Real estate professionals who have set their sights on building a referral-based business should look beyond their own hometown — way beyond.
That’s according to Tina Mak, the founding president of the Vancouver chapter of the Asian Real Estate Association of America (AREAA). whose clients hail from around the world.
"Money has no sense of direction," Mak says.
A 20-year industry veteran and an associate broker at Coldwell Banker Westburn Realty in Vancouver, Mak has also hosted her own weekly radio real estate show since 2007 targeted to the area’s Chinese community.
Mak will join Inman News columnist Bernice Ross in the last panel of Real Estate Connect New York City, which runs Jan. 16-18 at the Grand Hyatt New York. In a session called, "You have a global prospect. What next?" Mak and Ross will discuss how to achieve successful transactions with international buyers.
Ross is CEO of RealEstateCoach.com and a nationally syndicated columnist, author, trainer and speaker. She’s written a number of articles for Inman News about working with global buyers, including a four-part series earlier this year.
Mak, 47, immigrated to Vancouver from Hong Kong in 1991. At first, she worked in the same profession she’d had since the early 1980s — piano teacher. But there was one major change. While in Hong Kong, she taught students in their homes, but in Vancouver, students came to her, confining her to one place all day.
Not long after Mak arrived, a friend suggested she try real estate.
"I’m an extrovert. I like to move around," Mak said. "So, because of my personality, she felt I should give the business a try."
Although she called going into real estate a "fluke," she discovered a true calling for the profession, she said.
"I made my first paychecks the first month, so I guess I was meant to be in the business," Mak said.
She credits her classical music training in both Hong Kong and England with instilling her with discipline and focus.
"The sales business is easy in, easy out," she said. "You have to be self-motivated, and I think my musical training in the past, I think that really helps me."
"The passion that I have for my music is now being transferred to my real estate business. If you want to be good at something you have to have passion for it."
A gateway to Pacific Rim economies, Vancouver’s metropolitan ambiance made it a no-brainer to work with international clients. Asians, in particular, like the Vancouver market partially because of its weather — no extreme heat or cold — and because of its mix of nationalities, Mak said.
"And the Asians, the rich ones, many of them are not looking for business opportunities because they run their business back home. So they come here for lifestyle," she said.
In working with foreign buyers, Mak said understanding their cultural background is key, which, as an immigrant herself, gave her a leg up.
"Asians have a lot of common denominators, in my opinion," Mak said. "It doesn’t matter if it’s Korean, Persian, Indian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Filipinos. It doesn’t matter. We’re very, very frugal. We spend our money very carefully. And even Europeans are the same."
Understanding her clients’ cultural idiosyncrasies helps her engage with them, understand how they negotiate, and strategize how to negotiate on their behalf, Mak said.
"I understand that we (Asians) are always trying to get the best deal in town. That mentality. And I love negotiations. I guess it’s in our blood that we always try to negotiate the best deals."
Mak learned her negotiation skills working in her father’s inherited wholesale products business.
"Hong Kong is a very highly competitive city, so we have to build strong negotiation skills in order to survive," she said.
That includes understanding how to communicate with clients. For instance, the biggest mistake agents tend to make with international clients is to talk to them about money.
"Don’t ask where the money’s coming from. And don’t ask what their business is because it’s always import and export. You don’t know what the heck they’re import and exporting," Mak said. "We Chinese are very discreet. We don’t want to tell you everything. So if they tell you import and export, just accept it. Don’t even go into details."
And not all Chinese are rich, she said. "Sometimes they’re middle class."
Mak advises agents not to set their expectations too high when working with international buyers.
"Sometimes they just want to come and check things out. They don’t necessarily want to buy right away," she said. "Very often they only come for 10 days, a week to two weeks maximum. They will tell you they want to buy, but they’re not going to buy for the sake of buying if they don’t find what they need."
Many Chinese buyers, particularly those over the age of 40, also are not keen on using technology to do business, Mak said. Unlike in Hong Kong, a former British colony, mainland Chinese of that generation are unlikely to have had English instruction and tend not to be computer-inclined even if they are well-off, she said.
"They’re not used to going on the computer to do things. With the Chinese it is more a person-to-person thing. We don’t do much through email at all. We’re always face to face and we talk and drink and eat," Mak said.
And that suits her fine. "I have a strong sixth sense. I can sense people very fast and accurately. Other people (say) that I can prejudge other people. I can see their character in five minutes. That’s why when I do business, I have to see the face," she said.
Younger Chinese, on the other hand, tend to be sent abroad to be educated and are more likely to go online, Mak said. She has a bilingual website in English and Chinese that she said has brought her business, though she mainly uses it to post general information about homebuying and selling and tax issues, among other topics, for her clients.
