Jeff Hammerberg was a real estate agent in Littleton, Colo., in 1993 when a gay couple who wanted to see some homes was directed to an agent who was handling "floor time," or working with walk-ins.
"I knew him and liked him," Hammerberg recalled. "He was a decent guy, a married guy in the suburbs with three kids, but I’m not even sure he had ever seen a gay couple before."
Although the agent did show houses to the couple, Hammerberg sensed that he wasn’t entirely comfortable. And back at the office, he listened — and winced — as colleagues razzed the couple’s agent about his relationship with his gay clients.
"I started thinking: Something is not right about this process," said Hammerberg, who is gay. With the Internet — particularly as it related to the real estate business — still in its infancy, Hammerberg decided to create what he envisioned as an online consumer directory of gay and lesbian real estate agents.
That first site in 1993 evolved into the 875 sites today that operate under the umbrella of GayRealEstate.com, a referral network affiliated with more than 5,000 agents that’s searched by more than 1 million individuals a year, he said.
Numerous competitors now offer gay-oriented lead-generation services, but Hammerberg’s network of sites dominates its niche, he said.
Staking an outpost in the Internet wilderness and watching the evolution of societal attitudes toward gays has been a learning experience, said Hammerberg, a high school dropout who founded the business with his own money and pegs his success to his work ethic. He has three full-time employees today.
"We didn’t want to scare the gay and lesbian community away from a site that would be called GayRealEstate.com," he said. "They might get e-mails or something in the mail from us," and the company didn’t want to inadvertently "out" someone who had privacy concerns.
Eventually, though, the company took on the name of exactly what it represents, and it has acquired hundreds of geographically related domain names and their permutations, such as AtlantaGayNeighborhoods.com, DetroitGayRealty.com and NevadaGayRealEstate.com.
"We’ve tried to cover every city in the United States that has a population over 100,000," he said.
He estimates that 90 percent of the agents affiliated with the company’s sites are gay or lesbian, and the others describe themselves as gay-friendly.
Although he agreed that societal acceptance has grown in recent years, there’s still a need for services to the gay community provided by gays or others who express comfort with their lifestyle.
It’s more than a privacy matter, he said. It’s also efficiency: They don’t want to have to explain themselves over and over.
"A lot of our business is people who are relocating, so they want someone who’s familiar with their community, someone who knows what’s going on with the gay and lesbian community — they want referrals to gay doctors, dentists, lawyers. They have childcare issues and school issues."
That doesn’t mean "steering," he said. A competent agent who knows his or her local community wouldn’t — or shouldn’t — automatically direct clients to areas that are thought to be predominantly gay, Hammerberg said.
"It’s not about steering, it’s about being knowledgeable about where certain neighborhoods are and where opportunities are and are not," he said.
"And besides, if I’m going to buy a home from someone and that agent is going to get $10,000 or $20,000 commissions, I want to know they’re not giving that money to an organization that’s stamping on the rights of the gay and lesbian community," he said.
He said the company donates a portion of its profits each year to gay and lesbian organizations.
Though there’s more acceptance of gays and lesbians today, it’s hardly universal, he said.
"We do get hate mail and we get inappropriate comments" on the site, he said. "We had a female Realtor in a smaller city in Washington who sent us a scathing e-mail. She said, ‘I hope you rot in hell.’ We report them to their local (Realtor) board and file a complaint against them."
Hammerberg said though he has maintained his real estate license, he hasn’t worked as an agent for about 10 years, when he turned to the online venture full time.
It’s a been a long trip from the day the bored 11th grader dropped out of high school and subsequently joined the Navy, serving on the USS Enterprise. After an honorable discharge, he ended up in Denver, where his brother lived, and went job-hunting.
He found work right away on the security staff of a Denver high-rise.
"One day, the lobby started flooding. It was a torrential rainstorm," he recalled. "I was out in the lobby with a mop, wearing a suit. The president of the company, who was from Canada, was in town and he said, ‘Who’s that guy with a suit, mopping the floor?’
"Within a week, I was in management," he said. He spent seven years in commercial real estate management.
Then that market crashed, he said. Time to find another line of work.
"RE/MAX was one of my tenants. I went down there, and I said, ‘Those agents are driving nice cars. They must be making money,’ " and he inquired there about working in residential real estate.
"The broker said, ‘RE/MAX only hires experienced talent,’ " but Hammerberg talked him into giving him a try after he got his license.
"I was tossed into a RE/MAX office with agents who were busy, successful, making money," he said. He set out to emulate them.
"My first year in the business, I was making $100,000," he said. "I tell my nieces and nephews, ‘You’re going to turn out like the people you hang around with.’ Agents have asked me, ‘Where should I work?’ And I say, ‘Go to work in an office that has top producers — you need to not treat it like a hobby.’ "
He was with RE/MAX from 1991-96, then owned Metro Brokers Cherry Creek in Denver, where he had 70 agents, until 2003.
Hammerberg eventually obtained his high school diploma and earned college credits through the GI Bill, though he never completed a degree.
He’s been involved with programs intended to help kids who have lost their way in school, and even wrote a book, "Beyond Dropping Out of School: Seven Steps to Living a Successful Life," which he self-published, though he said it’s not widely available today.
His success, he said, came "because I was willing to work harder than anyone expected of me."
"Everything I have learned has just been the hard way. I don’t have a tech background, and I did make some mistakes (in his online startup) and still make them today," he said.
Through that business, he’s amassed opinions of what works in online marketing of real estate and what doesn’t.
"The big mistake I see with a lot of real estate agents in developing websites is they’re naming their site something like ‘JoeBlowRealEstate.com’ or ‘JimJohnson.com,’ which is great, but in this day and age, people are in Duluth and they’re looking for Denver homes for sale.
"How about ‘JimSellsDenverHomes,’ or that sort of thing? If you’re selling real estate, tell someone what you’re selling in the title," he said.
And despite industry reports he’s read about the growth of technology in the real estate business, he’s skeptical of the rank-and-file’s effective presence online.
"If agents have websites, they’re probably outdated and can’t be found," he said. There is a significant amount of agents who don’t even have websites, he added.
And being in the referral business, he’s baffled by what he sees as a general procrastination or even reluctance toward following up on leads.
"It’s a huge issue," he said. "Realtors do not respond to their leads. I don’t know if they’re afraid of people or what. But (consumers) are asking for help, and it’s 2 o’clock and the agent says, ‘I’ll call them tomorrow.’
"This is why 20 percent of the agents are getting 80 percent of the business."
And building niches is still critically important, he said.
"There are many niches," he said. "I thought of GayRealEstate.com, but I think someone, for example, could put a site together that targets doctors and nurses — they have specific hours, specific needs, want to live in specific areas. That’s one that could be done."
Why doesn’t he just do it?
"Well, I have my hands full," he said. "If I could clone myself, I’d love to."
Mary Umberger is a freelance writer in Chicago.
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