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Balancing Acts 

Women Realtors discuss how they weigh personal and professional considerations while mastering new technology and a changing market.

Women have long outnumbered men in the real estate business. Indeed, 54 percent of Realtors who are members of the National Association of Realtors are women, and 45 percent of brokers and 61 percent of non-member sale agents are women. For many women -- including those interested in part-time work, second jobs and trying to balance work and family -- real estate offers flexible scheduling and an alternative to the traditional 9-to-5 office setting.

Residential sales have long been dominated by women Realtors, many of whom are highly attuned to the aesthetics of a home. But as the buying public has become more informed, today's women Realtors say keeping up with the demands of the marketplace has become a full-time job requiring everything from advanced education to PalmPilots and assistants.

A Changing Market

"We're dealing with a more sophisticated buyer," says Sylvia Scineaux, an associate broker with Prudential Gardner's Read Road office and a 26-year veteran of the local real estate business. "Information is very accessible to them via the Internet. You have to be at the top of your game to meet the needs of a very diversified market."

Like always, Scineaux says, Realtors must be able to answer questions about tangibles like amenities and intangibles like "the camaraderie of a neighborhood," all of which factor into quality of life and resale value. But today's Realtors must also be knowledgeable about financial questions once deferred to lenders, as well as legal issues once the domain of lawyers. Increased competition among Realtors also means agents must be easily accessible and techno-savvy.

"The industry is technology-driven now," says Danette O'Neal, owner/broker of Danette O'Neal Realty headquartered on the West Bank. "Young people are more willing to spend money on technology to enhance themselves personally and professionally. They're more willing to take risks."

O'Neal, who manages three branch offices and 60 agents -- 60 percent of them young women -- requires her agents to have computer skills. Ninety percent of her agents use PalmPilots and laptops. Once a month, she offers "Palm Friday," an advance course offering the latest in software and tips. Today, agents with computer know-how also can utilize a time-saving email program that automatically delivers all entered listings meeting the client's criteria. "Some clients seem to like to communicate almost entirely by email," says Letty Rosenfeld, a top-producing agent with Latter & Blum.

"I have an edge because I'm completely computer-oriented and I make myself indispensable via the cell phone," says Colette Meister, an agent with Re/Max New Orleans Properties. "A Web site is de rigueur."

Meister, who was recognized as a rookie of the year after doing $5.5 million in business her first year as an agent, also counts superior organizational, contract-writing and networking skills among her strengths. "In real estate, you wear a lot of hats," she says. "You have a myriad of different responsibilities."

On the flip side, Meister says, "there's no off button. I've gotten calls at two in the morning. If you can't balance the demands of this business, you're not going to be a success."

Like Meister, Jennifer LaNasa recognizes that freedom can be a double-edged sword. LaNasa has a degree in finance and a background in banking; she shifted into real estate in the mid '80s, when she became owner/broker of her own firm, LaNasa Realty. "It's allowed me to make a living as an entrepreneur and small business owner, and to determine my own future," she says. "But you're on call 24/7. You have to be there no matter what or you don't make the sale. You really should be in it 100 percent to keep up."

The Right Stuff

Though today's female Realtors come from a variety of college curriculums and previous jobs, most agree that personality, education and experience all factor into being successful.

"Real estate is a cornucopia of different backgrounds," says Prudential Gardner's Scineaux. "This is one of the professions that pushes and promotes fair play. But it's not that easy to walk from the test to the public anymore. You have to be like a chameleon in terms of being able to change and meet people's needs."

Assertiveness, discipline, the ability to listen and self-motivation are all considered invaluable assets. "There are a lot of type-A personalities in real estate; women who are very driven and determined," says Danette O'Neal, a single working mom who, when first starting out, often took her two young sons with her to show properties. "The income potential and flexible scheduling draws women. Women by nature have an entrepreneurial spirit."

