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Cutting it in the country

By Staff Reporter
14 March 2012 | 1 minute read

Our latest readership survey showed more than 30 per cent of our readers hail from outside the big cities. This month, Real Estate Business brings together five regional principals who reveal how their businesses are performing, the challenges they face and what plans they have for growth in 2012.


Are there things that metro agencies don’t know or appreciate about regional real estate offices?

STEPHEN COATES
Regional real estate offices operate in areas with smaller populations, so the business ethics are more important as your best listings and referrals come from past clients or acquaintances. Agents are only as good as their next sale, so it is important to build relationships with both buyers and sellers and not just think about pay day.
LIZ SHELTON
Being a country agent differs in two main ways. Firstly, we spend a lot more time with our vendors. Our average days on market are 143 for houses and 196 for units, and almost double this for rural properties or properties in the outlying localities that we serve. This isn’t a reflection of poor agency work; it is merely a reflection of the pace of business in the country. This is not a recent occurrence either, as lengthy marketing periods have been common for years. Secondly, we will travel hundreds of kilometres on some occasions for property inspections. Our service area for our stock and station agents can cover from Barraba through to Watsons Creek, which is approximately 200km between points. Our residential team will drive a return trip of 80km to Werris Creek to show a property.
ANN OWEN
My colleagues in metro offices may not be aware that I always keep a pair of rubber boots in the boot of my car for any last minute appraisals or viewings. High heels are not ideal for walking around a rural property in the middle of winter.
JAN FORD
Regional offices are generally much closer to the political and industrial issues that affect their micro-economy. Our base population is around 14,000, with an adult population of around 6,000. We have had almost 6,000 houses for around 35 to 40 years so accommodation is very scarce and expensive, with houses renting for between $1,400 and $3,000 per week. The average person moves to town for two years. We have approximately 10,000 ‘fly in fly out’ workers in camp-style accommodation and shared housing.

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What are some of the broader social and economic issues facing the area you work in? How will these issues impact your business?

GERARD GRAY
There are a lot of seasonal factors impacting local economics in our region. Primarily, we are a tourist destination, with tourism being our major local industry. This means that during the good years we experience more and better dollar sales. Having said that, when the economy tightens and people focus on saving more dollars, then we don’t see as many holiday home sales and start to rely more heavily on our locals buying. One thing I would add though is that we do have a micro economy of sorts. We don’t see the fluctuations at the same rate that our city counterparts do. So, although we don’t see the price rises as quickly as they do, we don’t usually take a price hit as much either. We just seem to keep cruising along.
ANN OWEN
Strathalbyn is 52km southeast of Adelaide and is now home to many people that work in the city but enjoy living in the country. This increase in our population has changed the district in some ways, and in my opinion the change has been positive. At times, the limited transport in the area is a problem and with the increasing number of retirees moving here, I believe that this needs to be addressed.
JAN FORD
I live and work in a major industrial area where industrial growth has resulted in a demand for housing that has outstripped supply. This has forced prices up and attracted more investors to our market due to the high rental returns.


How difficult is it to recruit quality sales and property management staff in regional  areas?

LIZ SHELTON
I believe that recruiting good quality staff is a challenge for any employer. Our struggle is that we have a limited amount of candidates in the country as opposed to our metropolitan counterparts. Generally speaking, to employ someone who is trained, qualified and proficient, particularly in property management, you have to be lucky enough to be wanting a new staff member at the same time a new person, with those attributes, moves to the region or becomes dissatisfied with their current employer.
GERARD GRAY
While in regional areas there is definitely a smaller pool of people to choose from, we find there are people out there with the necessary skills and experience that may have relocated to the country for lifestyle, and still want to have a stable and challenging career. Having said that, we generally seek out our staff rather than advertise, focusing on people who have the right attitude, who we think would work well with our team, and then we do the training. What metro agents might not know is the problem with advertising for a position in a regional town is you invariably end up with people you know in front of you and you can’t hire them all. It gets awkward – especially if they felt that they met the criteria and were really keen.

