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May 22, 2021

My Real Estate Story, Part One

I thought I was going to be a journalist.

A news reporter to start. Then maybe a magazine writer or a columnist. And finally, one day, after a high-flying career in New York City à la Carrie Bradshaw, I would publish a book.

You know what they say about the best-laid plans: This fall will mark eight years in real estate. Eight wild, triumphant, scary years. I wouldn’t trade this job for the world.

I’ve told my real estate story in bits and pieces for various podcasts and posts, but never all in one place, in my own words, for me to read back on and remember — and also to inspire anyone dreaming about a career change. So, here I go.

Stuck

Stuck. That was me.

College had been rocky. I experienced some of my highest highs (writing a monthly column for the University of Illinois’ Daily Illini, collecting bylines in national publications, interning for both established and up-and-coming media outlets) and my lowest lows (dealing with paralyzing anxiety and a nagging eating disorder, which eventually led me to transfer from U of I to DePaul University — a story for another day!).

I moved into an apartment on Oakdale Avenue in Lakeview a few days prior to my junior year started at DePaul, and before I knew it, I was up to all my old tricks: interning, churning out articles and columns, writing for my blog, and trying to design my dream post-grad life in media.

In the journalism world, your summers can make or break you — especially the one between junior and senior year. The pressure was mounting, and I had my heart set on an internship in New York City at a popular media outlet. I spent two months interviewing and pining for the role, until finally, I got the final word: I didn’t get the job. My soul was crushed like an egg-shell.

By now, it’s April 2014. I’m not packing my bags for my dream internship, and I’m enduring a not-quite-quarter-life crisis at age 20.

It wasn’t just the rejection that gnawed at me. It was the unknown of the entire industry, the decline of print, the confusion of loving writing but loathing reporting. Did I really want to be a journalist? Was that the right role for me? Would I fit into the ever-changing media world?

There I was: stuck.

I had been writing since elementary school — who could forget the Creative Café at The Lane School on Friday mornings, where aspiring 5th-grade authors feasted on glazed Munchkins and put pencils to composition notebooks?

From the Creative Café, I continued on to write blog posts at 13, columns for my town’s local papers at 14 and 15, an advice website for teens at 16, and a monthly column in my high school’s newsmagazine at 17. By the time I applied for college, there was not a shred of doubt in my mind: I would go to journalism school.

Somewhere along the way, my identity became entangled with my aspirations.

My dad took me out for lunch one late spring afternoon. I all but cried into my burrito bowl as I shared my fear of the future with him.

I have to pause the story here and tell you about my dad, Mike. He graduated college in the 80s with a respectable degree in accounting, and after a brief stint at a traditional 9-5 corporate job, my dad went to work at the family wholesale meat business with Grampa Joe, Gramma Faith, and Uncle Craig. For 25 years, he poured his heart into the company. I remember visits to his office in Forest Park as a young girl: sitting in my dad’s lap, skin prickling at the WHOOSH of icy air every time the freezer door opened.

My dad eventually sold that company, continuing on to purchase another, then another. He obtained a business broker’s license, which allowed him to help others buy and sell businesses, too. He trusted God with every move, prayerfully and boldly designing his own career path as an entrepreneur.

Today, he’s an independent distributor for a successful franchise, podcast host, and Bible teacher. Our relationship is indescribably precious to me. My dad is my best friend, my daughter’s adoring grandfather, my mentor, and my go-to whenever I have questions about God, about life, about work. We’re not only close, but we’re the same. Andrew constantly says, “You’re just like your dad.”

As we sat at that Chipotle table, I knew that my dad was going to be the one to help me figure out a Plan B. I went through my long list of reasons why I wanted to do something different, something new, something not-journalism.

“What about real estate?” he offered.

I put my fork down, staring at him. “You think I should become a realtor?”

He told me to pray about it, and a few weeks later, I found myself studying for the licensing course.

Sponge

After signing up for the online class, my next step was to find a job in the field. I knew very little about the Chicago real estate scene, but thanks to j-school, I mastered the art of a blind pitch email. I would endlessly submit story ideas to editors, always bracing myself for “it’s not a fit for us” responses.

I sent off emails to managing brokers at several different brands and branches. One message in particular was to Andy, Coldwell Banker Gold Coast’s then-managing broker. He responded the very same day:

“Thanks for reaching out to me.  I don’t have any specific internships but would be happy to meet with you and see if there are any possible opportunities for you.  Let me know when you can meet as I do have a few ideas to discuss with you.”

I booked a meeting with Andy. My heart was beating out of my chest as I punched the glowing “30” button in the elevator. The CB Gold Coast office was in an ornate, classy building at Huron and Michigan. I felt young (20 years old!) and out of my element (I’d never been to a real estate office!).

