A multilingual sales team helps Jerry Koller’s company connect with international clients.

About three years ago, I was working with a Chinese couple who wanted to buy a home. The husband spoke enough English that I could understand which houses they liked. But when it came time to close the deal, the language barrier was too high. I reached out to an agent from another company, who I knew spoke Mandarin, and she agreed to help.

That experience showed me a huge need in our area for language translation while conducting real estate transactions. Here on the West Coast, we have a lot of buyers from Asia and other parts of the world. Our offer form alone is 16 pages. When non-English speakers look at it and can’t read it, they get scared. If someone can translate for them, they relax and feel more comfortable.

I decided to open my own brokerage and specialize in helping international clients through the buying and selling process in their native language. The agent who translated for the Chinese couple three years ago is now my agent partner. Our marketing tag is “We speak your language.”

Multilingual Matters

We have 10 agents and almost all are bilingual except me. Among the languages they speak are Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, Korean, and Spanish. One agent speaks six languages, including German. I am currently looking to add agents who speak Farsi and Arabic.

I try to learn enough of each of these languages so I can at least say hello, goodbye, please, and thank you.

About 80 percent of our business is international. Most clients live here for maybe half the year. Some are buying second homes or vacation homes. Many are investors, and we’ll manage their properties. We’ll get them cleaned up and rented out. Recently we got a call from someone who wants to buy 15 houses for investment purposes. People around the world see the U.S. as a safe, secure place to put their money in real estate. Even if [a property] is not the cheapest price, it’s a good value.

Leading the Way

To build our international connections, last year we traveled to five European countries, Beijing, and Taiwan and met with real estate pros and relocation companies there. We knew some people in China, and they put together a list of who might be interested in talking with us. We found some other prospects on the Internet.

Our goal was to introduce ourselves, our services, and our location to them and their clients. It’s often very hard for people coming here to find assistance in their native language. We wanted them to know they’d be welcome and prepared.

There’s a knowledge gap to fill. In China, most real estate brokers are independent. A broker finds people who want to sell their houses and then tries to sell them. So when Chinese citizens come here, they often think they need to go from broker to broker to see what each one has to offer. We tell them we have a multiple listing system and they don’t have to hunt around.

We also talk about quality of life issues. The air quality is so bad in parts of China, for example. When we point out that, in Southern California, it’s 75 degrees and sunny every day, they get excited about living here.

We look for many ways to communicate. On WeChat, which is a phone messaging app popular in China, we join conversations and tell people about real estate in our area. The Korean equivalent is KakaoTalk. We have sold properties that way, some sight unseen.

Staying in Touch

For us, the sales process is just the beginning. We stay with our clients as they settle into their new lifestyle. We have helped them get children enrolled in school, sign up for utilities, shop for furniture and cars, and find plumbers. We show them where the ethnic restaurants and grocery stores are. One client had a Chinese GPS that didn’t work here. We got him set up with a new one so he could get around. Last summer, we had a dozen barbecues for 30 or 40 people so we could introduce them to each other. We wanted people to make friends and build -relationships.

We are getting six to 10 referrals a week from all different sources. Many people who bought a home from us and are comfortable with the process tell their friends, family, and work associates. We get invited to their social events, and they introduce us around. They know we look out for them.

We are literally marketing to the world, although the laws make it challenging to target our marketing. The REALTORS® Code of Ethics does not allow us to target specific ethnic groups. We have to, and we want to, help all clients. Locally, our marketing begins with our name, International Realty, and our tag. Our website can be viewed in six languages, and we are adding more. We do door-knocking with two people to a team, one a bilingual agent in case translation is needed. We also put on seminars, send direct mail, and participate in community events. Our marketing strategy makes us stand out. It makes us a destination. We would be eliminating a huge part of the market if we didn’t speak their language.

Right now the Asian market is very hot. It might all switch in a couple of years to where we won’t need as much Chinese language translation. We might need Urdu or something. We’re small enough that we can adjust. We want to help people realize their ownership dreams. We don’t care where they come from.

Company: International Home Realty
Irvine, Calif.
Number of sales associates: 10 and recruiting
2015 gross sales: $45 million on 40 transaction sides
2016 estimated sales: $100 million–plus on 150 transaction sides