Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Three Cardinal Rules of Negotiating Real Estate Transactions

You can find hundreds of books on the art of real estate negotiation . . . but pardon my frankness, many of these books offer stale strategies and tactics that just do not work.

For example, in many books you can find the ABC rule – “always be closing.” That is, you want to have a bunch of deals in the works and you want to get to “yes” as quickly as possible in order to close that deal.

However, getting to “yes” ASAP means you leave out a bunch of steps in the middle, such as carefully pre-qualifying your prospect by asking lots of questions. (I call this process “Getting to ‘no’ first – meaning, you weed out those who aren’t serious about a deal).

It’s also why I’ve simplified negotiation down to three cardinal rules: the person who mentions price first loses, get to know your opponent before meeting with him or her, and always get your agreement in writing.

Negotiation Cardinal Rule #1: The person who mentions price first loses

When I first started doing lease options, I had a woman call me to see if I had a specific type of property that she could then lease to own. She had $8K put aside but unfortunately at the time, I didn’t have anything in inventory that met her requirements. A few weeks later I found a property and called her about it and said that if she liked what she saw after doing a drive by, we could do business that very day.

She ended up loving the property. We did the walk through and as she and I talked, I knew that $8K was sure money in my pocket.

“Jim,” she said. “I have a problem. Remember how I said I had $8K? The problem is I don’t have $8K.”

My heart fell clear to my stomach and my knees went soft. “Uh oh,” I thought.

She then went on to say, “I don’t have $8K, I have $10K. Is that ok?”

Now, I if had opened my big mouth and had said at the beginning of our negotiation talk, “I’ll need a check for $8K,” I would have never learned she had an additional $2K in her pocket. The moral being – never be the first person to talk about price.

Instead, ask lots of open-ended questions that will give you solid information in order to determine where people stand. For example, when I’m talking to a person who is looking for a house or a lease option, I ask questions such as, “It sounds like you’re living in a great place. Why do you want to move?” (What I’m really asking is, “Are you a deadbeat?”)

Or, if I’m sitting at someone’s kitchen table and he’s spilling his guts to me about his house going into foreclosure, I ask, “If you’re able to sell the property, what you would you be comfortable asking for it?” Having the property owner tell me first what he wants for the property is akin to him showing me his cards before he makes a bet. In other words, it gives me the advantage.

Negotiation Cardinal Rule #2: Learn about your opponent before meeting

One of the first things lawyers do when preparing to negotiate is consult a lawyer’s directory. They want to know which school the opposing lawyer attended, what firm they work for, if they’ve made partner, etc. And, if you’re the lawyer who works for a larger firm, you’ll have the opposing lawyer come to your office in order to intimidate him or her.

The same principal – know you opponent -- works in real estate negotiations. For example, if you’re working with a bank on a short sale, you’ll want to get to know the bank and its methods of operating and whether its personnel are “user friendly” or they’re a bunch of pit bulls. One bank I work with is very confrontational and negotiating with them is like pulling teeth. I learned very quickly that I have to have all my facts, comparables, etc. ready and at hand when dealing with them because if I screw up, I do not get a second bite at the apple.

Knowing your opponent also means learning what kind person he or she is. For example, analytical people or number crunchers will want you to substantiate and document everything. Touchy-feely people, on the other hand, will want to talk things out.

To learn more about your opponent, talk to people in your network, do some online research (i.e. do a Google search), and attend your local REIA meetings – people love to talk and by asking questions and being a good listener, you’re sure to pick up some good “off the record” data.

Negotiation Cardinal Rule #3: Always get everything in writing

Although we all want to believe other people are good and honest, the sad truth is that disagreements can and do occur in real estate negotiations, which is why you need to put all agreements in writing. This is especially important in Massachusetts, where verbal agreements are not enforceable.

If you do get a verbal agreement, at the very least follow it up with an email or letter outlining the conversation and what was agreed to by each of you. If you’re dealing with a bank regarding a short sale, send a quick fax to whomever you spoke with stating something like “These are the parameters of the deal and this is what we agreed on” and then list everything discussed in the conversation. Be sure to sign and date it and call the person to ensure he or she received your fax.

Developing your negotiation skills takes time but is well worth the effort. In order to negotiate your way to better profits, don’t blurt out a price first, get to know your opponent before you step into the negotiation arena, and always get everything in writing!