Over the past few months I've received some questions. Specifically, I've been asked how we created and ultimately sold a successful and profitable real estate sales business focused on a seniors niche.
I struggle with how to answer this question because first of all, it was a process that began over 10 years ago, and also because there are so many details I don’t even know where to begin.
So over the next few weeks I'm pulling back the curtains of our seniors real estate niche and sharing with you exactly how we transitioned from a regular ol' real estate sales job into a fun and meaningful seniors real estate specialty “business.” I'll share the highs and lows, the lessons and the the how-tos and everything in between.
My hope is that you can glean some strategies, insights, and lessons along the way to help you get the momentum you've been looking for in your own business.
Like I said, there are a lot of details, so I am going to break it down into a series different posts and videos over the next few weeks.
We knew that we wanted to grow beyond our current level of sales (about 60 sales annually) and were looking for a way to expand. Having been selling together for about 7 years at the time, we were getting a bit bored (it happens for me about every 2.5 years).
I had gone back to college uncertain about whether I really wanted to stay in real estate or not. Getting a B.S. in Family Studies and Gerontology and a M.S. in Counseling Psychology from a private Christian University, we shelled out some major bucks and took out crazy expensive student loans too. When realizing what I would get paid to work in the aging services and/or counseling fields and knowing that it would not put a dent in what I owed in student loans, I decided to keep selling real estate.
It was a heart breaking conversation with an 80+ year old female counseling patient sitting on a nursing home bed one day that caused me to realize that I could better serve seniors by being their real estate agent vs being their therapist. The clarity of that moment is vivid. I will share my story about this conversation in a video blog a bit later. I went home that day and informed Chris that not only was I staying in the real estate biz, but together, we were going to specialize in the seniors niche. He reluctantly and lovingly agreed. He is such a good husband.
The decision was made and now the question of “how” was on the table. We decided that we would begin the project by doing some research. That research led us to the newly offered Seniors Real Estate Specialist (SRES) designation (pre-NAR endorsed). Even though I had a degree in gerontology, I felt that it was an important investment to learn all I could from others who were on this journey. The nearest class was in Dallas, TX, so I paid my money and drove 4 hours to attend the class. Much to my disappointment, the class didn’t really address the business building blocks I was hoping to learn and so I decided that it was up to me to figure it out.
I made it my personal mission to learn everything I could about senior housing and the then-called retirement communities in our area. Over about a month’s time I had toured and cataloged every 55+ housing community, senior living community, Continuing Care Retirement Community (CCRC), assisted living, and memory care community in our geographic area. I asked tons of questions and learned as much as I could about the challenges residents faced as they moved in, as well as the challenges that the communities experienced with the transition.
We reached out to our database of past clients, friends, family, and neighbors and facilitated focus groups and networking meetings to learn from their life experiences and to solicit their assistance in creating a value proposition that would add value to the seniors we served.
Branding and marketing:
Realizing that we had to differentiate ourselves and get our message out to our target audience, we hired help. Knowing that our highest and best use was not designing marketing materials, we retained a marketing and public relationship firm. They put us through a series of interviews asking us questions about our vision for our team, our value proposition, our mission, and what image we wanted to portray to our target market. This process helped us gain clarity about what we were about and the value we had to offer. With blind trust and a checkbook in hand, we turned our marketing and branding over to them and they knocked it out of the park (not without some push back though). We were scared to death to plaster “1st in Seniors Real Estate” all over our brand, but we did it. And it worked.
Educating and speaking:
My zone of genius is in teaching, speaking and training. I love being in the front of a room, collaborating with others, and networking, so that is what I spent most of my time doing. Of course the internet was not really big yet and there was not such thing a social media, so most of my relationships were build face to face and toe to toe. I offered to speak to any group that would have me. Sometimes I presented to rooms of 50 or more, but mostly it was small gatherings of 2 to 15 people. Over time the word got out that I was educating seniors about how to have a successful move and that I was willing to share my knowledge and people began to seek me out for their keynotes. Much to my surprise, people began calling me 3 months to a year after hearing me speak to see if I was available to help them with their moves. Senior community reps trusted us and knew that we cared about our clients (their residents) and they kept our listing inventory replenished. Our efforts were paying off with about 4-5 new listings per month after only about a year into our specialty.
