The Hard Sell

You don’t have to be a veteran to succeed in the ultratough real estate industry these days, but it helps. So does having a money-saving approach. That’s what we found when we asked some of the region’s top brokers for the secrets of their success. Paul Liebe was a relative newcomer to the Wisconsin real estate market who noticed the metro area didn’t have an established flat-fee brokerage. So he founded one, Redefined Realty. Instead of a commission on sales, it charges $495 to list a property and another $495 to handle any offers as well as the closing when…

You don’t have to be a veteran to succeed in the ultratough real estate industry these days, but it helps. So does having a money-saving approach. That’s what we found when we asked some of the region’s top brokers for the secrets of their success.

Paul Liebe was a relative newcomer to the Wisconsin real estate market who noticed the metro area didn’t have an established flat-fee brokerage. So he founded one, Redefined Realty. Instead of a commission on sales, it charges $495 to list a property and another $495 to handle any offers as well as the closing when a home is sold.

Using that $990 approach, Liebe racked up more than $29 million in single-family home sales during the first eight months of 2008, enough to make him the leader in southeastern Wisconsin according to the Multiple Listing Service. Liebe scored 90 “sold” signs with considerable help from the homeowners, who handled showings and fielded calls. Credit another assist to sagging values in the real estate market: Sellers are eager save money so they don’t owe the bank any cash at closing time.

Thanks to his cost-conscious approach, Liebe says, “We’ve been able to survive and grow – whereas most real estate companies are shrinking.”

BuyHomes.com is also bucking old-line practices. Corey Scholtka founded the online company back in 2003. Two-thirds of the way through 2008, it had helped put his cousin, Andy Kettleson, into third place on the top home sellers list with 76 sales worth $19 million.

BuyHomes.com also uses a flat fee. Its nonrefundable $555 fee is due up-front and covers MLS listing services for a year. If an agent is involved on the buyer’s side, however, the deal gets pricier due to the agent’s 2.4 percent commission, Scholtka says. The cost takes another hike if the seller brings in an attorney to consider offers and do the closing, as BuyHomes.com doesn’t handle that. “We’re competing against for-sale-by-owner type companies, not the full-service company,” says Scholtka. “We’re part Realtor, part do-it-yourself.”

A team approach has paid off for Mike Roth, a broker agent for Shorewest Realtors who ranked second with 108 sold homes totaling nearly $26 million. When he started The Roth Team in 1991, he was “one of the first to use a team concept,” he says. Currently, his team includes his wife, brother and nephew.

Of course, sales know-how also helps. “It’s a little different than it was three to five years ago, where anybody could sell a house,” Roth says. “You didn’t even need any sales skills.” Today, they’re a must.

Marketing also plays a role. “Most agents rely on what we call passive marketing – putting your home on MLS, putting it on the Internet, running ads and open houses,” Roth notes. Instead, his team uses what he calls “active marketing,” contacting 75 to 100 potential buyers and sellers every day, six days a week. “The bottom line is, we either sit back and wait for them to call, or go out and find them.”

Another highly successful team is The Stefaniak Group, which includes five family members. Four are partners in the firm. According to MLS, Beth Stefaniak Savas is southeastern Wisconsin’s top condo seller – through Aug. 31 – with 97 units and close to $27 million in sales.

She attributes this to the relationships she’s cultivated with real estate developers, architects and commercial lenders over the years. It’s given her an inside track on listing some prime condo projects.

Dianne Dietz-Artmann, associate vice president for Shorewest Realtors, took a similar approach in forging a relationship with developer Rod Engel. “He has a couple different development companies that have done quite a few projects,” she says. In addition, Dietz-Artmann says “treating people honestly, keeping peoples’ feelings in mind, treating them like I would want to be treated” are additional reasons she came in fourth in total condo sales, with 48 units sold worth nearly $10 million.

“At the end of the day, it’s all about developing good relationships,” says Katie Falk, a partner with Prudential Absolute Realtors and No. 2 in the top condo seller rankings with 13 units and more than $16 million in sales. “If you’re looking for longevity in any business, do the right thing for the people that you’re working for.”

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