How we use our Employment Benefits to Maximize Every Dollar

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There is more to your job than just your salary. Most people receive some kind of benefit at work. Whether they are non monetary like a flexible schedule or more tangible like an employee discount, we get more from our employers than our paychecks. Here are four valuable benefits that we use (or have used in the past).

401K Match: For 5 years, I worked at a company that offered a 100% match for retirement contribution up to 6% of your salary. From the first day I started working, I made sure to contribute at least the 6% that would get me the 100% company match. Anything less would seem like I am leaving free money behind. I left that firm over 4 years ago and no longer receive a match at my new place of employment. However, my husband does receive a similar benefit (100% match up to 5% of his salary) and we make sure to take advantage of it. So now, when he contributes 10% of his salary, his account is actually receiving a deposit of 15%.

Graduate School: I often discuss my journey to becoming debt free and instrumental in all of that is the elimination of my student loan debt due to the high interest rate. I graduated 2 years ago in May from a program that cost $75K. However my loans were less than $50K thanks to the tuition assistance I received when I first started the MBA program. I did switch jobs in the middle of graduate school, which contributed to the balance of my loan, however, I am $28k closer to completing my payments as a result of being able to benefit from the tuition program early on in my studies.

Cellphone Discount: We have a family plan with 3 lines for smart phones that gives all the users unlimited data and text. If that sounds pricey, it’s because it is. However, my carrier offers an 18% discount to employees of my organization. Every 2-3 years, I recertify my employment by providing a either a scanned copy of my badge, a pay stub or some other form that would indicate I still work there.

BJ’s Wholesale Club: A BJ’s membership costs $50 a year for 2 people. Given the savings opportunities that buying in bulk offers, not to mention the low gas prices, that is already a fantastic deal. However, my husband’s job offers a discount where the membership costs less and is for a longer period of time: $40 for 16 months. Per month, the discounted price is nearly 1/2 the regular advertised price.

How are you maximizing your employee benefits?

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Screen, Screen, Screen: The Real Estate Professional’s Protection Against Scammers & Time Wasters

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Disclaimer: Any resemblance to actual luxury wives, persons living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Location, location, location? If you’re a buyer yes. If you’re a real estate agent, due diligence might be your mantra. There have been stories in the news for decades about real estate agents setting up their final appointments unbeknownst to them. There are some very sick and dangerous people out there. I’ve seen cold and/or vintage cases on Investigation Discovery just like I’ve seen modern cases play out in real time on the news. Fortunately, I find that agents are becoming more aware of the importance of not doing blind showings. Furthermore, access to technology has given us the resources required to separate our personal lives from our professional lives. We can use email to get acquainted (and leave a paper trail), have a google voice number, use a PO Box or use office sharing (for smaller operations) to avoid linking any of our activities to our primary residences. Some agents have even begun to arm themselves to various degrees (mace, guns, knives) and the team model is becoming more popular, giving us strength in numbers. But not every dishonest inquiry will lead to physical harm. How do we protect ourselves against scammers?

With real estate being an appointment-based business, it means that efficiency is the key to success. We cannot afford to waste time on buyers who are unrealistic about their purchasing power. Or worse, waste time on those with no purchasing power at all, but simply seek photo-ops for social media attention where likes feed their egos but not their empty lives. I’ve had my fair share of time wasted and I will tell you it is incredibly painful. You can’t help but think of all the serious clients you missed talking & spending time with those who did not buy anything or bought elsewhere. However it can also be a liability to both your overall livelihood and your short term income.

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I was recently made aware that our resident dollar store Kardashians were claiming to be renovating a recently acquired multimillion-dollar mansion that was at some point the residence of actor/comedian Katt Williams. Perhaps in a desperate attempt to discredit my previous post about their true socio-economic status as routinely evicted squatters, they reached an apex in the web of lies they spun aggressively and without much foresight. They posted pictures and videos of the property online, including showing children playing in the pool. This would normally be very convincing, because, how many people get to hang out by a pool on 10 acres of land near prime real estate if we don’t have access to the upper echelon? Except, the pictures combined with the knowledge that the home was the residence of a celebrity, only made it easier for people to track down. The issue is that the home in question is still for sale. It was for sale at the time this post was written and it was definitely for sale when the pictures were being shared online last week showing children in the pool, while they claimed that they were settling in and renovating.

