It’s All About Who You Know

by Chicago Agent

Marlene Rubenstein, Baird & Warner, Highland Park

By Mike Mosser

The phrase “it’s all about who you know” is true, especially in the realty industry. As the agent, you’re the expert clients look to for whatever they need – which is not limited to helping them buy or sell a home. They don’t want just anyone’s advice; they want your advice. Good agents know keeping their clients happy, whether they’re past or present clients, is key, and this might come in the form of referring present clients to an attorney, past clients to a plumber, or giving a client’s friends the name of a good inspector.

An emphasis on satisfaction is especially important in a market with a high rate of foreclosures, tighter lending requirements and a lack of buyers. Not only are the transactions more complicated, but older and vacant properties are likely to need repair work, and sellers might need help making a property more appealing to attract a sale. Now, maybe more than ever, agents need a list of reliable contacts they can call on to assist with a transaction.

“The people I work with are on the tip of my tongue and at the top of my head because they’re kind of like my board of directors,” said Marlene Rubenstein, a broker with Baird & Warner in Highland Park. “They’re go-to people who I know I can access at any time. They understand the pace and the flow of a transaction, what it means and how to work with the client.”

Rubenstein said that in any market, so much can happen between signing a contract and closing on a property that it’s paramount to have a list of vendors to turn to for help with the transaction and to remediate whatever problems that may arise.

“I think Realtors have a bigger job than ever before because the market is more complex,” Kathy Dames, a broker with RE/MAX Shorewood, said. “Relationships with people are very important today. It’s not like the old days where you have a house, you put it on the market, clear title, everything’s fine and you sell it.”

She added that each time a client signs a contract, she gives them a list of attorneys, home inspectors and test inspectors whom she’s worked with in the past. The list changes depending on the type of sale, such as pairing a short sale with the names of attorneys who specialize in that area.

“It’s actually contract specific for the recommendations because really if you want to get a deal going, all players have to know what they’re doing,” Dames said. “After 27 years, you should always have a ‘black book,’ because at the end of the day, you’ve got to make the deal happen and you need professionals to do that.”

Having a little black book thick with reputable affiliates to recommend doesn’t just make it easy on the client, it makes for an easier transaction. In addition, Dames said it also offers the benefit of having vendors who are willing to recommend her to their customers, because she recommends those venders to her own clients.

“I always tell the client, ‘make sure they know I sent you,’ because they’re going to know you’re serious. That’s very important,” Dames said. “Same with lenders. I always tell them to make sure they say ‘Kathy Dames’ because it lets them know that this is a true buyer.”

Rubenstein said other agents can also be a part of securing more business and becoming part of the little black book, which is why she’s willing to recommend vendors to agents on the other side of a sale if necessary. When another agent sees how well she manages her clients and the process itself by helping them out, they’ll be more likely to call on her in the future.

“If I’m working with you as an agent on the other side, we’re going to take care of this transaction, but we’re going to see each other again. I think agents today forget the value of good relationships with each other,” Rubenstein said.

Finding the Right People
Maintaining a little black book is about more than a collection of names and numbers. Realtors have to make sure their recommendations can be relied on. A bad affiliate might not necessarily result in losing a sale, but at the very least it can detract from a Realtor’s image and the client’s overall experience.

Debra Dobbs, a broker with Koenig & Strey Real Living in Chicago, learned this the hard way during her career, building and renovating residential properties over the years. In doing so, she gained first-hand knowledge of those vendors she could rely on and those to avoid.

“I had great experiences with contractors and I had awful experiences with contractors,” Dobbs said. “I thought to myself, ‘if I’m getting duped by these people, what about the average Joe or Jane out there who don’t know what questions to ask?’ Because of my experiences on the construction end, I started being careful with any trade someone might need to make a repair.”

She has a database of recommended vendors in a variety of fields that she refers to as “Debra’s Little Black Book.” What started as a loose collection of names and numbers grew over the years to become a searchable database. It has now morphed into a resource that she will make available online to her clients.

