In the face of the Washington area real estate slowdown, people in the real estate industry here are rethinking their strategies, getting closer to their customers, cutting their costs, working harder and rejiggering their financing.
For some, despite the weakening market, new strategies are paying off.
At Stanley Martin Cos., for example, a home builder with 15 new home projects throughout the region, sales were up 57 percent in August compared with May, and the number of people visiting its projects more than doubled.
Real estate sales agent Joann Kokindo, who works in Mount Vernon Realty's Reston office, has sold $12 million in homes in the first nine months of the year, compared with $6 million in the same period last year.
Long & Foster Real Estate has increased its market penetration -- and now ranks as the No. 1 sales company in Virginia, Maryland andthe District of Columbia, and it is neck and neck as well in the city of Baltimore.
"You have to do a lot of soul-searching about where the market is going," Kokindo said. "You have to be perceptively aware."
The market is posing new challenges for virtually everyone in the real estate industry these days.
The Arlington-based National Association of Industrial and Office Parks, a development trade group, chose "Staying Afloat in a Sinking Market" as the theme for its annual get-together in October.
For the National Multi-Housing Council, which represents the nation's largest landlords, the highlight of its quarterly meeting held this week was a panel discussion on financially restructuring troubled real estate portfolios.
"Disasters are a growth industry these days," said John A. Koskinen, president of the District-based Palmieri Co., who spoke at the NMHC gathering.
"You're not alone," he told the real estate investment executives. "From Donald Trump on down, there are any number of formerly successful real estate entrepreneurs who are going through restructuring."
For those companies facing serious financial trouble, the key to survival is flexibility and careful planning, according to speakers at the conference. Knowing when, whether and how to file most effectively for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection was discussed in detail.
For companies and individual entrepreneurs who are strong, however, and who have acknowledged the changes in the market and made appropriate adjustments, new opportunities are also presenting themselves.
At Stanley Martin, for example, executives became worried when the usual spring boom in sales never materialized, so they embarked on a concerted effort to find out why. They formed two task forces composed of employees from throughout the company, with one group charged to examine what kinds of products and design features were most successful marketwide, and a second that was instructed to come up with ways to cut costs.
The big problem, they learned, was high home prices and the lofty down payments that were required to buy the houses.
Within months, the company had revamped its product entire line. By dropping expensive standard features that instead could be bought on an optional basis, and by re-bidding projects with their subcontractors, Stanley Martin was able to shave from 10 percent to 12 percent off the cost of each of its homes.
At its Bull Run town house project in Manassas, for example, which features three-level, three-bedroom, 2 1/2-bath units, Stanley Martin was able to cut basic prices from the low $130,000s to about $119,000. The price change also allows buyers to qualify for Federal Housing Administration loan insurance, which permits them to buy homes with as little as a 3 percent down payment.
"It's working," said Diane Basheer, president of Stanley Martin, who said that traffic doubled at the company's 15 projects since the changes were announced. "It's simply broadening the market."
Similar forceful action has been undertaken by Winchester Homes, where executives decided the key was getting closer to its customers. In early October, top company officials plan to have dinner with 18 recent home buyers at its Riva Trace project in Annapolis to learn as much as possible about buyers there.
Even minor complaints, such as the placement of a doorbell or the absence of a needed shelf in the medicine cabinet, will be noted -- and corrected -- in future projects, according to a company spokesman.
"We have made a major commitment on the part of managers to get our hands dirty, to be totally involved in the market and to get to know our customers better than we ever have in the past," said Christopher Zell, vice president of marketing for Winchester.
Real estate sales companies are turning their attention to going after buyers more directly and by training their sales staff to work the market in new ways.
Long & Foster has sharply increased the number of seminars it holds for its first-time home buyer at its 120 residential sales offices. Most offices now hold these seminars once a month or once a quarter, said P. Wesley Foster, co-founder of Long & Foster.
Individual sales agents are finding their own tricks of the trade.
For sales agent Kokindo, whose sales have doubled in the past year, the secret is meticulous attention to detail.
The customers whose homes she sells can expect some tough talk and high expectations from her when they place their homes on the market.
"You must be brutally honest" with sellers, she said, noting that homes with pet odors, messy housekeeping, poor decoration or badly-maintained yards are the losers in today's market.
"Other listings must dim by comparison," she said. "The house must be absolutely immaculate, spit-shined, with every blade of grass and every bush perfect."
For sales agent Quay Williams of Mount Vernon's Bowie office, who has been in the business for 19 years, and who continues to conduct about 100 sales transactions each year, not much has changed except the amount of work he must do.
In fact, he said he believes that he is benefiting from the downturn because in a tough market people turn to the experienced experts in the market rather than giving their listings to friends and relatives.
"I'm working a little harder, I'll tell you," Williams said, reminiscing about a new-home subdivision in Bowie where prices rose $25,000 in a single day in February 1987 when the builder realized that demand for the homes was strong.
Success now is harder-won by real estate industry officials, Williams and others said.
"The good-time Charlies have gotten out," Foster said.