Yet O'Neal, a nationally certified trainer with the National Association of Realtors and frequent lecturer, teaches that initiative is not enough. Agents associated with her offices go through 10 courses of basic training in such areas as contracts, home inspections, business development, personal marketing and time management. O'Neal offers internships with earning potential to students and others interested in pursuing a career in real estate, and promotes advanced education and specialization for those already working in the field. "Realtors who specialize earn 50 percent more than those who don't," she explains.

When Clara Paletou, a Realtor with Prudential Gardner, began her career working for a commercial-oriented, family-owned firm 35 years ago, she says Realtors were expected to cover the full gamut of real estate transactions -- from sales to rentals. Today, Paletou concentrates on residential investment, buyer brokerage and the marketing of mid- to upper-end homes. Realtors have become more specialized, she says, and women have made inroads in areas where they were once excluded.

"Men still dominate commercial sales," says Paletou, who credits this to the fact that most of the top decision makers among commercial clients are men. "But there are a lot more women in commercial now who are doing extremely well," she adds.

Women have gained greater prominence in running real estate boards and associations as well. Paletou was one of the first in a series of women to serve as president of The Real Estate Board of New Orleans, a predecessor to the organization now known as the New Orleans Metropolitan Association of Realtors (NOMAR). At present, both NOMAR and the Louisiana Realtors Association are headed by women presidents. The New Orleans Metropolitan Chapter of the Women's Council of Realtors -- which does count men in its membership rolls -- also has a woman president.

Strength in Numbers

Learning to multi-task is one thing, but doing it all comes at a price. So many of today's women in real estate are finding new ways to be accomplished in their profession while still having a life.

"The key is to have a partner or assistant," says Mathilde Nelson, a Realtor with Keller Williams' Uptown office. In the business for 23 years, Nelson now works in tandem with her husband, Jimmy, and employs an assistant when needed. "You can't be out there 24 hours a day and still have a life; you need somebody to cover for you," she says.

Sisters Joyce Delery and Anne Comarda, with Prudential Gardner, teamed up three years ago in a 50/50 partnership that has provided both an increase in their personal freedom and their profits. Delery and Comarda co-list everything and often show properties together. But the arrangement allows them to be in two places at one time when necessary, and has enabled them to more than double their sales. "Our clients get double the coverage for the price of one," says Delery.

Delery and Comarda also get peace of mind. "Who can you trust more than your sister?" asks Delery. "You know things are going to be taken care of in a way you're comfortable with."

Prudential Gardner's Paletou says she sees more administrative assistants working in the industry as well. "There's more paperwork, and more laws governing real estate transactions," she says. "Assistants help to balance it all out."

For Colleen Caserta, a licensed assistant working for realtor Britt Galloway at Keller Williams, being an assistant has been a way to work in real estate without being on call 24 hours a day -- and without relying solely on commissions. Caserta, who works as an independent contractor paid by the agent himself, helps with marketing and detail work. Because she's licensed, she's also able to show properties and work with her own clients.

"If you want an assistant who's going to relieve the pressures of the job, you need a licensed assistant," she says. Caserta points out that working as an assistant also is a way for a newly licensed agent to learn the business.

Other women Realtors find that having a home office is the answer. Keller Williams' Nelson recommends "a complete home office," with a fax machine, computer, printer and copier at their disposal day or night. After years of living and working in two different places, Jennifer LaNasa combined her living and working spaces in one Mid-City triplex. "It's been the easiest way for me to handle this business," says LaNasa, who's now occupied the century-old building, previously a neighborhood grocery store, for 10 years.

The Rewards

Financially, women in real estate say the sky is the limit. "There's no glass ceiling," says Scineaux. "There's no one saying you can't access the next level."

A career in real estate can be an avenue to other business opportunities and personal growth as well. A client looking for a rental property might end up purchasing a house or a different type of property. It's also not unusual for Realtors themselves to be led to unanticipated investments -- such as buying property and becoming a landlord -- and to unanticipated rewards. "I have been able to change the emphasis of my career without changing jobs," says Paletou, who's also found in real estate a way to satisfy her love of architecture.

"It's given me enormous confidence," says Re/Max's Meister, speaking for women in real estate across the metro area. "For everything I put into it, I get it out ten-fold."

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