“People Appreciate What We Do”

Kurt Steffian, Broker/Owner of Help-U-Sell Coast and Valley in Santa Ana, California, spent several years of his career in corporate finance for a Fortune 500 Company before making a change to real estate.  

“I provided lease financing to corporate America, supporting their IT departments’ equipment financing requirements, assisting mostly CFOs and CIOs. I always realized that ‘Corporate America’ doesn’t care about you.  As I grew older, I became open-minded to other possibilities of making money, but with a focus on life balance and being happy. I realized I could do something else and wanted to choose the next chapter wisely,” Kurt said.

He added, “I was initially attracted to real estate because I love working with people; that is enjoyable to me. I started out at a big brokerage with over 1000 agents. There were immediately noticeable drawbacks to being in a larger, faceless company and little help available for a person learning the real estate industry. Of course, I took classes. I once asked my manager questions, and he replied, ‘Why did I hire you?’ and walked away. I stayed there for two years, but it wasn’t an ideal experience.”

Having developed a love of real estate despite the “big broker” experience and wanting to be on his own, Kurt researched alternatives with the intention of purchasing a franchise. “Believing in the service you are providing is the most important tool to the sales representative. All of the real estate franchises offered the same model. I was searching for a customer experience I truly believed in and wanted to offer to the consumer. As if by fate, I ran into the Help-U-Sell Real Estate booth at a National Association of Realtors convention. I immediately understood the vision and value proposition. Help-U-Sell made sense to me!” Kurt exclaimed.

He continued, “For starters, I like that you can run this business lean. Since I previously worked for large brokers, I know how scattered and impersonal it can be firsthand. With every client, I always know where they are in the process because I handle the process from start to finish.”

“Secondly, we are unique compared to traditional brokerages. This business model makes sense to clients. When people call to inquire, they usually decide to move forward with Help-U-Sell over the phone. That’s due to the fact that we are ‘the best value in real estate’, and I offer an unconditional satisfaction guarantee. If they can find anyone who would do a better job, they are free to cancel the listing contract at any time prior to us selling their home. We are a full service brokerage, the same as any other Realtor. Our clients quickly learn our services are not standard, because we offer more for less. Every listing gets a custom URL and web site, additionally we use Matterport technology for state-of-the-art photos and videos. We host open houses and broker previews, and are always open to suggestions for additional marketing. We offer a total commitment to the client in support of our unconditional satisfaction guarantee,” he said.

“Finally, Help-U-Sell reduces the time I spend on my marketing efforts for expired and FSBO listings. The programs within our platform are easy to set-up and implement. The marketing is superior and there is a lot of brand recognition, especially here in California where our office representation is very high,” Kurt added.

To keep the business top-of-mind in his community, Kurt has strong relationships with professionals in other industries with a mutual interest. He elaborated, “I actively cultivate relationships with probate attorneys and divorce attorneys, and get a steady stream of referrals. They refer to us because everyone likes saving money, and we make them look good by offering their clients the best value and superior service during what is likely a trying time. Saving your clients money is never a bad thing, especially in California where much of the state is in a higher-priced market and they would stand to lose a lot of money from a 6% commission traditional sale.” 

Considering the Southern California market, he further clarified, “You commonly see properties sell from $400,000 to $700,000, which is a huge range. Inventory is a little tight right now, and you will see a two bedroom condo list for $700,000. Consumers are getting wise to a smart choice: pay an arbitrary percentage for commission, versus paying for services that are actually being rendered. We listen to the client and tailor ourselves to the consumer need. Our competitive advantage is obvious and the value proposition is clear to home sellers. People appreciate what we do. Meanwhile, we’re getting the job done and still making a profit. Help-U-Sell is the future of real estate.”

Michelle and Kurt Steffian

Kurt is hoping to close 50 transactions this year. “My goal is to complete a deal every week. However, I also have other priorities and being happy is one of them. I have a great family life and spend as much time as I can with my wife and children.”

“I do not understand the word ‘can’t’”

Roberta (Bobbi) Pickens, Broker/Owner of Help-U-Sell Treasure Coast in Hobe Sound, FL, is used to blazing her own trail. She learned how to stand tall early in her career in industries once dominated by men like medical equipment sales and oil/gas refinement. “There were no women in sales in either industry, so making headway was a challenge. But I was a tough cookie, and learned to handle myself with confidence. Men and women bring different skills to workplace, so I needed to play on those strengths. I was quickly a top saleswoman in these industries and promoted to regional management positions,” Bobbi said.

