By Kellee Katagi
If you hear rumors that the American Dream is dead, don’t believe them. As RE/MAX Mi Casa Broker/Owner Joe Castillo can attest, it’s as alive and vibrant as ever.
“Every day I see the American Dream come to life,” says Castillo, whose 54-agent brokerage in Chicagoland closed nearly 1,000 sales in 2017, with $156.8 million in volume. Roughly 70 percent of those transactions were with first-time homebuyers, most of them from the Spanish-speaking community of southwest Chicago and nearby suburbs.
“Within the Hispanic community, purchasing a home is huge—it’s a big part of the American Dream,” Castillo says. “Our clients are absolutely ecstatic when they get those keys for the first time, owning their own piece of land. Our clients’ excitement pushes us and gets us excited to work even harder for them.”
This hard work has helped make RE/MAX Mi Casa one of the nation’s top-producing Latino offices, according to the National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals (NAHREP). Castillo himself is one of NAHREP’s top 250 agents and among the Chicago Association of Realtors’ top 1 percent of real estate agents for six years running.
But while hard work is extremely important, it isn’t the whole story, Castillo says. “Showing up and working hard is half the battle,” he explains, but just as vital is truly knowing the community you’re serving. That starts, obviously with speaking the language. All of Mi Casa’s agents are fluent in both Spanish and English, and many of their transactions are conducted entirely in Spanish.
We’re constantly educating clients on how to … build up their credit and potentially buy six months to a year from now.” Joe Castillo
“Speaking the language is important—but it isn’t enough,” Castillo says. “It’s more about understanding the culture than anything else.” For example, he explains, within the Hispanic community, paying items off in cash and living without debt is a guide to live by. “But when there’s no debt, there’s no credit score. So these people who are clearly, clearly willing and able to pay a mortgage can’t buy, because the creditors can’t find them, so to speak. They’re in the shadows—all FICO sees is a person with no credit.
“We’re constantly educating clients on this—gaining their trust and teaching them how to acquire some safe debt so they can build up their credit and potentially buy six months to a year from now,” Castillo says.
Walking the Walk
Understanding Hispanic culture—and the road to first-time home-ownership—comes naturally to Castillo, because he himself is a product of the American Dream. His parents both immigrated to the United States in the 1970s, when they were 21—his father, Jose, from Mexico and his mother, Maria, from a small town in Ecuador. They met in Chicago, married at age 23 and got jobs at a men’s suit manufacturer.
“But they always had the entrepreneurial mind-set,” Castillo says. “They worked extremely hard and were able to save money. They bought real estate very early in their lives, so when I was born they already owned a three-unit in the Little Village area of Chicago.” By renting out two of the units, they were able to cover the cost of their own unit and save toward owning their own business. Eventually, at the suggestion of a friend, Jose became a real estate agent by day and a bus driver by night. A few years later, after injuring herself at her manufacturing job, Maria decided to join Jose in real estate.
“That’s when things really exploded for them and went to the next level—when they started working together as a team,” Castillo says. After about a decade in real estate, they co-founded Mi Casa, so Castillo “grew up in the business,” as he puts it. “They would include my sister and me in conversations about real estate around the kitchen table, and in the summers we would help out around the office. Real estate was a lifestyle.”
As an adult, Castillo bounced from school to the family business to the corporate world and to school again before landing back at Mi Casa in 2005. He is now the majority owner, with his mother as a co-owner. Both Jose and Maria are still some of Mi Casa’s top producers. “There’s almost always a Castillo in the office—whether it’s me or one of my parents—to answer questions or help with anything that might come up. That’s something the agents in this office always appreciate.”
Mi Casa agent Erika Villegas agrees. “We’re all one big family here,” says Villegas, who joined the brokerage in 2008. “Agents have had difficult times, and Joe has always supported us through that. And we cheer each other on. Joe is a great leader, and that’s a big part of why we’ve been successful for so many years.” Castillo also encourages and helps agents to invest in real estate themselves, so they too are the embodiment of the American Dream.
All in the Family
This familial atmosphere is invaluable in the Hispanic community, which highly values family and relationships. It also gives rise to one of Mi Casa’s fundamental philosophies: an emphasis on long-term relationships over one-time transactions. “We have multigenerational clients here—up to three generations of family members,” Castillo says. “Even through the 2008 financial crisis, we didn’t focus on making money in the short term. We were always putting clients first and looking to create relationships—lifelong relationships—with our clients, so we knew they would come back to us and want to keep working with us. That’s what occurred and what allowed us to survive and thrive.”
And thrive they have. “We are the No. 1 office in the area, so everyone knows the Castillos and our office,” Villegas says. “Anyone you talk to has either had a transaction with Mi Casa or they know someone who has. Joe is always making sure we focus not just on one-time transactions, but on building our name in the community.”
Castillo also grows Mi Casa’s reputation through community service: assisting schools and other local nonprofits and serving on the board of a local YMCA. “He’s always giving back to the community,” Villegas attests.
And as Castillo knows first-hand, both from his upbringing and from his daily front-row seat to first-time home ownership, helping people get into sustainable homes is one of the best ways to give back. As he puts it: “Real estate is a business that can change lives.”