As the real estate market in the U.S. slowly continues to regain its footing, many agents are looking at this time as a chance to redefine their market. With so many agents abandoning-or at least significantly cutting back-their marketing systems to save money, others are jumping in to take advantage of the marketing void. In other words, they are taking an offensive approach in order to put themselves in prime position when the market starts to upswing.
In most parts of Canada, on the other hand, the market continues to stay hot and agents are looking for the best way to grow their business. They are looking to expand the reach of their marketing and maximize income opportunities. Whether it be in the U.S. or Canada, a number of agents we are talking to believe that now is the time to make the transition into the ultra high-end market.
Traditionally, luxury real estate is one of the hardest market segments to try and break into. Why? There are a few common reasons. It might be the presence of a dominant agent already ensconced in the community or the fact that everyone already has a peer in the real estate business. It may be because the agents themselves don't have the patience to work in a generally slower-paced market (less transactions to go around, tougher competition and slower sales process). It could be that they are simply not prepared for the unique challenges a high-end market poses.
In my experience, it's usually a combination of these reasons that prevents most agents from becoming successful in luxury real estate. There are many things you need to know before you make the quantum leap into the next price range. We've put together a list of five factors that will help you decide if a move to luxury real estate is right for you.
#1. Know What You Are Getting Into
Agents often make a blind leap into luxury real estate because they think that's "where the money is." Of course, it's simple math. If you get the same split, it pays to list homes with higher selling prices. In theory, you can make more money by doing fewer transactions. On one hand, that's true, but if you go into luxury real estate with this mentality, you are probably destined to fail.
Yes, your income per transaction goes up significantly. That's great, but there is often a new set of challenges introduced when working a high-end market: the competitive stakes are much higher, social circles are much more closed, politics are different, and there are many other factors which I will detail throughout this article. In addition, marketing and servicing costs are generally more when dealing with luxury homes and clients. Both buyers and sellers expect more and demand more and the properties themselves need even more attention (marketing, staging, photography, etc.) to appeal to a more sophisticated crowd.
Carol Barkin of Toronto, Ontario has been a successful Sales Representative for 20 years, but it took her some time to build her business in her high-end markets (both in the city and in a lakefront recreational market about an hour outside Toronto). "For me, the biggest challenge was making that first connection," she says. "They already have tight social connections and know how to get what they want, so building relationships is a matter of trust. It's important to relate to clients as a friend and a helpful peer, not just present yourself as a service provider."
#2. Patience, Patience, Patience
It's clear that high-end real estate is a different animal than traditional residential markets. It tends to move much slower. Generally, there are fewer homes on the market at any given time and there are fewer buyers out there with the means to purchase such expensive properties. The stakes are higher for everyone involved. So on average, it takes significantly longer to sell one of these homes. In addition, there is a lot of competition out there for a limited number of properties, so it often requires more patience to break into the market and build a strong client base.
This is truly a case where the end usually justifies the means if you have the right understanding and commitment going in. Though listings are harder to come by and it takes longer for them to sell, the large check at the end of the transaction is worthwhile. But not all agents have the stomach to wait longer in between commission checks. Oftentimes, this is the hurdle that stops them in their tracks.
"In my experience in high-end real estate, six months on the market is nothing. On average, it's more like nine for a listing to sell," says Robin. "Also, if they are not truly motivated to sell, you will waste a lot of time and money on marketing. In some cases, I will adjust my commission rate so that the marketing costs are covered by the seller. It helps to offset the time it takes to sell. You also shouldn't go into luxury real estate without money in the bank. It's a long-term process to build your business and if you are not prepared, it can break you quickly."
#3. Know It. Live It. Keep It Exclusive.
Another reason that some agents struggle to find their footing in an ultra high-end market is that they cannot relate to the clients or communicate effectively. You're dealing with a much savvier and usually more demanding crowd who know what they want and are used to getting what they desire. Now, you don't necessarily have to live in the luxury community you are targeting, but you have to present yourself like you do. The way you dress, your ability to network within their circles, the way you communicate with these sophisticated individuals, the quality of your marketing materials-you have to be able to make a personal connection and develop a strong professional image. If they don't buy into you as a luxury home expert who's tapped into their community, they aren't as likely to do business with you.
Jack Jeffcoat III is an agent who is in the process of transitioning his market focus from high-end golf communities in Central Florida to ultra high-end waterfront properties along Florida's Space Coast. From his marketing presence to his personal presentation to his servicing strategies, everything he does is to support his image as a luxury real estate specialist. He's often bold and unwavering in his approach because he never wants to lose credibility.
Think of it like any high-end product that is in demand because of its scarcity and exclusivity. So as a real estate agent specializing in high-end properties, you, your marketing image, and the service experience itself need to reflect the utmost quality. If you look and act like the best agent around, people will aspire to work with you.
"When I take a listing presentation, I conduct an interview with the seller to make sure they are willing to follow my recommendations," Jack says. "At every opportunity, I want to remind them why they are hiring me. They know I am a luxury real estate expert that only works with an exclusive group of clients. From the beginning, they are instilled with the belief that if they want to have a successful sale, they need to follow my lead. It gives me the upper hand and keeps me positioned as the market specialist."