During tough times she branched out, sharing “I got into real estate because the oil industry is cyclical. We were in a down cycle and facing layoffs. There were no budgets for new refining equipment, or research and development. With a son in college, I needed something else to do. So I trained for my real estate license, worked for a small builder in Chicago and enjoyed it. I moved to Arizona, and got my license there. I researched possible franchises opportunities and found Help-U-Sell and John Powell (coach, long-time corporate executive, and franchise owner). I met with him to review what I wanted and liked, asked tough questions and got John’s ‘always straight’ answers.”  

Based on that meeting, Bobbi purchased a franchise in Hobe Sound on the east coast of Florida and opened Help-U-Sell Treasure Coast office in June of 2004. “The market was thriving and my business was doing great. Then cue the hurricanes! First came Frances, followed by Jeanne, both were direct hits and eight weeks apart.  That was a crazy time, as there hadn’t been any hurricane activity in this area for over 50 years. We were hit hard. There were a ton of blue roofs everywhere, so many houses were covered in tarps. People wanted to view and buy the properties, but we couldn’t show them. I switched to selling lots in a partnership with a developer during this long recovery period. When the market was good, Help-U-Sell was well received as the new kid on the block. When the market crashed I had to let the franchise go. Homes just were not selling. I kept busy on a smaller scale, selling real estate for friends and their relatives, and making sure people in difficult situations got the right help by doing a lot of short sales,” she explained.

In 2016, the Help-U-Sell Corporate Office reached out to previous owners, inviting them to come back and Bobbi happily returned. She said, “It was a great time to re-open. I wouldn’t want to be doing this as an independent in this market. Business picked up nicely this year, and doubled over last year. I hired a licensed assistant, Samantha (referred to as Saint Sam), who handles administrative details and is the buyers’ agent as we build the business. I recently sold all my inventory, but we have six or seven listings coming up, so the pipeline is nicely filled. I’ve been getting buyer leads tied to my Facebook advertising. I just didn’t have time for them, which is why I got help.”

The market has a wide margin of housing prices in Martin County versus Port St Lucie, where buyers have choices and flexibility. Bobbi stated, “In Martin County, you’re looking at a lot of waterfront and high-end properties that can go as high as $28 million. There’s not nearly enough housing in the lower price markets. We are seeing properties in all price ranges: one came in at $1.7 million and the newest is at $180,000. People from Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and the Northeast are selling their homes for $500,000 or more, coming here and buying a $300,000 -$400,000 home here instead. We are attractive to home sellers with the middle ground and above average values because the savings really stands out for them. Port St Lucie offers bigger homes for the price and it’s easier to find buyers homes within their budget that they will love. “

“Living Magazine” ad example

After the recession, many people moved out of state. Creating exposure was a priority for Bobbi. She explained, “I took a shotgun approach. I had my mobile office wrapped immediately and that gets a lot of attention. I advertise in the coupon books called ‘Living Magazine,’ they go to every mailbox two times monthly in both counties.  The half page ad explains what we do and what a seller gets. The full page ad has the listings and ‘just solds’. Sellers like seeing their home in the ad. When people call from the half page ad, they usually just ask us to come out. It rarely takes more than 3 minutes to get the listing appointment.”

Mobile office…wrapped!

Elaborating further, she said, “The market is changing constantly so you expect the ups and downs and you need a reason to be. Because this isn’t a big market, people need to see how busy you are. I don’t do flashy ads, just a straight-forward, matter-of-fact approach because there is no con. When I come to a listing appointment after a competitor, I always ask what they are getting for those extra thousands of dollars. That usually seals it in our favor.”

It has been a challenging year for Bobbi. Her longtime partner, Phil, suffered a stroke after open heart surgery in February. As the caregiver, she oversees his therapies and doctor appointments but reports he is progressing nicely. Additionally, her mom died in June and she is the Executor of her estate. “In honor of my mother’s passing, I sponsored the first two sessions of a new program with Love and Hope In Action. A friend is teaching culinary job skills for their homeless clients at LAHIA, so they can be re-enter the workforce in the food service industry. We live in a great community and I love that so many people are committed to improving the lives of others. I plan to have them cater some events planned for the office.” 

