The Toronto Real Estate Board estimates there are roughly 42,000 realtors working in the GTA. This means competition between rival agents is fierce. But with market trends and finances beyond the control of your housing representative, how are they able to set themselves apart?
Some have taken to moving beyond the noise of numbers and appealing instead to their clients’ sexual orientations, specialized needs and even spiritual beliefs. Below a few agents in the city who cater to niche markets.
What would Jesus do? Given today’s economy, he might sell condos. Scott Benson isn’t really sure but he does think he’s trying his best to blend his religious beliefs with Toronto’s housing market.
“I have the willingness to try and do real estate in a way that is true to the Christian principles,” the 35-year-old agent says. He thinks that clients seek him out because they’re looking for someone who will handle the biggest purchase of their lives while adhering to particular values. However, sometimes these guiding principles clash with traditional businesses practices.
Benson offers this recent example: in one transaction, he represented both the buyer and seller of a property. Appliances were supposed to be included in the sale, but when the buyer went to move in, they discovered the washer and dryer were missing. After double-checking the paperwork and finding that the seller was in the wrong, he attempted to mediate the situation instead of getting lawyers involved. But an agreement couldn’t be met, so he simply purchased new appliances to settle the disagreement himself.
“That’s what I think changes our world for the positive: when you do things that are counter-cultural…and that’s what Jesus did. He hung out with the prostitutes and the people on the margins.”
However, he’s quick to admit that one doesn’t need to be a Christian to operate within moral guidelines and he represents clients from all walks of life. He also wrestles with questions of right and wrong on an ongoing basis.
“Is this a job that Jesus would actually do? Can you match up Christian principles with a very capitalist type of industry? I do have an internal struggle with those two things but I really do love it.”
Some clients want a real estate agent who’s cut-throat others want someone who takes a more compassionate approach.
Eva Szczenpanek and Luke Robinson are the founders of Vegan Home and Mortgage, a group that believes selling homes and saving animals aren’t mutually exclusive: for every sale they represent, they donate a portion of their commission to an animal organization of the client’s choice.
“I think connecting with clients on a personal level, like veganism, is very important,” Robinson says. He likens their approach to businesses that offer socially responsible products, like fair trade coffee.
In the first 12 months of business, they’ve made upwards of $10,000 in donations to animal organizations. But their philosophy goes beyond donations: they stage showings without using animals products and can refer clients to vegan service providers, such as contractors, ensuring that the ripple effect of a client’s spending doesn’t reach the meat industry.
On their off time, they’re also engaged activists: Szczenpanek often hands out anti-fur pamphlets at malls and Robinson attends anti-slaughterhouse vigils.
They also represent non-vegan clients who are drawn to their compassionate approach.
“I think at the end of the day, you’re going to have a hard time finding people who don’t like animals in some respect, even if they still eat meat,” Szczenpanek says.
The accessible agent
When Jeffrey Kerr’s aging aunt realized the condo she had purchased from plans three years earlier wouldn’t suit her now that she was using a wheelchair, he found his calling.
Kerr, a contractor who has only begun to get his footing in real estate, soon discovered that there wasn’t anyone in the city helping clients with disabilities find homes that addressed their specific challenges.
“My focus is barrier-free real estate,” he says. “Barrier-free is different for everyone. Every client that I work with has their own unique challenges.”
From the elderly to parents with disabled children, Kerr helps assess what their needs are and then find a home that can easily be adapted to their specific requirements.
He says the majority of his clients are survivors of motor vehicle accidents who need to find new housing now that they have mobility challenges. This means he draws on skills more often associated with a therapist, not a realtor.
“It’s an extremely emotional process. I’m often meeting people at a very difficult time in their lives, so what I try to bring to them are solutions and a sense of humour.”
There are also many more considerations that need to be taken into account when looking for a home, not simply whether or not a ramp can be installed. Kerr says he’s currently working with a woman who uses a wheelchair.
“And although I’ve found a condominium layout that could suit her, the buildings themselves aren’t accessible,” he says. Things like carpets in hallways and the placement of fob readers in entranceways are details that he’s trained to look out for.
He also appears to be in a league of his own.
“There are two of us [barrier-free real estate agents] in Ontario, but I’m the only one in the GTA.”
The green agent
With a multitude of incentives for Torontonians to adopt eco-friendly practices for their homes, going green now appeals to capitalists and environmentalists alike. When Elden Freeman created the National Association of Green Agents and Brokers (NAGAB) a decade ago, he was banking on a trend that has proven to be sustainable in its own right. The association promotes energy-saving practices and trains real estate agents how to investigate a property for potential upgrades.
In addition to founding NAGAB, Freeman is the broker of record of Freeman Real Estate, an agency where each agent is green-certified.
Green agents know what to ask to determine if a house is environmentally friendly, potentially increasing the resale value of the property, something that that Freeman says other agents might not know how to do
“I think if you can talk intelligently about cost-effective way to make improvement, you’re doing a real service,” he says.
Condo shopping? Check out our guide to up-and-coming developments. And don’t forget to nominate your favourite real estate agent in this year’s Readers’ Choice poll!
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