Wednesday, June 9, 2010

How Selling Inexpensive Homes Can Be Valuable

The real estate business can be odd. We Realtors breeze into the lives our clients, get to know their kids, hear about their jobs, their commute, the marriage or birth or divorce that prompted the move, and sit at their kitchen tables while their cat or dog or baby sniffs or claws or pulls themselves up on our pant leg. And we lead them through the often-emotional journey of buying or selling a house, a process that usually reveals their hopes and dreams for their family.

And after a few weeks or a few months the job is done, we shake hands at the end of a closing and we breeze out of their lives and into someone else’s.

I’ve been fortunate recently to work with a couple buyers looking at expensive homes. One family settled on a $500,000 home while another client has looked at 2 houses priced over $1 million. These homes have 3-4 car garages, 5-6 bedrooms, at least three and a half baths, hardwood floors, granite countertops, tiled & marble baths, basement wet bars, theater rooms, and climate controlled wine cellars.

But as enjoyable (and profitable) as it might be to sell those big dollar homes, some of my most rewarding experiences in real estate have come from helping people buy very inexpensive homes.

My favorite sale was to a 30-something woman I’ll call Shelly.

One day at the office doing what we call floor duty – answering the phones when people call about a house. Shelly walked in looking a mixture of weary and timid. Once she sat down she said simply, “I want a house.”

We chatted about what she wanted. Shelly said she worked as a waitress in a high-end restaurant, had just left a bad marriage and was hoping to buy a place for herself and her two daughters. She described the crummy, poorly maintained rental she was living in and said, “I want something better for my girls. They shouldn’t have to live like this.”

The human side of me wanted to help her. The professional side of me understood how waitresses and bartenders often handle their money. Many claim their paychecks on their taxes but hide the cash tips from the IRS. If Shelly’s claimed income wasn’t high enough, she wouldn’t be able to buy a house.

I took her across the hall and sat her down with our in-house lender and discovered that was exactly the case. If she’d claimed all she actually earned, she would have qualified. But with the cash tips hidden, she didn’t qualify.

So on the back of an envelope the lender and I made a list of the things she needed to do in the next year to put herself in a position to buy a house. I asked for her phone number so I could check her progress, but as she left, defeated, she said, “Oh, I’ll just call you once I get this figured out.”

I was certain I’d never hear from her again.

A year later I had completely forgotten about Shelly. But one day our receptionist buzzed in to my office, “Kurt, you have a visitor in the lobby

As I came down the hallway I saw Shelly standing at the receptionist’s desk with a tattered envelope in her hand. After we said hello she handed me the envelope and said, “I did everything you told me to do. Can I have a house now?”

I looked at the envelope in disbelief. My handwritten notes from a year before were faded, perhaps bleached by the sun during weeks or months on the dashboard of a car. Alongside each line item there was a checkmark. A half a coffee-cup ring ran along one edge and what looked like food stains were splattered near the top. On one corner was a hastily scribbled phone number labeled, “Credit Bureau.” In the blank space at the bottom she’d made a wish list describing her dream house; “3 bedrooms, at least one and half baths, a good roof, a quiet street, and a yard beg enough for a dog.”

“Yeah,” I smiled at her, “you can have a house.”

What we found cost just $79,000. It was all she could afford: a small, modest pre-fab ranch on a quiet street with a good roof and a yard big enough for a dog. It had plastic woodwork, dated, though clean carpet, low ceilings, paneling, and no garage. Everything was well maintained and in proper working order. Both daughters got their own bedroom and a new dog got a yard.

At the closing, Shelly was certainly happier than I was, but I ran a close 2nd.

If I’d had my wits about me I’d have kept that envelope, framed it and hung it in my office as a reminder of how rewarding this job can be.