The Secrets of Top Agents

By Hannah Wallace January 31, 2007

There's nothing like falling home prices and a two-year inventory of houses and condos to separate the wheat from the chaff among residential real estate agents. We talked with three top performers to find out how they're surviving the downturn-and while their sales were off an average of 24 percent compared to 2005, they knew the boom days wouldn't last and planned for it. They haven't cut back on advertising, they maintain a strong referral base and they're all a tad obsessive when it comes to taking care of details.


2006 sales: $45 million

2005 sales: $55 million

Linda Dickinson,

Michael Saunders & Company

Sarasota's top-selling real estate agent, Linda Dickinson of Michael Saunders & Company, spent the first part of her life as a therapist helping people with their problems. For the past 25 years, she's been doing the same thing as a real estate agent, but now multimillion dollar houses hang in the balance.

"You have to read between the lines," Dickinson says. "It's not just hearing but listening to help you hone in on people's real goals."

While her sales are down 18 percent compared to last year, she points out that she's had more than $5 million sales (CQ).


Waterfront homes on Siesta and Longboat keys. She recently sold a home for $15 million(CQ)-the largest she's ever closed-representing both buyer and seller, a sticky proposition under any circumstance. "There were a million reasons it could have failed," Dickinson says. "It required complete and total communication."


"The high end is still very strong," Dickinson says. "Consequently, my specialty is not impacted overall." Conversations with sellers who needed to drop their prices weren't that difficult, Dickinson says. "I'm their eyes and ears letting them know what is happening in the market. Intelligent people respond to the market."


The last six months of 2006 were challenging because buyers were fearful of paying too much, says Dickinson, who makes sure her prospects are qualified so she's working more efficiently. Most come from referrals. She doesn't seek out investors, although she says they're in the market looking for distressed properties now.


Like other top agents, Dickinson gets many of her clients from word-of-mouth and referrals. While she wouldn't reveal how much she spends on advertising, she absorbs all marketing costs and invests in "fabulous photography and wonderful copy." "My job is to create as much excitement and buzz about a new property as possible," she says.


Answering calls promptly, keeping in frequent touch with clients and working with other professionals to get properties spruced up, if necessary, have kept a steady stream of clients coming her way.


"I'm quite compulsive when I do something," she says. "I have a fabulous assistant who is as attentive to details as I am. You just can't let up."


2006 sales: $13 million

2005 sales: $18 million

Gina Uliano,

Wagner Real Estate

Twenty-five-year real estate veteran Gina Uliano is philosophical about the 28 percent drop in her 2006 gross sales. "It's a cycle-you have your highs and lows," she says.

Her remedy? Sweat equity. "We didn't change what we're doing," she says. "We're just working harder."

Gina works with her mother, Judy McCauley, the self-proclaimed "Condo Queen," and her husband, Peter Uliano, who handles the marketing for "the Royal Team." Together, they've been Wagner Real Estate's top producers since 2003.

In an era of high-tech, virtual home tours, Gina calls herself a "back-to-basics kind of agent." She believes in open houses and follows up on every lead, no matter how small.


Listings and sales range from $95,000 condos to million-dollar homes, primarily in Manatee County.


There's no price pattern. "The older, established neighborhoods on the west side of Bradenton are selling as opposed to the newer developments," Gina says. "Buyers are afraid of the new neighborhoods."


About 80 percent of her clients come from referrals. Investors weren't anywhere to be found through most of 2005. By the fourth quarter of 2006, some were returning. "They're thinking this is a good time to get back in the market with prices down about 20 percent," she says.


When listing properties, Uliano pays all the advertising costs and hasn't budged on commissions because it's pricey to list in a slow market. "We're telling sellers that if they need to sell, they need to be at the same price as the lowest in the neighborhood or lower. And if they don't need to sell, wait."


Return phone calls promptly and stay in touch with previous clients. "We take care of our clients, so they don't forget us," she says. That means plenty of entertaining, reminder cards and phone calls. And when it comes to phones, Uliano's is attached to her hip. "You have to return calls, no matter how small," Uliano says.


During the good years, Uliano saves for a rainy day so she'll be able to continue her advertising and marketing.


2006 sales: $5.5 million

2005 sales: $7.5 million

Lueanne Wood,

Coldwell Banker

Driving around the island of Venice, it doesn't take long to see one of Lueanne Wood's "For Sale" signs. Working with her husband, Larry Kurtzo, and another agent, Nick Flerlage, Wood has been the top Coldwell Banker agent in Venice for about 10 years and among the top 1 percent of Coldwell's international agents.

Sales this year were off by about 27 percent compared to last year, and Wood has worked nonstop to close deals.


Listings span from $195,000 to $3 million. She specializes in property on Venice island.


The weakest segment of their market is $600,000 to $1 million homes, Flerlage says. "The lower end is very strong and so is the multimillion-dollar market."


Not investors, but they're getting more active.


About 25 percent of Wood's budget goes to advertising; in 2006 that amounted to about $755,000. "We have deep pockets to market our listings," Wood says. The group's extensive marketing kit includes a market summary, a listing sheet, two DVDs-including a "Discovering Venice" video they produced-and a clever flap-over business card holder with a front that says, "When you're looking for the best" and continues inside with, "Give me a ring" to the sound of a cell phone ring.

Wood and company absorb the full advertising costs when they list a property, so they are diligent about getting sellers to set realistic prices, "Many sellers have information that's dated," Flerlage says. "We tell them straight up what the truth is. A lot of Realtors will take the listing and negotiate the price drop later, but we won't do that."


An interactive Web site with virtual home tours is a priority. Her an easy-to-use search feature and is connected to the top national real estate sites. A new Coldwell Banker Web routing system brings prospects to Wood and she has 15 minutes to call them before Coldwell bumps the lead to another agent. With sales histories and virtual tours available online, Wood gets a lot of direct contact with buyers and sells about 80 percent of her own listings.


"I always answer my phone," Wood says. "People want instant gratification and I'm on them like a cheap suit."


Commit to community involvement, entertain your clients and be visible. The team also does a lot of statistical analysis. "When sellers look at a graph, it hits them," says Flerlage. "If you have 300, three-bedroom, two-bath homes on the market, price is one factor that differentiates them."

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