Today, Rachel Feldstein will be holding an open house for three hours, hoping to find a buyer for a client. That's a typical Sunday for most Baltimore Realtors, except that Ms. Feldstein will probably be two or even three times the age of some of the prospects who come in for a look.
She's 83 and probably one of the oldest active real estate agents in the country. Rachel Feldstein has been selling real estate for 52 years. She is finding and selling homes for the grandchildren of her first clients.
"I have a very large following," Ms. Feldstein says. Most of her business now is through referrals, keeping her phone ringing in the Lutherville office of Prudential Preferred Properties, where she works. Recently, she sold $1 million in real estate in 30 days.
"I don't feel like I've been in business that long," the diminutive Ms. Feldstein says. "It's never been a business for me. It's been a labor of love, it really has been."
That is not idle talk, according to those who know her. Retain Ms. Feldstein's services, and you gain a therapist, counselor and confidante as you make your way over the curves and bumps of a real estate deal.
"Everybody is very special to her," said Roxane Zach, manager of the Prudential Lutherville office.
"When I get a customer, they come and they sit on that sofa," Ms. Feldstein says, gesturing to a couch in her elegantly decorated Cross Keys condominium. "I've written contracts in my apartment. I've had settlements in my apartment."
She works seven days a week, most weeks.
"If I have to meet somebody at 7 o'clock a.m. because they're taking a plane at 10, or if somebody wants to see a unit at 10 o'clock at night and there are lights on in the building, I'll show it," she says. "I've shown units in my robe with a raincoat over the top of it."
"I don't think the word 'can't' is in her vocabulary," Ms. Zach said. "She has an incredible positive attitude. She's just a powerhouse."
The average age of U.S. Realtors has moved higher in recent years, reflecting a steady decline in the proportion of younger agents over the past two decades, according to the National Association of Realtors. Today, the median age is over 46, up from 43 in 1987. But only 7 percent of U.S. Realtors are over 65, a figure that hasn't moved much in 20 years. The NAR doesn't even break out percentages for agents in their 70s and 80s.
But Ms. Feldstein drives up Charles Street to her office every day at 7:30, often stopping to buy food for her co-workers. Until the middle of the afternoon, most days, she's showing homes, bringing in listings, racking up sales.
The former Rachel Ellen Ochstein learned her work ethic from her parents, who emigrated from Europe some nine decades ago. Her father, Abraham Ochstein, came from Germany; her mother, Rose, from Russia. They made their way to Fort Wayne, Ind., where Abraham's brother was married to Rose's sister. Abraham and Rose would have four daughters, beginning with Rachel in 1912.
Her father manufactured bags and barrels in Fort Wayne, a business that let him send Rachel and her sisters through college. During the Depression years, scraping up tuition was difficult enough. Sending daughters to college was remarkable in an era when few women received education beyond high school.
Abraham Ochstein would tell skeptical friends that he wanted his daughters to be able to support themselves. If they found a man like him, he would joke, he wouldn't want them to have to stay. Ms. Feldstein recalls her father never buying new suits so he could pay the $1,000 a year it cost to send his Rachel downstate to Bloomington.
She graduated in 1936 with degrees in physiology and nursing, and immediately headed east to Baltimore to study for her master's degree at the Johns Hopkins University. While earning her degree at Hopkins, she met and married attorney Samuel H. Feldstein.
"He was very conservative," Ms. Feldstein recalls. "He didn't think he could afford marriage. I had a Good Housekeeping magazine. and it showed that you could furnish three rooms for $350. So I ended up proposing to him, and he accepted."
World War II enlistments had depleted the ranks of college instructors, and she was recruited by the University of Baltimore to teach microbiology, physiology and chemistry to nursing students. A university career beckoned, and it paid well for the times.
But through her husband, she was sidetracked into her life's calling. Her husband did legal work for real estate transactions, and she noticed that enterprising Realtors could make a good living in Baltimore, which was booming with wartime industries. So she launched her real estate business, working out of her husband's office in the Knickerbocker Building.
At the end of two years, she applied for a broker's license at the Maryland Real Estate Commission. She recalls the man at the commission asking her name. She told him. And then he asked her the name of her husband. She told him that. "And he said, 'OK,' and he gave me a license. That was it, 52 years ago," Ms. Feldstein recalled.
And thus was Feldstein Realty Co. launched. Today, a prospective agent must take 90 hours of classes and pass a state examination to be licensed as a Realtor. A broker must take another 135 hours of classes, and have been a licensed, practicing salesperson for three years.
In the 1940s, before the days of the multiple-list databases, brokerages maintained their own listings of homes for sales. "The only way I could find out what houses were on the market, VTC my husband would take me down to the Sunpapers [when the first edition was printed] and I'd see what was advertised. That was my inventory."
Gradually, she built up the company to 18 agents. But the real estate industry was evolving into a business dominated by large, regional companies with hundreds of agents. Eventually, the offers grew too tempting and she sold out, realizing that it would be too difficult to compete as a small business.
"The salespeople will not come to a small company," she said. Realtors want the technological, educational and marketing strength of a large company, Ms. Feldstein said. But she stayed on with the new owners, and her company was sold several times to large national franchises. She's been a constant, even as the name on the door has changed and the offices have moved to the county.
Ms. Feldstein has been a widow since she was in her mid-50s; her husband died in 1968 after three decades of marriage. She also lost one of her sons, James, who died two decades ago. Her other son, Richard, is a Realtor with Prudential.
Ms. Feldstein is in good health, swimming four to five times a week. She drives to Washington to indulge her passion for art and museums. Her condo is a gallery for paintings and sculpture by clients.
"If a person's an artist who I've sold a unit for, I always buy a painting," she says.
She remains active in Hopkins alumni activities. On holidays like New Year's Day, she'll have hors d'oeuvres on one floor of her Harper House home, dinner with another set of friends, and dessert at someone else's condo.
And retirement is simply not to be contemplated.
"Not until it comes time to be done and be buried," is how she puts it.
"I wouldn't give it up for anything." Not as long as friends call her and say, 'Rachel, I need your help.'
L "When I'm put in that position, why would I want to retire?"