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.”

“I Love What I Do”

Beverly Sonnier, Broker/Owner of Help-U-Sell Southeast Rita Ranch Realty, has been serving the Tucson, Arizona area with her brokerage office since 2003. She and her husband, Jimmie, received their real estate licenses in the early 90s. What makes Beverly a standout from other Help-U-Sell broker/owners is that she is part of an elite club of people in real estate who have only ever worked within the Help-U-Sell system.

Beverly got her start as a mortgage banker. She met one of our long-term pillars of the Help-U-Sell community, John Powell, back when he was running his own office. It was through John that she became interested in real estate. “I was running a little Cajun restaurant at the time, because I like to try different things. I was already intrigued by the prospect of real estate, but John talked me into it. I decided to close the restaurant and learn something different,” Beverly said. After working with John’s office for a number of years, Beverly wanted to open her own office. Jimmie was a government retiree from both the military and the United States Postal Service. He wanted to stay active, so it was an easy post-retirement transition for him to make.

Beverly’s office appeared on a recent edition of our Top Producers list, noting that she has a goal of 25 to 30 closings for this year. The median price for a home in her market is about $190,000. She shared, “Right now we are experiencing a shortage of inventory. There are roughly 5,000 homes in my market area and as of this minute there are just 26 listings on the MLS. Homes don’t stay on the market very long – about 24 days. I have an advantage over my competitors when the consumer is educated. My goal is to give sellers knowledge of the savings conveyed by selling your home with us.”

When it comes to getting the word out, Beverly has learned diversification is key. “We are lucky to be in a very active market, but I’m always looking for ways to beef up advertising. We’ve tried many methods to find the most effective outcome, and we’ve been taking more risks to find that surprise result that will grab the right attention. My most recent endeavor is handing out the cloth reusable grocery bags, because people now must pay for the plastic bags from the grocery store. We’ve been getting a lot of positive traction off those bags, and of course we add some extra goodies in there to make it interesting for people,” Beverly explained. “I tried advertising on the sanitation station at the grocery store. We advertise in our local newspaper; which has a circulation of about 12,000. I’ve been running ads there for about a year-and-a-half.”

She continued, “We do the ‘Arounds’ postcards once a month. One of the things I learned early on, is that I don’t like postcards with a lot of verbiage on them. White space is valuable, because people don’t have the time to read a lot of fine print. If you can’t get your message across quickly and efficiently, the cumbersome language is a turn-off for them.” Her advertising message centers on: “Stop paying 6% to sell your home. Pay $3,950 instead.”

She added, “Everything has a learning curve in terms of discovering what will or won’t work. We try a little bit of everything and see what takes off. The reusable grocery bags did really well for us, and we got a listing and leads off that. However, the corresponding sanitation station hasn’t done as well for a variety of reasons, primarily poor location and visibility. Our concerns are being addressed and we expect to get the contract extended since it was a substantial investment. It’s all a part of the learning process.”

Being personal gets a lot of mileage for lasting impressions as well. Beverly sends out handwritten cards, but also enjoys cooking and baking. She is known for making candy, especially around the holidays, and makes a habit of handing it out to old and new clients which is always well received.

Jim and Beverly’s strategy for working together starts with collaborating in the morning to get the details of the day in order. “I do all the listing, selling and administrative duties. I send Jim out with buyers because he has a special touch with them. He puts up all of our signage and goes out on inspections. He’s great at filling in the gaps where is necessary,” she said appreciatively.

Beverly is still learning and has no plans on stopping. “I have many friends in this industry, my relationships with them help keep me apprised of how the market is fluctuating. I work to stay on top of our market so that I can provide expertise to our clients. I’m not a person who is driven by money, real estate is my passion. I’ve been doing this for so long now I don’t know anything else. That’s why at 75, I’m still working. I love what I do.”

Real Estate is About Helping Families

Partners at Help-U-Sell Options Unlimited, located in Terre Haute, Indiana, Bob and Brenda Fischer are next in our series of Broker/Owners who are also husband and wife.

Brenda has now been in real estate for 20 years, after a career in coordinating continuing medical education for physicians. Bob joined her six years ago, after 32 years in the digital audio industry.

There was a logical attraction for Brenda to sell houses, as she and Bob had developed a brisk business of flipping houses. “After a short period of time, you realize that you’re doing all this physical work, and then paying somebody else to make a profit off your houses. We then transitioned from flipping houses into managing rental properties, and we both liked that a lot. Selling houses ourselves was a natural progression,” Brenda said.

