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LEADING QUESTIONS: Real estate maven keeps swinging

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Welcome to the latest installment of “Leading Questions: Wisdom from the Corner Office,” in which IBJ sits down with central Indiana’s top bosses and civic leaders to talk shop about the latest developments in their industries and the habits that lead to success.

H. James Litten, 64, began working as a residential sales associate for F.C. Tucker Co. in 1972 and by 1986 had become a co-owner for what is now the state's largest independent real estate brokerage. On April 1, he bought out longtime partner Fred C. Tucker, becoming sole owner and maintaining his position as head of the company's residential real estate division.



"I think some of my friends think, 'What was he doing?'" Litten said, when asked about taking over the company during the worst real estate slump in decades. "It was the right thing to do. The market hasn't cooperated. It would have been nice if the market went up 50 percent. I would have looked like a genius. But as it is, we're doing great as a company. I have no second thoughts."

The evidence of the slowdown is stark. For example, in the nine-county central Indiana region, home-sale agreements declined 10.9 percent from 2009 to 2010—from 24,223 to 21,594. However, Tucker's home sales for central Indiana held steady at $1.3 billion from 2009 to 2010; sales statewide (and in a few Kentucky outposts) also held firm over the two-year period at $2.2 billion.

In the video above, Litten discusses how the role of real estate agents has changed in the bleak market, as sellers struggle to understand why their homes have declined in value and buyers expect to scoop up properties at even deeper discounts. An old-school salesman, he also demonstrates the high-tech way he now tries to stay in touch with and encourages Tucker's 1,500 agents and employees.

A native of the small steel-mill town of Martins Ferry, Ohio, Litten earned a football scholarship as a middle linebacker to Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. Although he's mellowed through the years, the burly Litten still bears signs of his grappling gridiron days, including a hard-charging spirit and fingers broken so many times that they no longer fully extend.

"Just to be successful in business today, you've got to be mentally tough, and you can't can't give up. You can't ever, ever, ever quit," Litten said. "I said to people in our office when the market started slowing down four years ago, 'I've never been in a fight that I've backed down from.' And I look at the challenge of this market as a fight."

Another formative experience was his tour of duty in Vietnam in 1969-1970 as a company commander of an Army postal unit, for which he earned commendations including a Bronze Star. "I grew up a lot," he said. "All of a sudden one day you are thrust into a war zone and you're responsible for a lot of people. Your life changes. When I came back from Vietnam, I had a focus, and I was driven to succeed."

In addition to detailing his experience in Vietnam in the video below, Litten describes several habits he has developed to put himself in a position to succeed. They include a daily self-assessment of his work while driving home, planning his following day in detail, and keeping his desk nearly spotless so he can focus all of his attention on tasks at hand.

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  • Glenn Garry / Glenn Ross
    I love the reference. Not sure too many people are aware of the allusion to a great sales movie.

    But you are both incorrect in your assessments.

    Now let me get back to work. You're the ones using your precious business hours to comment on an industry you don't undestand.

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  • old racket
    90% of agents are either bored housewives, part time opportunists (maybe I can sell my brother a house) or dunces with no real marketable skills. The brokers bring them in and sell them(at a mark-up)signs, brochures and balloons and take half of any commissions they generate. Most falter in a year or so. The chair is then refilled. Oh and they must pay their union dues to MIBOR. It's a brilliant formula. It made a lot of people like ol Bud Tucker a fortune. That aside, Mr. Litten is a true gentleman.
  • Overpaid and underworked
    First off, it is called sales. Second, ask if your insurance agent or company makes 7 points, ask if your stock brokers company makes 7 points, ask your bank or mortgage lender if they can make 7 points, and finally ask how long an individual needs to live in a home to recoupt the 7 points that the realty company(s) make. For the record, I am very familiar with the realty market and most realtors work effort. As a partner once said, "the most unprofessional professionals in the world." The are a few that work hard and deserve the commission that they make, but most and even some of the largest do no more that list on the MLS. Open the MLS up to anyone that wishes to list a home and see what happens.
  • How do you earn your living?
    Realty Mess,
    I do sell real estate for a living.
    I work very hard at trying to ensure my clients get great service and they achieve their objectives.

    Would you mind sharing with us what you do for a living?
  • response to ED worker
    more like 60% need to go, the hardest part of my job is working with agents who dont know how to do their job or non agents who think they do know how to do our job
  • Mistaken Realty Mess
    First off, there are over 6000 agents in Central IN, and yes the majority of them do not do much biz or much work for the Biz. But i think the negative comments posted here are type casting every agent in the city. I work my BUTT off, and itÃ?¢ââ??‰â??¢s not for the money. It is to help people make the right decisions for their pocket books & family. You have a lot of your facts mixed up too. First 7% does not go to one agent it is split among two agents, & two Brokers. Most agents make less than 50% of that 3.5% their first few years in the biz. Realty Mess it sounds like you truly have never met a TRUE Realtor then, b/c let me tell you we can influence the right parties at times to make sure a deal gets done, and this Job is a lot more than driving around and waiting in houses. Also most agents do not make a lot of money anyways b/c it is so much harder in this current market. We are Independent contractors, without a Union that pay out of our pocket for almost everything.