Saying no to them, yet still retaining them as future clients is as big a challenge.


What do you think your biggest challenges will be in 2012?

 

JAN FORD
The biggest challenge for 2012 will be the provision of housing for the influx of people coming to our town and region.
GERARD GRAY
We are looking at some changes internally. So, managing workloads while still completing everyday tasks will be, at times, a juggle. But really, like all agencies we just want to get the best out of ourselves and make sure our customers are happy, while making a buck. Some of this will depend on what the market does; however, sales should be made in all markets. Someone once told me that when it’s windy any duck can fly. So, if it’s not as windy this year we will need to be at the top of our game to keep everything ticking along nicely.
LIZ SHELTON
Our major challenges in the country are similar to those in the city. Changes to government policy, external economic instability and continuing pressures on small business all have their effect on us.  Unfavourable weather affects us as a large percentage of our client base is dependent upon agricultural endeavours for their livelihood.
ANN OWEN
It’s not so much a challenge, but rather [we need] to stay positive and focused during the current climate and to share this with our clients, who have experienced decreased prices in the sale of their properties. Over the years, we have enjoyed fantastic growth in Strathalbyn which came with the benefit of higher prices for property. Now the same people are forced to accept lower prices.
STEPHEN COATES
The biggest challenge for us in 2012 is to grow our rent roll to our forecast, grow our office to the next level and introduce new internet marketing.


Is it more difficult obtaining professional support – for example, training – because of your location? If so, how do you cope with this?

STEPHEN COATES
We found it very difficult obtaining professional support in Cairns after the Real Estate Institue of Queensland (REIQ ) office packed up and left town. But we found replacements, and having a good accountant, solicitor and financier eliminates most of the headaches – although good personal training still requires flights south.
LIZ SHELTON
Tamworth is situated inland, approximately halfway between Sydney and Brisbane. Up until seven or so years ago, face-to-face training was very limited in our locality. For new staff to obtain a certificate of registration in a reasonable amount of time, it generally meant a road trip to Sydney of approximately five and a half hours, plus accommodation of four nights for the new employee. In the past, training was one of the greatest benefits of being part of a cooperative such as First National Real Estate. Our situation has improved greatly and with many industry groups and product suppliers recognising the benefits of capturing the country agent client base, they visit regularly for face to face training. We have also benefited greatly from the improved forms of online training, reducing travel costs and time spent out of the office. Tamworth agents are more fortunate than some: during face-to-face training sessions, you would expect us to be sharing the room with agents that have had to travel hours to training from areas such as Glen Innes, Inverell and Tenterfield.


From a female perspective, how have you found being in senior management in the country? And how did you work your way into the principal position?

JAN FORD
I love being a female real estate agent and find it a very supportive and flexible industry for both men and women. I studied for my real estate qualifications while working as a real estate representative, raising my family and studying at night. In 2000, I opened my own agency in Port Hedland and am now lucky to have 12 delightful team members, making it a very fulfilling and successful agency.
ANN OWEN
I started working at LJ Hooker Strathalbyn in 1991 and was the first female salesperson in the town. When the owners decided to sell, I purchased the business in 1995 and, along with a good friend of mine who was also opening her own office in the city, we were two of the first female franchise owners in the state. The first 12 months in the salesperson position were hard going in a country town – just the fact that I was female. I stayed positive and networked daily, putting myself in a great position in the town. When I purchased the business, I replaced all the old marketing material, refused to take on any general agencies, stating that I only work on sole agencies. I introduced vendor-paid advertising into the town and it worked. Much of my success is based on my point of difference: great marketing for my clients’ properties and my team. I have seen a big change in the industry and it is wonderful to see so many successful women.
LIZ SHELTON
Until the last couple of years there were very few female principals in the northwest area. A couple are now in partnerships, but I still remain the only female sole principal of a medium-sized office (11 staff) with sales and rentals. I was initially perceived with a mixture of wariness, being a younger woman, and as such, an anomaly in the local industry.


