Want to sell homes during the pandemic? Stop sitting at home binge-watching Netflix


Editor’s Note: This is the tenth installment in the “Industry Warriors” series, a collection of profiles on veteran real estate professionals and lenders who produced high volumes pre-9/11 and pre-2008, weathered those economic downturns and rebounded even stronger.

Real estate was a side hustle for Thomas Blanchard when he entered the industry in 1981 — a means to earn money while he trained to be a paramedic, firefighter and policeman.

After working full-time as a paramedic in Los Angeles County and Las Vegas (even serving ringside for heavyweight fights with Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield), he stepped back into real estate in 1995.

“After a while of being a paramedic, your body starts giving way,” Blanchard said. “I had to figure out another way that I could make ends meet. I went back to what I originally had done, and that was real estate.”

As he built his career in Las Vegas, he honed a niche in real estate owned, or REO, properties seized by banks and lenders.

“It’s hard to compete when everybody’s trying to compete for the same piece of the pie. I’m always one that’s trying to figure out, ‘If everybody’s eating this section of the pie, why not go over to this other section that no one’s eating? It’ll be a lot more to eat from,’” he said. “I started trying to talk to banks because no one knew back then what REO was, and that’s what I focused on, dealing with banks. People will always have situations where they would come up short, especially in Las Vegas.”

Now Blanchard serves as the president of Las Vegas Realtors and a sales director for Renters Warehouse, a real estate investment services and property management company that manages single-family rentals.

What’s been particularly poignant about Blanchard’s community are its numbers so far for this year. In March, existing home prices in southern Nevada hit an all-time record of $319,000, up 6.3% from the previous March, according to Las Vegas Realtors data. Sales were up 5.2% for home and 11.7% for condos and townhomes. And despite COVID-19 closing the Las Vegas Strip and halting the tourism industry, an economic driver for the community, Blanchard said the numbers show how diverse Las Vegas has become.

“It takes 45, 60 days for a transaction to go through, so sales that were put into the escrow in January and February are closing in March and April,” Blanchard said. “We had a great January. We had an even better February. We would have had an explosive March. Nothing’s really making me scared for April.”

HousingWire spoke to Blanchard about his experience maneuvering past economic downturns and his advice for navigating today’s market.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

HousingWire: What are you doing within your real estate business to adapt to the current market situation?

Thomas Blanchard: We’re not sitting at home, binge-watching Netflix. We’re not sitting at home, feeling sorry for ourselves. We’re looking for avenues that other people aren’t doing. We’re sticking to a schedule. We’re not allowing the distractions of being home take us away from what we have to do every single day to keep moving forward.

That’s probably been the biggest thing I’ve stressed with everybody that’s working for me because it’s so easy to just take it easy, because you think everybody else is. But the fact of the matter is, the ones that are doing business, are doing business because they’re still at it. They’re not sitting at home. They’re still making calls. They’re still going out there and sending virtual tours, making contacts, doing what they still need to do every single day to make sure that they’re able to put money in the bank and food on the table.

HW: How are you encouraging your team to stay positive during this time?

TB: Everybody is sitting on a list — of people they’ve always been trying to get ahold of, that they keep putting off from calling, or sending that email — that’s in a drawer somewhere or sitting in their computer that they never have gotten to because they’ve tried it, they haven’t gotten any responses because no one was home. Right now, everybody and their brother are sitting at home, and they need to make those calls now. They’re gonna answer the phone because there’s no one else to talk to. They’re answering their emails because they’re sitting there on their computers, doing Zoom conferences to everybody else.

Now, more than ever, is the time to send the emails and to make the calls that you normally have tried and didn’t get the results that you wanted. You’ll get the results now because they’re on the other end, waiting for your call. It is simple: ‘Hey, how you doing? Just checking up on how you doing during craziness?’ How easy is that? It’s not, ‘Are you looking to buy and sell your house?’ They know you’re in real estate. The next question they’re gonna ask you is something really simple: ‘How are you? How’s real estate?’ That’s on their mind anyway, because that’s all they ever see is the ‘When’s the crash going to happen?’ The questions are going to come pouring out of their mouth.

This is probably the easiest time to make a call and get business than ever in history, and it’s not about making the call and making the sale right now. It’s about building up the pipeline so that you have business on the backside of this epidemic. That’s the key. When this wave goes through this country, the backside’s going to be a burner. If you’re not ready and on that surfboard, ready to ride the wave of business, then you’re just going to be doing flips upon flips in the whitewater of the crashing wave.

