The real estate agent is showing a house to a young woman who wants to buy an income property.

Except for the icky shower stall in the tenant’s apartment, it’s looking good.

Then the agent points out the building’s deteriorating roof, which will cost at least $4,000 to replace.

Oh, and don’t forget that in addition to the mortgage, the buyer also will have to cover the taxes, the utilities and the stress of having a herd of college-student tenants downstairs, the agent says. Can she handle that?

The buyer clutches her throat and says she’s starting to feel panicky. "I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe!" she cries, only half-joking.

This is real estate agent Sandra Rinomato’s world — a place populated by earnest singles and couples who coo over a house’s stainless-steel appliances but manage not to notice the factory that’s belching smoke directly across the street, until their agent points it out.

It’s a place where the agent rolls her eyes when the buyers dismiss a home that meets every one of their many criteria — because the master bedroom has ugly wallpaper.

It’s the world of "Property Virgins," the popular HGTV series in which Rinomato, the host, works her weekly television magic, helping novice buyers find their dream homes in a 30-minute episode.

Or not. Unlike some other house-hunting shows, on "Property Virgins," a happily-ever-after transaction isn’t guaranteed to follow the final round of commercials.

"Sometimes they don’t buy anything, sometimes they’ve lost (a deal) because of multiple offers," says the host. "I’d be super-frustrated if the show wore rose-colored glasses and showed real estate as being easy-peasy.

"It’s real life."

Well, "real-er" than some other homebuying TV is, anyway. Rinomato says buyers on the show have auditioned for the producers, who seek articulate, telegenic consumers who are serious about buying, probably already have looked at plenty of properties with other agents, and are preapproved for mortgages.

Rinomato is known for delivering bluntness with a smile. Each week she walks the buyers through an attractive neighborhood and asks them to guess the prices, only to deflate them with the news that the place they admire from the curb is out of their league.

Then she takes them to houses in three neighborhoods where the homes are priced closer to their budgets. She holds off on revealing a seller’s asking price, then urges buyers to go inside and look around without her. Later, it’s time to play price-guessing games again.

It’s a format that irks some agents and consumers, who yak online about the show being sledgehammery or condescending to inexperienced buyers.

Rinomato shrugs it off, explaining that cutting through the first-timers’ illusions is necessary: Being overly delicate is a waste of both buyers’ and agents’ time, she says.

"That came out of my audition for the show," she says. "I had to show people a loft, and they came out with some first-time-buyer craziness. I said, OK, wait a minute — you want a live-work space with a prestigious address, but now you’re complaining there’s no view of the skyline. …CONTINUED

"I said, you want a view? OK, there are millions of places to show you that have a fabulous view, but what’s it going to be?" she said. "You can’t have both because you don’t have $4 million."

And she’s fine with the clients initially viewing a property without the agent in tow.

"Nobody wants to hear a Realtor say, ‘Here’s the living room, here’s the kitchen,’ " Rinomato says. "We want to hear their reaction (on camera). It’s great that they go through and they say all their crazy, first-time-buyer stuff."

Rinomato is licensed in Ontario, Canada, where she has sold real estate for 13 years. When "Property Virgins" came along and it became apparent she’d have to travel a lot, she worked out a team partnership with fellow agents John Lagakos and Gary MacRae at Coldwell Banker Terrequity Realty in Toronto, Canada.

But the TV show wasn’t something she pursued, she says. In fact, she blew off a producer’s initial phone call asking her to audition because she thought he was trying to sell her advertising calendars.

She reluctantly agreed to try out at the urging of her husband, a former actor. "But then I found out every Realtor in Toronto had been asked," she said.

Later, Rinomato got a callback announcing she’d made the cut, and it was down to half a dozen agents — could she come back again tomorrow? No, really, she couldn’t, she said. She was leaving for a Coldwell Banker meeting in California and was dealing with her father’s serious illness.

"He was flabbergasted," she said. "He wanted me to cancel my trip."

Rinomato went to her California meeting, and her father’s health improved. So, after being asked to audition one more time and hearing that she was now one of two finalists, she agreed. She got the job.

The first season, which premiered in September 2007, featured homebuyers in Toronto, though the producers decided they needed to expand beyond Canada. "Americans want to see American content," she said.

Though she said her travel varies, she can be gone for months at a time. (When filming around the United States, the show works with locally licensed real estate agents who officially represent buyers, she explained.)

Even with the travel, she manages to keep her hand in her real estate business, and says that her team averages 100 transactions a year.

"Since November, though, I haven’t been able to do anything because I’ve been in the U.S.," she said in a recent interview. "In April or May, I’ll be back in Toronto, so I’ll be able to do more."

The notoriety of "Property Virgins," of course, draws a fair amount of that business, and her team’s Web site,, makes ample use of the show’s name.

"The show has changed my business," she says. "We (typically worked at) a higher price bracket before, and since the show is basically an advertisement for first-time buyers, that dropped our price point down, so our average sale (price) went down.

"But what it did was it took us back to a younger real estate business, which isn’t bad," she said. "If you do a good job with first-timers, that will lead to repeat business."

Rinomato, with a degree in sociology, began her career in retail management as a liaison between franchisees and franchisors. It was good training for real estate, she said. …CONTINUED

"I had to learn how to smooth out issues. I learned how to ask questions in order to get answers," she said. "In housing you have to uncover the hidden objections."

But after retail, what she really wanted was to run a coffee shop, and she called a real estate agent friend to find her a location.

"I said, ‘This is what I want — a hip, village atmosphere where people can come with their books and chill out,’ " she recalls. "He said, ‘All right, but why do you want to work so hard? Why don’t you become a Realtor?’

"I guffawed," she recalls. "He was insulted."

She told him she didn’t like the idea of driving buyers around in her car. The friend, however, insisted the tradeoffs were attractive.

"He said to me, ‘So you show them 10 houses and then they buy one and you make a few thousand dollars. Do you know how many cups of coffee you have to sell to make a couple thousand dollars?’ " she recalls.

Obviously, she said, she’s learned it’s not so simple. Nonetheless, after she got her license she was off to a good start, earning Rookie of the Year honors. But she was dissatisfied, she said. She sought the counsel of another agent.

"I told her, I want a job where I can help people," she explained. "She said, you are — you’re helping people achieve their dreams."

Once she started looking at it that way, her personal satisfaction grew. "I became passionate about the job," she said. And that led Rinomato to her specialty.

"I became passionate about the deals that were problematic — they became my favorite projects and it’s how I became a first-time-buyer expert," she said. "They are beautiful, naive beings. They’re willing to accept guidance once you get their trust."

Nonetheless, the TV side of her career is starting to wear her down, she says.

"I’m having a hard time with the travel, feeling very disconnected with my life," she said from the San Diego, Calif., location where her crew was shooting.

She misses her husband and 11-year-old stepson, and she suspects this might be her last "Property Virgins" season.

"I don’t want to sound ungrateful — I’m extremely grateful," Rinomato said. "But at some point you have to make a decision — do I forsake my family for — what is it, money? Is it fame?

"I’m not interested in fame at all, and the money is OK, but I’m making decent money as a Realtor, too," she said.

"I love the show and I’m enjoying it. The ratings are fabulous. But I think I have to put my family first."

Mary Umberger is a freelance writer in Chicago.


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