John Klemish is the "$2 billion man."
It’s my nickname for Klemish ever since I met him earlier this year while researching my column on golf course communities. I decided to slap that appellation on him when I learned that in the course of his almost 30 years in the business Klemish estimates he has sold more than $2 billion worth of single-family residential properties.
That’s a lot of hustling, especially for a guy who majored in leisure studies at college and whose first job was teaching croquet on Useppa Island, just off the western coast of Florida.
We’re not talking about major office buildings or apartment complexes. That’s $2 billion worth of homes and home sites, which makes the total a significant accomplishment. That’s why I decided to interview him a second time in a matter of months, this time getting him to talk about the tricks of the trade, or what one has to do to sell so many single-family properties.
What makes Klemish different from most real estate agents is that he’s a specialist. He has never worked for one of the large brokerage companies like Keller Williams or Century 21. His very first real estate employ was with a resort community, and he has remained in the field ever since.
From 1983 through 2000, he worked at three Florida recreational community developments and then took a job at The Greenbrier, an iconic West Virginia resort, from 2000 to 2005. For the four years afterward, he worked at Caribbean resort developments. Then he decided to retire from the business, buying a home in the tony resort island of St. Barts.
Retirement didn’t last long, because businessman Jim Justice, the new owner of The Greenbrier, called him in 2009 and asked if he would like to take over sales at the resort’s single-family developments. And that’s where I first sat down with him — between rounds of golf.
The secret to successfully selling real estate has little to do with actual selling techniques, Klemish said. It has more to do with such intangibles as individual presentation and establishing connections.
"The key thing when selling recreational real estate," Klemish said, "is the buyers have to like you. No one will buy anything from you if they don’t like you, trust you and have confidence in you. And you get there by being friendly, engaging, but most importantly listening to find out their needs and wants. You have to listen to their answers, without cutting them off, because they will eventually tell you what they want and what they can afford."
In actuality, getting the buyer to like you begins way, way before the first meet and greet.
"This is how I live my life," Klemish said. "I get up a dawn and work out. I eat a good breakfast and then dress extremely nice. So, the first thing is to be ready for work, meaning up, showered, dressed, fresh, eager and looking good. Appearance is very important if you are going to get face to face with someone, because people size you up in a blink of an eye. Before they talk to you or hear you, they look at you."
When the potential buyer does talk to you, you have to be ready. As Klemish said, "You have to know everything about everything about the property, the land, the house, which way it faces, where the sun rises, if a golf ball will hit the house, which way the water flows, etc."
Secondly, you don’t sell. Buyers like to buy, but they don’t want to be sold anything. Klemish takes an extra step, by telling potential purchasers on their first round together, "We are not buying anything today."
The idea is to take the pressure off the encounter, informing the buyers they are not going to be on some high-pressure tour of a property. The buyers are just going to be taking a look around.
And what if someone does want to buy that first day? Klemish often tells them to think it over and come back the next day. Sound insane? Not really. "In real estate there is a rescission period and it is worse to lose a deal than not have one at all," he said. "I want to make sure they are 100 percent committed."
Thirdly, in the market for second homes, which are what most recreational properties are, one has to sell the spouse. "The husband may be the ultimate payer, but the wife has the ultimate veto power," Klemish said. "If you are simply going to talk to the husband and ignore the wife, there will be no sale."
If the whole family is visiting, Klemish also makes sure the kids are actively occupied. At recreational and resort properties there is always something exciting for kids to do whether it’s swimming, fishing or horseback riding. "You want everyone to be engaged," Klemish said. "You want everyone in the family to love the property."
As to tricks of the trade, Klemish has just one.
"I always take out a map of the property and write on it, because no one will remember anything you say," he stresses. "If I’m pointing out that a particular home was sold for a particular amount, I’m indicating the price on the map. I’m also writing down things like carrying costs, because much like a boat or a plane, it is not how much it costs but how much it costs to carry.
"I’ll write down other things like taxes, insurance, utility and maintenance costs. In order for someone to buy, they need to know the answers that they can refer to later. Remember, the first time out with me they are not going to buy."
He added, "I’m also listening and watching. If I say a home is $2 million, their body language will tell me if that’s too much money. I may ask them if they have another second home. If the answer is yes — in Nantucket, the Hamptons or Tuscany — then I know how much they can afford to spend. I’m also asking things such as how many bedrooms they will need, (and whether) they want to be on the golf course or in the mountains."
Klemish tries to keep the initial tour to just one hour. "Should they say to me, ‘We want to see more,’ that’s a great sign," he noted. "The worst client is the one that said, ‘How long will this take?’ My answer is always the same, ‘I’ve already seen the property — this is about you, not about me. We’ll go for as long as you want.’"
Klemish’s first deal in 1983 was a residential lot on Useppa Island priced at $200,000. His most recent transaction came this summer, a house at The Greenbrier for $1.95 million. He’s still selling — or not! — and he still chats with his first and last buyers. They like him, trust him, buy a house from him and stay friends.