The Condo Equation: How to Thrive in This Rewarding Niche

Soha Fontaine
By Deborah Ball Kearns // Photographs by John O'Boyle & Jason Millstein

For some buyers, single-family homes offer everything they’re looking for. But for those who prefer less upkeep, cozier spaces and the advantages of having neighbors in the same structure, condo living can be ideal.

Selling condos is selling a lifestyle, and RE/MAX agents in many markets have become very successful at it.

Dean Selvey is one of them.

In the Phoenix area, where condos are in high demand, Selvey is a seasoned pro who completely understands the niche. He’s been known as the “Condo King” for years – and with good reason: He’s sold more than 4,000 condos in the past two decades.

Right now, with little or no condo financing available for local buyers and many condo associations left in tatters by the impact of the housing downturn, most of Selvey’s buyers are Canadian snowbirds and all-cash investors.

“We’ve actually had to build more developments here because the demand is so high,” says Selvey, a Circle of Legends and Chairman’s Club member with RE/MAX Excalibur Realty in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Across the U.S., existing condo and cooperative inventory dipped to about 9.7 months worth in 2011, from 11.9 months in 2010, according to annual data from NAR. Sales, meanwhile, climbed in December 2011, jumping 8.7 percent over November. The largest leap was in the West, where condo sales rose 40 percent.

Dean SelveyMuch of Selvey’s success comes from attracting Canadians who are looking for their place in the sun, so his affiliation with RE/MAX – the No. 1 real estate brand in Canada as well as the U.S. – is a huge competitive advantage. In addition to generating RE/MAX referrals, he markets directly to potential buyers with clever taglines such as “You’ve worked all your life to relax this hard.” Because many Canadian clients prefer lock-and-go gated communities that can provide positive cash flow in rental income, he’s selective about the options he markets to them.

One of the keys to being successful in condos, Selvey says, is focusing on them.

“It’s hard to distinguish yourself in this niche if you’re doing everything,” Selvey says. “It’s better to become a condo expert. Build a specially branded website, farm your areas effectively, and make it a point to know your communities better than anyone else in your market.”

Finding The Pulse

The commuter city of Hoboken, N.J., lies right across the Hudson River from New York City. For those who want their own piece of real estate without the astronomical prices of Manhattan, Hoboken is a great option.

Soha Fontaine has devel­oped a strong luxury condo presence in “soHoboken,” a catchy combination of her first name and Hoboken, where her average sales price is $500,000.

Fontaine’s luxury listings – located in sleek mid- and high-rise developments overlooking the NYC skyline – typically sell for around 96 percent of the listing price. Competing with more than 1,000 real estate agents in her MLS, Fontaine closed 44 transaction sides in 2011, or about 14 percent of all condo sales in Hoboken.

“Marketing, backed up by excellent service, is key to success,” says Fontaine, a Lifetime Achievement Award recipient and Chairman’s Club member with RE/MAX Gold Coast Realty in Hoboken. “The art of this business is finding the pulse of your market and pricing listings correctly.”

Fontaine’s approach includes consistent branding, and she puts her face on all of her signs – something few agents do in her market – and on her business cards, “just listed/sold” postcards, fliers, website and social media pages. She also employs a full-time transaction manager to coordinate the dozens of transactions she’s working on at any given time.

“Once you’ve closed 20 transactions on your own, it’s time to invest in a transaction manager. It has saved my life,” Fontaine says. “In the condo niche, you need to be spending your time working with clients and getting to know the developments you want to dominate. That’s the only way to build market share.”

Selling A Lifestyle

In the bustling, cosmopolitan city of Toronto, condos dominate the downtown landscape. In fact, condos comprise 30 percent of the market’s home sales.

Selling urban high-rise condos is much different than selling single-family homes in the suburbs, says Jamie Johnston, Broker/Owner of RE/MAX Condos Plus offices in Toronto. His brokerage of nearly 150 Sales Associates is unique in that it focuses almost exclusively on the condo segment; 91 percent of the office’s transactions are condo sales.

Business is Brisk

“There’s a high turnover in condo occupancy, because you have two main groups of end users: seniors and young professionals,” Johnston says. “Many people live in their condos for only a few years and then move on. We have to be savvy about the downtown lifestyle, building amenities and investors’ needs.”

Imran Khan, a Hall of Fame and Platinum Club member with Johnston’s brokerage, says condos are a “different breed of real estate.” A correcting market and tight lending restrictions have put downward pressure on sales in Toronto, Khan says.

Through smart SEO strategies and a one-stop-shop website packed with detailed information about Toronto’s most desirable condo communities, Khan stays ahead of his competitors. His advice to agents who are new to condos? Partner up with a well-established specialist.

“Volunteer to host open houses – so you can meet potential buyers – and create marketing materials,” he says. “You’ll become better acquainted with condo developments, learn the particular needs of sellers and buyers, and build your visibility as a condo specialist.”

International Opportunities 

Condos offer great investment or second-home options for international buyers. Charlie Orden understands this.

The Broker/Owner of RE/MAX Town Centre in Orlando, Fla., works with RE/MAX agents in Canada, South America, the Carib­bean and Europe, market­ing more than 1,600 condos throughout Florida to potential buyers. He thinks his agents will sell more than 500 condos to interna­tional buyers in 2012.

Orden’s office sees a steady stream of interna­tional buyers who are look­ing to purchase foreclosed properties in Florida. Many prospective clients have heard about his brokerage’s international outreach program and its extensive concierge services, which include a full-service prop­erty management division.

Agents should be creative in reaching out to international clients. Orden, for example, travels around the world promoting condo properties via seminars and buying events in eight different languages. He suggests using RE/MAX resources such as the website to get your listings in front of international buyers.

“Make it easy for condo buyers to find you, and make the buying process hassle-free,” Orden says. “RE/MAX has the global visibility and reach to help you do this; it’s up to you to take advantage of what the brand offers.”

 Five Tips From Number One

Zia Abbas

Condo sales fuel the careers of many RE/MAX agents, and in 2011 they pushed one specialist to the very top of the profession. Zia Abbas of Toronto, who specializes almost exclusively in condo sales, ranked No. 1 worldwide among RE/MAX individual agents. Here are five key tips from the Hall of Famer, who works at RE/MAX Vision Realty and closed 280 transaction sides last year.

Select properties based on three pillars: location, uniqueness of project and neighborhood.

Nurture relationships with developers, investors and end-users (buyers). Present at investor seminars, and go out of your way to learn about your area’s major developers. You’ll be successful in the long term if you can appeal to all of these groups.

Take a soft-marketing approach to promoting your listings. Market with more of an educational emphasis than a hard sales emphasis, and put your advertisements everywhere – online, radio, print and TV.

Know what fees (maintenance/HOA) your clients are responsible for and communicate them truthfully, up front.

Project estimated ROI or future sales value. Investors want to know that their investments will be profitable down the road. Condo buyers, who tend to move every three to five years, want an idea of how much their property might sell for when they’re ready to relocate.