People persevering also aptly describes Bobbi: “Whatever’s going on, I can handle it. I concentrate on what needs to get done, put my head down, and do it. I do not understand the word ‘can’t’, but I have learned to say ‘no’ to listings that are unreasonable and refer to the ‘Realtor’s Serenity Prayer’ [God grant me the serenity to accept the listings I can sell, the courage to refuse the listings I cannot; and the wisdom to know the difference]. I really enjoy helping my sellers through the journey of selling their homes. Everyone has a story.  I love disrupting the marketplace. Thank you Help-U-Sell. I love this model and I’m glad to be home.”

Ahead of the Curve

Not quite a year ago, Jeff Hedberg of Help-U-Sell Real Estate Masters opened his office in Port Huron, Michigan, but he did so with decades of real estate experience before opting for the set-fee business model Help-U-Sell created. Jeff chose real estate early, he was only 21 years old. “I won a sales contest in college, in a class that was taught by a broker, and the door to real estate opened for me,” Jeff remembered.

In 2013, it was time for reinvention. “I had the largest office in St. Clair County, and at one point I had 40 full-time agents. I loved working in this area, but I wanted to live in Florida. So my family moved and got settled, while I planned on setting up a real estate office there. The call of family brought us back to Michigan sooner than anticipated. I sold my previous business to a competitor, and had to wait out a non-compete clause,” he said.  

This time around, Jeff wanted to do real estate in a different way. He continued, “I think the industry has been broken for a while and brokers have gotten away with overcharging people for a long time. I started checking into Help-U-Sell, partially because I wanted the brand recognition and I liked the model, and didn’t want to reinvent the wheel. Once situated, we just started with word of mouth publicity.”

An important element of success for Jeff is having associates with the same commitment to serving clients. He added, “They share that sense of loyalty and drive to do right by our clients. Whenever I meet with a potential new agent, I ask, ‘Do you believe you are worth 6%? Do you believe the industry is going to change?’ I have three agents with me, two of whom are experienced, and one is just starting out. I don’t do co-listings; I currently have 21 listings myself, with many more in the pipeline. At a minimum, I’m anticipating 50 units for the year, and I will achieve that. I am currently number two in closed units in my county and number five in overall sales and listing volume.”

While pricing and inventory are common obstacles in many markets, Port Huron is more nuanced. Jeff explained, “The challenge for us is that Port Huron is a 180-degree market. There is a river here that separates the United States from Canada. The median house price is $175,000 but it can commonly be as modest as $118,000, when compared to prices in Venice, Florida, where I just moved back from; Houses there average about $280,000. We see a lot of first-time buyers. I’ve already saved people over $128,000 in commissions in my first seven months. I am confident we can capture 30% market share in three to five years.”

Building a business takes time, but Jeff is confident sellers will catch on quickly. “I’m not short-term focused. I have not yet captured the volume I know I’m capable of achieving. When my business was here originally, I had 33% of the market share and closed $110 million in volume. After the economy crashed, the business model changed and there was a definite shift in expectations from the consumer standpoint. Home sellers wanted full service brokers at a reasonable rate. Consumers are putting pressure on the 5-6% model, and this is a fair way to do it. It’s hard to argue with that,” he stated. 

“What I like right now is knowing I am ahead of the curve, and that I will be competitive in advance of other brokers in this area. They are fighting the change. I’m here now and the race will be won in two or three years. Not offering a low set-fee is greedy and short-sighted. We can easily give people what they want once we have their attention.”

To get that consumer attention, Jeff has changed his old marketing practices also. He continued, “There was a time when I was paying for five full pages of newspaper advertising every week, but now I’m taking a different approach. I often use the ‘just listed’ and ‘just sold’ postcards from Excel printing. I made a heavy investment in signage, and it’s worth it because people tell me they see my signs everywhere. Client testimonials drive traffic back to my website and create a lot of viewings. I am also fond of the ‘good, better, best’ brochure. Nothing quite illustrates our offering as succinctly as that.”

Part of great marketing is having the presentation down. “I have perfected my elevator pitch, and have developed several tailored versions which shows the traditional fees, and people saving two or three times the amount using our services versus a competitor. When I am in front of a client, I don’t lose the listing. Sometimes home sellers will get guilted into using a friend or family member who dabbles in real estate part-time. The question I always ask those folks is ‘If this person is a friend, why are they not charging you a friendly fee?’ The savvy seller wants to save money,” he said. 

