SAN FRANCISCO — When Janet Choynowski, founder and CEO of Immobel.com, was living in Warsaw, Poland, she was surrounded by people whose language she didn’t understand. She found a small community of English-speakers and got her name out in the community’s publication. That’s how she got her start in the international real estate market.
She eventually left Poland — with millions — in 2001 after selling her business, which had become the largest in the country. Choynowski, however, said she did not realize she was working in international real estate — even though many clients were coming from the United States. To her, she was just making a living.
Choynowski and several other panelists on Thursday shared their insight about international real estate during a session at the Real Estate Connect conference.
"You need to know how you can help the buyer who has been thrown into your path by circumstance," said Choynowski. "You need to know how to get what they came for. You need to make it easy for them to find you — and … that means on the Internet."
Choynowski believes that an agent needs to have their content in their client’s language, such as online searches. Clients may not understand the concept of a ZIP code, for example, and may not know how to find an area’s ZIP code, so agents need to tailor their tools for that market. An international user-friendly system that includes a region’s nuances can help if the client is searching in an unfamiliar area. Add-on pages to an existing Web site in that language and tools that can convert currencies and home measurements are helpful, she said.
"You may find that communication is not the barrier you find it is. If you speak another language it gives you a wonderful leg up. When money talks it doesn’t always speak English. But, hey, money talks," she said.
Olivia Hsu-Decker , owner of Decker Bullock Sotheby’s International Realty, said that understanding the client’s culture and language — or at least understanding how to make it easier to deal with a language barrier — are vital to the business.
The weak U.S. dollar, however, makes many foreigners think twice about buying in this country, she said.
RE/MAX Realtor Jonathan Dalton, said that when it comes to the Canadian buyer, there is a limited opportunity because of the weak U.S. dollar. Dalton advises agents to be patient, and to target foreign buyers with their marketing.
"Canadians absolutely love looking at homes and once in a while they’ll buy one, too," he said. "The key is to have a program in place where they are able to get on a listing search if nothing else, and get them onto your Web site. When they are serious they will come to you."
Don Lawby, President of Century 21 Canada Limited Partnership, suggested that the Internet and newspapers are a way to connect with people in other parts of the world.
"All of them have a translation service, and you start to put ads in to promote your properties," Lawby said. "I would try to get to both markets if I were you: newspaper and Internet. The way they trust ads in the paper (is) different than here."
Agents also need to be aware of the legal rights and restrictions placed on foreigners by governments, and to understand what the clients can and can’t do when it comes to their finances. It takes longer for international clients to decide where they want to live or buy because they have to consider visas, neighborhoods and schools.
"Once they decide, the escrow is very smooth," Hsu-Decker said. "They close very quickly, and they don’t really negotiate like a domestic buyer."
Hsu-Decker said that most foreign clients pay cash and international banks will consider their branch office in another country. She also said that you work with an international buyer like any other to pre-qualify them.
"Most of foreigners don’t need a lot of financing," she said. "They are used to paying more down payments than Americans."
To avoid sudden problems in the international switch, moderator Ilyce Glink said that all finance issues need to be taken care of ahead of time.
"You need to make those connections for buyers in the beginning," Glink said. "Talk to lenders and (learn) how they establish credit for these people. Make a brochure that you hand to people and say, ‘Here’s how I can help you.’ It’s about customer service."
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