A perturbed individual with some superb detective skills (not me) was able to unravel the entire story within 24 hours. It turned out that the husband has a real estate acquaintance who was able to give them access to the property and allowed them to get a little too comfortable in someone else’s home. It has yet to be determined whether or not the showing agent was another victim of their scamming ways or a wiling participant but he was certainly instrumental in the (attempted) trickery. But I will give him the benefit of the doubt for the sake of this post & show how his lack of screening may have opened him up to liability.

Listing Agent: Within reason, the listing agent is responsible for securing the property & protecting their client’s privacy. That is why many sellers demand accompanied showings for properties over a certain price point. A listing agreement is a contract with the seller. While your primary duty is to actively market & subsequently sell for the highest price, there is a certain expectation from the seller that you will do what you can to protect their most valuable asset when they hand you the keys. After all, the house has not yet been sold, which makes it still the property of the seller & often times, their homes. Many people still reside in houses that are on the market until 24-48 hours before closing. This stunt could have cost the agent the listing, which at over $3 million, would have been quite the payday. As a seller, there is no way that I would be comfortable with continuing a business relationship with someone who failed to protect my asset. What would have happened if they began squatting & had to be evicted?

Showing Agent: Within reason, a showing agent should take responsibility for the potential buyers they bring in. While you’re not responsible for an unruly child who bumps into an expensive lamp, I cannot imagine the lack of ethics & professionalism it takes to allow 2 children in a pool at a house that is actively being marketed for sale. While the showing agent cannot control where the footage subsequently ends up, it is a clear indication that at the very least, there were no boundaries established, and at worst, he might have been a willing participant. He runs the risk of being reprimanded by his managing broker or worse, be reported to the licensing board.

This had the potential of being a PR nightmare for both brokerage firms. Rogue showing agents giving known grifters access to high end properties & listing agents perceived as careless for not keeping an eye on the foot traffic. But, could this have been avoided? Absolutely. A little bit of screening could have prevented this egregious violation of  privacy.

First, interview your prospective buyers. An 30-minute long conversation might save you many hours of driving around people with no ability to buy or those whose tastes far exceed their financial capacity. Not to mention, lies are not very hard to detect. The more outrageous the story, the harder it is to keep it from unraveling. Ask questions and if you have any doubts, ask follow up questions.

Second, request documented proof. For anyone who will be financing their purchase, ask for a pre-qualification letter. Do not accept anything older than 3 months. The most important function is to make sure that you show them homes in their price range. If someone is qualified for up to $500k, there is no point in showing homes in the $650-700k range. The secondary purpose is to discourage any window shoppers or scammers for wasting your time. The people in question have been known to forge wedding dress receipts so this might not have deterred them, but the vast majority of con artists aren’t that committed to a scam and will likely move on to someone else who isn’t going to ask those questions. You can further protect yourself by requesting a letter with a phone number on it & the name of the loan officer who issued it. The possibility that you might call the financial institution to verify, should put forgers on ice.

Third, be ready for cash buyers. Not everyone finances a home purchase. Some really well-off people buy houses cash. Scammers might try and use that to try and circumvent the pre-qualification request. In that case, demand proof of funds. If it’s true, the seller will demand it anyway when they get an offer. If they aren’t comfortable enough to provide you with that information, perhaps, they should look to hire an agent they trust.

Fourth, sign a contract. In a previous post, I discussed my unwillingness to work for free & I presume you feel the same way. A buyer’s contract is your sole protection from someone making you do the leg work, picking your brain but buying from their cousin Deedee who’s efforts did not extend beyond completing the offer contract. That particular safeguard will not protect against scammers, but the hope is that all the other barriers will prevent you from getting to that point with a scammer anyway.

Finally, don’t be gullible. Discernment is a great asset and it is time we use it to its full capacity. You are a professional handling the most expensive transaction most people will ever make in their lives. You are not a follower of a fantasy social media account desperate for a fairy tale story. You are therefore held to a higher standard and it is unacceptable for you to see and yet ignore a multitude of red flags. Question the statements and behaviors you find suspicious.

It might seem difficult to implement these rules, especially when we are eager for business, but most clients will gladly provide the required information to ensure maximum efficiency. You just have to explain that it is for your protection as well as theirs. They are more likely to respect your professionalism & your time as you’ve demonstrated the value you place on your schedule.

 

 

I Don’t Work for Free: Why Asking for Real Estate Favors is an Insult

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I recently overheard my mom on the phone telling someone: “… yes, of course. And if you ever need anything or have questions, she’ll be glad to help.” This sounds like she’s doing some great free marketing for me and I should be happy, right? Well the problem is this is someone who specifically decided to NOT use my real estate services.

