Karen Hall started an in-house design and remodeling center to help buyers and sellers upgrade their properties and increase values.

When buyers began using Google a few years ago to send me listings before I even knew about them, I realized they didn’t need the same things from real estate agents that they used to. Agents were having to defend their commissions to clients. I opened my brokerage to do everything I could to put the value back in our profession. I don’t like when people think they don’t need us. If we don’t change, we will become obsolete.

A Bold Start

My husband and I moved to Alexandria in 2003 from Moody Air Force Base in Valdosta, Ga., after he finished his military service. We thought the culture, schools, and job opportunities made it a great place to raise a family. But buying our first home here was not a good experience. Agents didn’t return phone calls or, in one case, show up for an appointment. I thought I could do better, so I got my real estate license. I was in my early 30s, and it was my first career. As a military wife, you are moving around, so you can’t work much.

My first year I was a personal assistant to another broker to get my feet wet. Then I joined a large Century 21 franchise full-time. I started out by focusing on niche markets. One thing I knew well was the military lifestyle, so I became a certified military relocation specialist. My marketing included driving myself around in a bright yellow Hummer H2 with my name and website on the sides. It built my identity and got a lot of attention. I also worked with a lot of renters because many agents wouldn’t.

By 2011, I had built up my database and won top awards for production and customer service, and I decided to go out on my own. It took about a year to formulate my concept, which I modeled on Nordstrom’s outstanding customer service, Apple’s technology, and HGTV’s design education. We started doing business as @home real estate in January 2012.

Design Ideas for Buyers, Sellers

Our 4,000-square-foot flagship office is a combination home-style lounge and design center. Agents can stretch out with a client on a sofa in front of a fireplace and talk about taxes and earnest money. Or they can sit at the Mac computer bar and negotiate a deal. We don’t have offices or cubicles. A 7-foot video screen, which can be seen from the street through the large picture windows, plays listing presentations, property tours, and remodeling projects.

The second floor is the design center. From my time working with buyers in new construction, I saw they loved going to builders’ design centers to see the different options and upgrades and to make selections for their homes. But buyers and sellers of resale properties need the same kind of service. That’s how our TRH, or The Remodeled Home, program came about. We partner with a local construction company.

For buyers who are considering various properties and renovations, we can quickly get them accurate estimates so they can make informed offers. We have samples of tile, granite, and paint colors, just like a builder’s design center.

For sellers, we can tell them the market price of their home as is, the best renovations to increase its value, and how much money they can expect if they do them. Sometimes sellers don’t have $8,000 in the bank to get rid of the red paint, but they have equity. We allow qualified sellers to get up to $25,000 in renovations now and pay the rest at settlement. They can hand us the key, and we’ll do everything.

A Lifestyle, Not a House

Our marketing program, TruView, is customized for every listing. We’ve soaked up what luxury car dealers, hotels, and airlines are doing, which is focusing on the client experience. That’s what we do. It’s not about the wood floors or the ceiling fans; it’s about giving someone a true view of what it’s like to live in this house. We featured one listing with a photograph of me swinging on the really cool tree swing. The headline said, “Tree swing for sale, comes with a fantastic house.”

We produce all our marketing materials in-house: high-definition video, video editing, aerial and still photography, magazines, websites, and even listing sheets. We do it at no cost to the agents. I want it done a certain way, and I don’t want them to deal with it. I’m controlling my brand.

The two programs are definitely working for us. We’ve had people coming to us because they’ve seen our marketing or heard about our remodeling. Our agents are more relaxed because they have more time, and we are all having fun. As we see it, we are not in business to sell houses. We want to help people get the house they want. That’s something Google can’t do.

Company: @home real estate
Alexandria, Va.
Number of offices: 2
Number of associates: 12 and hiring
2014 gross sales: $89.6 million on 127 transaction sides
2015 gross sales: $119.7 million on 194 transaction sides