A Real Estate article Saturday misidentified a subsidiary of Mount Vernon Realty. The firm's name is Washington Relocation Group. (Published 5/30/90)

It's an instantly recognizable scene to any homeowner: A real estate broker, in this case Rockville broker Alfred Lau, and his clients stroll through a house that has just gone on the market, discussing everything from bathroom fixtures to landscaping.

But unlike most local brokers, Lau is explaining mortgage terms and rates to his customers in Chinese -- the language he and 95 percent of his clients grew up speaking.

Lau, a native of Hong Kong who came to the United States in 1967 and bought Century 21 All Properties in Rockville in 1988, typifies the dozens of foreign-born brokers and agents in the Washington area whose success in real estate began in their own ethnic communities.

Nearly half of the 35 agents working in Lau's office are Chinese. He also employs immigrants from India, Iran, Israel, Korea, the Philippines and several Latin American countries.

"As a Realtor, you have to have a niche in the market," Lau said. "People really have to trust you with their financial situation. When you speak their language, they trust you more."

Foreign-born real estate agents say they understand the confusion faced by new immigrants when they try to buy a house in the United States for the first time, and they can explain the labyrinth of credit laws and contract proceedings much better than their American-born counterparts.

"They come from countries where 30-year mortgages don't exist," said Hilda Rochford, the Cuban-born owner of Century 21 Omni in McLean. "If they don't have the cash, {they think} they can't buy the house."

Real estate brokers and industry observers say the number of foreign-born buyers in this area is gradually increasing, as immigrants who came here five to 10 years ago become financially stable.

"The market has shifted more now toward the foreign-born than ever before," said Mike Sumichrast, the locally based publisher of two national real estate newsletters. "There's an incredible incentive {among immigrants} to own a piece of land, a house, property."

He said that immigrant real estate agents are especially valuable to immigrant buyers because relatively few Americans speak more than one language.

Alberto Yanez, a Peruvian immigrant who has worked in Mount Vernon Realty's Springfield office since 1978, said Hispanic customers now account for half of his clientele, up from just 10 percent a decade ago.

He attributed the increase to the growing earning power of the Hispanic population in Northern Virginia. After buying their first homes here a few years ago, many families are now moving up to more luxurious residences, Yanez said.

This month, Yanez said, he sold a house to a 21-year-old Salvadoran woman whose parents were among his first Hispanic customers in 1981.

Foreign-born real estate brokers report strong cross-generational customer loyalty. They also say that they make an effort to market specifically to their own ethnic communities.

Rochford said she met many of her clients through home-buying seminars she led in the mid-1980s. She also advertises in Hispanic magazines and newspapers and on Spanish-language radio stations, and encourages sales associates in her office to develop networks of contacts in their own ethnic communities.

Boon Palagab, a native of Thailand who worked as a dishwasher, waiter and bartender before joining Century 21 United of Fairfax in 1985, said he finds clients through contacts in Thai Buddhist temples in Falls Church, Alexandria and Silver Spring.

He estimated that 70 percent of his customers are from Southeast Asia. The rest are immigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Peru whom he meets through colleagues from his restaurant days.

"It starts with a few people -- they see how honest you are, then friends and friends and friends keep coming, and you keep going," he said.

Last year, Palagab sold 78 houses and had total sales volume of $13 million. He was among the top Century 21 sellers in the mid-Atlantic region.

Other foreign-born real estate agents say their client base began with fellow expatriates and then expanded beyond into the general population.

French immigrants Eliane and Remi Fogliarino, a husband-and-wife team at Mount Vernon Realty in Springfield, relied on their contacts with the French Embassy in Washington when they sold their limousine business and went into real estate eight years ago.

Now, although the Fogliarino team continues to work with French diplomats, immigrants and employees from European companies, only 10 percent of their clients are French.

Mount Vernon's Springfield office also includes agents from India, Lebanon and Afghanistan. Office manager Maury Stack said the ethnic diversity was not the result of any hiring policy, but that having salespeople with ties to various ethnic groups can only help business.

"When you're abroad and you find some tie to your native land, it makes you more comfortable," he said, recalling two years he spent living in Moscow while working at the U.S. Embassy there.

Ethnic connections encompass much more than a common language, real estate brokers said. Foreign-born agents understand what buyers from their native countries want in a home and how far they will go to buy one.

Vietnamese associate Phanh "Sonny" Vu, who works at Century 21 First Realty in Falls Church, which his father, Ngo Van Vu, bought in 1988, said his countrymen are choosier than most Americans. "Our people are looking for an ideal home. They don't want to jump around from house to house," he said.

Alfred Lau said his Chinese customers make big sacrifices to buy a house, but aren't comfortable with a lot of debt. So they put 20 percent to 50 percent down on a house and then forgo niceties, like expensive clothes and dining out, to pay off their debt as quickly as possible.

"We value real estate as a top priority," Lau said. "If you own a home, you really feel that you have arrived."

Just having relatives from another country can help an agent's sales. Richard Amano, an associate with Washington Location Group, a Mount Vernon subsidiary that specializes in relocation, said that growing up with Japanese grandparents taught him that customers from Japan are more methodical and research-oriented than American-born clients.

"There are almost codes that people speak in," he said. "When the Japanese say they are willing to do a little fix-up, for example, that means they want {a house} in mint condition."

That kind of insight comes in handy when a sale is at stake.

James Warkentin, president of McLean-based Warkentin Co. Realtors, recalled a failed deal last fall when his client's final bid for a house in Arlington was $50,000 short of the asking price.

The owners, a Chinese couple whose family had prospered while living at the house, wanted the buyers to pay a sizable "good-luck premium" because of the good fortune they said would benefit the buyer.

"What struck me was the cultural gap," Warkentin said. "She was saying the good fortune was worth $50,000. That's a very non-Western way of looking at buying a house."