Editor’s Note: This is the first installment in the “Industry Warriors” series, a collection of profiles on veteran real estate professionals and loan originators who produced high volumes pre-9/11 and pre-2008, weathered those economic downturns and rebounded even stronger.
Like many seasoned Realtors, Leigh Brown has had to nimbly adapt and maneuver through several market cycles – the downs, the ups and all in between.
Brown, the broker/owner of One Community Real Estate in the Greater Charlotte, North Carolina, area, marks 20 years as a Realtor this year. She weathered 9/11 and the recession from 2007-2009, and approaches the current economic environment with a focus on her community and neighbors first. HousingWire spoke to Brown about her strategies during past downturns and her advice for those in the real estate industry today.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
HousingWire: What are you doing within your real estate business to adapt to the current market situation?
Leigh Brown: The biggest thing you have to do right now to adapt to (the) current market situation is be available and not be sales-y.Right now, the adaptation should be, ‘I’m doing X, Y and Z because I can’t do real estate as normal.’ So I did my first virtual listing appointment by Zoom. That was easier than expected. I coached my sellers to send me a video of their house. They’re 80 years old. I was so proud of them. I coached a buyer through what to ask the home inspector because I couldn’t physically be there because of county rules. And so you can say you’re doing X but it worked out differently than expected. And your clients will appreciate you for it because they do not expect perfection right now. Now you get to say, ‘I don’t really know, but let me find out.’ That’s a huge switch for most people’s real estate business because they’re used to being the expert who knows everything.
The other big change that’s happened in my real estate business in the last two weeks of being at home: I have cut expenses as hard and fast as I can because I am on commission and without commission dollars, there is no income. Now I’m very grateful for the National Association of Realtors because for the first time ever, we have some help for independent contractors. We’re still not 100% sure how it’s going to work, but that’s where our political advocacy really paid off because otherwise you’d have even more people reporting unemployment than before. And as a team leader and a brokerage owner, I do have employees.
I’ve already applied for the payroll protection plan to give some cash infusion so that I can make payroll, and that’s a huge adjustment to make. I made a social media post two days ago about the payroll protection program because my audience is not just clients of real estate, but the clients that buy real estate from me and sell real estate from me, a lot of them are small business owners. They need to know about that payroll protection, too. So back to (the motto of) “Be the resource,” I’m just talking about anything helpful I can talk about, and very little of it relates to real estate. Agents who are hammering real estate right now are putting a nail in their own coffin.
HW: How are you encouraging your team to stay positive during this time? How are you staying positive?
LB: We’re using Zoom for our team meetings so we can still look at each other. The beauty of Zoom is we can see each other’s faces, you can see each other’s contextual clues … There’s a lot of relaxation that comes from seeing each other. The other thing that I’m doing to encourage my team is I’m just reminding them who we have to call and that we all have to be making phone calls. It’s not just the sales staff. It’s the admin team, too, and there’s different things that they can say, but they can still be touching their neighbors and checking on their neighbors because a lot of what we’re doing right now, of course, has zero to do with sellers and buyers, and everything to do with neighbors and humans. How can we help? Who needs help? What could we be doing? And that’s where we’re finding our positivity, is finding things you can take action on.
For me to stay positive is hard because I am used to being around people and I think a lot of Realtors, especially mortgage lenders, we’re people people, and we’ve been away from our human contact. And with that happening, I have to think of what I can do that’s positive. So every day I’ve been posting a joke on Instagram… There’s a lot of positive feedback I get on this. People are saying, “Thank you; I needed a positive moment in my day,” and it’s not about planting false hope, it’s just about not letting the world drag you completely down.
I’ve also started posting myself making supper at night because I love to cook. I can let other people into my kitchen, and it helps me get supper going when I don’t want to because I know I need to make a video. That’s an accountability source, but I always have fun when I get started and feedback is positive.
This is where you set yourself apart; it’s about the deepening of your brand during a bad market. Now’s the time to be the neighbor and the human who’s got information, is helpful and is forging ahead. That’s who somebody needs. They need somebody who’s going to help them figure it out, and the person who says, “I’m going to be vulnerable and transparent,” that’s who they want.
