Joe Castillo jokes that he started training for a career in real estate as a kid at the dinner table. His parents, both of whom have been agents for more than 30 years on the southwest side of Chicago, opened their brokerage, Mi Casa Real Estate, 20 years ago. So conversations at home would naturally turn to the ins and outs of buying and selling property and how to best serve clients.
Still, Castillo wasn’t automatically groomed to go into the family business. He first became a financial consultant after graduating from college and later decided to join his parents’ real estate company. But it didn’t last long. Like most young people, he had strong opinions that didn’t always match his parents’ ideas.
“I actually butted heads with them quite a bit because I thought I knew everything,” he says.
Castillo left the family business after nine months, went to grad school, and then returned to take an ownership role at the brokerage in 2005 with more life experience and a very different mindset. As he puts it, Castillo learned that his parents might have actually known what they were talking about after all. And the timing was right, he said, because the office had grown to the point that his parents, who continue to work as a team, didn’t have the time to both work on the sales side and handle administrative tasks. They bought an ERA franchise in 2008, becoming ERA Mi Casa Real Estate.
Today, Castillo leads 50 agents who are bilingual in English and Spanish. The office serves a community that is 95 percent Hispanic and includes a large population of first-time home buyers.
If sales numbers are any indication, they serve that population well. In 2015, ERA Mi Casa closed 941 transactions with a total volume of $127.6 million. Castillo expects to surpass 1,000 transactions and $140 million in sales volume this year.
Earlier this year, ERA Mi Casa had more agents — seven — on the National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Agents’ list of the top 250 Latino practitioners than any other brokerage in the country. It’s the third straight year that the company has accomplished this; Castillo himself landed at number 47 on the list. Considering the number of Hispanic home buyers is growing at a remarkable rate, it’s a significant recognition for ERA Mi Casa.
According to the Hispanic Wealth Project’s 2015 report on the state of Hispanic home ownership, there were 245,000 new Hispanic home owners last year, accounting for 69 percent of the total net growth in home ownership for the year.
Part of that growth is a result of the Hispanic population expanding as a whole, Castillo says. But it also reflects the attitude toward home ownership in the Hispanic community. Having a place of your own is an important part of the American dream for many Hispanic millennials.
“It’s bred into our culture,” says Castillo. “That love of home ownership has never diminished [among the Hispanic community]. Whenever there’s that opportunity to buy, they want to buy.”
ERA Mi Casa agent Erika Villega can relate. Ranked number 182 on this year’s NAHREP list and number 17 among millennial agents, Villega became a full-time professional at the company in 2009. Her mother is a first-generation immigrant from Mexico, and she understands the desire immigrants have to own a place of their own.
“I’ve had first-time home buyers ranging from 70 years old to 25 years old. Essentially, they want to say they’ve made it,” she says.
Castillo says serving the community starts with finding the right agents, as he strives to uphold the values that his parents established.
“My parents always did their business honestly and have always worked hard,” Castillo says. “That reputation has held true with the other agents we bring in.”
He looks for people who are team-oriented and who want to be part of a close-knit office culture. He also recruits bilingual agents because many of the office’s clientele prefer to conduct business in Spanish.
“I want to make sure they are happy coming into work every day and happy working with the individuals who are in our office,” he says.
Sometimes finding the right agent means looking for a specific skill set, even if that person has never sold a house, Castillo says.
Uriel Ayala was working in wireless sales when Castillo suggested he would be a good fit in real estate. Ayala got his license and has now been with ERA Mi Casa for nine years.
“One of the main reasons we’re so successful is because our main priority is always to help the community,” Ayala says.
ERA Mi Casa’s culture of serving the community goes beyond buying and selling houses. Castillo is president of the Chicago chapter of NAHREP, and he encourages agents to get involved in ways that don’t always directly lead to new business.
The office holds workshops on citizenship and other topics. Castillo, along with Mi Casa agent Oscar Campos, recently started advising people who are interested in buying investment properties. They provide guidance on screening potential renters, among other services.
Campos, who’s been in real estate for 22 years, joined ERA Mi Casa two years ago. He says he’s seen an 80 percent increase in sales in that time.
“All the agents in our office feed off of each other,” Campos says. “It motivates you to keep going, putting in maybe a few more hours, but the return is much greater.”
There’s a lot of support, too. Agents work together to help clients, and they back each other up when there are challenges. For example, Villegas recently was able to take a five-week vacation because she had colleagues looking after her clients in her absence. Agents go out to dinner together or call one another when they have a flat tire.
“I’ve been recruited many times to go work at other offices. … But I think one of the reasons I have stayed is because of the support, because of the owners, because of the family environment we have,” Villegas says.
Castillo sees it as his job to build relationships with his agents and help them connect to their community. He recently hired a marketing specialist whose sole job is to help his agents get their names out there.
His parents are still very much a part of the office, too. His mother, Maria, was number 143 on this year’s NAHREP list.
“It’s a great business,” Castillo said. “I’m lucky to be able to spend so much time with my parents. It’s a luxury that not many people have.”