AgentBrokerage

Keeping your business afloat: A disaster guide for real estate agents

While some are still battling flood waters in their markets, others are emerging from the effects of Hurricane Harvey
  • Houston agents can survive Hurricane Harvey's disastrous impact on their city by rolling up their sleeves and pitching in to help clients as true real estate guides during this confusing time.

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Agents across Houston are still fighting the possibility of more flooding in their communities, but the consensus is that the worst is over for their temporarily unrecognizable city — Space City, as it’s been proudly dubbed, the large metropolitan with the unwaivering small town spirit.

Yesterday, we had a plea from a Houston agent who said: “Many of our agents have no idea what to do with their business now that the storm has passed.

“We don’t know how to advise our clients, and we’re not sure where life is going to take us. If the larger Inman community that has gone through large scale disaster could put together an agent survival guide, that would be really helpful.”

So, we spoke to a number of experts who have experienced disaster before in communities in nearby Louisiana who, with Hurricane Katrina and a big flood last August in Baton Rouge, picked themselves up from catastrophes in their own right.

Ed Wolff

The Houston Association of Realtors also had some seasoned advice from head of H.A.R’s governmental affairs advisory group and president of Beth Wolff Realtors, Ed Wolff, who was already taking a buyer to see two unaffected homes last night, one of which the buyer was determined to purchase.

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There was no panic happening at leading brokerages. As Better Homes and Gardens Gary Greene partner, Mark Woodruff said: “We know how to do this.”

“Once we get past the basics, of are we OK, it’s going to be looking at clients, seeing if properties we have got on the market — are they still saleable or do they need work? Looking at pending transactions, figuring out do we still have buyers, organizing re-inspections from mortgage companies. And then there will be huge demand for rental homes, which will create a whole new cycle,” he said.

It took nine months to a year to recover from Hurricane Ike nine years ago, and it could be that or more from Harvey, he added.

The message from our experts is those agents who involve themselves wholly in helping their communities, without the thought of a commission check in mind, will emerge with closer client relationships than ever before and potentially a better market with better-built homes than prior to Harvey.

But there will be inevitable fallout.

After Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans in August 2005, Ron Mazier’s brokerage quickly lost six of its 12 agents.

He shuttered the business a year and a half later. But Mazier made ends meet for a time, partly by churning out broker price opinions (BPOs) for banks and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). He also obtained $4,600 in quick assistance from FEMA.

Real estate agents impacted by disasters can use a range of tactics to soften the blow to their businesses. Here are some tips for agents navigating the fallout of Hurricane Harvey and other calamities.

Organize your own accommodation first

The moment the rain stopped in Houston, Wolff, hightailed it directly from his hotel to an apartment complex to sort out accommodations for him and his family and for his neighbors.

Think of it as putting on your own oxygen mask on a plane before you help anyone else.

“Get yourself housed first — from a business perspective, you have got to have yourself in a reasonable place. Get yourself settled first, and then you can help others,” Wolff said.

Help your clients with their damaged homes

Tim Houk

According to Tim Houk, CEO of a Keller Williams team in Baton Rouge, the first thing he did after terrible flooding in his market last year, which brought in 31 inches of rain and affected 100,000 homes, was print out his entire database and call each client to see who needed help.

“For affected families, if you know they need help, don’t ask: ‘What do you need?’ Rather, just show up and help. People are in a dire state, and more than anything, they need help getting homes emptied, inventoried and documented,” Houk said.

“Cook food, and deliver it if you can. The process of gutting your home and emptying your life’s belongings into a pile in the front yard is enough without trying to figure out where your next meal is coming from.”

Apply for relief, become an expert on programs and spread the word

“Educate yourself on what clients and agents can do after flooding,” Wolff advises.

The advice is to file a claim with your flood insurer, if possible, and register with FEMA at www.DisasterAssistance.gov for access to a wide array of relief programs. You can also download FEMA’s app.

“Registering online is the quickest way to register for FEMA assistance,” a FEMA spokesman said. “If access to the internet is not available, you may register by calling: 1-800-621-FEMA (3362) or 1-800-462-7585 (TTY).

“The toll-free telephone numbers will operate from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. (local time) seven days a week until further notice.”