    Lastly our Lobby Group? Give me a break the 7% commission is a negotiated rate between the Seller & Agent (there are federal laws against setting a commission), but you get what you pay for. Each listing appt i go we have a talk and our sellers are willing to pay 7% b/c they know they are getting a knowledgeable Professional who will work solely for their best interest and reach the end goal. Which is Selling their house.
  • Realtors Need to Change or Disappear
    Having sold a house at the beginning of the mess, I was appalled at the lack of quality I met in realtors. I had one show up and ask what the street was I backed up (Carroll Road, a major road), how to get downtown (house in Geist, and realtor was from Brownsburg), was there a pool in the neighborhood (did he bother to read the MLS sheet?), my main realtor left signs up in my neighbors yard twice and asked me to take them down twice, and then she had another realtor do an open house and that realtor left in the middle of the open house to go show someone who walked in a different house! It was an unbelievably bad process. When I went looking for a replacement realtor, one had a great idea--drop the price by $20k AND raise the commission from 7 to 8%. What is it with this group? They need to learn how the market works today and how to provide value, and that isn't by telling sellers how bad the market is and then emailing a few documents. It's learning how to sell every house at every showing and work for the seller like their agreement states. The best thing that can happen is for us to lose another 30% of the realtors so that we only have the true professionals left. And to the realtor who complained to me that she didn't have health insurance and that it took her six months to find her buyer a house--I didn't tell you to be a self employed realtor and if you can't find a house today in way less than six months then you don't belong in the realtor ranks.
    • Give me a break Agent
      Driving around and standing at an open house. Are you serious? I have never met a realtor that can make or influence a lender or bank to modify anything. They just dont have that type of pull. Maybe in the hayday they could influence the appraisal. Anyway Tucker is a good company but my point is that realtors and realty companies just dont earn 7% anyway you shake it, but their lobby group holds the cards. Some day this will change I hope.
      • Grateful to Tucker
        Thank you to James Litten and Tucker employees. This is a tough environment for anyone in the housing business. Nonetheless they ran a GREAT United Way employee campaign to help kids and families in our community. A good corporate citizen indeed!
      • Fees are earned
        It is plain to see that none of you have ever been a Real Estate Agent. The countless hours spent driving clients all over central Indiana to look at dozens of houses. Hours and hours sitting in Open Houses hoping someone will come and look at the overpriced house. Fighting with banks and lenders on your clients behalf. Yes is sounds like putting a sign in the yard and going to the bank is a great thing, but believe me there is a whole lot more to it than someone on the outside will ever see.
      • Fees are earned
        It is plain to see that none of you have ever been a Real Estate Agent. The countless hours spent driving clients all over central Indiana to look at dozens of houses. Hours and hours sitting in Open Houses hoping someone will come and look at the overpriced house. Fighting with banks and lenders on your clients behalf. Yes is sounds like putting a sign in the yard and going to the bank is a great thing, but believe me there is a whole lot more to it than someone on the outside will ever see.
      • Who made the money?
        To add to that, the typical lender made 1%-2% based on loan amount. The realtor base made 7% based on sale price. Do the math. Anyone can go to home depot get a purchase agreement and put a yard sign in the yard. The only thing a realtor truly does is list it on MLS, kind of a joke for 7%. The lender and title company do all the work...Fact!!
      • Housing values
        The realtor base has never really been blamed for this mess and they should. Who pushed the home prices up and up each year?? The 7% realtor!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
      • Agreed
        I couldn't agree more. On a per hour basis (given the service provided by nearly all RE agents), this is easily the most expensive service the average person pays for in their life.

        In addition, the RE agent has a natural incentive to work against you as a seller. Once the RE agent has secured your listing (and, thus, the 3% whether they help you sell your house or not), their primary incentive is to close and get paid. If you're selling your house for $200,000, the commission is $12,000. If your buyer is trying to get you to reduce your price by $10,000, that's $10,000 to you, but it's only $600 to the RE agent, and they get to get paid immediately. Ridiculous.
      • obsolete
        Why homeowners continue to give away 5% or more of their equity (commissions) to RE agents is a mystery to me. These fee structures were fair enough 40 years ago when the average selling price was like $28k.But now?

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      1. John, unfortunately CTRWD wants to put the tank(s) right next to a nature preserve and at the southern entrance to Carmel off of Keystone. Not exactly the kind of message you want to send to residents and visitors (come see our tanks as you enter our city and we build stuff in nature preserves...

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