HW: How are you staying positive?

TB: I’m a pretty positive person because I’ve seen in my background of being a paramedic, I’ve seen the depths of humanity. Just to hear the birds chirping outside is enough to keep me positive, and I’m a pretty animated person. Being able to answer questions and provide people with a path and serving in the capacity that I can still serve, fills me up. That provides me with all the energy I need to keep on going.

HW: What did you do in past economic shocks to successfully navigate the downturns?

TB: I was positioned on my surfboard, ready to take the wave of REOs, because I already was in that place. That wave of business, I rode that pipeline all the way in. The years of ’07, ’08 were historical years for me. I had 400-plus properties listed and turning over per month.

HW: That goes back to what you said about looking for opportunities where other people weren’t going. How did you find buyers during that time for the properties?

Buyers were coming to me because we had the inventory. If you were an investor looking to purchase and try to take advantage of that current market, you wanted to go to the source. The source was the person that had the properties on the market. My whole team was built to handle the people wanting to buy the properties that we had on the market.

HW: The spring buying season has been drastically impacted throughout the country. How have the last few weeks been looking in the Vegas market? Are you still seeing a pipeline of people looking for houses and condos?

TB: This current crisis has taken out those buyers that were just looking, and it’s taken out those happenstance kind of purchases, those buyers that were, ‘If I find the right house, I’ll buy it.’ The buyers that are out there right now are literally risking their life going out and seeing a house. So they really have to buy, let’s face it.

They’re donning masks and gloves and putting on hazmat suits, walking around with booties through somebody else’s house that may be contaminated with the COVID-19 virus, not trying to touch anything so they don’t get contaminated and coming back out being washed down with a Clorox wipe.

It’s going to take away a certain amount of the sales, but there are buyers that want to purchase, can purchase, and are purchasing. And the sellers — our fallout of listings has been lower so far on a week-to-week basis in 2020, so far in April than it was in 2019. Less listings have been withdrawn in 2020 than they were in 2019. I expect our available housing count to be going up in April. I expect sales probably to be a little bit less than they were in 2019, but I still expect them to be a decent number, not a big number.

As some of the inventory in the lower priced homes shrinks — it’s funny to say this — I expect, potentially, to see our median price range go up even further as more expensive homes sell because that’s what’s available in the market. It’s going to be really weird to see and try to explain the numbers come April, May, even June.

HW: Las Vegas has already had limited inventory, right?

TB: We’ve had a housing shortage. We were down to 1.7 months of inventory. We may have gone up to almost two months in March.

HW: What piece of advice from your history in downturns would you give to others in your field trying to navigate COVID-19?

TB: Be inventive. Do what everybody else isn’t. Keep a schedule. It’s too easy to get off schedule. Maintain a schedule, get up, shower because otherwise you’re going to get up, you’re going to get a cup of coffee, you’re going to go sit down on the living room sofa, you’re gonna turn the TV on, and the next thing you know, it’s going to be 10 o’clock. You’re going to go, ‘Oh, the day’s already screwed. Forget it.’ Get up, take a shower. Do your morning routine as if you were going to go to work, and go somewhere else other than the sofa. Go to the kitchen table. Go to the living room table. Go to your home office. Go somewhere that sets your mind as if you’re going to work. Put your mind into it, and you’ll be into it.



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Military towns take extra hit from relocation pause


military family

Thousands of military families — and the real estate in towns surrounding U.S. military bases — are in limbo right now.

Each year around this time, a wave of active duty members with relocation orders start searching for houses and rentals, signing contracts and planning their summertime moves before school starts in the fall.

But this year to curtail the coronavirus spread, the Pentagon put a 60-day stop movement order in effect in March, freezing travel by all U.S. forces, civilian personnel and their families. Then this Tuesday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said that order will extend past the original May 11 date, but didn’t specify a new date.

That means all those with orders known as permanent change of station, or PCS, have to stay where they are until the order is lifted, not knowing when they can move to that next location. Several Realtors and lenders who specialize in Department of Veterans Affairs home loans told HousingWire that this thrusts another level of unpredictability into military families and cities from California to Florida, Texas to Virginia.

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Real estate broker Eric Benaim shares advice on business in a downturn


Editor’s Note: This is the sixth installment in the “Industry Warriors” series, a collection of profiles on veteran real estate professionals and lenders who produced high volumes pre-9/11 and pre-2008, weathered those economic downturns and rebounded even stronger.

