"On most real estate company websites, you can look up profiles of the company's associates to see who speaks which foreign languages."

Languages We Speak.

Agents at the Coldwell Mendham Office represent many cultures and countries. The languages some of our agents speak, in addition to English, are: Farsi, French, German, Greek, Korean and Spanish.

The American Drem Home: A Culturally Diverse Perspective
By Leslie Freidman

Probably the most high-profile real estate deal ever consummated by immigrants, at least in the Tri-State metropolitan area, was the purchase of Manhattan. In 1626, Dutch representative (read: early real estate dealer) Peter Minuit bought the island for his people from local Native Americans. The story varies, but according to most accounts the sellers were the Canarsee Indians. (Other sources claim the sellers to be the Shinnecock or the Algonquin.) The price paid for the real estate also varies, according to the storyteller or historian. However, it is known to have been somewhere in the neighborhood of $24 worth of beads, 30 beaver skins, 60 gilders, or a few bales of cloth. Depending.

Four centuries have passed, and many improvements have been made to the system of purchasing property since then, but the pursuit of the American dream continues. Manhattan and its surrounding Tri-State area is still one of the strongest markets for real estate purchasesóand salesóby immigrants. In northern New Jersey, for example, the population growth of the 1990s was largely fueled by the arrival of Hispanic and Asian homeowners. According to a forecast projected by the Fannie Mae National Housing Survey, the Hispanic population in the U.S. will show the strongest group increase in the next few years, followed by the population of Asians.

Spanish real estate bookletRecognizing these trends and understanding the changing demographics of their local areas are both crucial factors for real estate professionals. Realtors must attune themselves to the requirements of cultural diversity and understand individuals' needs. How large are the families? What are their spending habits? Their educational background and goals? Their housing preferences and dislikes?

To address some of these issues, The National Association of Realtors began to offer a 6-8 hour training course in 1998. It is called "At Home with Diversity," and it has served to sensitize the industry to the ever increasing multicultural nature of the real estate business. As of the end of June 2003, more than 10,000 realtors and other professionals in the industry had completed the course and received certification in diversity training.

Most major realtors have caught on to the need to have agents with whom their foreign-born clients can feel comfortable. On most real estate company websites, you can look up profiles of the company's associates to see who speaks which foreign languages. In this way, within any given office, a client can easily locate an agent who speaks Spanish, French, Korean, Turkish, Chinese, German, Hindi, Greek, or any other native tongue. On the Coldwell Banker website alone, more than one hundred different languages are listed. This company also offers a Spanish-language version of its Buyers' Guide (Guia Para Compradores de Casas), a free booklet with photos of its listings.

In addition, there are many specialty realty agencies in the metropolitan area that cater to specific nationalities. One of these, Home Front Realtors, has offices in both Livingston and Parsippany, two New Jersey towns with large Asian populations. They advertise in the local Chinese language newspaper, as well as in the more traditional sites. Sales associate Tao I Lin explained that many of its clients are from China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. Although many are globally sophisticated businesspeople, he said some still approach the home-buying experience employing the principles of Feng Shui, an ancient Chinese philosophy of living harmoniously within one's environment. The rules and laws governing Feng Shui are complex. To oversimplify, their purpose is to improve the quality of one's life through the proper choice and placement of elements. According to Tao I Lin, one of the foremost avoidances when buying a home is a tree in front of the front door. "Such an impediment could stop the fortune from coming inside," he explained. Other "shars," or negative influences, can result if the property is too triangular in shape, if the front door faces the street in a manner that will allow danger to enter the home, or if the stairway is located right inside the front door, blocking the flow of energy. On the other hand, water, such as a pond, stream, or river (even a fountain) brings good fortune, if placed in the proper direction. (For a good basic understanding of Feng Shui. I recommend reading Feng Shui for Beginners by Richard Webster, from Llewellyn Publications, 2002.)

A similar system of belief, rooted in an ancient text, called Vastu Shastra, is used by many Asian Indians. This ancient Indian science is applied specifically to architecture and its construction to create (or find) the best possible dwelling. Vastu Shastra includes aspects of the physical world, like building materials, equipment, budgetary estimates, time frames, and even the people chosen to work on building projects. However, it also includes the "abstract" worldómysteries that can be felt or experienced, but not seen. Some of these are: religion, traditions, the effects of the five great elements (air, water, fire, earth and sky), the eight directions, geomagnetic and other fields, the fequency spectrums of sound waves and light waves, and the influence of the planets. Most of the precepts of this system have been disreguarded by most modern immigrants, but remnants of the science still influence the buying and selling of real estate. For example, many Indians prefer their front door to face a specific direction (usually north, the direction of heaven). Stefanie Matteson, an agent with the Somerset Hills Realty Group, has noticed that in some towns, like Bridgewater, NJ, listing occasionally mention the direction of the front door (as in "house faces north").

Martha Fine, manager of the Coldwell Banker office in West Hartford, Connecticut, has also witnessed an increase in Asian customers. She believes the training programs offered there have helped the realtors in her office appreciate the needs of multination clients. "Spme of our customers won't buy a house on a street that has a 'dead end' sign. And many Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, and Japanese families won't live across the street or in view of a cemetery." But, she adds, once they have found the appropriate home, immigrant families often make the most loyal clients. "Often lower-income families buy multifamily homes on the west end of Hartford. They help each other, pooling their funds to get one group into a house. Then they keep pooling until the next family is able to buy. They are so happy for our helpówhen a family is happy, they will refer everybody else in the family!"

Good service and mutual respect can go a long way toward cementing a deal. Flor de Maria Thomas, a native of Columbia and a sales associate in the Mendham, New Jersey office of Coldwell Banker, who has a large following of Spanish-speaking clients, explained how difficult it can be for new homebuyers to arrange their financing. "Often a client has no credit history, because he or she pays cash for everything. One of my buyers couldn't get a mortgage, because he had no credit rating, since everything he ever bought was done with cash. So I went down to his grocery store and got all the receipts that had been paid in cash and submitted them to the morgage broker to use as a credit record."

Of course, for every cultural idiosyncrasy a realtor learns, a corresponding faux pas is probably committed. I gave a closing gift to one of my customers, a first-time buyer from the Philippines. I waited expectantly for her to open the gift, but she left without doing so. Later, I learned that it is considered inappropriate to open gifts in front of the giver. If I had read the very popular book Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands, one of whose authors, Terri Morrison, is often a featured speaker at realtor training sessions, I might have known. Happily, this minor oversight was lost in the general warmth and appreciation that was mutually exchanged. If clients are treated with acceptance and welcomed, they will probably be your friends for life.

Leslie Friedman is a sales associate with the Mendham, NJ office of Coldwell Banker and a freelance writer and editor. She finally has a use for her French major from college.

This article was reprinted with permission from "Who? What? Where?" Magazine.