How important is updated technology to regional offices? What technology do you encourage your agents to use?

STEPHEN COATES
Technology is of huge importance in our area and is becoming more so as we need the information now to keep our vendors updated with the market for both listing and selling. An iPad today is a ‘must have’.
GERARD GRAY
Updated technology is very important. Just because we are rural doesn’t mean we have that as an excuse to ‘act rural’. We use ‘Complete Data’ to manage our clients; we use a central hub to upload our properties to multiple websites; and we were the first agency in the northeast to remove window cards from our front window and go to five large plasma screens run by the Splash Screen guys to display all of our homes for sale (generally around 100-plus). This can all be changed via the web at anytime. All of our staff can also log into our central server remotely at any time to access their emails or our data. Having said this, you can’t beat picking up the phone and talking to someone. I believe that emails are great for sharing information, but generally poor for communication.
ANN OWEN
Admittedly, I am not particularly ‘computer savvy’ but I absolutely see the value in using up-to-date technology in my office. I remember the days of handwritten rent rolls, and the way technology has changed property management is phenomenal. The property managers now take an iPad with them when conducting quarterly inspections. By the time they get back to the office, the data is uploaded with the software we use, saving an enormous amount of time.


Do you plan to save on costs and drive efficiencies in 2012? If so, how?

JAN FORD
Costs are high in our area and continue to rise due to the high cost of accommodation. Therefore, efficiencies are important, especially in our highest outlays, marketing and communications.
ANN OWEN
I am about to build a new office next door to my current one. Although it is a huge capital investment for me, I believe the new office design, new technology and solar power will ultimately result in cost savings in the day-to-day running of the office.
STEPHEN COATES
Our costs are always under review and set to our forecast budget and have been balanced with our growth.


What techniques do you use to market property in a regional area? Do you believe your approach to selling differs from what might occur in metro areas?

GERARD GRAY
Yes and no. It is different as a rule of thumb because our market is different from the city markets. So much of our time is spent getting to know our buyers and their needs. About 99 times out of 100 we don’t do open for inspections. Firstly, we generally don’t have the bulk numbers of buyers at any one time of day and more so, we prefer to give that one-on-one service that a personal inspection provides. We, as a rule, do very little print advertising unless we are conducting an auction, so our marketing budgets are very small – just covering internet costs. Also, our time on market is way longer than our city counterparts: for example, I recently sold a property that we started marketing in 2006! Let me tell you, we get to know our vendors on a very personal level over that length of time.
ANN OWEN
Living in a regional area, we list and sell a diverse number of properties on a yearly basis – anything from a two bedroom unit in the town centre to a large stone home on 20 acres – so our marketing techniques have to be adaptable to suit the property and the vendor’s budget. The internet is the most widely used tool, particularly for people who do not live in the area but want to keep an eye on any new listings before making the drive. We also look at publications that may suit a particular property. For example, whilst we do have open for inspections, we must be flexible with our arrangements for purchasers to view our listings. Many families are tied up on Saturdays with sports, particularly in winter, so we do a high number of private inspections.
LIZ SHELTON
To successfully market property in regional areas, agents have to be proficient at both ‘old school’ marketing techniques, such as weekly hard copy advertising in the local Saturday paper and agency window displays for main street pedestrian traffic, and more contemporary marketing forms such as SMS and email database notifications, virtual tours and search maximisation techniques. With our client base consisting of such a broad selection of people, education levels and technological proficiencies, it is important that we make sure our advertising gets across to all potential customers in a fashion that will suit them. This means blending old techniques with the new. Fortunately these days, most people in the country do have computer access. Hopefully, this will mean that in the future, we could greatly reduce the expense of hard copy newspaper advertising. However, it is still the perception of the country vendor that newspaper advertising is the most effective form of advertising for home sellers. We currently purchase three full pages of advertising per week.

Cutting it in the country
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