Tap Into the Multicultural Niche

By Haley M. Hwang, REALTOR® Magazine

Opening Doors: Selling to Multicultural Real Estate Clients Michael D. Lee, CRS, GRI Oakhill Press, 1999 284pp., $34.95
Buy this book from Amazon.com.

Opening Doors: Selling to Multicultural Real Estate Clients is a valuable resource for any real estate salesperson who wants to expand his or her sales by working with clients from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Indeed, citing a statistic by Fleet Mortgage Group that an estimated 80 percent of all first-time homebuyers will be immigrants by the year 2010, author Michael D. Lee suggests that practitioners who don’t prepare themselves now to work with these new Americans may have to find a different line of work.

Although the book has been out for five years, it’s still the only book of its kind written by a veteran real estate professional that incorporates cultural teachings and applies them specifically to practice of real estate. Much of the first half of the book is an abbreviated geography and history lesson about countries and cultures represented in the United States. Because the book was published in 1999, it cites statistics mostly from the 1990 Census or other updates from the early 1990s. Although the numbers are not the most current, the cultural information and practical tips offered in the book are timeless.

Some of the generalizations that Lee makes about certain ethnic groups and their preferences in the homebuying process are a little too sweeping and broad. But Lee acknowledges, “Out of necessity, this book will make some generalizations about cultural ‘tendencies’” that not everyone may agree with.

But Lee’s take-home message is clear: treat each client as an individual. Don’t make assumptions about them or their beliefs based on their cultural background. Take the time to learn their cultures, and if uncertain about anything, ask questions.

“Every person you meet in the real estate profession is an individual with rights, interests, and visions of the future that are their own, yet much like everyone else’s,” Lee writes. “Understanding their cultures and beliefs will help you to establish friendship, rapport, and sound business success.”

Lee started his career in real estate in 1977 and is now a broker, professional speaker, and author. He spent 10 years researching and compiling the information for this book. He stresses that the information contained in the book should only be the beginning of your studies into other cultures that make up the United States and your specific market.

Tips for Real Estate Professionals

Tips for Showing Property

  • Know how important punctuality is to your customers. People from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland are sticklers for promptness. But being 15 to 30 minutes late is generally quite acceptable to those from the Middle East. The Japanese may be consistently 30 minutes late, yet they expect you to be on time. Waiting for them is how you show respect. People from Latin America, Italy, and Spain expect you to arrive late, which they, too, consider a sign of respect.
  • Make known your smoking preferences. Smoking is more prevalent and accepted in other countries than it is in this country. If you prefer that customers not smoke in your car or in your sellers’ house, say so. But it’s best for you not to smoke in their presence if you’re a smoker. They may be offended by the smoke but won’t tell you out of politeness.
  • Carefully plan transportation logistics. Many multicultural customers bring extended family members with them to showings, so confirm travel plans in advance. Some expect to be driven to showings in a spotless, even luxurious, car. Avoid passing cemeteries and funeral homes with Chinese clients, since they consider them bad luck. Treat a Hispanic woman with respect and solicit her opinion, since she wields great influence in her household.
  • Don’t steer your multicultural clients to one particular neighborhood. You can’t legally or ethically assume that people of a particular culture want to live in an area occupied by others from their culture. Your best tactic is to all the information you have about various neighborhoods where they’re qualified to buy. Let them make the decision.

The Meaning of Colors and Numbers

    • In Germany, red roses express love and romance, so it may not be an appropriate gift in the business setting.
    • A yellow gift in Mexico would not be well received because the color yellow is associated with death.
    • The Chinese traditionally wear black to weddings and white to funerals. The color white is associated with death in a number of Asian countries, which is the opposite of European and American traditions.
    • While the number 7 is considered lucky and 13 unlucky in the West, the number 4 is a bad omen in much of Asia and 8 is considered lucky.
      • Bring a small, thoughtful gift when you meet with new customers. Although giving a gift before the end of a business transaction may be considered bribery in some cultures, it’s acceptable and even expected in certain countries such as South Korea, India, and Japan.
      • Neer outspend your clients or customers when exchanging gifts, or they may lose face. One strategy is to open your gift first, and then say you need to retrieve their gift from your car. You can have several wrapped and ready in different price ranges.
      • Avoid giving gifts bearing the American eagle to customers from China and Saudi Arabia. It’s a bad-luck symbol in those cultures.
      • Never give alcohol to Islamic clients. Most people who practice this faith do not drink.
      • Avoid giving Asian customers knives or scissors. Anything that cuts symbolizes the severing of a relationship. Also avoid giving a clock or any white gift, and stay away from white wrapping paper. Such details symbolize death to Asian clients.
      • Don’t give handkerchiefs to Middle Easterners. They connote sadness, tears, or pity.
      • Exercise caution when giving flowers. In Mexico and Brazil, purple flowers are associated with death, while white flowers, such as carnations, have a similar connotation in Japan and for many European natives.

Tips on Gift Giving

Editor’s Note: It’s worth noting that there is one recommendation that Lee makes in his book that this reviewer disagrees with. Lee writes: “It’s perfectly acceptable to ask where people are from. Better than to assume and be wrong. One simple way to show interest in your client’s cultural background is to ask straight-forwardly, ‘Where are your ancestors from?’” This question, as phrased, can be considered highly offensive to many ethnic minorities in this country, especially if their families have been in the United States for generations. Questions that are equally offensive include, “Where are you really from?” “Where are your parents from?” or rattling off a number of ethnicities in the hopes of hitting the right one eventually (“Are you Chinese? Japanese? Vietnamese?”). A more politically correct phrasing to ascertain the ethnicity of potential clients is to ask, “What is your cultural background?” Or better yet, if you have been referred to a multicultural client by a current client or have targeted a multicultural niche in your market area, you should already know the ethnicity and not even have to ask.

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This post was contributed exclusively for REALTOR® Magazine.

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