Dames said the contractors she recommends, such as painters or plumbers, include people she’s used when it came to her own home, and if she hasn’t used them herself, she’s seen their work first-hand.

For agents who might be new to the business or those who are having trouble building up their Rolodexes, one way of finding vendors is to look at who other Realtors are using. A broker who deals with a lot of foreclosures, for example, could find out who other agents rely on when it comes to renovating and handling foreclosed properties.

For Dobbs, a general contractor is one of the resources she’s been asked for most often. While subcontractors are also important, many times even a simple repair job will involve several trades, and a good general contractor can coordinate everything. Before deciding whether to keep someone as a recommended affiliate, she checks with clients after a job is done.

“If I get feedback from people who have used any of my resources saying that they had a less than stellar experience, I try to get both sides of the story. If I get three strikes, then I remove someone,” Dobbs said. “Sometimes there are going to be people where perfect isn’t perfect enough for the job, but I can’t take a chance that I’ll have a fourth and a fifth unhappy client.”

Agents also find new affiliates from any of the several properties they see on a daily basis. This is a way to figure out who is doing a nice job…and who to avoid.

“Many times you’ll walk into a house and there’s a picture that’s cockeyed or an electric plate isn’t flush or straight, and that contractor really didn’t care to make it straight,” Rubenstein said. “If that was the carpenter who I came into contact with, he wouldn’t go on my toolbelt. If he doesn’t care enough about his craft, then he doesn’t mirror my relationships with my clients and I would never use him.”

Saving the Sale
Having vendors agents can call on at any time is important. For instance, radon remediation can be a problem, particularly in older homes. This means more than just solving the problem, it’s also important to educate the client and address any concerns.

Rubenstein once had a client who was a cancer survivor looking to buy a home, so the home’s environmental quality was a major concern. When it failed a radon test, Rubenstein used her little black book to provide a solution to the seller’s agent.

“I immediately took the next step because our job is to anticipate what comes next. So I found a radon remediator who is reputable and has follow-through, because follow-through is so important,” Rubenstein said. “I started the process, even though it’s not my responsibility, and pass it to her, and then that other agent has the responsibility to follow-through with the seller. If you have a relationship with that other agent, which is really important, then you work through this process together.”

She said this can especially be true when dealing with Federal Housing Administration (FHA) requirements – there is a time limit in order to meet any contingencies. That makes communication with the other agent and utilizing the little black book important.

Tracy Anderson, a broker with Prudential Rubloff in Hinsdale, knows this all too well. She once had a pending sale where a lender was trying to push the buyer into a loan backed by the FHA. The property had a deteriorating sidewalk, which wasn’t a problem for the buyer, but would’ve been for the FHA. Facing the loss of a sale, Anderson looked in her little black book and found a different lender for her client, who didn’t try to push an FHA loan.

“Sometimes even in today’s market, there could be multiple offers on a property, and if you don’t meet the terms of your contract, you could lose the sale to another agent who has offered better terms, like a cash deal or no inspection contingency,” Anderson said.

Dames said plumbers are crucial contacts when it comes to securing sales of vacant properties, as many of them have been stripped of their copper pipes. Having a plumber who can give a fast and reliable estimate is important in determining the right amount of escrow before a sale. Having a good relationship with an affiliate also means she can get a faster response when necessary.

“A woman wanted to buy a home but she needed to paint it; she talked to a painter and he ran right over and gave her a price so she had a price in her head in order to make the deal,” Dames said. “I was going to get her a credit and she wanted to make sure the credit was the right amount.”

Dobbs said the little black book also comes in handy when a property has been hard to sell. She recently acquired a listing after the owner spent a year trying to sell the house through another Realtor.

She gave the owners a to-do list for the home that included a bit of painting, cleaning, moving furniture and decluttering the garage. Along with the list, she also gave them recommendations of people who could help.

“They spent $400 to $500 on everything to get the house ready to sell,” Dobbs said. “I listed it and – I am not exaggerating – it sold to the very first person who came in. We were under contract within 17 days and I had listed it within 3 percent of where the sellers had it listed for one year.”

