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Older sellers, wiser agents; Empathy: Agents develop it when undergoing special training to help senior clients through the labyrinth of selling their homes.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's understandable that Garnet Gura wouldn't know very much about today's real estate market.

She had spent the last 47 years in the same house in Middle River, working and raising a family. But when she decided to move to Oakcrest Village, a retirement community in Parkville, she needed help selling her home. Gura found an agent to list her house, but she rarely heard from him.

"He never bothered with me for three months," Gura remembered. "He didn't really try."

She obtained a release from her listing agreement and then contacted O'Conor Piper & Flynn ERA and was given the names of Lacy Rutherford and Lee Eder, agents who were part of the firm's Senior Advantage program.

Established almost two years ago, the program is based on the concept that senior citizens can benefit from the help of real estate agents trained to deal with their special needs and problems.

"These agents have a great deal of empathy for their clients and know what an overwhelming experience it is for them to sell their homes and move," said Diana Miller, director of the company's program.

"Lacy and Lee were so nice; they did everything possible. They were really interested in my welfare," said Gura, now comfortably settled in Oakcrest.

The Senior Advantage program is part of a trend emerging across the nation. Realty companies have come to appreciate that America is aging; by 2000 there will be 75 million people over age 50.

"A very substantial part of the real estate market in the future will involve seniors," said James P. O'Conor, chief executive officer of OPF ERA.

In response to this trend, in-house programs, entire corporate divisions, and specialized training seminars are being developed, all based on the belief that it takes more than traditional skills to sell a senior citizen's home.

Other local realty companies have formed senior divisions as well. Coldwell Banker Grempler Realty Inc. (CBG), in partnership with Catonsville Community College, created a Seniors Issues and Housing Opportunities program to train its agents to offer special care for senior clients.

"Our program brought in an elder-law attorney who explained senior issues to our agents, and nurses told of the emotional issues that concern the elderly," said Dawn Covahey, corporate sales manager for CBG. "There's a stigma that the Realtor just wants to sell the house and doesn't care where the client goes, but this training enhances the human side of the business."

"Today's senior has been in their home an average of 53 years," Miller said. "Back when they bought a house, they signed one piece of paper. Today, they're amazed that they have to sign 30 pieces, plus worry about radon tests."

Rutherford and Eder, who work as a team out of O'Conor, Piper & Flynn ERA's White Marsh office, say clients often are overwhelmed by today's complexity in buying and selling a home.

"When they bought a house, they agreed on a price and shook hands," Eder said. "They're not used to the practice of the seller contributing to the closing or paying points; it's all very strange to them."

When a older homeowner contacts OPF, a personal move manager is assigned to assess his or her needs and coordinates dates such as when the senior wants to move. If the seller doesn't have a preference, an agent trained to deal with seniors is assigned.

The agent meets with the client and do a market analysis to set a realistic selling price. This is a key part of the process; too high a price means a long stay on the market.

"The house has to be priced correctly," said Eder.

At this point, a lot of Realtors would put up a sign and never be seen again. But a seniors agent is in constant contact with the client, calling every week even if no one comes to look at the house. They become part of the senior's support system.

"Seniors require a whole lot more attention than the average buyer," said Paul Myers, an OPF ERA agent in Westminster. "It means sitting and talking on their porch swing."

To help clients through such an emotional time takes patience and the ability to listen. "It's all about rapport," said Rutherford. Seniors are wary of being taken advantage of and the agent must win their confidence. Gaining the client's trust doesn't come overnight. "You can't be pushy," Eder said. "You have to let them work at their own pace."

An agent dealing with younger clients may look at a house as just a house, whereas the agent who has been trained to assist seniors knows that the house he's selling contains 50 years of memories. Parting with the house may be economically necessary, but sentimental value makes the move more emotional. "The hardest thing for me was leaving my home," said Gura. "Oakcrest is very nice, but it's an apartment, not really a home."

Another aspect that makes the issue more personal is that many agents, too, are older.

"Many agents are about to face or are facing the same issues," said Covahey, referring to the part of the sales force that's approaching age 55. That segment of the industry now looks at the senior client with increased compassion.

This works to an agent's advantage, according to George Boudreau, who works out of Long and Foster Real Estate Inc.'s Towson North office. "It takes an agent who's a little older and has some experience," said Boudreau, who describes himself as a senior citizen. "There's no question the elderly hit it off with someone closer to their own age."

Jean Backman, a management consultant who formed Coldwell Banker Stevens' senior division, saw an ad by the California-based Senior Advantage Real Estate Council, an organization that teaches agents nationwide how to reach the senior market. Upon completion of a 12-hour course, graduates receive the SRES designation as senior real estate specialists.

"It was exactly what I wanted to do and I followed up," Backman said. Twenty-seven of Coldwell Banker Stevens' agents have the SRES designation.

Tim Corliss, president of SAREC, believes that it is the combination of selling skills and counseling skills that make a real estate agent successful in this field.

Maximize their equity

"Most seniors don't have a plan in the event that they had to sell their house," Corliss said. "The agent can sit down with them and come up with a plan to maximize the equity they've built up over the years."

But, instead of acting alone, the Realtor becomes part of a financial team consisting of an attorney, a financial planner or an accountant that works with the client, offering different options.

"At their age, there's no second chance to get back that equity if they make an uninformed financial decision," explained Corliss, who has been in real estate for 38 years, including a stint as president of the Los Angeles Realtors Association.

He's seen a lot of bad decisions in his career and feels strongly that a team approach can prevent this.

"There are a lot of investment vehicles to consider. For instance, a seller could take back a first mortgage at 6.5 percent instead of depositing all the equity in a 4.5 percent certificate of deposit account," Corliss said, adding that the senior also could set up a trust or obtain a reverse mortgage. "The tax implications of a transaction are usually never considered."

The senior market is not homogenous, but made up of distinct segments according to Corliss.

Tell their friends

"Those born from 1901 to 1924 are the GI generation and are usually financially conservative. Then there's the silent generation from 1925 to 1945 and the post-1945 baby boomers; both are pretty financially savvy," he explained.

No matter what the age, Corliss insists, it takes time to gain the trust and especially the loyalty of the senior client. "Referrals are an important part of this age group; if you do well by them, they'll tell their friends about you."

Capturing the senior market is now becoming a staple of continuing education for real estate professionals. The Real Estate Institute, based in Annapolis, offers a wide range of courses on a variety of topics including, "Targeting the Active Adult." Its brochure reminds Realtors that 6,000 Americans turn 65 every day, making it the fastest-growing segment of the industry and that success in this area depends on an understanding of the market.

"Maryland is strategically placed to serve this market," said Michael Crosby, president of the institute. Most seniors won't retire and move to Florida or Arizona, but will stay within a three-hour drive of where they're living now, he explained. "The Eastern Shore is an attractive place, especially Cambridge, Easton and Salisbury. Studies show that retirees will choose a small local town."

Satisfaction

Aside from the extra care and attention senior agents give their clients, their main job is still to sell a house and earn a commission. But working with seniors goes beyond the commission, according to many agents.

"There's a great deal of satisfaction in helping them," Rutherford said. "They're remarkable people."

Myers agreed. "If an agent is just focused on making a dollar, then they shouldn't be working with seniors."

Senior suggestions

To find an agent who specializes in working with senior citizens, call the realty company's corporate office or the local office near you and request an agent who has taken specific training in dealing with senior issues.

To find out more about specialized training for agents, call: Senior Advantage Real Estate Council at 800-500-4564 or the Real Estate Institute at 410-841-6100.

Pub Date: 2/21/99

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