After Brenda got her real estate license, she learned the industry with another flat-fee brokerage in Terre Haute. She explained, “They closed down after three years, and I went to a traditional brokerage. What you quickly find out is that you pay for everything there. You pay for copies, popcorn, the phone, and, of course, you still had monthly fees. The other realtors were part-time, and that’s no way to grow and establish a business. The Assist-2-Sell franchise where I once worked had been tried and failed on three different occasions, all by different people, so that was not an option.”

When they made their decision, they chose Help-U-Sell Real Estate. “If you look at how Help-U-Sell is structured, it really is different. With other companies, you’re out there on your own. There is no coaching. No one to rely on or ask questions. A stricter structure meant fighting that much harder for business. With Help-U-Sell, I started attending the coaching groups and began working on recruiting with John Powell. If he doesn’t know the answer to a question, he always finds out. That’s not common,” Brenda added.

Expanding further on the coaching group, she said, “John Powell’s group is excellent. It’s not just teaching ‘dos and don’ts’. He won’t let you shy away from the hard tasks of how to make your business more efficient, like planning an advertising budget or generating appropriate goals for your office. He wants to help you stretch, versus just helping you make goals that you know that you will easily meet.”

When it comes to making a name for themselves, signage is first. “We had to drill down to figure out where to put our marketing dollars. Signs are our number one thing. We get more comments on our signage than anything else,” Bob said. “We advertise as a company, not as agents. You will see names and telephone numbers, but anyone in our office is qualified to take a call. Whoever can run with it, we’re good with it. Right now, we’re working on a new postcard. We called the home office and gave them the idea of what we wanted. It’s a lot simpler than doing it yourself.”

The couple advertises in their local weekly newspaper that has a readership of about 100,000. “Newspapers here are still incredibly important. People want to see their home for sale in the Valley Homes paper. We have tracked how business has been affected by advertising there by cutting down to every other week, as opposed to weekly. We lost 31 listings as a result and quickly changed back,” Brenda shared. “We reach out to our Center of Influence contacts four times a year with a postcard,  written notes, or phone calls. We also put up door hangers, even in awful weather. We communicate regularly with clients who bought or sold a property. We often share articles online.”

They also embrace fun methods of gaining exposure. “We always participate in the Labor Day parade and we bring all of our buyers and sellers with us. Everybody’s has matching t-shirts. Anywhere between 20 to 65 people show up, it’s a blast.
We also do the ‘Shop with a Cop’ holiday program for children in need every year,” she said.

Bob and Brenda did well for themselves in 2018, closing 55 transactions. They have established a goal of 94 transactions for 2019. Bob shared, “It’s going to be tough to pull off, because we are experiencing a shortage of houses in our area. Right now there are 441 houses in our MLS, normally it’s around 1,300 in a five-county area. The median price of homes was $92,000 just a few years ago; Because of the lack of inventory, they are now over $100,000. During the recession, hundreds of houses had to be torn down after falling into extreme disrepair. Builders are now putting up houses that are between $200,000 to $300,000, in a market where the spending range is $100,000. These more expensive homes aren’t selling, and we’re desperate for more entry-level homes. Our area realtors and lenders convened about this issue and have conveyed the need for starter homes to the builders. We’re not just here as business owners. Real estate is ultimately about helping families.”

When planning for the year ahead, they embrace the positive and the negative. Bob explained, “In real estate you expect and accept that it is always going to be a roller coaster. We’re busy now, but next month, things will slow down dramatically. We’ve learned to account for those shifts. It takes a special relationship to work with your spouse, but we’re a team. I may be out getting a listing, while Brenda is out showing a home. We’re not sitting here all day long. When we are here together, we’re usually at opposite ends of the building because there’s always something to do. Our goal is to always help each other out because this is an old-fashioned family business, and we depend on each other to create success.”  

Reinforcing an Excellent Reputation

Patrick Wood, Broker/Owner of Help-U-Sell Prestige Properties in Chino Hills, California, is invariably one of our top three Top Producers. A friend from Fullerton is credited with bringing Patrick into real estate in 1977.

The friend bought a traditional real estate franchise, and the numbers were enticing. Finding real estate clicked with him, Patrick ran with it, and has been on the go ever since.

