This article was last updated Oct. 20, 2022.
Getting into real estate is easy, but succeeding is tough in an industry with more than 1.5 million members, according to October 2021 data from the National Association of Realtors (NAR).
Most agents Inman spoke with agree that honing your craft and finding a specialization are key to standing out from the millions of other Realtors in the country.
“This is an oversaturated industry, so you have to have a distinct focus or you’ll be lost in the sea of sameness,” Kofi Nartey, founder and CEO of Globl Red, said. “There’s an agent on every corner — everyone knows a real estate agent. You have to be known for something, whether it’s a geographic farm or a demographic farm.”
Ben Caballero, founder and CEO of HomesUSA.com, is someone who perhaps knows the importance of finding a specialization better than anyone else in the industry. Caballero has a specialization working directly with homebuilders to sell new homes — he was a builder himself for 18 years before transitioning to real estate — and has been named the No. 1 real estate agent in the U.S. based on transaction sides and sales volume by RealTrends every year since 2013.
“[Real estate] specialization is just like having a road map,” Caballero said. “If you can’t define what you’re wanting to do in the real estate business and you’re just going to take it as it comes to you, you’re just driving without a destination.”
Industry experts have determined that having a specialization is crucial — but how can agents best go about deciding what to specialize in? It takes time, research and a bit of soul-searching, but don’t let those be deterrents. Read on to learn what other agents recommend for finding your niche in the industry.
Build a strong foundation
Most agents Inman spoke with for this story agreed that it’s futile for agents to enter the business and immediately declare a specialization.
First, agents need to take time to learn the ins and outs of their market, refine their craft, understand the trends and the data and build a network.
“I think you need to be well-established in your craft, have a strong reputation within your community, have relationships locally [and] that includes understanding your local market, the housing market, the negotiations, other agents that are players [in your market],” Jordan Stuart, director of Sports and Entertainment at Keller Williams, said.
Stuart said one pitfall he sees from new agents is if they come from a particular background — such as a previous career as an actor, an elite athlete or a member of the military — and think their background automatically qualifies them to sell real estate to that demographic.
“You’re still not ready to support that client base,” Stuart said. “You need to have the core skills of, essentially, a real estate agent that’s operational and productive in the market. Being able to carry the life cycle of a real estate deal from start to finish is imperative, and having that baseline of dozens of transactions before you really want to focus on that niche is something that you need to establish.
“Yes, there is a trust issue, that they would trust you because they know you,” he said. “But they’re not going to want to follow through with you if you don’t have the acumen to get them a good deal on a property.”
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Follow your passion and start thinking about a niche early
As Stuart indicated, it’s important to not put the cart before the horse when considering a specialization. That said, agents also told Inman that letting a passion guide your business as you work toward deciding on and developing a specialization is something that should be done early on.
“The barriers to entry in our industry are low — it’s not hard to get your license,” Nartey said. “But you really should consider a specialization right at the onset of launching your career or even as a reset for people who are in the advanced stages of their career.”
The sooner you choose an area of focus, the earlier you can start making thoughtful business choices about how to become an expert in your field. And the more time you can benefit in your career long-term from those choices.
“You have to stay true to yourself,” James Harris, broker with The Agency, said. “When I set out [in real estate], when I had all the data, I then did it my way — what spoke to me, what resonated with me, what I felt let me stand out, and I think it goes with anything in daily business, you have to focus on what speaks to you.”
Cathy Franklin, an agent with Corcoran Group, agreed that without finding a passion, it’s extremely hard to succeed in this or any other business.
“Pick something that you are very passionate about that you find enjoyment in because you will be much more successful,” Franklin said. “I truly believe that. I think it’s hard to be successful at something that you don’t have any passion or enthusiasm or excitement or interest in.”
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Find a mentor
Nartey and Stuart both said that finding a mentor to help guide you through the journey is an important step to finding the area of specialization that’s right for you.
“Having the extension of a mentor who’s a seasoned veteran in real estate is always a really good starting point,” Stuart said.
Especially for individuals transitioning out of a different industry into real estate, Stuart said a mentor can be a helpful resource and someone to help connect you to more people in the industry. If you can find a mentor who’s been through it all before, that person will help you to avoid getting stuck in an area that may not be right for you.
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Research and think outside the box
As you consider what path to take — sports and entertainment real estate, new condo developments, restaurant properties, single-family rentals, land and ranches, etc. — gear yourself up for some research. By Caballero’s last count, he said there were at least 45 specializations in the industry that agents can choose from, which leaves a lot of options on the table.
The agents Inman spoke with for this story could not emphasize enough how much research went into their process for finding their area of specialization. Read books by successful entrepreneurs, find all the information you can online, and talk to people in the industry who know what they’re doing.
“When I started in [luxury real estate], I researched all the best people in the business,” Harris said. “I researched inside and out, backwards and front, what they did, how they did it, what their previous sales were, what their marketing techniques were, etc.”
