International real estate sales challenge brokers and customers

Agents broaden their skills and knowledge of global methods to attract clients

Poetry may be lost in translation, as Robert Frost declared, but in the world of international real estate, other things can be endangered too.
A lack of familiarity with title or contract procedures — by the agent or by the buyer — can be just one of the problems when different languages and cultures are involved in a transaction.
And such challenges have never been more evident, especially in the United States. The country’s immigrant population continues to have a strong presence in the domestic market and the weak dollar, particularly against the euro, is luring many second-home buyers and investors from abroad. In addition, U.S. baby boomers are retiring and many of them are looking overseas for their next homes.
“The home buyer of the future is no longer ‘there.’ The global market is ‘here.’ That’s been the real sea change,” said Miriam Lowe, vice president of international operations with the National Association of Realtors. “Not white, not English-speaking. More diverse.”
And as a result, the association is finding that more agents at home and around the world are interested in its specialty programs, Lowe said.

The Certified International Property Specialist program, which has been in existence for some years, teaches brokers how to work with foreign clients; the Transnational Referral System, a program started in 2004, connects agents with one another, educates them about the etiquette of referrals and holds them accountable for paying referral fees, a practice that is not standardized throughout the world.

“In countries where the commission rates are very, very low, they’re beginning to open their eyes to the opportunity to make some income on referrals to the U.S.,” Lowe said.
And while some agents said they had yet to see their first referral, others have had a different experience. Julie Kerschner, an agent based in Arizona and in Los Cabos, Mexico, said all of her business now comes from referrals — many in the United States but also some from Japan, South Africa, Thailand and New Zealand.
Raymond Covyeau, a Chicago agent who has an international specialist certification, said, “When I was trying to do this 20 years ago, you were dependent on the telephone and the fax.” Agents interested in international business did attend annual meetings to network, but that was about it, he said.
In contrast, last year there were 2,275 certified specialists worldwide, about twice the number that existed in 1999, according to association data.
And 1,300 of those were in the United States, a number that has grown 20 percent a year during the past two years, Lowe said.
Other countries’ real estate organizations also are offering training and forming strategic alliances. In November, the Association of Real Estate Professionals in Mexico entered a reciprocal membership agreement with its U.S. counterpart, said Gerardo Paredes, president of the Mexican chapter of the International Real Estate Federation.
Paredes explained in an e-mail that a member of the Mexican association now is automatically a member of the U.S. group too, entitled to attend training programs and to be involved in other activities.
While the level of the U.S.-Mexico affiliation is unusual, the U.S. association also has bilateral partnerships with associations in more than 50 countries.
Buyers are the ones who benefit most from the arrangements, say agents — and people who have purchased property recently.
“When somebody speaks your language and you understand 100 percent what they’re saying, you feel a little more comfortable,” said Gary Marsden, a car dealer from Wisconsin who last year paid $350,000 for a three-bedroom, three-bathroom condo a half-mile from the beach in Los Cabos, Mexico.
He had traveled to Mexico on business and loved it, but only flirted with the idea of buying a retirement home there because of the possible risks: “Trying to get the people to live up to what they say. You’ve got to make sure you’re holding money back and that everything is there that’s supposed to be there,” he said. “Things can get a little slipshod.”
After some aspirational Web surfing, he found Kerschner, who was certified as a specialist three years ago and now attends regular member breakfasts.
“She knew the local ropes,” Marsden said. “It’s about much more than selling a house down there. Doing business with a foreign and local government, it’s just a totally different way.”
To be certified, brokers must take seven days of seminars on real estate in Asia, the Middle East and other regions, pass a test and complete three international transactions. Courses cost an average of $1,200 and are available online.

Participants said they picked up various kinds of information: Which countries use which sales standards? What happens if you don’t receive a referral fee? Who has reliable information on the resort market in Brazil or could help draw up legal papers in Bulgaria? And how to manage your country’s image when prospective clients are thousands of miles away?
“There are some barriers which, in some particular cases, affect the growth and speed of international transactions,” Paredes wrote, saying that stereotyping in the media was just one of the things deterring the growth of Mexico’s commercial real estate market. “These legal and cultural differences can be solved with appropriate broker training.”
Agents who complete the certification program then pay fees for online resources and networking opportunities.
Not everyone sees an increase in business after the classes. “I don’t do much by the way of international. We’re in the Midwest. It’s not the same as Florida, California, New York City,” said Donald Sturgeon, an agent in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who has international certification.
But many agents have had a better result. “This designation gives me legitimacy,” said Henda Salmeron, a residential agent in Dallas who went through the training in 2004. “It illustrates to foreigners that I’ve made a commitment to helping them and working with an international clientele.”
The Dallas market is driven by buyers from Mexico and Latin America, but Salmeron works primarily with clients from France, Australia, England, Israel and her native South Africa.
“I have won business because I’ve competed with agents who didn’t have this,” she said of the certification status. “I think the designation does give me the opportunity to think about ways to do business, more so than the ways you would if you didn’t have the training.”
She described the difficulty of working with a couple from Bosnia who did not speak English or any of her three other languages: Dutch, German and French. She used a translator, but it still was hard to guide them through the process of buying a home, let alone convey the intricacies of U.S. legal and financial practices, she said.
“Even locally, we have nuances, so when you’re dealing internationally, you have to be even more careful,” Salmeron said.
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