Parking outside of a red farm-style house on Francisco Street in Berkeley, Calif., Realtor Ira Serkes steps out of his car and pulls out a camera from his vest pocket.
He walks around the property, taking pictures of the rooms and the backyard. Then he stops on the sidewalk before getting into the car to snap a photo of the apartment building across the street.
"My plan is to give clients the information to make the right decision," Serkes says. "If they don’t like the apartments across the street, it will save them time and energy."
For the rest of his Thursday broker tour, Serkes stops what he is doing to take pictures of whatever interests him, whether it is the surrounding shops or a painted mural of the bay on the doors of a three-car garage. Serkes always has his camera ready when he needs it. The mural, for example, is on a road he has driven by dozens of times, but the light was just right this time.
Merging photography with tech
Photography is more than just a hobby for Serkes. He invested in professional equipment and expanded his interest into a business tool — he uses photography to give clients a big-picture view of homes and neighborhoods.
Before touring each house, Serkes checks client information, bedroom requirements, and price ranges. He immediately cross-references his list and sees six buyers for which this house may be a good fit. Throughout the tours he keeps records of comments and information on each property, and later compiles this data with his photos for his clients.
"This is the very complex way I figured out where we are and where we have been," Serkes jokes, as he consults locations on his map. "Cross it off, and check it off on the map."
His arsenal of gadgetry includes an iPhone and a Mac laptop. He is a diehard advocate for Apple Computer products: "There are no other alternatives."
At his Shattuck Avenue office in Berkeley, Serkes talks to his clients in the conference room — where he connects his laptop to a TV for his buyer presentation.
"I cobbled this together in an hour," Serkes says. "It was amazing."
The presentation gives clients information about the market. There were more three-bedroom houses sold in Berkeley than any other type of home last year, he notes, though sales of three-bedroom homes declined this year.
The presentation also includes charts of market trends — he compared quarterly market trends from this year with data from the same quarters last year. There were fewer sales in 2008 than in 2007, but more three-bedroom homes sold for higher prices in 2008.
Serkes then directs the presentation to a slide he calls his "Happiness Chart," which is intended to assist clients in figuring out if the home they want is within their price range.
Finding the right fit
This meeting, he explains, is where he gets a feel for whether he and the client are a good match for each other. He prescreens people to make sure they are people he can help.
"If we sense somebody will be difficult to work with I tell them, ‘I might be the wrong Realtor for you.’ You should take on clients you like. If you don’t like them or can’t work with them, you should decline them. Sometimes it’s not the right match. If they give me a price but I don’t think it’s realistic, I refer them to someone else."
Serkes says he is happy to refer a client to another agent if he feels he cannot work with them.
When shopping for a home, some of his buyers have concerns about landslide and earthquake dangers. Another common issue for clients is transportation — they have questions about commuting to and from Berkeley and whether or not they would like to be close to a BART rail station.
Serkes compiles photos and maps into custom Web sites each week. He gives each property he previews a rating on the "LTC" (Lucy the cat) scale, in honor of one of his pets. On this scale, each house is ranked from one to four — those homes unfit for a numeric rating are relegated to "hairball" status.
A team in work, life
Living in Berkeley for 30 years and more than 20 years in North Berkeley’s Thousand Oaks neighborhood, Serkes and his wife and partner Carol mostly concentrate on homes in Berkeley, but they also work in the surrounding communities of Albany, Kensington, Rockridge, Oakland, El Cerrito and Emeryville.
Ira and Carol are both members of Allen Hainge CyberStars, a technology-focused network group for Realtors. Ira was the 2003 CyberStar of the year, and he launched an online CyberStars group to network and share ideas with other members.
They work as a team for Pacific Union Real Estate and maintain the BerkeleyHomes.com Web site.
Ira is currently working on a project using Google Maps. He said that he had always wanted to be the top agent in Berkeley, but he later decided that goal was unimportant to him. Now, he said, he strives to be the happiest agent in Berkeley.
Serkes typically visits 15-20 houses per week to evaluate them for clients. In a typical week he collects 300-500 photos of people, places and travels and then sets up a database with all of his comments, notes and photos. That helps him to determine what to look at next.
Serkes is originally from the Bronx in New York City, where he attended The Bronx High School of Science and earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from The Cooper Union. He went on to receive a master’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. He came to California in 1974 and worked for Chevron Research (he holds two patents).
He became increasingly interested in investing in properties as his interest in engineering diminished. For the last 20 years he has worked as a Realtor. His earlier specialty was investment properties, though now it’s single-family homes.
It was his purchase of a seven-unit apartment building that led him to meet Carol.
"A few years later Carol bought an apartment from me, and I broke the rule and went out with a renter."