Also visit this link for information from the National Association of Realtors about transaction guidance after a disaster.

Here are some assistance programs available in Harvey-impacted areas:

  • Transitional Sheltering Assistance (TSA) is for survivors “who have a continuing need for shelter because they are unable to return to their homes for an extended period of time.” Listings for available properties under the program can be found at www.femaevachotels.com.
  • Critical Needs Assistance (CNA) “is intended for individuals and households who, as a result of the disaster, have immediate or critical needs because they are displaced from their primary home.” CNA is a one-time, limited payment per household.
  • Disaster Unemployment Assistance benefits are available to those whose jobs were affected and who live or work in the counties included in major disaster declaration. “This may include people not normally eligible for unemployment benefits, such as self-employed persons and farm-workers.”
  • Small Business Administration (SBA) disaster assistance loans will also be available to small businesses owners, according to Wolff.
  • Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the Federal Housing Agency (FHA) all are also offering relief to beleaguered homeowners, including moratoriums on foreclosure proceedings.

You can also apply for assistance from Texas Association of Realtors’ relief fund. The Texas Association of Realtors will provide $1,000 to real estate agents, their clients or anyone else, if loss can be proven.

“This is a physical and psychological process, you have to be prepared to help people look inside themselves and determine what they need to do, and in many cases, that is not going to come quickly. If you don’t educate yourself on how to help, you are going to create more problems,” Wolff said.

Get a handle on these programs, and dig up other forms of assistance, such as donations from corporations and charities. Then spread the word to your network via all channels of social media.

Study the current saleable inventory

Be the one who knows which houses in your market emerged relatively intact.

You will have a lot of clients who need a place to live immediately (to buy or rent), Wolff said.

If they choose to sell their home today, you have a client today; if they choose to fix it and sell in three months, you’ll have a client in three months.

You have got to know and understand the market to help them, it’s really about being the professional, he said.

Compile a list of rentals for homeless clients

Missy Whittington

Work with other agents to compile a list of rental properties clients can go to while their damaged homes are being worked on, suggests New Orleans Metropolitan Association of Realtors CEO, Missy Whittington.

Be knowledgeable about the short-term rental market, so agents can offer clients a reprieve while their homes are repaired, Wolff said.

Apartments.com has a running tally of apartments available on its home site, according to BHG Gary Greene. At last count 32,112 were available, but this is going to dry up quickly.

Expect the market for dry homes to heat up

Many well-off New Orleans residents with homes damaged by Katrina scrambled to purchase properties located in neighborhoods that had emerged from the storm intact.

“Anybody in the wet areas might say, ‘Hey, I’m going to move to Houston over there where it didn’t flood,’” Mazier said.

In post-Katrina New Orleans, demand for low-priced, dry homes shot through the roof, he said.

Only time will tell if Harvey has a similar impact, but agents could benefit by preparing for the possibility. Houston-area homesellers might want to keep their homes on the market, Mazier said.

Buyers will still look at damaged homes, Wolff added.

After prior floods in Houston, Wolff’s firm sold several houses where the seller “remediated” the house to a certain extent.

“Things were still structurally sound, the inspectors inspected what was possible, and we sold them to people who were planning to remodel.”

Be a go-to source for BPOs

In the wake of Katrina, banks were desperate to assess the values of homes owned by their borrowers. Demand for BPOs jumped further when FEMA began asking for them. The agency needed pre- and post-hurricane home valuations to figure out how much assistance to provide to homeowners.

Similar dynamics might play out in the Houston area.

Mazier estimates he performed roughly 1,000 BPOs, earning somewhere in the neighborhood of $50,000. He later learned than many of his peers had helped keep the lights on by doing the same.

But the job is not for everyone. Roaming neighborhoods with downed power lines, abandoned dogs and shredded buildings can take a toll, he said.

“I was a young guy, and it was like Mad Max,” Mazier said. “That kind of wears on you emotionally.”

Reassure people that the community will recover

Many disaster-affected homeowners make rash decisions. Reassure them that their community and housing market will recover, and calmly lay out the case for holding onto their homes.

“You have to help those people take a deep breath not get caught up in a frenzy. Take a few deep breaths, and get it right,” Wolff said. “Don’t make rash decisions for yourself and others, and help people make the right decisions.”