Subject to many influences, real estate can sometimes be a precarious industry, which Jeff anticipates. He said, “There are always highs and lows. When times are tough, I do what I’ve always done and more. I pray, and make it a point to give more than I take. To the victor goes the spoils.”

The Magic is Set-Fee and Great Service

Walt Hippauf of Help-U-Sell Peoples Real Estate got his real estate license in 1986. As a diverse young man, a job in manufacturing prompted an interest in design drafting. He pursued an Associate’s degree in engineering and formed a small weekend band where he played the saxophone to help pay for college.

After his engineering career, Walt started a catering and music service for weddings. While that business was not meant to be, the entrepreneurial spirit had taken root. He next turned to selling insurance, and a client invited him to join their real estate business. He did both for a while, but eventually devoted all his time to real estate. “I took to real estate like a fish to water. I discovered a new market for modular housing, and purchased buildable lots where I offered buyers the lot and designed a custom modular home. I’d built upwards of 25 homes at the time, but unfortunately lots were few, so I pursued other real estate opportunities,” he recounted.

Walt received his Brokers license in 1994 and opened an office in 1996. Catering to first-time home buyers in the inner city, Walt sold and listed homes for under $50,000. He explained, “Because of the low price, I had a $3,000 set fee, with the commission split between the buyer agent and selling agent. I was handling 70% of the real estate sales in that community and was doing great. In 2001, the economic conditions shifted so I moved the brokerage to Northeast Philly. My brokerage name was overshadowed by traditional big-name players. I looked for a franchise with name recognition and met a Help-U-Sell Real Estate regional manager. I loved the Help-U-Sell model. It allowed me to offer sellers a well-received choice and I was doing 50 to 100 sides a year.”

The Philadelphia housing market covers high, middle and lower markets. Walt said, “Home prices here are all over the map. Some are $70,000 and many average out at $300,000. Look again, and you’ll see homes that are $500,000 to $1 million. That is irrelevant to us because we concentrate on promoting full service for a set-fee. We are great at convincing people to list with us when we show them the full marketing plan and the savings.”  

As 2007-2008 revealed the early stages of the recession, Walt did not take the threat lying down. “Collapse seemed imminent, but I was not going to hang it up. The business slowed down by half, and I had to lay off staff. I kept everything simple. I looked into doing REOs, but there were many big companies already handling those transactions. Before the recession, I had a good business, so I kept doing what I know how to do. I tapped my Center of Influence contacts, and stayed afloat with referrals. I was also doing full page ads in the real estate magazines, and had leads from the internet. I stayed in a bare bones mode until June 2009,” Walt explained.

Just as the economy and home sales were picking up, Walt suffered a personal injury. He shared, “Once again, it is not in my personality to give up. I ran my business from my laptop while convalescing in a nursing home. Tenacity is everything: I quickly got three listings, three houses under contract, and three settlements. I conducted my meetings through GoToMeeting and became a master at e-brokering with the help of DocuSign. I thought, if I can achieve all that under trying personal circumstances, what can I do once I’m able? I did listing presentations online and met the client in person to sign contracts, take pictures and install signs. I’d send the buyers the contracts via DocuSign.”

Recently, Walt’s thoughts are on the next steps for his business and life. “I originally planned to be out of real estate by 2020. However, a previous client approached me with the idea of mentoring their son, who had an interest in learning real estate. Henry Rutledge wanted a career change from engineering, to which I could relate. At 30 years old, this young man is just getting his feet wet. When he is fully acclimated, he is looking to buy my business in 2022,” Walt shared.

While Henry is learning and chasing leads, Walt stays busy managing the business. “Not including what Henry achieves, my goal is to personally do 24 to 30 closings for the year. My operating costs are low, so I’ve given Henry the lead to expand our marketing initiatives. This includes blitz signs and targeted marketing. We’re looking to do more with YouTube, Facebook and text messaging. I’m not turning down any leads, and passing many over to Henry. I like the drip emails; I use them for the holidays, indicating that I’m still here and looking for referrals. All of our leads go into the drip email list immediately. I also use the Arounds postcards. Lead tracking and Center of Influence contacts are a huge piece of what Jack Bailey emphasizes in our weekly coaching group. I’ve been in Jack’s group for over 10 years now. He is a great guy and we have a wonderful group for bouncing ideas off each other,” stated Walt.

