Whether you’re representing the seller of a home or a prospective buyer, you’ll need to ask some standard questions once you’ve decided to accept the client and begin the process. The early interviews will help you obtain all the information you need to best serve your client. Once you have the right real estate client information, you can focus your efforts and design a strategy that fits their individual needs and personality.
In either case, you’ll have one overarching question to address. In the case of the seller, it’s “What do you expect to get for your property?” and it will be up to the agent to educate the client and manage expectations. In the case of the buyer, it’s “What are your ‘must haves’?” and it will be up to the agent to make sure the buyers really know what they want and how they might be willing to compromise.
The difference between representing sellers vs. buyers
Eileen Robert, a broker with Corcoran Group in New York City, says that if you’re representing the seller, it’s more important to be prepared, going into the first interview, than to be armed with the right questions. If you’re representing the buyer, it’s more complicated.
“Sellers have it easier now,” she says, “because you have easy access to analytics, comparables. You prepare, you know where the prices are, then you look at the property. Of course, there’s some leeway in the analytics. If the property is glowing, that’s better than if it’s not been well maintained for 20 years. You want the seller to understand, ‘This is the range, for a property like this.’ All you have to ask is, ‘What are you expecting, within this range?’”
Many real estate agents report that in the great majority of cases, sellers will have no idea of what price they can expect for their home. Often, they will insist on holding out for a price that sounds right to them—or that will suffice to pay off their debts. In that case, the agent will have to be prepared to show the client the analytics, explain the pricing process, and manage the client’s expectations.
“For the buyer, you only prepare analytics if they want to prepare a bid—not till then,” says Robert. My best advice, if you’re working with a buyer, is, ‘Take the cotton out of your ears and stuff it in your mouth.’” Good listening skills are essential to getting the right real estate client information in this scenario.
In her market, Robert says, buyers usually have one priority above all others, and it’s always either light, view, or space. She asks the buyers to rank those three. Then, she finds out what they can afford. However, she cautions, buyers often don’t know for sure what they want—or they can be convinced to want something else.
“I took on a customer two years ago who had worked with six brokers who had all found her impossible,” she recalls. “She wanted only a condo, not a co-op [a form of apartment ownership commonly found in New York City], and she had a list of other demands a mile long. The first thing I did was to walk her down one of the most beautiful streets in the neighborhood she most wanted to live in, and I just said, ‘Isn’t this a beautiful block?’
“She agreed, and pointed to a building, and said, ‘That’s where I want to live.’ I said, ‘Sorry, but it’s a co-op.’ Well, then she had to say, ‘Let me think about that,’ and sure enough she ended up buying the co-op. You just have to listen, and have patience.”
Getting the right real estate client information from sellers
An agent who’s working with a seller will encounter very different levels of motivation. In some cases, the seller is moving to another town and needs to unload the property as quickly as possible. In others, the seller might be under financial pressure (sometimes including a mortgage that’s underwater) and needs to raise cash in a hurry. But it also happens, especially at the high end of the market, that the sellers can afford to hang onto their home till the right deal comes along.
While many high-end transactions are all-cash, most home sales involve financing. In those cases, the house will have to be sold several times: to the buyer, the inspector, the appraiser, and the lender. The opening interview with the seller should reveal to the agent how much work will need to be done, and what approach to take. A key question is, “What will you do, once the property is sold?” If the clients don’t know, they might not be highly motivated to sell. If the sellers are looking to move on to a bigger, more expensive property—or downsizing, for that matter—the broker should be prepared to help them do that, as well as sell their home.
The initial interview with a seller whose home is likely to face an appraisal will often involve a discussion of how to prepare for an appraisal—which includes having the documents, as well as the house, ship-shape. Many selling agents have a checklist prepared, and go over it with the client, item by item.
At this point, the agent will have to be prepared to educate the client on how to get the home ready for viewing. For this reason, an agent needs to know what will make a buyer’s eyes light up, and what will be an immediate turn-off.
Getting the right real estate client information from buyers
Ruth Kennedy Sudduth, executive vice president and director of the residential brokerage division of LandVest/Christie’s International Real Estate, says the crucial questions in the opening interview with a client who’s looking to buy are, “What is motivating you to make this move? Is the entire family/couple on board? What are the issues you are engaged with about this decision?”
The next step, she says, is to help the client develop a wish list that can be had within their price range. The trick, she says, is to determine what the clients need, then determine how their needs line up with their wants.
“You’ll need to have lots of long conversations, to help them distill down what they want versus what they have to have,” she says. “A lot of these decisions are highly emotional, framed in a logical context. Our job is to parse the underlying emotional context rather than the words, to help understand what is really underlying their decision-making and help them reach a decision that will shape their lives the way they hope it to be shaped. That’s why the longer conversations are so important to have early in the process. Of course, we have a responsibility to provide the analytics to help them make an informed decision about value and pricing, but that goes without saying.”
These conversations, Sudduth says, will often end up pointing the client in a direction they hadn’t considered—and that’s often a good thing.
“Where you live has an enormous impact on how you live and what you become over time,” she adds. “Your decisions can be made so much more easily with an advisor who has a lot of experience with other such decisions—not just in one particular community, or neighborhood, but with other people who have been exploring similar moves. So many times, our clients will end up in a different type of property entirely, maybe even in a different state, from where they thought they’d be. Our job is to help partner them to an informed decision.”
“Lots of people think they want something they don’t actually want in real life,” agrees Barbara Fox, founder of Fox Residential Group, New York City. “They’ll give you non-negotiables that are, in fact, negotiable. I don’t think most people truly know what they want—although they might think they do. They might say, ‘I really want to live on the Upper East Side.’ I’ll ask, ‘If the right property isn’t available on the Upper East Side, what other neighborhoods would you consider?’ You’ll find that clients are always re-evaluating their wants and needs.”
Mike Clevenger, an agent with the Creig Northrop Team of Long & Foster, which has offices in Maryland and Virginia in the Washington, D.C. area, advises that the initial discussion should stress the value of time, and the importance of ensuring that the buyers can afford the property they have in mind. If they don’t already have pre-approval from a lender, that will be the next step.
“First-time buyers typically don’t know where to start,” he warns. “Trade-up buyers, or those who already own a home, have a little more knowledge about the process and typically have a better idea and understanding of what they can afford—which is important to know before we start looking.
We then base our searches on that particular buyer’s wants and needs—and, whenever possible, their wish list items. Since we already know the price range, I’ll take the buyers out and show them four or five homes in that range to see what they respond to—what they like and don’t like—and to see how we mesh. Very rarely is there a conflict of attitudes between agent and buyer. The biggest challenge is typically the client who wants more than they can afford.”
Whether you’re working with home sellers or working with home buyers, use the initial client interview as an opportunity to obtain all of the necessary facts, goals, needs, and desires from your clients. Armed with the right real estate client information, you’ll be able to meet and surpass your customers’ expectations.
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About the author
Joseph Dobrian has been writing about commercial and residential real estate, and real estate-related finance, for more than 30 years. His by-line has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The New Yorker, Real Estate Forum, Journal of Property Management, and many other publications. He is also a noted novelist, essayist, and translator. His website is www.josephdobrian.com, and he can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.