Filling the gaps:
As we began to get more and more clients who were downsizing into senior living from their long-time family homes, we quickly realized that there were a lot of details that needed to be handled along the way. In order to fulfill our value proposition of creating hassle-free moves, we found ourselves helping clients sort, organize, pack, move, unpack, reorganize, and set up their new homes. Although I loved this hands on approach, we just didn’t have enough time in the day to do it all - AND we were committed to it getting done. There was really no such thing as a senior move manager in 2001 and 2002 (in our area anyway) and so we hired a staff person to serve as our move coordinator. A gerontology graduate from a local university, this young lady was a perfect fit. She handled all the details of the move for our senior clients and also helped us with marketing efforts to build relationships with additional senior communities.
Up to this point we were salespeople. We had a team, but we didn’t really know anything about running a business. Hiring coaches was a big step for us. It meant admitting that we didn’t have a clue what we were doing and also writing another big fat check! Best decision of our careers. In one year after hiring Art and Anna Kleimer we had doubled our sales and stopped working evenings and weekends. We got our financials in order, had a business plan, and were creating an operations manual. Our team was highly profitable and our senior clients were getting a level of service unmatched by any agent in our area. Referrals began to pour in and we found ourselves once again ready for expansion.
In our business planning and strategy process, we realized that we needed more leverage. We were doing a lot of work to get new listings and sales and had not really tapped into the strength of relationships we had built. Over the course of about 6 months, we reached out to our resource team members, database, and professional network, and asked for their help. Immediately we had the support of about a dozen people who were actively sharing our information and sending us referrals. And not just senior referrals - all types of referrals. The conversation about specializing with seniors opened the door, but the door was wide open for all types of business. Our best referral sources were senior living communities, estate liquidators, and trust officers. Naturally, our database of past clients, friends, family, and professional connections also offered a steady stream of new business.
As our brand became more popular within real estate circles, we began to get two types of phone calls from agent colleagues - both with and outside our company. The first call type and most frequent was typically an agent who listed a home for an older adult and had no idea how to help them. They wanted advice, guidance, and resources. The second call, although less frequent, was the agent who had met with a senior who clearly needed a lot of assistance and they wanted to refer them to us because they did not feel equipped to help them. In both cases, we were thrilled to be able to support them and make sure their senior client got the services they needed and deserved.
Not only were we selling homes for a lot of seniors (about 50-60 yearly), our other real estate clients (non-seniors) began asking about and using our value added services. They were happy to pay the additional expense to have us handle the moving details such as organizing, sorting, packing, and moving. It was a one-stop-shop by this point and we had great vendors whom we had negotiated special savings and perks. This caused us to separate our real estate sales services from our downsizing services and led to the birth of Memories on the Move, a senior move management company (before there really was such a thing). The company itself, staffed with two gerontology graduates both experienced in senior housing, never really made a profit. But where it came up short it more than made up for in referrals to our real estate business. Over time, this company became our marketing vehicle and the real estate team was our profit center.
Selling the business:
Before we even realized it, we had a business with equity. It’s a good thing because we were ready to take on new challenges and relocated to warmer climates. With a database delivering a consistent and predictable 10-12 sales per month, and inventory of about 20 listings, and marketing vehicles in place, we sold our business including the brand, inventory, and database and moved to Florida. Of course hind sight is 20/20 and we would do it differently now, but at the time this was a major win for us.
We have come full circle and have been teaching and training real estate agents for nearly 5 years now on how to build successful real estate sales specialties. It brings us great joy to shorten the learning curve for others who have chosen to serve seniors and to help them create better and more efficient sales processes and systems. We now offer a certification that helps agents learn not only how to serve seniors, but also how to build a business. This year we are also gearing up to develop new sales forces markets and to serve downsizing homeowners. This time around it will be so much more fun knowing that we have like minded colleagues all over North America who are willing to blaze the trail alongside us and leave legacies for generations to come.
Stay tuned for upcoming in-depth posts on each of the topics mentioned.
P.S. Oh, you probably know this already, but just in case... Naturally we teach all the strategies that we used when building our businesses in our Seniors Real Estate Institute classes and masterminds. If you are ready to grow your seniors niche, feel free to jump in - we’re ready for you!
|Nikki Buckelew is the Founder and CEO of the Seniors Real Estate Institute and administrator for the Certified Senior Housing Professional® (CSHP) designation. A veteran REALTOR® of over two decades, she holds a bachelor’s degree in gerontology and a master’s degree in counseling psychology. As a professional speaker, coach, and trainer, Nikki is committed to empowering, equipping, and educating real estate sales and senior housing professionals seeking to better serve the mature market segment.