Having spent the last 33 years in real estate, Walt added, “I’ve done everything. I’ve tried everything. There is no magic – aside from the set-fee and great service. I used to enjoy golfing, dancing, and going to the casino, very often winning; those things are no longer possible. I’ve been married to my bride, Marci, since 1982. Between us, we have two sons, three daughters, 6 grandchildren and a great-grandchild. I’ve built a business I have enjoyed and a plan for passing that on to someone who is as passionate about it as I am, so I am still winning.”

Going Above & Beyond in Edmond/OKC

Lana Erwin is on a roll this month. As the broker/owner of Help-U-Sell Edmond/OKC in Oklahoma City, she had five houses listed, and was on the cusp of listing three more at the time of this interview. She’s been cultivating her Help-U-Sell business for 16 years now, but Lana’s background was quite varied before her career in real estate.

In the late 70s and 80s, Lana worked for several companies in various computer and accounting jobs. Oil was the primary industry in Oklahoma, and the oil bust during the 80s forced many of the top employers and banks to close. Many people left Oklahoma to seek new employment. At 29 years old, Lana sold everything except what would fit in a one bedroom apartment, and moved to Largo, Florida. She briefly sold used IBM equipment, but soon discovered a market for used CAD equipment and started a company. Relocating back to Oklahoma in 1993, she continued the company until the onset of IBM Pentium products made mainframe systems obsolete and it was time to reinvent the future once again.

“I always had an interest in real estate. After flipping a few houses, I decided to get my license and become a Realtor. A friend of mine was working for Help-U-Sell, and I worked as a buyer’s agent for 2 years. When the office was put up for sale, I got my broker’s license and bought it,” she said.

Not only has she persevered, but Lana’s presence has grown over the years. The volume of incoming calls for listings has been steadily on the rise, and her ability to close the sale has landed her on a recent edition of our Top Producers list. “Some of the people whom I served well keep coming back to me. Someone I helped years ago kept my number and just called me. One new listing was a random call. Another client I sold a home to a few years ago called because he needs to get his mom’s house on the market. Some of my business comes from people who have moved here from somewhere else, and they used Help-U-Sell in their previous city and liked the experience. My referrals keep me busy. When I bought the office there were two other offices in Edmond, one in Oklahoma City, one in Norman, one in Stillwater and one in Tulsa, but I am proud that my office still stands. I believe the longevity, brand recognition, savings, and service account for a lot of that,” Lana explained.

To push name recognition beyond referrals, Lana uses social media advertising. “I focus the most on Facebook. I regularly do a lot of paid boosts featuring houses that have recently undergone a price reduction or to advertise my open houses. That is where I get the most traction,” she shared, “When the market gets tight, there is certainly an advantage for consumers to seek us out. This is aided by the Help-U-Sell website. It is one of the things corporate does really well and it has worked great for me.”

Situated in a mid-level market, the median price range for a house is around $250,000. Last year, Lana closed 40 transactions and knows she will do at least that same this year. She added, “There are a lot of players in the real estate industry here. There’s a company billing themselves as flat fee. There’s another business that will do ‘listings only’ on the MLS. There are a few realtors who would negotiate commissions if consumers knew that they could do that. People don’t want to pay the 6% and that fact keeps me competitive in this market.”

Difficult times often spurn people towards ingenuity and streamlining their processes to become more efficient. “During slower times, I’ve been a combination of dedicated enough and lucky enough that I always made it. During the recession specifically, I did my own thing and kept the doors open. What I learned during that time is, once I started doing everything myself, I wound up preferring it that way. Initially, I followed a lot of what I was shown by the previous owner, and that has worked well for me. However, when I was passing tasks off to others, I felt like I was wasting time waiting for answers. I discovered I like knowing everything going on about a deal. If a client has a question, I like that I don’t have to call someone else to find out the answer or status of something. Since I’m handling everything, I know everything. I’m on top of everything. That streamlining became a lot easier for me when I moved my office into my house. It allows me to be home more, even though I work longer hours. I don’t mind doing it, of course, but if I’m going to, I definitely want to be comfortable,” Lana said laughing, “Besides, my dogs appreciate it, too.”

Ultimately, Lana has learned to take busy times and slow times in stride. She explained, “I call on my old clients. I keep well apprised of the market and trends. What I’ve come to realize is when people move, the market moves. That’s how you know the economy is doing what it’s supposed to do. I have clients tell me I am really thorough and go above and beyond; Then they tell other people and my business does well.”