Fall Real Estate 2007

Publication Date: Friday, October 12, 2007

Beyond knowing the market
Agents provide special expertise to Spanish-speakers, seniors or green buyers

by Susan Golovin

It isn't enough to know how to value a home for selling, or to help negotiate a purchase these days. Some Realtors are going the extra mile, earning certifications so they can provide better service to Hispanics and seniors. Others are becoming eco-brokers certified to give advice on enhancing a home's salability by taking environmental concerns into consideration.

"More than 51 percent of first-time buyers in the Bay Area are Hispanic," said Sandy Ramirez, a Realtor with Coldwell Banker in Palo Alto who has taken the five-hour in-person training for her "Casa Specialist" certification. Her business card clearly states, "Hablo Espanol," a requisite qualification.

The training course grew out of Coldwell Banker's Hispanic Network Program, which Ramirez describes as a group of about 200 agents who want to reach out to Hispanics. "It's an open forum for sharing ideas," she said. Ramirez estimates that there are still only "a handful" of certified "Casa Specialists."

"You need to be able to trust your Realtor to explain the home-buying process," Ramirez said. Spanish-speaking people have been persuaded by felonious escrow agents to sign documents to "save their homes" -- only to find out that they have actually turned over title. Unreturned documentation, withheld information, hidden costs -- Ramirez has heard all the horror stories.

The Casa Specialist training includes such topics as emerging markets, current market conditions, lending education and marketing training. Ramirez uses the marketing materials, such as "Buyers' Night in a Box" to give basic seminars to the Hispanic community.

"A lot of the documentation is now available in Spanish on-line," said Ramirez, who was responsible for finding a professional translator who could span all the dialects. "The documentation is on a proprietary Web site accessible through real estate agents," she added. Although all legal documents have to be in English, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac provide Spanish translations that can be used side-by-side.

In order to provide "one-stop shopping," Coldwell Banker also has six in-house loan consultants from Princeton Capital (Mortgage Company) who speak Spanish.

Barbara Smith, a real estate agent with Alain Pinel in Menlo Park, is a Seniors Real Estate Specialist (SRES). Smith says that she doesn't "specialize in seniors." Rather, she is certified to help senior clients (those 55 and older) make wise decisions when buying, selling or investing in real estate.

"I can't give tax or legal advice," Smith said. What she can do is listen carefully, assess needs and recommend whatever professional support is necessary. She is also available to accompany her clients when they consult with lawyers and accountants.

"Seniors need a good accountant who understands real estate," she said. "For instance, they need to know what the tax situation will be if they sell."

She also stresses the need for expert legal advice. "People should ensure that their trusts are written correctly and that wills are updated."

In addition, Smith has a listing of all the local senior retirement homes and what they offer. "I may take a tour with the client," she said. "I don't want to steer people, just to act as a consultant."

Smith says that the certification course was especially helpful in relating to the mind set of seniors from various generations. Senior "Baby Boomers" have had a different life experience than their parents who were affected by the Depression.

"There's no fee for this service," Smith said, adding that some people just want to gather information. "We're building good will." However, she is frank in saying that she would hope to be the agent of choice if/when her senior client decides to relocate or invest.
Aileen La Bouff, an agent with Coldwell Banker in Los Altos, is an eco-broker.

"It's a designation that covers all aspects of the environmental portion of buying and selling a home: radon, asbestos, air quality, etc.," she explained. "It also covers energy efficiency such as the use of solar energy, green building in construction, efficient appliances, and the like."

La Bouff says that she has been passionate about the environment ever since she revived an acre of land in her native Sydney when she participated in a volunteer bush-regeneration project.

"I'm starting to get people who elect to use my services because we have the same beliefs," she said.

La Bouff points out the health benefits that can accrue from using non-toxic materials, such as non-lead paint and from providing proper indoor air quality via venting, ducting and sealing.

"I help my clients go through the house with a view towards identifying green features that can be marketed," said La Bouff. She says that it was gratifying to see one of her clients calculate the cost of taking off the roof and re-insulating when weighing her buying decision.

Unfortunately there's not a lot of benefit from energy-efficiency mortgages in the high-end Bay Area because jumbo loans are not eligible. However, such measures as using double-paned windows, insulation, efficient lighting and skylights as well as air conditioning and heating can save hundreds of dollars a year in utility bills.

La Bouff describes the Bay Area cities as "various shades of green." She praises Palo Alto for providing incentives to use renewable power and for its emphasis on using energy-efficient light bulbs.

The on-line certification process is "fairly involved and extensive," La Bouff said. She was able to complete it in a month, but that was with a very concerted effort, and it can take up to six months. Out of the 110 agents in her office she knows of only two other eco-brokers.