She also recently had a client become frustrated when her condo didn’t sell. Rather than listing with a different agent, Dobbs convinced the owner to change the condo’s outdated decor by painting a few rooms and removing old window treatments. Dobbs chose the colors and called in a painter. Not only did the owner like the changes, but there have been two offers on the property since then.

In a tough real estate market, it’s easy for a client to lose patience with an agent when a property doesn’t sell right away and try their luck with a different Realtor. When agents experience this from clients, take note – your Rolodex and a to-do list for their home could be the answer.

Maintaining Relationships
The state of the real estate market has magnified the importance of not just the little black book, but what it represents in terms of working with all of those involved helping to put a deal together.

“The point here is, there are so many things that happen between contract and closing. You have to manage your client and you have to manage your relationship with the other agent, and these are equally important,” Rubenstein said. “Parallel to that, you have built relationships with your little black book; be it your client, your agent or the vendor, so that you can provide full-circle service, for not just your client, but the transaction on behalf of your client.”

Dobbs said she’s been asked for vendor recommendations from perhaps 80 percent of her clients, and not just for contractors or attorneys. She has often been asked to recommend landscapers, housekeeping services, dog walkers, babysitters and a good place to get a haircut. Maintaining a list of these services in her little black book is about more than keeping her clients happy – it can also lead to referrals and more business.

In one particular case, she helped a young couple who moved to the Chicago area from out of town into a home they wanted to remodel. They relied on Dobbs for everything, from finding a quality contractor to locating a babysitter. That level of service resulted in the couple recommending her to other buyers.

“I know one of the things they brought up about me was that I was available 24/7 and I was available as a resource even though I was not paid to oversee the construction, nor was I involved in the renovation process,” Dobbs said. “Whenever they had a conflict, needed advice, didn’t know how to handle something or wanted an opinion on a design, I was there.”

The Book Comes in Different Forms
In the past, these affiliates might’ve been kept in a Rolodex, an old stack of business cards or a physical little black book full of contacts. Today, it’s usually in electronic form – maybe an address book in a phone or iPad – but the concept is still the same: every agent has a little black book they can turn to for help with a sale or in managing their clients.

The market may rise and fall, but the little black book will remain a vital tool for any broker, and maintaining relationships and solving problems will always be a part of the job.

“When you’re selling a home, the overwhelming concept is buyers put in an offer, it’s accepted, and it’s theirs,” Rubenstein said. “The reality is, not just in today’s market but in any market, so much happens between contract and closing, that it’s paramount to have inspectors, attorneys, lenders and others involved. It’s really important that you can refer people to be the source of the source.” C.A.

Marlene Rubenstein
Baird & Warner, Highland Park
Kathy Dames
RE/MAX Shorewood

Tracy Anderson

Prudential Rubloff, Hinsdale

Debra Dobbs

Koenig & Strey Real Living

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  • Ellen Lustig says:

    Great article Marlene! I wish you all the success that you deserve. Ellen

  • Janna Grosso says:

    Congrats Marlene! You deserve it. What a great article and you look simply fantastic!

  • Alexandria Bell says:

    Terrific article Marlene! With your expertise, inventiveness, and an infinite reservoir of information, any real estate transaction sure to have less surprises and a happy ending for all involved. You look absolutely fabulous.

  • Jerry Schwartz says:

    Nice article. You and your resources helped me with the sale of my home and the purchase of my condominium in January, 2010. With all the difficulties I’ve been reading and hearing about, I think back and marvel at the short time and smoothness that both transactions happened. I know it was because of your knowledge, professionalism, and expertise, and yes, your “black book”. Thanks for all your help. Referrals to follow.

  • kaye honig says:

    Hey Covergirl! Congrats! Marlene, you are every bit as professional and helpful as the article portrays! You truly care.

  • Jarka Senko says:

    Hi Marlene. The article is greate. Thank you so much for thinking of me and my family. Love Jarka

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