According to the very encouraging results of RISMedia’s 22nd Annual Power Broker Survey, more than 1,200 real estate firms weighed in on their success in 2009, reporting a total $585,508,645,713 in sales volume. Although this total sales volume is down by more than $163 billion over 2008, overall transactions for 2009 have increased by more than 100,000. These numbers clearly reflect the increasing sales of distressed properties last year, a healthy step toward moving these properties off the market, reducing inventory and stabilizing prices.
So, while the market is still rife with troubles, such as short sales, foreclosures and underwater homeowners—and stands to be for the remainder of 2010—the positive signs cannot be denied and most agree that we’ve bottomed out and are beginning a slow climb back up.
2009: The Year in Review
“Last year was really rough,” said Prudential Real Estate and Relocation Services President Earl Lee at the company’s annual sales convention last month. “Real estate professionals were knocked down and pushed around but their resilience is an inspiration to all of us.”
Resilience in 2009 was demonstrated by those who were willing to embrace market realities and reorganize their businesses accordingly. As Bill Plattos, executive vice president of First Team Real Estate in Southern California, reports, 2009 revealed signs of stabilization in his market and increased business for companies that planned properly.
“We tried to read the market correctly and see where it was going and we focused on short sales,” he explains. “Plus, in our larger areas (Orange County, Riverside, Long Beach, etc.), our offices seemed to be cycling through the downturn faster than others. We developed our business plan specifically for getting the most we could out of the market that was presented to us. We also made agent training and marketing priorities.”
Even brokers in some of the country’s hardest hit areas are looking at 2009 as a positive year. Rei Mesa, president and CEO of Prudential Florida Realty, for example, describes 2009 as “an excellent year”…relatively speaking.
“Our transactions for single-family homes were up 31% and our volume was equal to 2008, which is an indication that Florida has become a very affordable state to live in,” explains Mesa. “For our other family of services, our mortgage group had a 9% increase year-over-year in loans and our title company saw a 13% increase year-over-year in the number of closed transactions, so it was an excellent year in looking at transactions as well as our bottom line. We have exceeded expectations from our business plan, based on our right-pricing approach, which is finally starting to impact our bottom line now.”
“Looking back, we had a reasonable year,” reports Dick Schlott, chairman and CEO of Gloria Nilson GMAC Real Estate in New Jersey. “We sold more houses than the company sold in 2008, but the average sales price was lower, which marks a continuation of what the market has been like the past few years. Looking back on the past year, we are pleased with how 2009 turned out, but are concerned that a majority of the activity came about because of the extended and expanded stimulus package.”
Many Power Brokers agree that government-sponsored programs helped shore up sales in the latter half of 2009. According to Georgianna Finn, broker/owner of Coach Realtors in Long Island, New York, “2009 matured throughout the year exactly as expected. No one was holding out on a realistic expectation for a return to a robust market. The last quarter of the year brought a substantial increase in business and profitability to the company, which is an encouraging sign. The increase in business came about through the government programs kicking in. Sellers decided to deal with the market instead of waiting for a miraculous change to occur.”
Those brokers who held on in 2009 were also those who wielded the red pen, cutting expenses where necessary to ensure survival.
“The fourth quarter of 2008 and first quarter of 2009 were just awful,” reports Prudential CA/NV President & CEO Ed Krafchow. “After that, it started to pick back up. There has been a lot of effort on everyone’s behalf to keep things going. By July of 2009, we were stable. That comes from cutting budgets and reorganizing.”
Operating in the New Landscape
As in any severe storm, the landscape often changes permanently in the aftermath. The real estate landscape is no different.
“We started the decade with a boom followed by a precipitous drop,” explains Lee. “The depth and speed of this decline caught everyone off guard. We knew a correction was coming but the severity and speed was not expected. But there are now positive signs for the future: home prices are no longer in a free fall and if you have good credit, you can get a mortgage—which, by the way, was the way it was always supposed to be.”
“This is the third downturn I’ve been through,” says Frank McDowell, broker/owner of Star Real Estate in Southern California. “It’s also the biggest. You have to be frugal and try not to expand too quickly. In the end, you’ll just end up cutting costs anyway as the market changes. I see between now and June to be very active.”
Succeeding in today’s market means accepting the fact that the real estate business has changed. “Today’s agents need to accept and embrace the market changes and then turn these changes to their best interest,” says Mesa. “Our successful agents have taken on REO business and figured out the appropriate process for short sales; they aren’t taking overpriced listings, they are focusing their marketing on the Internet rather than print and utilizing our family of services.”
Power Brokers are wary, however, about declines in the market this year once government programs come to a close.
“If the tax credit is not extended and if interest rates go up, I do see a slowdown,” says McDowell. “Because of this, I urge all of our agents to understand that this could happen and to take advantage of all the opportunities that are currently in front of them.”
“Once the stimulus package ends, we hope to see a pick-up in confidence in our particular market,” says Schlott. “After the stimulus package is abated, we anticipate that there will still be people buying and moving but at a more steady rate and within a higher price range over first-time buyers. As 2010 continues, we are forecasting an uptick in activity within our real estate market as well as stabilization within pricing. We are confident enough that things are going to continue to move in the right direction that we are opening two new offices in adjacent markets where we hope to get a piece of the market share.”
Planning for a Better Year, a Better Future
Like Schlott, savvy Power Brokers are well steeped in the realities of the new marketplace and honing their firms’ ability to make the most of the current and future real estate environment.
“We are continuing our business plan and focusing on short sales,” says Plattos. “We have learned and tackled every single point in short sales. In turn, our results are very good—85%-90% of the short sales close. In reading the market, it seems like the equity buyer and seller is coming back. The people who have owned a home and have a bit of equity have the opportunity to move up.”
“I don’t think the consumer confidence level has risen enough to stimulate the market. Nonetheless, well-run companies that are finely trimmed with a professional and hardworking sales force are going to be able to make it in this market,” says Finn.
Lessons learned from the current marketplace will serve Power Brokers well into the future.
“One lesson learned is to be careful of cost structure,” advises Krafchow. “Number two, if you’re not investing in the brokerage of the future you will get left behind. Number three, there’s this new generation of agents that have me fairly optimistic. I see Generations X and Y in this business and they have totally different behaviors and expectations.”
According to Lee, pent-up demand and low levels of building will soon result in reduced inventory.
“If history is any guide, the housing markets will rebound in advance of the labor markets and will help spark economic recovery,” says Lee. “Real estate is the locomotive that pulls the economy along. The biggest successes come out of the toughest times. You have choices. Choices you make will determine your destiny.”
As Prudential Americana CEO & Owner, Mark Stark says, the biggest lesson to walk away with for the future is to expect the unexpected.
“The things you think can never happen can happen,” explains Stark, whose company is based in Las Vegas. “While we couldn’t have planned for most of what has happened within the market recently, we have stayed ahead of the market. We haven’t lied to ourselves about what is happening—instead, we have been realistic and moved forward aggressively and quickly in order to protect our organization in the long term. No matter what happened within our marketplace, we were always prepared for it.”
“Even though there was a plethora of bad news, buying and selling of homes continues because families that couldn’t buy or sell over the last four years are able to now because of the low prices and interest rates,” says Schlott. “The market is certainly slower than it was four to five years ago, but we are entering the recovery phase now. While it is going to take a long time for prices to fully recover, this recovery period will bring prices back to 2003 levels and people are beginning to realize that now is an incredible time to buy or sell a home.”
– Stephanie Andre and Paige Tepping contributed to this article.