Nicole Morris drums up 98 percent of her residential real estate sales through overseas buyers. The result? The Palm Beach market center agent closed 23 homes worth a collective $4.9 million during 2012, and expects to have an even bigger 2013.
For Morris, international sales are a natural. Born in Canada, she speaks three languages – French, English and Italian – and has developed a keen understanding of both North American and European cultures. Morris never actually tried to “break in” to working with overseas buyers. She has focused on international prospects since the beginning of her career and suspects she always will.
We caught up with the international real estate specialist to get her take on where the opportunities for agents are among foreign buyers – and how to get started in this profitable niche.
KW Blog: Why is working with foreign buyers a lucrative opportunity in the current real estate market?
Morris: I think working with foreign buyers is an excellent way a real estate agent can grow his business over the next five years. There are fewer opportunities with American buyers because they are still waiting for lending institutions to offer mortgages at 3 percent cash down again. In order to survive in the real estate business, you need to focus part of your business on foreign buyers who have the desire to own U.S. property and have the cash to put down.
KW Blog: Being in Miami, we imagine you work with foreign buyers from all over the world. Who are they?
Morris: Buyers are coming from all over Asia, Europe, Canada and Latin America. Last year I sold six properties to a single buyer from Singapore.
KW Blog: What are the general buying habits of foreign buyers?
Morris: Foreign buyers don’t necessarily look for the best residential real estate deal first. They look for the best location. After they’ve found the best location, then they want the best deal. And they usually aren’t in a hurry.
KW Blog: Interesting, explain that.
Morris: Honestly, American culture wants everything to move so fast. This scares international buyers and sellers who don’t want to be pushed or pressured. They want to feel comfortable with the process. I never ask foreign buyers to give me a timeframe for their purchase. That is considered rude.
KW Blog: In terms of sensitive subjects, where do their finances fall?
Morris: Financial issues are the same way. You can ask foreign buyers what they would be comfortable spending, but don’t ask them how much they have to spend. The idea is to create trust with them so they don’t feel like they are going to be taken advantage of. They are scared to be fooled. As soon as they feel comfortable, they will open up their wallets and pay cash, whether that’s $100,000 or $1 million. You have to be patient.
KW Blog: How are you marketing your listings to attract international buyers?
Morris: All of my business comes through word of mouth. If I sell homes to three foreign buyers, they bring me six more friends who want to buy a home here, too.
KW Blog: So it’s double?
Morris: Yes. Six clients bring 12 more and 12 bring 24. I used to spend $15,000 to $25,000 a year advertising to different countries in their language. Now I don’t have to do that anymore because I have such a large network of satisfied customers.
KW Blog: Can you give us an example?
Morris: Absolutely. When they arrive in the United States, I have someone pick them up from the airport. Sometimes I pay for their hotel room for two or three days. I take them to dinner at a very nice restaurant. I take them to the beach. I show them the best of South Florida. I make them feel like they are kings. We continue to hold their hand even after the closing. We offer them assistance setting up their electric and phone accounts. My strategy is to work one-on-one and offer my clients amazing service – and that pays off. When they begin sending pictures back to their friends, that’s the best publicity I can get. They don’t want to work with anybody else because of the quality of service – and they tell their friends.
KW Blog: What technology solutions do you use to facilitate the transaction and the communication around it?
Morris: Mostly email. I send photos of the listings to foreign buyers to see if they are interested. I use Skype to communicate so we can see each other and build a rapport. That makes them feel more comfortable.
KW Blog: What are the unexpected things that happen when you’re working with international buyers?
Morris: Foreign buyers can get intimidated because we use a lot of abbreviations and lingo, such as HUD, Freddie and Fannie, HOA or POA. In America, that’s part of the culture. But foreigners get lost. Most American agents don't put themselves in the foreign buyer’s shoes. What you have to realize is that foreign buyers don’t want to ask what the abbreviations mean because they don’t want to look like they don’t know. Ultimately, they won't call an agent back if they feel uncomfortable.
KW Blog: What other cultural challenges come up?
Morris: Foreign buyers don’t understand how even small things like setting up phone service work in the United States. Think about what would happen if you went to Italy tomorrow to try to buy a home. You’d be pretty lost. That’s how they feel when they come here to buy a home. We have to be careful as service professionals not to overwhelm them, so I try to explain everything slowly, step by step.
KW Blog: How can Keller Williams Realty help agents break in to this opportunity?
Morris: Keller Williams market centers could create an international team, so when someone calls who has an accent, they could ask them if they speak another language. If the person speaks Portuguese or Spanish, you could give them to an agent who speaks their language so they feel more comfortable. Agents could also look into special designations such as the KW Global Property Specialist.
KW Blog: What's the first thing an agent should do if they're interested in serving international clients?
Morris: Take a class on selling to foreign buyers. That’s what I did and it helped me succeed. But it’s mostly attitude, because the client is going to choose to work with you in the first three to five minutes after you meet. Speaking slowly and showing that you understand their needs will set you apart from the competition. Also, if you speak another language, you should add that to your business cards, Website and direct mailings. Network in your church and other groups you participate in where people speak the same foreign language as you. That’s a great way to start building your network.
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