Franklin, who grew up in both Oyster Bay and Manhattan and is an expert in pre-war homes, can rattle off dozens upon dozens of pre-war-era addresses throughout the city and the names of the architects who built them, as though she were reading from an encyclopedia. She was fortunate enough to have a lifetime experience of getting to know the city at her fingertips by the time she started out as an agent in her 20s. But on top of that, she read voraciously about her chosen subject.
“I read everything I could,” Franklin said. “I read the history, the work, examples of their work … and then I walked the city. I can walk the street with you and tell you who was the architect of this building, of this house, the club on the corner, and the store, and what else they did.
“Because it’s very clear if somebody really just only knows the surface,” she added.
During the process of learning and self-exploration, Harris said it’s also important to not fear thinking about your career path in a creative way that others may not have explored.
“It’s so important in our business to stay ahead of the curve and do what makes you unique, but more importantly than anything, always looking at ways to think outside of the box and be creative and do things differently from the way everyone else is doing them,” he said.
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Make sure you’re in the right place
The specialization you decide upon will have a lot to do with where you’re located, geographically, socially and in terms of your brokerage affiliation.
If you’re located in a smaller city with no professional sports teams, for instance, and plan to stay there indefinitely, you likely won’t be able to sustain a business specializing in catering to professional athletes. On the other hand, if you live in a market where new construction is booming, like Dallas or Austin, Texas, finding a specialization working with homebuilders is a smart move to grow your business.
“You have to also hold [your specialization] up against your marketplace and make sure the opportunities exist for you to have success in the market,” Nartey pointed out.
Similarly, be honest with yourself about whether your personality type will mesh well with your chosen clientele. If you want to work with high-profile celebrities, for example, you must have the self-discipline to be discreet.
“Privacy and discretion is paramount in this business,” Stuart said. “It’s rule Number 1 and Number. 2. There’s nothing that’s more important than those two things because these clients are extremely private and they want to work with agents that they can completely trust will keep their privacy.”
Choosing the right brokerage to support your specialization is also extremely important, and can make or break your craft. With the recent launch of its sports and entertainment division, for instance, Keller Williams agents looking to break into those areas suddenly have a wealth of resources to do so.
“It’s like a whole army of people that are loyal and supporting each other,” Stuart said of the new division. “Everyone has good vibes and it’s very positive — no one is competing with each other. It’s a big cooperative together.”
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Determining your specialization and gaining confidence in doing business in your area of choice takes time, agents told Inman, so having patience is crucial. The pace at which each individual grows in the business is obviously very specific to the person, but most agents said to prepare for about a year of self-exploration, learning and transitioning into a new practice.
The eight months it took Harris to transition is burned into his memory because at the time, he had quit his previous job and his wife was one month away from giving birth.
“I had a great job, but I was miserable and I came home one day and I was like, ‘Hi honey, I’ve quit,’ and she was like, ‘What?’ Harris said. “I was like, ‘I’m setting up my real estate business with David.’ She was like, ‘What? We’ve having a child in a month!’ And she loves to tell our friends how we didn’t do our first proper deal for eight months.”
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Build a brand around your desired clientele
Creating the right branding that speaks to your chosen specialization and the clients you’ll serve is also an important step in carving out a niche in the industry. Showing that you understand your potential clients’ needs through your branding will help you gain trust and credibility.
“The first thing is knowing what you’re doing and knowing the nuances of servicing that specialty group,” Nartey said. “Then you create a brand second. And then third is awareness around the brand because even just having a brand doesn’t mean that you’re creating the awareness around it, and that’s where your marketing comes into play, your outreach comes into play.”
This is another time where working with a brokerage that already has a division in your area of specialization can be an advantage, since you can draw on its existing marketing and branding resources. Still, that option isn’t completely necessary or the best choice for everyone — for self-starters and go-getters, creating their own branding may be the best option.
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Ignore feelings of fear of missing out
Some agents may hesitate to choose a specialization because they’re worried it will pen them into only handling transactions in a narrow area of business.
But, that is the wrong attitude, Nartey says.
“The risk of not being known for something is greater than the business that you would miss out on by specializing.”
When he was first building up his brand, he would occasionally get calls from potential clients who were under the misperception that he exclusively handled the transactions of athletes or entertainers. But Nartey said the small amount of business he may have missed out on because of this misunderstanding is negligible compared to his net gains from homing his specialization. At the most, usually only about half of Nartey’s business falls squarely under his areas of specialization.
“We missed out on some clients while doing that but also gained tremendous notoriety in this space on the national level,” he said. “These are things that you don’t want to get hung up on. Sometimes people create two different brands, [but] I think ideally you would have one brand and that brand will speak to your specialization. But you can also communicate to your clients that you still are ready to service them, wherever they are, whatever their needs are.”
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