Eventually Patrick opened his own Help-U-Sell Real Estate office. “There was an excellent reputation built around the brand name and being able to do 40% volume was a big attraction. In the beginning, I had some seller participation, but I only wanted to offer full-service. I was also working with my agents on a commission structure. Now, everybody who works for me is hourly or salary, plus a monthly bonus. They are paid for everything that they do, which means everyone is invested. I have found it is better for my clients that my office is as service-oriented as possible, and with my dedicated team, there is always someone available to show a house, attend an inspection, meet an appraiser, or just be here to manage something in the office and pick up the phone,” Patrick said. Including his indispensable office manager, Val, there are eight realtors on Patrick’s team.

He continued, “When I first opened, there was some pushback to overcome from the real estate community, and objections from consumers. Yet in my first year, we had 110 sides to show for our efforts. Consumers like keeping equity. We’re in a market where homes are regularly $900,000, and the house across the street sells in just 10 days. Consumers are looking for reason. When we present the facts, they gladly list with us.”

Naturally, we wanted to know about some of the secrets to Patrick’s success.

“We have streamlined ourselves continually over time. The name recognition of Help-U-Sell, combined with our branding efforts, gives us great visibility. We advertise in local media and social media. We keep up with our sign exposure: our regular signs, as well as open house signs – both do a great job of taking advantage of free exposure. Our general presence in the community is also strong because we all live here, work here, and serve our clients here. Our office is situated in a main thoroughfare of a retail center. After 15 years we still get walk-ins! We are involved in our community with children’s charities and sports teams where we get to put our name and number on t-shirts. It’s a foundation we are always adding to and reinforcing,” he said.

To aid in that reinforcement, the team is sending out ‘sold and saved’ postcards every time there is a closing. “In addition, we actively pursue Yelp reviews. Any ad spend always emphasizes full-service and savings. Every listing includes professional photos of the property, including aerial drone photos. We’re providing a seasoned agent to guide clients through this process. One of the bigger compliments we get is a constant stream of listings from other real estate industry professionals, like the appraisers who help us. The consistent effort keeps everything running on track. I see competitors looking at other ways to do business, but we find the old-fashioned efforts get the best results,” Patrick said.  

In addition to streamlining efforts, Patrick attributes much of his success to a highly-motivated team, all of whom share certain qualities. He explained, “My team members are extremely confident, detail-oriented, efficient, and personable. Everyone is a rational problem solver. It takes a certain strength to be in front of people presenting information and handling their objections. It’s a great position to be in where you can assign people to places where they’re most needed. We treat people like we’re talking with neighbors rather than strangers, because we do share this community.”

One hallmark for success is the ability to adapt during times of instability. Patrick said, “During the recession years, people had their equity position severely compromised. I made it a point to develop excellent relationships with the banks and became good at handling foreclosures. When the foreclosure market dried up, I evolved into short sales. Most homeowners have equity now, and since they remember all too well what it was like to not have equity, our service and fee structure makes sense to them.”

Patrick’s favorite time-saver is an app called ShowingTime. “It has had a huge impact on how I do business presently. It is simply an extension of my team, and only adds about five or six dollars more in overall listing fees. It easily saves me and my staff 3 to 4 hours every day, because we’re not calling back buyer’s agents who are trying to show the property,” he shared.

With so many years dedicated exclusively to one industry and one region, Patrick offers a lot of insight on the current conditions of his market.

“There are a lot of Californians leaving, and my fellow Help-U-Sell Broker/Owners in Arizona and Texas are seeing the influx of business from those leaving this state. I am seeing a huge inflow of buyers of residential and commercial properties from mainland China. We tried advertising in the local Chinese daily news but learned that buyers from abroad were finding us the same way as local buyers do: online. I’ve seen another trend of international buyers investing in properties without putting eyes on it. It’s a tight market here. Right now there are only 215 homes for sale city-wide, and when you consider the million-dollar or luxury homes, it shuts a lot of people out. It’s a healthy seller’s market with homes selling in an average of just 26 days. Sellers recognize our branding and value.”

The culmination of these efforts speak for themselves when the results come in. In 2018 Patrick and his team closed 119 transactions. For 2019, he has set a goal of 125 to 150. “Our track record of sales, in combination with the savings we offer is pretty compelling when we present to potential clients. The best thing my team does is fast follow up. I often hear from clients that my team members are as trustworthy as I am. That’s as big of a compliment as is possible to give. Being on top means you’re always in the grind, but this is a great place to be.”