Also, keep in mind that high-end real estate isn't necessarily going to be the same from region to region. A waterfront community in Florida will have a different set of challenges than a mountain resort community in Colorado or a downtown high-rise in Toronto. In some places, "high-end" may be $400,000 and up. In others, prices could be in the multi-millions. So when it comes to your personal presentation and the way you market yourself, be sure to properly present your niche and look impressive.
"Always look bigger than you are," says Robin Milonakis. "You have to have exceptional marketing materials. They have to make people feel good about hiring you. It feeds their ego knowing they are working with the best."
#4. Image is Everything, Especially in Marketing
When it comes to your marketing materials, quality is key. You can't position yourself as a high-end agent if your materials look unsophisticated. A first-rate personal brochure and dynamic website are absolutely essential. Your personal brochure should take the place of your business card whenever you meet a potential client. It needs to look sharp and feel impressive at the very first glance (exceptional photography, nice glossy paper, sophisticated writing, clean design). It needs to reflect your personality, but also relate to the luxury market you are targeting. In a way, you are a representative of this lifestyle and your marketing should convey that. It shows your unique expertise and highlights the service/knowledge benefits that make you a specialist in this distinctive market.
It's very important that you don't skimp here or it will show. You simply can't fake high-end quality. You must be committed to investing the money to do the marketing right or people will see through it.
Put simply, the brochure and all other marketing materials need to be of the utmost quality. This includes your house advertising. You should at least have a tabloid-size glossy flyer/brochure that you use to promote each property. The staging must be great. The photography must be very professional. Of course, you should keep the property marketing pieces branded clearly with your personal image (logo, colors, fonts, etc.) so you don't lose your own identity.
"My brochure is quality and people associate the piece with its sender," Carol Barkin says. "I send it out prior to meeting someone to warm them up. It gives me more credibilty and shows my knowledge of the market they are concerned about."
The same is especially true when it comes to your website. It needs to reflect the quality of your brochure and other print materials. It needs to look sharp and feel representative of your luxury market. Two of the agents I spoke with-Jack Jeffcoat and Robin Milonakis-are both actually in the process of revamping their compaigns to better target their high-end clientele. Even though both of them have been highly successful with their current campaigns, they know it's worth the investment to take their marketing to the next level to promote an exclusive luxury niche.
One bold strategy Jack uses is to feature only properties above a certain price on his website. Does he take listings at lower prices? Yes, when the situation calls for it. But his image is that of a luxury real estate expert and his website is one more way to show that. "If one of my high-end prospects goes to my website and sees a bunch of low-priced listings, then it's not really helping my cause," Jack says. "Like a doctor, specialists make more money and earn more credibility, so I want to be known as a high-end listing specialist in every aspect of my marketing."
When it comes to online marketing, you also need to make sure you are very active on your web site. You cannot just put up a site-no matter how nice it looks-and expect it to generate business over the long run. You have to actively post information-links, articles, blogs, calendar events, community information etc.- to make it a resource that people want to return to on a regular basis. Your active engagement on the site will enable you to better communicate with your target market. And of course, it also boosts your SEO (search engine optimization) to help you generate more leads through all the major search engines.
#5. Be Prepared to Back It Up
In addition to making sure your marketing campaign and personal presentation are representative of your market, you must also make sure you are fully in-tune with the market itself. If you don't know everything that's happening around you, you will never be able to establish yourself as a luxury specialist. This is one area where you will not be able to fake your way through a transaction with minimal knowledge or experience. Clients will expect more and demand more from you, so you have to be able to back up your claims as an expert-in terms of both your knowledge and your service experience.
"Expectations from clients are different and, in general, they are more demanding. They want you to be available to provide answers and information," Carol Barkin says when referring to the clients she works with. "In the end, they need to make their own decisions. They are gathering advice and professional recommendations from me so they can come to their own conclusions."
That said, never underestimate the clients' need for up-to-date information. Be proactive in giving them regular updates (at least one call per week) on market activity. Always stay current with everything that is happening in the market. Word travels fast in luxury real estate, so make sure you know what's going on-what listings have sold, for how much, how long they were on the market, and so on. If you are not all over the market, your clients will be all over you. How and what you communicate will make them feel better about the experience
"No matter what, I personally call every one of my clients on Monday with a detailed market update," Jack Jeffcoat says. "I make it a point to always know what's going on in the market. If any home sells, I need to be aware of it and discuss it with each client so they know what's happening."
Then, make sure your service experience reflects your marketing image. You have to be able to deliver on your claims by making the client feel special throughout the process. Think of it as the difference between the Ritz-Carlton and the Marriott. It's a completely different experience from the moment you walk through the doors of either hotel, and it's why you pay substantially more to stay at the Ritz. Imagine your real estate service as a luxury experience. That will make you a valuable commodity in the market.
Is the Luxury Market Right for You?
Ultimately, that's for you to decide. You must be prepared for the unique challenges and tough competition found in the world of high-end real estate. You have to make sure you are patient enough to handle a slow-moving market. You need to be willing to invest the time and money it takes to not only brand yourself as a luxury specialist, but to back it up with higher standards of service and expertise. If you are ready for what the high-end market has in store, it can be a very lucrative place to do business over the long-run. And whether you are in a slow market or a hot market, right now may be the time to take the big leap!