According to him, someone who owes him money happens to be a real estate agent. When the agent found out he was in the market for a home, the agent said: “Why don’t I represent you, that way I’ll use my commission check to pay you back.” I found out about that last minute arrangements after I had cleared my schedule & organized 4-5 property showings for him & his wife. Lucky for me I was able to make some additional  changes to reorganize my day & lucky for our delinquent borrower, I had not yet met with the potential buyer to make him sign a representation contract.

However, it turns out that the other agent is one of those “hands off” types. He expects the clients to do the legwork of hitting the pavement to look for properties alone. Later, he wants to show up at the 11th hour to submit offers & attend closing to pick up his check. This means he has not been very available to help them navigate the process as first time homebuyers. The buyer who is a family friend was sharing his woes with my mother when I heard her offer up my guidance. She doesn’t know any better & views it as “helping a friend”. The thing is, for me, real estate is a business. Not a charity, not volunteer work. I cannot do the work of another agent when I will collect none of the proceeds. If anything, family & friends tend to be your greatest source of referrals & your first opportunities for business. You cannot expect me to provide you with market information that I pay to access, dedicate time that I am taking away from PAYING clients to your inquiries free of charge. It is disrespectful because you are expecting me to work for free while you give your business to those who are not required to do much.

Real estate is an appointment & volume based business. Every minute I spend with someone is time I am not spending with someone else, time I am not spending marketing & generating business. I have to be discriminate with my time, effort & attention. Even paying clients can only get so much of my time since I have other people to attend to. Those who expect charity work or favors, will get none of my time. If I’m not good enough for your money, I’m not good enough for your questions.

You don’t work for free, neither do I. Call your agent.

Teamwork, Mentors and Success

 

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How many people have an official mentor? Someone who is an expert in an area that they have weaknesses in? I haven’t met too many people with mentors, however the vast majority of people I’ve met with a mentor have been very successful. While having a mentor is not a guarantee of success, not having one will likely ensure that you have to work harder to achieve what you are trying to accomplish.

Most of my life I did not have mentors. I simply didn’t come from the kind of background where I was taught to seek out the guidance of those who are more successful. It was an unspoken rule that these people are “too busy for you” and you shouldn’t bother them. As a result, I have always had to figure out things on my own, from the simplest tasks to the more complex situations like learning to navigate the highly political culture of corporate America as a woman of color and career planning.

However, ever since I started working in real estate, I have forced myself to break out of my shell and make the right contacts. Developing the skills required to talk to everyone, even those I considered to be out of my league, has been critical in helping me acquire new clients as well as transition out to of a bad real estate firm ran by a dishonest broker who misappropriated escrow funds. I had to learn that no one would think I belonged in the room or that I was entitled to their time if I did not believe it myself. I had to have the confidence that showed them that I was worth the conversation, the introduction, the contract.

With that new found confidence, I accidentally stumbled into a mentor relationship with someone who wants to partner with me and help me acquire more business. While her extensive experience will make her my mentor, we have agreed to work as a team to bring in business and I am projected to do 5 times more sales this year with her help than I could achieve on my own.

I could have very well observed her success and determined that seeking her help would be bothering her. But being open to networking and realizing that I had a lot to offer myself, gave me the confidence to approach the broker for a formal introduction. That introduction has led to a mutually beneficial relationship that will reflect a tremendous increase in my income, getting me closer to my goal of financial freedom, first through debt repayment and subsequently through investments in activities that will generate steady and reliable passive income. Because I built up the necessary confidence to market my skills and show myself to be a valuable team player, someone with the ability to help me succeed determined: I like you! I want to work with you so I will guide you.

Networking for the Introvert: Through Volunteer Work

Networking might sound like a cliche buzzword as much as it’s  thrown around, but in today’s world, you won’t survive without a strong network. Technology has managed to achieve making the world both big and small. Our interconnection has made the world a much smaller place since anyone can now reach out to anyone else via the internet. Just look at twitter for example. We can now have the ear of any politician, movie star or athlete. They may ignore us, but we can contact them. At the same time, the world has become gigantic in the sense that your competition pool has expanded all around the world.