He tries to recall what year they met. The couple Googles "the U.S. Invasion of Grenada" to spark their memory — it was 1983.
"Carol and I work together on all items we do," Serkes says. "As a team, when we meet buyers, it’s rare when two of our buyers want to buy the same house. Then Carol and I will take each on. We have an enormous amount of work each week, but when we’ve done it we can send it to 50 people. (Because) we have a system for both sellers and buyers, we increase probability of success."
He drives to preview a "green" Fifth Street townhouse. The home includes solar panels and floor heating. He passes by one of his marketing tools, a trailer parked on the corner with his picture and Carol’s picture on it. They make the truck available for clients to use, and they have also lent it to nonprofit groups, schools and events.
In Serkes’ view, real estate reaches into every aspect of life, including babies, marriage, divorce and death.
On the road again, Serkes passes Nolo Press, publisher of his two books. He co-authored "Get the Best Deal When Selling Your Home, San Francisco Bay Area Edition" and "How to Buy a House in California," which sold more than 100,000 copies.
Even though he has a hands-free device on his phone, Serkes pulls over to take a call about a negotiation in progress.
"Negotiations are getting much more complex," Serkes says. "Now there are five to six reiterations going back and forth. It’s part of the job, but it can get frustrating," he said, as more transactions have been falling through.
Serkes reminds himself, "These are more stressful times. If you sell a house (you bought) two years ago, chances are you are losing money." Even so, the headlines can paint a gloomier picture than the actual local market conditions, he said.
He said he enjoys the industry because "we just have some of the nicest people who are a pleasure to work with, and we help them move on with their lives."
The next house he visits might be best suited for an investor. In Serkes’ opinion, it is an "OPT," or overpriced turkey. Most likely it will be a short sale, he said.
When dealing with customer relations and relations between real estate professionals, Serkes said he believes in the benefits of using a traditional real estate agent.
‘Toolie’ vs. ‘techie’
"People know me as a techie, but really I am a ‘toolie,’ " he says.
While he is an advocate for the use of technology in real estate, he said that technology-based real estate companies and real estate Web sites are for a specific kind of consumer rather than the mainstream consumer.
"The main issue with real estate tech," he says, "is buyers perceive that the only value that agents bring to the table are street addresses and prices. If you perceive yourself as a commodity then there’s no reason why you shouldn’t give rebates. If they only look at data maybe it looks like a bargain," he said, though he views real estate professionals as playing a more vital role in helping clients to navigate the marketplace.
After leaving the final home of the broker tour, Serkes meets the general contractor and discusses a water-heater issue. The $1.26 million structure is unusual to say the least ("that’s today’s understatement," Serkes says). The property used to be used in an 1880s rock-crushing operation for a stone quarry. Then it was adapted into a single-family residence, and now it is four-unit building.
While driving back home, Serkes notices e-mail from a client he worked with 10 years ago to buy a home. Now, the client is looking to move again.
Finding time for R&R
At his home, Serkes takes a break for lunch with Carol in their backyard. Their home office is a separate structure at the back of the home.
Serkes jokes that he usually works a "half-day … I’ve been doing this for so long that it doesn’t matter which 12 hours I work."
The week revolves around broker tour days on Thursdays, when Carol and Ira are both in the field. Ira transfers the photos from the day onto his computer and saves the photos that he will need later to create a Web page. Thursday and Friday are spent working on notes and comments for the properties.
Before Sunday open houses, Ira and Carol take a break. Ira goes to the gym three to four times a week. Early in the week they receive calls and e-mails from people who want more information. Monday is a follow-up day for open houses, and they typically write offers through Wednesday — just in time for more broker tours on the following Thursday.
Carol’s and Ira’s desks are at opposite ends of the home office. One of their cats, "Baby T" (short for Baby Terrorist because she used to scare the other cat), is climbing through a play structure Carol built out of an old ladder, rope, baskets and cans.
As he fixes Carol’s message inbox, he says, "I do all the tech support around here."
He immediately starts uploading his pictures from the day onto his computer and creating a Web photo album. He brings up notes from 10 years ago to respond to his long-lost client.
"Most of our business comes from the Web site or clients who return to us," Ira says.
Simultaneously he processes notes, downloads e-mails, loads up the DreamWeaver application, and searches 3,300 messages on FileMakerPro to find messages related to a house he saw today. Each contact is assigned a category so it falls in the right folder on his Mac’s Entourage e-mail program. With all this activity, the cursor displays a "processing" mode. Ira calls the multicolored busy cursor the "beach ball of death."
And besides his savvy with tools and tech, Carol says Ira has good people skills. "Ira is especially good with people, especially in situations where there is tension. He is a person who takes time to talk to people and he sees what’s going on. If there’s an extra step, he is willing to take that. It’s a great partnership. I’m very lucky."
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