Andy put me at ease as soon as he grabbed me from the front desk waiting area. He guided me to his office, and sure enough, we built a rapport, connecting over our shared faith and our matching “go-getter” personalities. To this day, Andy is one of the strongest leaders I’ve ever known: He’s good-natured, humble, inspiring, and open. He made me feel like I could be me.

That initial conversation with Andy led to an introduction to one of the firm’s top agents, Hunter.

Hunter: another one of my favorite people in real estate, and still my first call whenever I’m in a pickle. In June 2014, Hunter hired me as his assistant. I would show up to the CB office a few days a week, ready to help him stuff envelopes or craft emails or print labels. Then, Hunter would turn to me and say, “I’ve got a 2PM in Bucktown. Let’s roll.”

We’d hop in Hunter’s SUV and ride all over town. I became a sponge, listening intently to his phone calls (negotiating deals, chatting with clients, checking in on developers) and his sometimes-goofy-sometimes-serious commentary on life and real estate. I accompanied him on showings, photoshoots, closings, you name it. The more I observed, the more I realized how good Hunter was at his job. He sold a lot of property, yes, but more importantly, he maintained an upbeat, can-do attitude through every hurdle.

That was pretty much my summer. Between finishing up the online class and working for Hunter, there wasn’t much down time for me to worry about where I would end up after graduation the following year. I turned 21 in July, which meant that I was officially eligible to take the broker’s license exam (at the time, that was the age requirement).

School started up again in September. This was my senior year, and if I’m being honest, I put DePaul on the back-burner. Starry-eyed, I prepared for my upcoming real estate exam at the end of the month. Flashcards covered the creaky floors of my walk-up apartment. I’d never been great at studying, but I had to pass this test.

The day arrived. I remember riding the brown line down to the Loop, reviewing the glossary one more time: easement, balloon payment, amortization, encumbrance…

Scrappy

Sweat dripped off my brow as I trudged up and down Mildred Avenue. On a sticky-humid autumn day, I hung door hangers on as many homes as I could. Staples had shipped a box of 1,000 door hangers, so I certainly had my work cut out for me.

The conversation with Hunter had gone shockingly well. The day after I passed the state exam and received my license, I nervously told him that I wanted to go off on my own, rather than join his team.

“Go for it!” Hunter’s smile was genuine. “Seriously, you’ve got this, and you can call me anytime.” (I wonder if he realized I’d still be asking him for advice, 8 years later!)

The decision to hang my license at Coldwell Banker Gold Coast was an easy one. I’d built friendships and comaraderie, and I had no desire to shop around at other brokerages. I was ready to launch my own brand — Melanie Stone Chicago, I called it — and CB was going to be where I did it.

One more block. No, two. You can do two! I coached myself. The overflowing bag of door hangers dug into my shoulder.

The door hangers are just one example of the many ways I tried to get clients as a brand-new broker. Finding customers — or “leads,” as they say — is hands-down the toughest part of a career in real estate. Sure, it can be stressful to search for someone’s dream home, and yes, closing the deal is a skill as well. But lead generation is where the sales funnel begins.

Melanie Stone Chicago (MSC as my friends called me) had to get scrappy.

I wrote blog posts. I attended networking events. I hosted open houses for other Coldwell Banker brokers’ listings. I scoured Craigslist and Reddit for housing needs. I turned my Tinder profile into a real estate ad (and later got banned from the app…). I sent Mailchimp newsletters to all of my LinkedIn connections. I built a relationship with a lender (Chris, who is still my go-to!). I mailed love letters to neighborhood homes that I loved. I begged Dino, my landlord, to let me sell one of his investment properties. I solicited à la door hangers.

Whenever I speak with new brokers, they ask how I got my start. Honestly, it was all of that ^ and more. A new broker has to throw everything at the wall, and see what sticks. (My dad’s words.)

Eventually, the work began to pay off. In December, I met my first buyer, Bryan. He was a referral from Chris, and even though I was years younger than him (did he know I was a college kid?!), Bryan treated me with such kindness.

One particular condo hit the market — a vintage gem in Rogers Park. I booked a showing for Bryan, and he instantly knew this place was the one. The trouble was that Bryan wasn’t the only buyer that felt that way — there were multiple offers on the home already, and we had to act quickly.

New Years Eve, 2014. A three-way bidding war. I’m in the basement of my parents’ house, calling Hunter, then Bryan. Bryan told me what his best and final offer would be, so I scribbled it down on a notepad. Presented the number to the listing broker. Waited. Waited. Waited.

Phone ringing.

“Hey Melanie,” the listing broker greeted me with confidence. “We’ve got a deal. Please update the contract and send it back to me. Get me the earnest money ASAP.”

“Okay!” I squeaked, making a mental note to ask Hunter for a refresher on earnest money.

A deal. My first deal. I sprinted up the stairs to tell my parents, a big smile spread across my face.

At last, like a fish on a line, like a kid in a candy shop, I was hooked.

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