No longer do people in your town have to settle for the skills of the smartest person in a 5-mile radius. They can now offer relocation packages to any bright mind around the world who speaks the language. Are you the sharpest butter knife in a drawer full of blunt tools? You could have gotten a job back in the 70s. Today, not so much. The candidates are the best and brightest and if they’re willing to move on their own dime, even better. Who you know still matters greatly. Humans are social animals and a personal connection with the right person will give you an edge all else being equal.

Everyone tells you that you need to network but no one how best to do it. There are various ways that range from the laziest form of networking which we favor since it doesn’t actually involve talking to people (LinkedIn), to the most involved forms. Personally, I am starting to favor the get-your-hands-dirty approach. I think that the most involved approaches to networking have the most successful outcomes. Sure, you won’t make 50 connections in minutes our hours, but you should appreciate the quality of your network over the size of the network.

But how do you do it and why is it more effective?

Starting out is easy. Non-profit organizations are short on resources and are always looking for free help. If you demonstrate strong leadership and work ethic early consistently over time, you could very well find yourself “rising through the ranks” and end up serving on a board. Whether you are the boots on the ground or one of the trustees, you are likely going to rub elbows with some important people. Volunteering aka free work is a luxury that few can afford. Those who are successful and feel the need to give back to the community and/or those who are independently wealthy and can afford to dedicate a great deal of time to making the world a better place through philanthropy are exactly the kind of people who you want to know. You also then have common ground to start a conversation.

This is a more effective way of meting people because you’re working along side each other and have unprecedented access to people you may not have been able to talk to otherwise. With the hierarchy gone, the conversation can flow. You also know that you have at least one common interest: the cause for which you’re dedicating your time and effort. If you’ve ever been to a meet up group, you’ll understand what I’m talking about. There are 50+ people in a room with nothing in common and are focus exclusively on getting the attention of the highest ranking person in the room. They have no ability to showcase their skill and sometimes, if you’re unlucky enough, they’re trying to sell you something as part of a pyramid scheme. You walk out exhausted having to talk to all these people and compete with them for attention. You leave with more frustrations than valuable connections as you start walking from group to group ruling people out that you’d never want to connect with. On the other hand, you can be productive, do something for the greater good and rub elbows with potential mentors who have similar interests as  you. Seems like an easy choice.

 

Are You Maximizing LinkedIn?

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When I first heard of LinkedIn some years ago, someone explained it to me as the “Big kids’ Facebook”. That made me think of it as a social networking site for older people who have “adult” things to talk about. I promise that I don’t mean that in the XXX-rated sense. It did not take long for me to join the site before I realized that this was a simplistic view of a powerful platform that helps connect professionals all over the world.

Unlike Facebook, your ability to lurk on LinkedIn are limited to connections at the 2nd or 3rd levels. The controls in place also limit who you can contact and connect with, which is an attempt at curbing those who might want to artificially boost their network by sending out random connection requests. The website has matured tremendously since I first joined. You can now search and apply for jobs directly using the information on your profile, the recommendation feature has been enhanced, as well as users ability to build their portfolio through articles, posting media and publishing prior writings.

However, despite all the positive changes, many have not found LinkedIn to be as useful as it proclaims. Although I do not have any complaints about the site, I don’t think it’s fair for me to dismiss their claims. After all, I am not looking for a job, so if no one contacts me, I don’t see a flaw in the system. And even though I am not looking for work, I still receive “InMail” approximately every 3 months from recruiters with offers that I kindly turn down every time.

So for those who are looking, how can you position yourself to be noticed by all the right people?

Your Picture

Have a professional picture. Unlike a resume that does not require a picture, your LinkedIn profile is not complete without one. To someone who has never met you, this is their first impression of you. Your picture should portray you as you would look in a job interview. Your attire should not be too casual, your hair should be neat, your posture should be appropriate, and your face should be groomed adequately (no heavy night-life make up for women, no edgy facial hair on men).

The Headline

A headline is defined as: “denoting a particularly notable or important piece of news“. Your headline is not your life story. It should tell the reader the first and most important thing you want them to know about you. Don’t make jokes (unless you’re a stand-up comic), don’t leave it blank, don’t write about your childhood. Keep it short and to the point. Anything more or less shows that you can’t follow instructions. For example: “Oncology Nurse Practitioner with more than 15 years of experience.” is a much better headline than “Every day for the past 15 years, I’ve looked at death in the face through the eyes of my cancer patients. I have wanted to do this since my best friend died when I was 13.”

