seniors, Valentine formed Joy Valentine and Associates a year ago. She carries a special designation of "senior specialist." While many Realtors carry this distinction, Valentine believes that few cater to older demographics. Furthermore, she is happy to incorporate her skills as a therapist into her real estate career.

A few months into forming her company, she also put on a workshop in Los Altos with a mortgage broker and an attorney. Especially aimed at older homeowners, they could discuss financial planning and real estate. Valentine hopes to have another workshop.

"It's enormously satisfying to really feel that I have related in a way that has been genuinely helpful and kind, where I've provided something that goes beyond what the typical service would be," Valentine said.

Car collectors and baseball enthusiasts looking for real estate service may want to keep Bob "BC" Cross on their radar. Associated with Coldwell Banker, Cross has devised ways to promote two of his favorite hobbies through his work.

According to Cross, most Multiple Listing Service systems don't allow for people to search for houses with a garage containing a specific number of spaces. He only knows of one that lets you indicate a garage preference. For an auto aficionado, that limitation can be a bump in the road to the perfect home. Although car collectors are primarily men, he says there are some female collectors. Cross says he has tapped into a unique niche by offering a centralized service.

Of course, facilitating the hunt for a four-car garage means a lot more work for him. Besides advertising in other places like car collector magazines, Cross has launched a Web site where buyers and sellers who are into classic cars can look up information.

Sometimes he deals with sellers who wanted to use their bigger garages to their advantage. These clients wanted to "jack up the price" and he'd have to convince them otherwise.

"That buyer will be sensitive and looking not to overpay and get a fair value like everybody else," Cross said. "It was a side effect I wasn't prepared for. But now I'm prepared for when it comes up."

Luckily, bringing baseball into the real estate fold only requires filling out one extra form. Raised in the Bay Area on Little League sports, Cross sponsored the Mountain View Little League last year. But he wanted to do something on a bigger scale to help them raise money and get the community involved. In April, he sat down with the MVLL sponsorship director and inked a deal for a Home Sale Promotion. If a buyer or seller indicated support for the Little League, Cross would donate money from the post-closing on a home.

In the end, donations essentially come out of Cross' salary. Thus, one condition is that a sale must be a full commission sale for him to make a contribution. For example, a full commission for sellers would be 6 percent for a list price going up to $999,999 and 5 percent for $1,000,000 or higher. So, a donation could add up to $500-$1,000, depending on the transaction's value.

"If someone's concerned about paying less commission, that's where I can't go into my own pocket," Cross said. "I'm totally up front about that in the information and fine print."

So far, about a half-dozen clients have participated in the MVLL fundraiser. But he is counting on people to get the word out and more potential clients with a soft spot for Little League will come his way. Right now, he anticipates surpassing his $10,000 goal. While the deal is in place until February, Cross will most likely keep the promotion going.

Both agents concur that trying to differentiate from their peers is an uphill battle. But reaching out to different target groups is a natural progression, especially in an industry where the market demand can fluctuate dramatically.

"It's always an issue to set yourself apart," Valentine said. "You've got to figure out what you do well and what you do naturally and try to emphasize that."