Editor’s note: This is the final article in a two-part series that focuses on real estate professionals who are working in a highly specialized segment of the market. Read Part 1: "Real estate niches stretch from nudists to celebs."
Humans aren’t the only ones who have real estate needs, and Kathryn Higgins tries to take the bite out of home searches for pets and their owners alike.
Higgins, an agent for DJK Residential in New York City, has a fondness for furry friends and she adopted a Havanese and two cats when she married. Later, when she divorced and needed to relocate, she said she realized that finding a pet-friendly home wasn’t as easy as she thought it would be.
Two years ago, Higgins said she decided that she would be the "Dog Whisperer" of real estate agents. She helps pet owners find co-op apartment units or condos that are pet-friendly by evaluating the pets and the buildings to see if they are a match.
Higgins is one of many real estate agents working in a highly specialized segment of the industry — a specialty that she created based on her own interests and expertise. There are other examples of agents who target a specific demographic of buyers and sellers, and those who work with a particular property type.
She has received word-of-mouth referrals since launching her specialty. Her affinity for pets, coupled with her own research and her master’s degree in psychology, has helped her to identify dogs and understand breed-specific traits and behavioral patterns, Higgins said.
"It’s about finding the right fit for the owner and their dog. It’s not just about the owner — the dog has to be happy, too," said Higgins. "I teach them how to present their dogs and to just interact normally with them when going through the interview process."
Higgins said in some cases she knows based on the breed — even before she meets the dog — if the property is right for the animal. While dogs over 20 pounds and breeds such as pit bulls, Rottweilers or Dobermans can be problematic for some properties, she also said that smaller isn’t always better.
"If you have a small dog that is barking all the time, the neighbors aren’t going to like it, so it’s the owners’ responsibility to train their dogs. I can direct them to training and obedience schools, groomers, dog-walkers and anything else they need for their dogs — I can refer them to anywhere they want to go for their dogs," she said.
Ranking high among military buyers
Scott McKinney said he can recall his frustration while looking for a home to buy in Texas in 1992, armed with a property list and a map during the lengthy drives on his quest. He was in the Air Force at that time, and his military job required him to relocate every two to eight years. Finding a home was a "painful process," he said, because every few years he had to engage in the same time-consuming search process.
He said he thought to himself at the time, "I bet everyone else in the military experiences the same predicament of looking for the right home and reselling their old home that I do every time they have to move."
McKinney decided to weave his personal experience in the military into his new career as a real estate agent. He developed a niche, as an agent for IBR Realty in Oregon, working with clients in the military community. He received his real estate license last year and most of his clients are acquired by referrals, from friends and from military contacts. McKinney is also marketing himself on military-focused real estate Web sites like PCSRealty.net and MilitaryFSBO.com.
"The military community is very tightly knit and since I identify myself as a military Realtor I stand out. I know what military members are going through and I know how to help them relocate in a matter of weeks," he said.
"Because of the market I serve, most of my clients are far away from home and they e-mail me from Iraq and Afghanistan (where they are stationed), looking for homes," he said.
A specialty in history
While McKinney specializes in a particular group of clients, some agents concentrate on architectural styles and historic homes.
Paul Hurst and Lori Hoffman, associate brokers at Prudential Realty, brand themselves as the historic home experts. Their Web site, SantaBarbaraHistoricHomes.com, notes that they specialize in historic architectural styles such as Victorian, Craftsman, Spanish Colonial Revival, Tudor, French Normandy and others in Santa Barbara, Calif., which is home to about 1,500 vintage or historic structures.
"The market is solid. It doesn’t go away. Most buyers (of historic homes) are collectors of this art and architectural style," said Hoffman.
Hurst said antique homes can fetch high prices and are also have plenty of historic value. The homes can also engender a deep emotional attachment — he related a tale about a 90-year-old man who visited a for-sale home built in 1910.
The man explained that he had lived in the home 80 years earlier and asked if he could climb a ladder to the home’s tower because his dad wouldn’t allow it when he was a child. Hurst and other visitors watched as the man began his climb.
"There was a crowd standing there, just watching, (some of them) in tears. There is emotion tied and hooked into the romance" of historic properties, he said. "These are not regular homes."
Wade Tread, broker of Vermont Country Real Estate in Woodstock, Vt., has had more than 30 years of experience in restoring and selling antique and historic homes. Tread jumpstarted his work in historic homes in his college years. During the summers he would work for a restoration contractor.