Summary

The name says it all. You are supposed to write a summary of your background and what makes you a valuable asset. Recruiters have a lot of prospects to consider. They will not look at every section of your profile unless they are very interested in you. You should write your summary with that fact in mind. Your goal should be that you say as much as possible to catch the reader’s eye and entice them to keep reading, but doing so in as few words as you can get away with.

For example, “I am an attorney in Massachusetts at a full service business law firm, located in Boston. Areas of expertise include real estate financing and development, including affordable housing development and financing. Projects include those with public funding sources and multi-tiered financing and tax credits.” is short enough for us to scan through it very quickly, however, we know a few key things about this person: s/he is a lawyer admitted to the Massachusetts Bar, with experience in business law and a focus on real estate, including affordable housing. If s/he started by telling us why they attended law school, we would have been bored and might have moved on before getting to the most relevant parts.

Experience

Your most recent job should have the most detail. While your past experience is relevant, they don’t care as much about the job you did 5 years ago unless it was a stepping stone that helped you transition to a higher position. If you used to be a teller and now you’re a lawyer, your reader will not put as much weight on your customer service skills as they will put on your litigation skills.

Connecting

Don’t be afraid to connect with people. If you’ve met someone and you had a meaningful professional conversation with them, chances are they will remember you, as long as you do it shortly after you had the opportunity to talk to them and they still remember you. For example, my 3 most recent connections are with people who I talked to at length about things we were passionate about, then within a week I received request from all of them. LinkedIn is the 21st century business card. It is the best way to stay in touch. I happily take someone’s card, however, eventually it starts to pile up and create clutter and I am tempted to recycle them. However, I can have 500+ connections and never have to worry about having to find a way to maintain tiny rectangular cards in a drawer or folder. This will help you build your network and will make it much easier for you to reach out to people if you need to.

Skills

Include your skills in your profile. Updating your skills not only allows users to see who else shares their skills, but it gives your connections the ability to endorse your abilities.

Be Professional

LinkedIn is not Facebook. Your ability to restrict what others see is limited. In fact, the website controls it as part of their marketing to get others to sign up. However, your profile and activity are relatively wide-open to thousands of people you don’t know. Do not post anything that you would not want your boss or potential boss to see. Stay away from political conversations, don’t discuss religion and do not complain or vent. It is important to understand your audience when you interact on a professional networking platform. Your reader is looking to learn more about your skills and network, either because they want to hire you or they want to connect with you. If you appear to be unstable, controversial, or vengeful, you will not get a lot of positive attention.

These are just some of the things that I can think of that will help improve traffic as well as the quality of the mail you reach. Take the time to review your profile and see what changes you can make today to get the right call tomorrow.

Work-Life Balance for the Type A Personality

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We all know the one: never late, always busy, own toughest critic, etc. If you don’t know that guy or gal, s/he is probably you. People with Type A personalities tend to be successful academically and career-wise. They usually have a lot of the characteristics that make them excel. Unfortunately, they also have characteristics that might make their personal lives suffer. If you have that ambitious spirit and competitive nature driven by high energy that is making your family and friends miserable, here are some ways to curb your bad habits:

Trade perfection for practicality: Learn to be ok with doing things right rather than doing things perfectly. If you are that driven, you are smart enough to know that chasing perfectionism is futile. Human nature simply won’t let us be great. The opposite of perfection is not mediocrity. Find the balance and relax a little.

Delegate: I should take my own advice in this area. But there is no greater insult to your team or your partner than to refuse to let go. You’re sending one of two messages: “I don’t trust you” or, “You are incompetent”. Learn people’s strengths and weaknesses and delegate accordingly. Should you have the most introverted employee go to a client meeting? Maybe not. But that person might also be the most organized and could thrive in an assignment that allows them to use that skill. You don’t have rearrange all the cabinets, and coordinate catering, AND meet with all the clients, AND pick up the kids from school, AND chaperone the girl scouts’ trip etc. That’s why there are employees, interns, assistants, spouses, grandmothers.

Take a break: I get it. Being smart and successful makes you feel invincible. But you aren’t. You need sleep, adequate nutrition and love. You also need time, and unfortunately we only get 24 hours, which aren’t even promised. There is always something to be done and if you don’t force yourself to stop, your duties will seem endless, because they are. Value your mental and emotional health as much as you value your success and schedule time off for some self-care.

If none of these sound appealing, consider the fact that people with Type A personalities are at a higher risk of a heart attack. If that’s not motivation, I don’t know what is.