Mak has accounts on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Pinterest. She sees social media as a way to build her image and she is not deterred by the fact that she has yet to do a deal through either network.
"I have connected with a lot of people around the globe through social media, and from that I’m sure it will turn into business later on," Mak said.
Mak’s business is 100 percent referral-based, she said. Her clients tend to find her through word of mouth from past clients, other agents, people in her network, and her radio show.
She said she does between 30 and 40 deals a year and her success is due to the way she does business.
"Here, my philosophy is ‘people come first, profits later.’ I build relationships and I build trust. It takes longer to get results, but you gain long-term clients. I’ve got clients as old as 20 years they’ve been with me," Mak said.
"When you gain their trust they will come to you. I understand a lot of us right now, because of the global situation, need to pay bills. But the clients can feel that you’re trying to make a deal (rather than) put their interest first," she added.
While that approach may not seem novel to Canadians or Americans, it is for many of Mak’s clients. Dual agency — when one agent represents both a buyer and a seller — is common throughout Asia, Mak said, unlike in Canada, where it is an exception to the rule. In Asia, that makes for "tailgate agents" that just want to close a deal, whether or not it’s for their clients’ best interests, Mak said.
"If the client is not happy, the agent just moves on. So as a consumer, that’s how they’ve been conditioned that agents work. There’s no trust. They think the agent is just there to put the property up for sale," Mak said.
Asian cities also tend to have huge populations where a business’s reputation is less easily tarnished, she added.
"(In) Vancouver, our population is small, so our reputation is very important. If you do something bad, if you’re not ethical, it spreads out fast, so it’s very important to be honest and do the right thing so that your reputation will take you further," Mak said.
By "doing the right thing," she means telling clients the facts about market conditions instead of telling them what they want to hear.
"I tell them what they need to hear instead of telling them what they want to hear," Mak said.
For example, clients’ opinions about property locations are shaped by their experiences in their hometown, she said, and in that light, buying a home on a busy street seems like no big deal because it’s what they’ve been accustomed to and the home is likely cheaper than comparable homes. But when it comes time to sell that property, they don’t realize they might have a hard time selling it because of its location, Mak said.
She would tell her clients point-blank not to buy such a home, she said.
"If I don’t like the property, I won’t sell it, and if they want to buy the house I tell them they have to find another real estate agent to write the offer because I’m not willing to," Mak said. Or she might write the offer, but first make herself very clear that she doesn’t think it’s the right choice for them, she said.
"If I think that is a wrong investment I don’t want my clients to come back to me and say, ‘Tina told me to buy it.’ It’s my reputation. My reputation is worth more than my commission," Mak said.
"And that’s why my clients will stay very loyal to me because sometimes I tell them things they don’t think of."
Mak’s advice to real estate agents is to be themselves — a strategy that has worked well for her. In her career, Mak is most proud of her ability to connect with people and her negotiation skills.
"I have many nicknames: Bulldog, Bitch, Red Pepper — that’s the Chinese way of saying spicy," she said.
"I put myself in their shoes and I understand them. I build their trust much easier. I guess it comes through life experience."
She also admitted she’s a workaholic. If she had one superpower, she said would extend the day from 24 hours to 72 hours in order to have more time for work — or to enjoy life, she’s not sure which.
"I respond to my clients any time of the day and I spoil them. Many agents, they say, ‘I have my family time.’ They have downtime and I don’t have (much) downtime," she said.
It is a common misconception among agents to think that they control their own time, she said.
"If you want to be successful, you have to be an entrepreneur. No executive can go home and say, ‘I don’t work.’ Are you treating this as a career or are you treating this as just a job?" Mak said.
She said she’s glad she didn’t know about the long hours involved before she went into real estate, but she wished she had known at least one thing.
"I wish I knew I needed to have a Ph.D. for disappointment and thick skin," she said.
"You get disappointment all the time, and you have to be able to handle it. And don’t take things personally. Don’t take your clients’ or anybody’s negative comments personally. You get rejected all the time. It’s part of the nature of our business, but I guess it applies to life as well."
She said she has two mentors. One is a client from Texas who holds dual U.S.-Canadian citizenship and taught her how to network.
"She said to me, ‘You know you can never meet enough people,’" Mak said.
Her other mentor is one of the owners of her brokerage office, she said.
"He taught me how to invest. And I love investments. I enjoy working with homebuyers, but I very much enjoy working with investors and I am an investor myself," she said.
In the rare moments she lets herself have some nonwork fun, Mak can be found golfing in the summertime and going to the spa in the wintertime. She is not likely to be found partying much, however.
"Everybody thinks I’m a party person. Once in a while is fine, but too many, no. I need more downtime."
Tina Mak will be a featured speaker at Real Estate Connect New York City, which takes place Jan. 16-18 at the Grand Hyatt New York.
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