Fall Real Estate 2008

Publication Date: Friday, October 10, 2008

Separating themselves from the pack
From dog owners to ethnic specialists, real estate agents offer a particular expertise

Times are tough. Pressured by unstable market conditions Realtors are finding more and more creative ways to market themselves and their listings, targeting a specific group of people looking to either buy or sell a house.

Djuna Woods, a Coldwell Banker broker in Menlo Park, has joined the niche marketers who include divorce, seniors and eco-friendly experts. She focuses on dog owners looking to buy or sell property. A year ago she launched her website, www.PeninsulaHouseHound.com, after she realized the special needs many dog owners have when looking for a new home.

Ideally they'd be looking for "a dog-friendly neighborhood, near dog parks or trails, including off-leash areas and on a quiet street, preferably in a cul-de-sac," Woods said. "When you come home after a long day at work and you have to exercise your dog, you don't want to drive a long way to do that," she said.

Woods has a King Charles cavalier spaniel called Bucky, who has been partly behind the inspiration for her specialty. "I was looking for something to distinguish myself from other Realtors," Woods said.

For many people, their pets are like their children, and as Woods puts it, "it takes a village to take care of a dog." If homeowners have to go out of town or they are working late, they have people in the neighborhood to help take care of pets. When scouting for a house, Woods advised taking a beloved pet along for a neighborhood stroll to see how people react to it, and to check out potential for community support.

That support could make it easier to make changes when it comes to extending park hours or finding more places to take dogs, Woods said. Some neighborhoods are simply more open to dog owners, for example Palo Alto and Menlo Park, she said.

There are also safety issues when it comes to looking for a home, such as good fencing around the house. Many dog owners prefer hardwood floors as they are easier to clean up.

She gets many of her clients through referrals, from meeting people in dog parks and networking with local pet stores, shops and groomers.

Many of Woods' clients are dog owners looking to buy a home, rather than selling. She caters to many Baby Boomers, young couples and first-time home buyers.

Another niche marketer is Grace Wu, a Realtor for Alain Pinel in Palo Alto, who specializes in helping buyers of Chinese origin. She speaks Mandarin Chinese and a Taiwanese dialect and often gets clients through referrals from previous clients and through community involvement. Half of her clients are bilingual people looking for housing in the Palo Alto area.

"In Chinese philosophy education comes first," Wu explained, and "family and community are very important."

Another priority is the ancient art of feng shui -- literally wind/water -- that relates to balancing space and making everything in harmony with nature. Wu mentioned how important the floor plan is and how "bad feng shui" could be location of a stairway right after the front door, since everyone should be able to look at something beautiful as they walk in.

But a house with bad feng shui can be modified, she said. There could be a "double-door entrance and one of the doors could remain closed so that the stairway doesn't hit your eye as soon as you walk in," she said.

Landscaping is also a factor. If, for example, the house is built so that light shines brightly on it at certain times of the day, that's bad feng shui. But "there are ways to soften this. You can redo your landscaping, plant trees and bushes," Wu said.

Although her clients may be hesitant if there is something that could conflict with principles of feng shui, "the younger generation don't care that much," she said.

Another factor Chinese buyers are sometimes looking for is the so-called "mother-in-law quarters" for extended family that might stay over. So there may be "one bedroom for parents prepared but not long-term and often not necessary," Wu said. Because of these cultural differences that sometimes determine the outcome of a sale, many brokerage firms including Alain Pinel offer training on different cultures.

Chinese and Indian buyers are among the largest growing groups based on nationality looking for real estate opportunities in Palo Alto, according to Robert Gerlach, manager of the Alain Pinel Palo Alto branch. Out of the 61,200 residents of Palo Alto, approximately 9.3 percent are of Chinese origin and 2.1 percent Asian Indian, according to city data in July 2007.

Yet many Realtors don't want to focus on one type of clientele.

"You don't want to specialize because you don't want to limit yourself and turn down customers," Gerlach said.

But Woods and Wu are really trying to offer special service to a specific group of people.

As Woods said, "there is a real need, a special need that most Realtors don't know how to address." Since Woods also shares that need, she's concentrating on this particular niche for personal as well as financial reasons, and "it makes the whole thing fun," she said.









Editorial Intern Johanna Toivio can be reached at jtoivio@paweekly.com