Editor’s note: A recent Inman News industry survey found 61 percent of those surveyed thought discount real estate companies would grow in the coming years. This story is the first in an occasional series on how discounters operate and how they find their niche.

Higher commissions aren’t what drive Heather Sittig and neither is a tough, competitive workplace.

Sittig founded Maison Nouveau Realty in March 2003 to put the customer first, and the agents and broker second. She believes her gamble is paying off.

The Berkeley, Calif.-based company is trying to revolutionize the local real estate market by offering a one-two punch to the traditional means of selling or buying a home in the San Francisco Bay Area, the second most expensive real estate market in the nation. Maison Nouveau has reduced commission fees on higher-end homes and established a service strategy designed to put customer needs first.

“I founded the company after realizing that most real estate businesses are broker-oriented,” Sittig said. “I wanted to create a company where the customer came first.”

The company charges a 2 percent commission when representing either the buyer or seller on transactions up to $1 million, and 1 percent on transactions of $1 million or more. Most firms traditionally charge a 6 percent fee, which may make better economic sense in parts of the country where homes sit on the market for six months and home prices are significantly lower. In the Bay Area, the average home lists for $491,600 and moves quickly.

Sittig admits she doesn’t pull in nearly the salary of a traditional broker. In the Bay Area, however, the cost of real estate is so steep that Maison Nouveau can charge a reduced commission and still do quite well.

“We’re still able to put food on the table,” she joked.

Sittig has also focused heavily on customer service. In addition to the company’s commission structure, Sittig has organized a collaborative environment in the office where the agents work together on deals and assist one another’s customers, rather than competing directly for clients and properties. The four agents at the firm divide commissions equally.

“Our clients are generally pampered because there is always someone available to help them. We are all looking for property for each buyer, which gives the buyer multiple perspectives, something only one agent cannot provide,” she said. “We are constantly previewing properties to make the process efficient for buyers, and so that we have the most comprehensive market comparables for our sellers.”

Sittig believes the benefits of Maison Nouveau’s reduced pricing structure and customer service focus are already evident. The company has saved customers a quarter million dollars in commissions since it opened its doors last March. Word of mouth and happy customers have kept the average number of transactions in the last 10 months higher than initial expectations, Sittig said. The firm puts its listings on the MLS.

Even the client becomes part of the collaborative effort.

“They treated me as something more than a sale,” said first-time home buyer Daniel Lee. “To some that might not matter, but for me this was key.”

The goal is to bring in more business.

“We may be charging less but financially we are better off,” Sittig said.

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