- The Washington Times - Friday, November 24, 2000

In this age of specialization, it is no surprise that the notion of targeting a specific segment of the public has spread to the real estate business.

Like doctors, lawyers and radio station executives, Realtors are seeking to fit a specific market. Interested in high-end, luxury properties? You may want to work with a Realtor who deals exclusively with million-dollar homes. Speak Spanish? You probably will want a Realtor who is fluent in the language.

While the general-practice Realtor is far from a relic of the past, the specialty server the agent who tailors a practice to the needs of a distinct population well may be the wave of the future.

Specialty or niche Realtors tend to deal with specific types of buyers or specific kinds of properties. They may cater to senior citizens, first-time home buyers, those interested in securing a foreclosed property or those wishing to buy a property for investment.

Filling a need

The kind or quality of niches is limited only by the imagination. Each fulfills a perceived need.

Say you want to buy a historic house. For both home buyers and Realtors, buying a historic property always has been somewhat problematic. Historic-preservation requirements, conservation easements and special tax conditions must be considered.

Finding a Realtor who is willing and able to cope with all the issues associated with historic homes can provide a great advantage.

"There's a very specific type of buyer who is interested in historic properties," says Deborah Saunders of Coldwell Banker Stevens Realtors in Old Town Alexandria. "They're less focused on amenities than ordinary buyers, and they have to be willing to put in the high level of care it takes to maintain the home."

It takes a special Realtor to deal with them and also with the assorted builders, renovators and decorators involved in historic projects.

"We know historic properties well, so we're able to see and appreciate changes in the market," Miss Saunders says.

That's different from the attitude of many general-practice Realtors who might hesitate to take on a historic property because it is simply too time-consuming for them.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation recently initiated a series of workshops, complete with a certificate of completion, to address this issue and prepare Realtors for this niche market.

Uniform consideration

Each niche has its own special considerations. Look at the distinctive needs of members of the military, for example.

"We speak [Veterans Administration]," says Ruth Howell of Century 21 Howell & Associates in Annandale. "We try to identify the special needs of the military."

Leamon "Pete" Howell, the broker in the firm, retired from the Army as a colonel in 1985 after a career as an artillery officer. With such experience, the Howells have first-hand knowledge of the rewards and frustrations of military life.

"I know about the trailing-spouse syndrome," Mrs. Howell says. A Certified Relocation Specialist, she helps arrange day care, find job information and steer spouses toward a support network, helping to ease the transition for military spouses.

In addition to buyer agents, the office also has a large property-management division to assist those who wish to rent out their homes during overseas assignments.

During the past 15 years, Howell & Associates has established a name for itself as a real estate firm that caters to military personnel.

The company advertises in military papers, sponsors base activities and even operates a military-friendly Web site. The best method for gaining clients, though, is word of mouth, Mrs. Howell says.

"We want to be proactive in getting those military customers," she says, "but it's always great to hear that we're known in the community as people who will work for them."

Foreign affairs

The technology corridors along Interstate 270 in Maryland and the Dulles Toll Road in Virginia have attracted a number of international clients in recent years. Those clients often have their own special considerations, says Rachel Renuzzi of Coldwell Banker Fred Hetzel Realty in Leesburg, Va.

Mrs. Renuzzi, who represents clients from all over the globe, is working toward certification as an International Property Specialist, which will allow her to deal directly with overseas financial institutions and their clients.

"Being a foreigner myself," the Australian-born Realtor says, "I can relate to some of the surprises they face."

Although she has been in the United States for 30 years, Mrs. Renuzzi says she knows all about the kind of shocks that can confront the international home buyer. Whether it is the overwhelming size of the bathroom, a "too elaborate" floor plan or even a seemingly odd layout of the kitchen, she can help calm fears and allay suspicions.

"It's difficult to explain to Americans the kinds of differences people pick up," she says. "You might expect someone from England or Australia to understand, but really, they're speaking a totally different language."

For international clients as well as Americans who have emigrated from other countries, language barriers often are minimized by Realtors equipped to converse in a language other than English.

The language barrier is not the only one to overcome; cultural nuances and national norms also must be taken into account.

Knowledge of cultural differences and individual expectations is the key to a successful sale and a satisfied customer. For Realtors specializing in Japanese clients, for example, knowing details such as the need to accept a client's business card with both hands and to take a good look at it rather than simply squirrel it away goes a long way toward increasing mutual comfort and trust.

Hispanic home buyers make up the fastest-growing segment of home buyers in the marketplace, according to the National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals (NAHREP). Real estate offices increasingly are designating specific Realtors, fluent in Spanish and familiar with cultural expectations, to meet the demand.

Meanwhile, language-translation services are on the rise. At least one realty Web site (www.RealEstateEspanol.com) offers residential listings, virtual tours, school profiles and Realtor information exclusively in Spanish.

The rich niche

Another growing niche in the real estate business is for Realtors who deal almost exclusively with high-end properties. According to Builder Online (www.builderonline.com), single-family homes costing $250,000 or more make up a larger share of the real estate market than ever before. Builder Online also says that with the number of affluent households expected to near 20 million in 2010, up from 1.8 million in 1996, interest in this very lucrative market is high.

Realtors to the rich need to be ready to accommodate quirky requests. One Realtor recalled a woman who insisted that a whirlpool for her dog be placed alongside her own.

Realtors who work in this market also have to be ready to deal in a relatively shorter amount of time.

"Really wealthy people often don't like to wait," says the Realtor asked to find a doggie whirlpool, who asked not to be identified. "They can put their money on the table and take it away just as easily. You have to be ready to go with the deal when they are."

In the end, whether you are single or a senior, interested in purchasing a second or third home or just getting started, using a specialty Realtor can make the difference in getting what you really want. Who wouldn't want the surgeon who has performed the same operation more than 100 times rather than one who has done it only twice?

From the expertise that comes with experience to the familiarity that comes when your Realtor has walked in your shoes, it's nice to know someone out there speaks your language.

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