So we just had this discussion in the office today: How are we going to increase business?

Five years ago, lots of real estate agents knew the answer to that question: We can just get a share of an ever-increasing market! Home-ownership rates had been trending up and there were about 6 million transactions a year, so eager salespeople would just sell newbies their first home or boomers their second.

So we just had this discussion in the office today: How are we going to increase business?

Five years ago, lots of real estate agents knew the answer to that question: We can just get a share of an ever-increasing market! Home-ownership rates had been trending up and there were about 6 million transactions a year, so eager salespeople would just sell newbies their first home or boomers their second.

Well, the U.S. home-ownership rate crested in 2004, according to the U.S. Census Bureau Housing Vacancy Survey. It’s currently at a seasonally adjusted 68.1 percent. Although that’s still higher than the 64 percent that was the norm in the mid-1990s, the rate is now going down. And obviously, with less pie there’s just one way to increase business — take it from the next guy.

That sounds fine as an overarching statement, but it’s more difficult to implement on the individual level. My competitors have established brands. Am I going to outspend them? Undercut them on price? Hit ’em where they ain’t? Outsmart them?

Well, I have a long-range vision of what my niche is — and indeed some of it is based on "hit ’em where they ain’t" — but unfortunately my resources are limited so little is based on outspending them. That means it’s all the more vital that I carefully allocate my marketing money and time.

Here are the things I am trying to do:

  • I keep towards a tight geographic focus — I am not yet quite ready to "farm," but you might say that I’m definitely picking out the right 40 acres of land. And I am constantly thinking about how my brand ties in with this focus. I want people to think of me when they think of downtown, so as I am going through my day, I think, "does returning this call tie me in more closely with downtown? What about returning that one?"
  • I am constantly thinking of my competitors’ weaknesses. They are legion, but one that is fairly easy to attack is a stereotype of the industry — many of them would say or do anything for a transaction. I try not to be that person, and in fact try to swing over to the opposite side — I try to move mountains for a relationship.
  • Stay alive. My mother was a politician, an elected judge, and I was proud that she was so successful. I learned many lessons from watching her work, and one of them was: "Outlive the bastards." Well, depending on what market you’re in, around 80 percent of new agents won’t make it past their first year. Lots more won’t make it past this downturn. The ones who stick it out will have a leg up on the next business cycle. If my profession is going to reward endurance, I try to position myself for it — I go to the gym (not as much as I should), take vacations (not nearly enough), and take time every quarter to congratulate myself for just continuing to survive.
  • Figure out what works, and do more of it. If this seems screamingly obvious, try talking to five other real estate agents about their business models and note how many are missing this step. I get a lot of client capture from chatting on the Web, but I track it — if a site is fun for me but doesn’t bring in leads, I stop visiting it. Similarly, I’m a recent-enough newlywed that I connect well with young, soon-to-be married couples. Once I learned this about myself, I trained myself to spot an engagement ring at 30 yards. I don’t necessarily grab brides-to-be on the street and try to sell them apartments — but I know that if I end up chatting with enough fiancées, some of those conversations will end up coming around to real estate.

Take that, competitors.

Alison Rogers is a licensed salesperson and author of "Diary of a Real Estate Rookie."

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