Amid major economic uncertainty, Eric Benaim has made major moves.

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, Benaim shuttered the party-promotion company he owned and pivoted to real estate.

In 2006, he honed his focus on Long Island City — long before jetBlue’s headquarters, trendy bars and the “it-factor” appeal moved into the neighborhood — and went on to sell 60 to 70 apartments, he estimated.

In 2008, at the height of the Great Recession, he opened his own firm, Modern Spaces Real Estate on the main street of Long Island City: Vernon Boulevard. He used his nightly walks home to meet owners of the row houses and worked with them to place tenants.

In 2009, a developer of a waterfront condo building in Long Island City asked him to rent 60 units of the building. Benaim turned one apartment into a leasing office, coordinated with mortgage loan officers to outline rental versus purchases costs and converted renters to buyers. He took over the entire project and parlayed his relationship with the developer into working on another building.

“He showed me the design and the design was a little flashy. 2009, I don’t think people want something flashy,” Benaim said. “I was like, ‘Can I redesign this for you?’”

Benaim went on to work with the developer on the design, tapping one of his friends who had an art collective to furnish three model apartments with re-purposed furniture made from garbage. “We ended up turning it into a whole press opportunity,” he said. “We built up our reputation in the neighborhood.”

Now, ModernSpaces has established itself as a stronghold in western Queens, with 100 agents among five offices, about $1 billion a year in transactions and a 70% market share in the area for the past seven or eight years, Benaim said.

HousingWire spoke to Benaim about his experience weathering past downturns and his advice for navigating today’s real estate market.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

HousingWire: What are you doing within your real estate business to adapt to the current market situation?

Eric Benaim: We brought everything virtual. We shut down (our offices) on the 13th of March, so a week prior, we started booking all virtual tours. We haven’t laid off anybody. We haven’t furloughed anybody. We haven’t fired anybody. We still have our meetings. I make calls to all the agents once a week. We have a Zoom meeting with each office once a week now. We have team meetings with our executive team, like twice a week. We stopped all of our print ads and are focusing only on digital, and increasing the amount of social media posts, trying to constantly come up with new content.

We have two different newsletters, and one targeted towards our developer clients and one targeted toward our end-user clients, which we send out every two months or so. We’re sending each out now once a week, just to get out there, create content. We were spending a lot of money on print advertising, and even on outdoor. So we stopped that, as nobody’s outdoors, and I don’t think people feel comfortable now holding a magazine. We haven’t done mailers because I feel like people are going to be reluctant to even hold a postcard. So things like that, we’ve stopped. 

We bought virtual tour cameras for each office now, and we’re giving training for our agents on how to do a virtual walk-through of a unit. We bought those like a week ago, only because we’re not sure how long we’re going be doing this.

HW: How are you encouraging your team to stay positive during this time?

EB: My marketing team wanted to do a TikTok video (to stay engaged as a team), so we’re doing everything from TikTok videos to I’m speaking to every single one of my agents, on a weekly basis now. I’m giving them one-on-one advice — everything from going through their inbox, speaking to people who they haven’t spoken to in seven or eight years, to creating their own newsletters and boosting their own social media. One of our agents, our commercial guy, had a client list of 2,000 people. He literally texted all 2,000; he spent a few days going through each person texting them, asking how are they doing.

And then I’m just telling people, ‘We’ve been through this before.’ The difference between now and 12 years ago, is that 12 years ago, we literally had zero listings. We literally had no infrastructure, and we had no brand recognition. Now we have all three. We have a huge market share and we probably have close to $2 billion in listings. So that is going to be our strength going into this new world, but it’s also an opportunity with maybe going into new markets, maybe doing things a little bit differently, maybe exploring other divisions to launch.

HW: What did you do in past economic downturns to successfully navigate that period?

EB: I started my firm in 2008, at the time specifically focused on Long Island City. We opened up some sometime around July, our website didn’t really launch until about Labor Day, and we had zero listings. We had a little 650-square-foot storefront on Vernon Boulevard, which is like the main shopping drag over here. We had listing display frames on the windows. We had one, two agents at the time. We thought we’ll get a lot of buyers from having a storefront walk-in, and we’ll will take them to the luxury rentals. And then Lehman Brothers crashed.