Be reassured that your market will come back too, although it may not look exactly the same.

Houk said, you do sell some real estate — there were people who were flooded, had the means and needed to buy.

“There were cash buyers, and non-flooded areas became very desirable. The flood happened in August; we did OK in September,” he said.

Advise homeowners not to rush through the sales process

If homeowners decide they don’t want to be in their home any longer, make sure they don’t rush through the process. Slow them down, and guide them through the necessary preparations, which could include extensive repairs — so you can fetch them the best price.

“We learned we had to slow people down; we devised a six-point system,” Houk said.

They asked people things like: how was your home treated for mold, and was it done professionally? Does it have a certificate with permits and a licensed contractor? What was their license number?

“They couldn’t put the home on the market if the process was done improperly,” Houk said.

Protect homeowners from predatory investors

Many opportunists will swoop in and spray lowball offers across neighborhoods. Don’t let distressed homeowners take the bait.

I’ll offer you this much today to get it off your shoulders, investors might tell residents under duress, Wolff said.

“When something like this occurs, people feel like it is their only option, but it’s a very dangerous proposition. They could lose a lot of money,” he added.

That said, selling to investors could be the best option for some homeowners. In those cases, agents could be a help to both parties.

NewHomePrograms.com’s Cory Kammerdiener said investors had already asked him to let them know of “abandoned properties,” in Houston.

“There is a shortage of flip properties out there,” he said. “It’s always business as usual for some folks.”

Before assisting with any of these potential deals, ask yourself if you are exploiting anyone. Then shut things down or move forward.

Inform homeowners of scammers

“There will be poachers out there for sure,” Mazier said, speaking from experience.

Quotes for the removal of a fallen tree in his yard started at $1,200 shortly after Katrina, he said. He was able to pay only $600 simply because he waited a few weeks.

Be your clients’ champion, Houk said. He corrected a lot of misinformation being spread by scammers going door-to-door last year through sending out mass emails to clients.

“There were unlicensed people going door-to-door saying you could get a mold certificate for $1,200. We weren’t going to allow that to happen to our clients,” Houk said.

He said there were also unlicensed contractors making their rounds telling people to sign over their insurance checks to them.

Missy Whittington said that after Katrina many scammers convinced beleaguered residents to pony up cash for redeveloping their homes and then disappeared.

Ask your vendors for discounts

Technology and service providers may be willing to temporarily waive or discount fees for agents and brokerages. Don’t be afraid to ask for breaks.

We contacted vendors and a lot were willing to help us. They were willing to give us a reprieve because we were in the middle of a disaster, Houk said.

Vendors have already stepped forward this week, including Contactually, Relola and lead platform EZ Lead Pages, to give Houston agents some relief from their usual fees. Relola went so far as to give every agent in Houston a free lifetime account.

Be prepared to move real estate markets and for markets to change

According to Whittington, a number of agents from New Orleans moved to operate in the Baton Rouge market after Katrina because the properties in their neighborhoods needed a complete rebuild, and Baton Rouge became very busy as New Orleans residents relocated there.

Many of these agents have returned to New Orleans because they missed it, but they were in Baton Rouge for a considerable period.

“Plenty of them did take other jobs as well as real estate,” she added. If they can get through the first year, they make it, and they should take whatever assistance there is to stay in that business, she said.

Real estate markets may change their socio-economic makeup when a huge disaster comes to town.

Lakeview, a chi chi suburb in New Orleans, was situated close to the levee and very badly affected by Katrina, so the wealthy homeowners who lived there fled and sold their homes cheaply.

“People who could never afford to live there before were scooping them up and moved to an area where they had always wanted to live,” Whittington said.

New houses were built, and some of those people who left the area may have lived to regret it.

For Houston agents going through this traumatic time, they should know their colleagues in Louisiana have their backs. They stress you will survive this, and you will be stronger.

“Twelve months later, we have a relationship far greater than the sum of a commission check,” Houk said.

“They were binding experiences you never want to go through, but it has been such a positive experience. If just for a moment you forget about the commission, look after clients and be a steward of good advice, the business is going to rebound.”

Email Gill South or Teke Wiggin.