The price of pushy

One afternoon a couple years ago I was sitting peacefully in my den reading when I heard a loud buzzing sound. It got louder and softer, but never went away, and I’d never heard that particular sound in my house before.

Like any other homeowner, I carefully looked around my house to determine if some household system or appliance was making the sound, and perhaps malfunctioning. Then I went outside and finally found the source of the buzzing.

A drone was hovering just a few feet from the windows of my house. I reached up, but it was a bit too high for me to pluck it out of the air. I considered getting a butterfly net out of my shed.

If there was a drone, I thought, there had to be someone operating it. And sure enough, just on the other side of the five-foot fence separating my property from my closest neighbor, I could see the head of a man in a tan coat with a baseball cap pulled down to hide his face. He was moving around in a way that seemed suspicious. That house belonged to a single woman named Jane, and I’d never seen this guy before.

“Hey,” I asked. “Is this your drone?”

He turned to face me and seemed to notice me for the first time. “Yes,” he answered.

“Could you not run that thing so close to my house, please?”

“Umm, okay,” he responded.

I contacted Jane a little later to mention that I’d seen this shady-looking guy operating a drone from her yard. And she told me that he was the real-estate agent who would be helping to sell her house. His name was John.

A few months later, John held an open house for the sale of Jane’s house. I got to meet John when he was wearing a coat and tie instead of a pulled-down cap. Having collected my contact information, John sent me drone photos of Jane’s house, and my own, to show what he’d been able to do. And a month later, John sold Jane’s house and a nice couple moved in. While my relationship with John had started badly, clearly he knew how to sell houses.

More than a year passed by. I kept in touch with John, since I was hoping to sell my own house, and clearly John knew the neighborhood.

When the time came to sell my house, I invited John in to meet with us. In contrast to Jane’s house, which was small and on a cramped lot close to the neighbors, our house was one of the largest houses in the neighborhood, on a much larger plot of land. We talked about the market. I showed him some unique architectural features that the original builders had put in over 100 years earlier, along with what we’d done to modernize the house, including remodeling the kitchen and three bathrooms.

John suggested that we redo all the floors, which had taken a beating from 20 years of raising kids in the house. That seemed like it would be not just expensive, but difficult to do because of the need to move all the furniture.

Despite the size of the lot, I told John we were not interested in researching ways that someone could subdivide it to build more houses closer together. My sentimental fantasy was that a couple would buy the house and raise a family there, taking advantage of the yard and all the other features we added.

A few weeks later, John returned with a list of “comps” — similar properties that sold in the neighborhood. And he came prepared with a folder of information about how a developer could buy the property and split the lot. My own limited research had shown that there wasn’t enough frontage on the street to do what he proposed, but John was certain that was an obstacle that a developer could overcome.

“We’re not interested in talking about that or making it a selling point,” my wife and I explained. (My wife has issues with real estate developers and what they do to communities, and we had agreed we wouldn’t be selling to one.)

Despite what we said, John continued to insist on sharing his research, which he was certain would get us a higher selling price.

“We’re not in this to maximize the selling price,” I said. (Based on the look on his face, I might as well have said that he smelled like garbage and his children were ugly.)

Finally, John left. Over the next few weeks, I got a number of emails from him saying that we needed to sign the broker agreement with him to move forward. But my wife and I weren’t ready to do that.

A kinder broker

I was certain I wanted to work with a broker that I knew I could trust. We’d worked in the past with a woman named Karen, who’d helped us buy our first home in 1993, to sell it in 2000, and in that same year, to acquire the big house we’d lived in for 20 years. I recalled Karen as patient, a good listener, and extremely knowledgeable about the market.

So why hadn’t we gone back to her? Because I couldn’t find her. She had a listing on line, but the phone number didn’t work, and neither did the email. I’d concluded that Karen must no longer be a broker.

Karen’s partner, Lois, was known to us because she was active in the local arts community that my wife is a part of, and she also happened to be the mother of somebody I’d worked closely with for years. I figured out how to get in touch with Lois, she reconnected us with Karen, and we talked.

Karen and Lois had retired from brokering real estate — for the most part. Remember, it had been 20 years since we’d spoken with Karen. But after a phone conversation and a visit, we decide to work with her and her partner. They still had a close connection with all the other brokers in the market. They still had active licenses. They weren’t soliciting new houses to sell, but in some cases they were still selling houses with people where they had prior relationships. And since Karen had successfully worked with us before, she thought she could do a good job selling our house.

I have to admit, I was a little uneasy with a broker who wasn’t fully active, but Karen had never let us down. So we went forward.

There were some bumps along the way. For example, we had to pick a different listing date because Karen was out of town, and didn’t have a big company to back her up. But in every way that mattered, Karen and Lois did a great job. Their advice was great. Their staging was terrific.

She told us not to bother with the floors. “Everyone knows they need to redo the floors,” she said. They hired their own drone photographer, who did a great job without annoying the neighbors. And as we suggested, they never played up the ability to split the lot.

After buyers started bidding, the way they managed the potential buyers and helped us to evaluate the offers was perfect.

And once the house was under agreement and we’d moved out, Lois even showed up at the house and helped me troubleshot an electrical issue while I was 100 miles away.

We ended up selling to a young couple for several hundred thousand dollars above the asking price. There was no inspection contingency and no financing contingency, so we were able to proceed to the closing quickly and with no worries. And Karen and Lois answered every question, even in moments when we were nervous and upset about the twists and turns of the selling process.

Karen told me she’d actually talked to one real estate developer during the selling process. “He explained to me that the way the lot is situated, even if you could get the zoning changed, there was no economic way to put two houses on that lot.” It would have required dynamite to excavate a big hole in the middle of solid rock. So apparently, John’s research hadn’t been very thorough, anyway. (And imagine how excited the couple who’d bought Jane’s house — with John’s help — would have been to have dynamite explosions going off a couple dozen feet away.)

In the end, Lois and Karen got a commission in excess of $30,000. My wife and I got peace of mind, and cash to retire on.

John? He got nothing at all.

If you’re in sales, next time you’re trying to close a deal, think of this. Pushy might get you the sale, and it might not.

But helpful and calmly competent might get you, not just a customer who thinks fondly of you, but one that stays loyal even 20 years later.

And you’ll probably sleep better at night, too.

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  1. Glad it worked out so well! I agree with your wife about how developers destroy communities.I understand infill is needed sometimes, but it’s soul-destroying when every inch of space is used to maximize their profits.

  2. Interesting yarn.

    I remember a similar story back in 2004 when I bought a townhouse in NJ. The builder’s realtor was pretty rude. She told my future neighbors that they wouldn’t be able to afford the place within a few minutes of meeting them. Yeah, she sold the homes because the real-estate market was tight, but she didn’t make any friends.