He later opened and operated his own building, design and restoration company, working on mid-18th-century buildings. In 1996, Tread opened Woodstock Vermont Country Real Estate, a brokerage that specializes in sales of historic buildings, including museums and private residences in Vermont and New England.
Tread said that preserving historic homes is very costly and can get a bit controversial.
"I am the mediator between preservation groups and developers," said Tread.
He described a case in which the owner of an aging amusement park applied for a demolition permit and a local historic group protested, wanting to preserve the park. The matter went to court and the park eventually was torn down.
"That’s the kind of thing that sometimes can’t be avoided," Tread said.
Though Tread said that selling historic homes can be lucrative — he has helped actor Michael J. Fox to purchase and restore several properties — it can also be a rollercoaster ride.
"The market is curious for historic homes — it’s up and down in terms of interest. It has a different pattern to it," he said. "In the early 1900s there was a huge colonial revival (and) new homes were built to look like old houses.
"After World War II, (interest in period homes) died down. People wanted more modern homes. And then there was an upsurge in the ’60s and ’70s, when preservation of homes was placed in the limelight. Now, there is a drop-off again. Younger buyers don’t want older homes — they want new and shiny bright houses. There is not a strong appreciation for antique homes anymore," he said.
On the waterfront
Properties by the water have always attracted buyers, and Peter Thornton, broker of Legacy Homes, which has operations in Maine and Florida, said that growing up in a family that owned a coastal home in Portland, Maine, factored into his expertise in selling waterfront properties.
"I’ve been going to visit our summer home for 62 summers straight since I was 3 years old and because I grew up there, it was natural for me to know about the island properties. A lot of the brokers (of Legacy Homes) are locals or are natives of the islands," Thornton said.
Thornton accompanies his clients on boat trips three to four times a week to view island and coastal properties, he said. In addition to his property expertise, his waterfront real estate specialty also benefits from his nautical experience. He said that while agents may specialize in selling luxury vacation homes, to have an in-depth knowledge of coastal homes and related issues can take years of training.
"All of our brokers have knowledge and expertise of the different islands because each island is unique. So it is helpful that our agents and brokers are natives of the area or know the area really well. You have to know the depth of the water and how much water is in the area and study it," said Thornton.
Thornton said that his business is generally stable, slowing down during the winter months and picking right back up when the weather permits — the boat tours are a critical part of his business, he said.
"The buyer is usually really serious in buying a home if (the buyer) requests to see a property in the winter," laughed Thornton.
Living in logs
Pete Baldwin, broker of Platinum Realty Network in Flagstaff, Ariz., grew up learning about log homes, which inspired his craftsmanship and comprehension in selling customized log homes that he and his colleagues construct from scratch.
Baldwin maintains business ties to Baldwin Log Homes in Montana, a family operated business founded by his father in 1975. His clients who are seeking a custom-built log home can order it through the family company and have the logs shipped to a desired site.
"I had formal training from my father and I grew up in the trade, as did my brother," said Baldwin. "I was 6 years old when I had hands-on training with log buildings. I began to help peel the logs … helping around job sites and cleaning up, and by the time I was 19 I was proficient in building log homes."
Although Baldwin said that having a niche market has been successful on his end, it can also be especially demanding because clients can have very particular demands.
"When someone wants a second home or property — whether it has a mountain view or they want trees around it — they are going to be specific about what they want, and sometimes you can’t drive up to the mountain and find the right fit for them," he said.
A lot of his clients are in their late-30s to mid-60s, and most of them seek log homes in the mountains for retirement.
Seeking seniority among seniors
Baby boomers offer a big target audience for the real estate industry — the U.S. Census Bureau reports that nearly one in five U.S. residents are expected to be 65 and older in 2030. And this age group is projected to grow to 88.5 million in 2050, more than doubling the number in 2008.
Cathy Rosebaugh-Jennings, founder of Alterna, a real estate firm in North Carolina that caters to seniors and the 50-and-over crowd, said that her passion for helping seniors inspired her specialty.
Rosebaugh-Jennings has received Certified Senior Advisor and Seniors Real Estate Specialist designations in real estate. She said she felt that seniors have been underserved by real estate professionals.
She estimates that 75 percent of her business is from referrals — "there is a huge trust factor working with this particular demographic," she said.
"You have to be worthy of their trust. When people reach the age of 50, they are close to downsizing to a smaller home or buying a secondary home, (or a) home that they feel more comfortable in," she also said.
What’s your opinion? Leave your comments below or send a letter to the editor. To contact the writer, click the byline at the top of the story.