Homeownership has long been a key feature of the American Dream. However, according to a recent Census Bureau report, the percentage of Americans who own their homes has fallen to 62.9 percent—the lowest it has been in more than 50 years. The homeownership rate peaked in June 2004 at 69.2 percent. For millions of Americans, owning a home remains out of reach.
Tom Salomone, a real-estate agent in Coral Springs, Florida, has witnessed the changes in the market over the course of his 40-year career. For The Atlantic’s series of interviews with American workers, I spoke with Salomone about what he’s seen. The interview that follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Adrienne Green: How did you get started in the real estate industry?
Tom Salomone: I grew up in a real-estate family and from a very early age I knew this was a profession that I wanted to get into. I'm a second-generation Realtor, which means that my dad was a Realtor. My uncle as well. I got my real-estate license in 1974 when I was 18 year old, the summer between high school and college. I worked in my dad's office in the summers and on breaks. Then, after I graduated college at 22, it's been the only profession I've been involved in.
Green: What do you do as a real-estate agent?
Salomone: The majority of my business is residential sales, which means I'm trying to facilitate transactions between property owners who want to sell their property and purchasers who need housing. I'm trying to help those buyers achieve the American Dream, and that's home ownership.
Green: I know oftentimes it can take viewing three or more houses to find the right fit when looking to buy a new house. What are some of the challenges of facilitating those transactions?
Salomone: Well I think every situation has challenges because each is unique. That's what makes my job as exciting and interesting 42 years later, because each family has different needs and wants. I think from a seller’s standpoint the biggest challenge is making sure you have the property in a physical condition and a price point that's competitive in the marketplace. We all feel that what we have in life may be worth a little bit more than the market bears. Sometimes owners will start out higher than maybe the market point shows, and it’s a process to get the property at the right asking price.
From a buyer’s standpoint, you always have to distinguish between needs and wants. Some buyers are extremely realistic. Others may have more wants than what their real needs are. Those needs will sometimes dictate what they can afford from a mortgage standpoint, or how much cash they're working with or from their savings. There are challenges on each side. Eventually people will get to a point where the property is priced properly and the buyer will key in on the needs of their family.
Green: What is an average day like for you?
Salomone: Every day it's different. The beauty in today's world is your office is pretty much anywhere you have a laptop computer. One day, we may have an appointment with a seller first thing in the morning to talk about marketing their properly. The next day, maybe we're meeting an appraiser to assess a property that is already under contract. The next day, maybe we're meeting an inspector who's doing an inspection on a property that's been purchased. The next day, maybe we have an appointment with a buyer to show a certain number of properties. The exciting part of this job is that every day in the course of a week, each day could start out differently.
The requirement, then, if you want to be a great real estate agent, is you've got to be available seven days a week. The people who need to look at property or talk to you about marketing their property are normally going to be available after work. That may be at night or on the weekends.
Green: Since you’ve been in the real-estate industry for more than 40 years, you’ve worked throughout the burst of the housing bubble and other economic crises. Did your business or clients experience any challenges during that time?
Salomone: Yeah. The biggest change in the industry has been the financing aspect. With what happened in the crash, now banks are much more stringent. It's a different time as far as how people are qualified to obtain a mortgage to buy a property. The banks are much more careful in making loans to buyers.
The changes over 40 years of selling real estate has been pretty incredible. It's been changing constantly, not just during the economic downfall over the last 8 years. Technology has changed our industry tremendously over the years. For a number of years everything was done out of listing books and face-to face-meetings. As technology progressed, we went from phone calls to faxing to emailing to texting.
Salomone: The stringent part that I'm referring to is that someone may not qualify for a mortgage who maybe in the past would have. That's why I said we don't want to waste a buyer's time. So the first thing we want to do is find out what and if you're qualified for a mortgage.
As far as how it may have changed our business, it really just minimizes the number of people that we would be able to help. If someone goes to a lender and the lender cannot get him or her a loan, well then perhaps we would then find you a rental instead of purchasing a home. There's a reason in that lender's eye that you wouldn't be able to qualify for a mortgage right now, and if it's something that can be pinpointed, [we can help].
Green: How do you find somebody the perfect home?
Salomone: If you're a new customer of ours, the first thing that we do is to make sure that you're pre-qualified by a lender so we don't waste your time showing you properties that you either can't afford or are smaller than what you can afford. Then, based on what you qualify for we now try to match up as many of those needs and wants in selecting the properties, the area that you may want to be in. Maybe you have a specific school district that you want to be in or a place of worship that's important to you. Then once we do, we physically go out and start looking at properties. When you find the property that you like, well then, again, we sit down and we look at what's a reasonable offer. There'd probably be some negotiations going back and forth.
Once the contract price is agreed upon, and then we will normally have an inspection on the property. Based on the inspection results, you're now in need for more negotiation, repairs, or maybe a repair credit. At the same time, a bank will be doing an appraisal on the property to make sure that they're comfortable with the amount of money that they're going to lend you. While all that's going on, there's an attorney or a title insurance company that's checking all the history on the property making sure there's no judgments or open permits.
Green: What is your relationship with the people who you’re helping find a home?
Salomone: I love people. An outgoing personality would be the kind of personality that you would hope to have in the real-estate industry. The beauty of our business is most real-estate agents stay in touch with property owners after closing because in many cases you become friends. You've spent months together going through the whole process. That real-estate agent becomes the family real-estate agent. If I said, “Who's your dentist or your eye doctor or your hairdresser?” You would say a name very quickly. In many cases if I said, “Who's your Realtor?” you would say a person's name very quickly, because there's normally a relationship there that will last a lifetime.
This interview is a part of a series about the lives and experiences of members of the American workforce, which includes conversations with an architectural designer, a sales manager, and a retail sales associate.