When that happened, we had to think fast and change our business plan, and one thing we started noticing was we were getting a lot of walk-ins; we were getting anywhere from 12 to 15 walk-ins a day. People were like, ‘I want to break my lease,’ ‘I’m not sure if I’m gonna have a job anymore,’ or ‘My lease is up; I want to get something cheaper.’ So I would walk to work, I lived in Long Island City, I still live in Long Island City, actually in the same building. I’d walk to work every day, and on the way to work and on the way to home, I made a point to walk a different street.

I was meeting as many (people) who owned a lot of these row houses and walk-ups …We ended up focusing on those buildings, doing a lot of rentals and starting to get to know a lot of the walk- up landlords, little independent mom-and-pop landlords. That carried us through, definitely the rest of 2008 and then a good portion of the first quarter probably, of 2009.

At that time, Douglas Elliman was marketing all the projects over here in the neighborhood. We were a little independent shop. Nobody knew who we were. At the time, they were focused more on their Manhattan listings. And for us, it was a time for us to seize an opportunity where we knew Long Island City was like scraps to other brokerages. But for us, it was like gold. We started going after these projects, so 2009 not knowing a thing about marketing and new development, we took over every single project in the neighborhood.

We took over about six projects that year, probably totaling about $500 million worth of listings. And we had five agents. And every single developer who came to us, we’re like, ‘Yeah, we could do this.’ That’s what helped us build our company.

HW: Given your history in those past economic downturns, how can we pull through now that the spring buying season has been drastically impacted?

EB: I think the summer season is going to still be good, and we’re probably going to have a good fall season. But I think it’s gonna just move over, the spring season will go into the summer season. Summer season is usually dead because people are going away; people are going to the Hamptons, or they’re going upstate or the Jersey Shore. I don’t think you’re gonna have that much this year. The people who go to the Hamptons are probably in the Hamptons right now. And people want to be at work. They probably did all their family bonding time during the last few months and they’re like, ‘Alright, let me go out and let me do my work.’ I think it’s just gonna be shifted over to the summer.

HW: So you think, on another side of this, that we’re still going to have demand coming through and people still looking to buy and lease?

EB: Probably the only sector that’s really going to be hurting is the commercial sector, so with retail and office spaces … like WeWork and more of the co-working companies where they’re relying on thousands of tenants, and those leases are month to month. A lot of those tenants probably canceled for April and probably canceled for May. At the same time, WeWork and WeWork-type of companies, they still have a responsibility of paying their landlord … So office and retail are probably what’s going to be hurting. You’re going to see if a landlord is smart, the landlord will do whatever it takes to work with that retail tenant.

My advice to a landlord would be, work a deal out with that restaurant. Why don’t you just work out a deal with this guy, maybe give them an extra three months or four months or take a couple thousand dollars off the rent, so that your guy who was good to you for the last however many years can continue to be good? Now it’d be my personal advice to landlords who call me … Because at the end of the day, whatever neighborhood we focus on, if it’s Long Island City or Tribeca, you’re selling the neighborhood.

If you’re selling there in Tribeca, you’re selling Bubby’s and Tribeca Grill or whatever you’re selling, but if Bubby’s isn’t there, Tribeca Grill isn’t there, and Nobu isn’t there, then what’s really cool about the neighborhood? You’ve got to really sustain and try to keep the fabric of the neighborhood as long as we can. And not everything is about making a commission.

The bigger picture is, I’ll do this for free. And we did this actually, in 2008. In 2008, all of Vernon Boulevard was empty. I was like, ‘Oh, my God, we’re not getting any walk-in traffic.’ I started going to the landlords and said, ‘I’ll market this for free for you. I won’t charge you a commission. Let me just put my sign over here. I’ll try to find you a tenant.’ I need to fill up the boulevard because if there’s nobody walking over here, I don’t get walk-ins. And if nobody’s walking over here, nobody wants to live over here. We did that for at least a half a dozen restaurants; we placed for nothing. At the end of the day, it’s really important to bring life back into the neighborhood.

HW: What piece of advice from your history in downturns would you give to others in your field trying to navigate COVID-19?

EB: I would tell them to be focused, be positive. Try to find one thing and really kill it at that one thing, then grow from there. When I first got into the business, I was focusing everywhere. I was focusing on the Upper East Side, Chelsea, Greenwich Village, Downtown. I was focusing everywhere. I didn’t really do as well. But when you’re focusing on one thing, and you’re doing that one thing really well, that is when you succeed.



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