HW: What did you do in past economic downturns to successfully navigate that time?
LB: On 9/11, I’d only been in the business for a year and a half. And on 9/11, I had buyers in my car who were transferring from New York City to Charlotte when we had word come in. I will never forget that day, it was surreal. I remember how the market just went so quiet because there was so much fear. But I also remember the churches were full. There were people leaning on community and leaning on faith, and we pulled through that one.
And then the Great Recession, the day it hit me was July 31, 2007,because that was the day American Home Mortgage went under, and that was my preferred lender at the time. I had seven closings that day. I’d had a great month. All of them had packages; they were all dry. No funds came in because the bank went under, and so we had to find new funding sources, which for all of them we did right at that moment. But within a couple more weeks, the funding was gone. There was no purchase money to be had, and the phones just stopped ringing. That one was more severe than 9/11.
With the Great Recession you had underlying issues in the financial markets. In the worst of that market, I turned to education because I decided that none of my clients were going to go to foreclosure if I could help it. So I learned short sales like a champ, built relationships with asset managers. I wasn’t even working the foreclosure market at that time, except to work it with buyers occasionally. I learned all sides of it, dug in, took every class and my business went up every year of the last recession. My business was exploding because I knew what the options were and every buyer, every seller – they need to know pros and cons of their different alternatives. That’s how I came thorough the last downturn; it’s what we’ll do now.
HW: Given your history in those past economic downturns, how can we pull through now that the spring buying season has been drastically impacted?
LB: There is no spring market. The federal government has told us that the stay-at-home needs to go through April 30. That means, if we’re able to start working again, in full steam in May, you still won’t have full steam because you’ll have had people out of work for two months who are going to have to take time to get reacquainted with things. We’ll watch it recover – it will recover – because we still have supply issues. There’s no question. The inventory issues aren’t solved because the market went quiet.
I can’t stress enough that we need to be honest about the fact that this is the time frame when lenders and Realtors make the bulk of their annual income. They spend down their reserves and plan to make it back in March, April, May, June, and that’s not going to happen this year. I know where their fear comes from. But I will tell you that when you hit rock bottom on your finances, and you’ve got an empty bank account, that’s when you better have a good honest conversation with yourself about how to not have that happen again if you plan to stay in a commission-based field.
HW: What piece of advice from your history in downturns would you give to others in your field trying to navigate COVID-19?
LB: Get a mentor. Get somebody you can call and say, “This sucks. Is it ever going to end?” and that person can say, “Yes it’s going to end because the markets are cyclical.” Look, our upmarket has lasted for too long. We had a bull market, and no bull market lives forever. And they also don’t die of old age. They all die of something. Well, this one, the bull market died of a pandemic that nobody could have anticipated. You’ve got to have somebody that will remind you with perspective it’s going to be okay.
You may not get paid for the next six to nine months. What are you going to do? Well, first of all, you better find out what resources are available, state and national, to help you with unemployment, if that’s going to be available. We still don’t know the details. Should you get a side job? Maybe. Amazon’s hiring. Uber Eats is hiring. DoorDash is hiring. Is that what you’ve made as a professional? No, but could it help give you something mentally to focus on so you could get through it? It might. And what if you go to work at Amazon in the distribution center and you meet a lot of people who would normally be at work. Then they go back to work and you go back to work. You’ve expanded your sphere and shown that you’re the kind of person that does what’s necessary. That’s a great message to put out there.
Last time in the Great Recession, I was so scared of the loss of commission income, I went and took organ lessons. I’ve been a pianist my whole life. I went and learned how to play the organ looking for a church job, thinking I’d would go get a side job to help with income. I never got hired as a church organist and my real estate business stayed busy, but mentally it gave me a backup plan. Sometimes you just have to have the mental backup plan of applying for the job at Amazon, then you only work there three weeks before the markets are turned back and on, and now you’re busy. Great. Be thankful for the opportunity. Do something. Take action.