Polly Watts: “The key in my mind is having more role models”

The key in my mind is having more role models. Successful women inspire more successful women. We’ve learned that women can be doctors, lawyers, and airline pilots. We need to also see more women leaders in real estate, to inspire the next generation and show more young people that women can be the big power brokers. […]

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The key in my mind is having more role models. Successful women inspire more successful women. We’ve learned that women can be doctors, lawyers, and airline pilots. We need to also see more women leaders in real estate, to inspire the next generation and show more young people that women can be the big power brokers.

As a part of my series about strong women leaders of the Real Estate industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Polly Watts.

Polly Watts is an experienced real estate professional with expertise in dissecting the residential market and emphasizing client goals, confidentiality, ethics, and long-term relationships. Holding a Broker’s license in 10 states (California, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, Tennessee, Idaho, Utah, Georgia, Florida, and Washington), Polly’s vast market knowledge has helped her lead the sale of more than 40,000 properties over a 21-year period. Polly was acknowledged by various sources as the top broker by total sales volume in Los Angeles between 2013–2019. Over the course of her 25+ years in real estate, Polly has done it all, from managing brokerage and escrow operations, and driving property acquisitions and home valuations, to leading countless negotiations, closings, and deal financing for nearly every type of residential real estate transaction. Polly leads Sundae Homes, a residential resale brokerage based in Los Angeles.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the Real Estate industry?

I was 20 years old, newly married, and looking for a job while at the same time looking to buy a house. My real estate agent referred me to a broker who was looking for a personal assistant. After one hour of very basic administrative training, I was thrown into answering phones and performing assistant duties like taking his Rolls Royce to the car wash. Here I was, first day on the job, and very nervously driving my boss’s amazing car. As I spent more time on the phone with the clients, I was quickly performing many real estate tasks like facilitating escrow closings, showing houses, and proofreading contracts. I soon found that I really loved the interaction with the buyers and sellers and how the whole real estate industry was both exciting and highly lucrative.

Within four years, I opened my own brokerage with a partner. This new level of responsibility led me to continually learn more about all facets of the industry. For example, I quickly saw that flipping houses was particularly exciting and profitable. I remember one of my first years flipping houses how excited we were when we successfully flipped 10 houses in one year. There was one pivotal moment where I was alone in the office and just happened to answer a call from an REO manager at a bank wanting to list a property. I jumped on it and worked diligently to get it sold. My willingness to take on the work and quickly sell the house while executing every step got the bank’s attention. It led to more introductions, and soon I found myself meeting a group of investors that were flipping an unprecedented 5 to 10 houses a month.

As we grew the business from our start in California, we created a great team of dedicated people, and I acquired brokers licenses in 10 states. At the peak of this journey, we were flipping up to 500 homes a month. After many years, I grew weary of the bureaucracy and politics of the company, which grew into a very large corporation. So I decided to resign and get back to my passion of interacting with buyers and sellers. After looking at several opportunities, I met the founders of Sundae. It didn’t take me very long to realize their commitment to creating a company that puts the buyers and sellers’ interest first with a sense of compassion that had been lost in the industry, and that I wanted to be a part of it.

Can you share with our readers the most interesting or amusing story that occurred to you in your career so far? Can you share the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

It is hard to nail down just one story from the tens of thousands of REO’s that I have sold. The stories usually involve dealing with eccentric owners or properties with unique characteristics. For example, I recall trying to come up with the right wording in an MLS listing description for a house in Las Vegas with a very obvious “penis” shaped pool. Another one that stands out was a house in Sarasota, Florida, we dubbed the “Vampire House” (internally of course). A family of bats took up residence in the attic of this house during the close of escrow. We called a company to safely remove the bats but were informed, to our great surprise, that it wouldn’t be possible for several months. Bat mating season had just begun and since bats are a protected species, they couldn’t be disturbed until after mating season ended months later. The great part of this story is that we were transparent with the agent and buyers and we all came together to work through all of our possible options. We discussed sealing off the attic from the dwelling and closing the escrow on time but with a credit to the buyers for any expenses incurred while waiting for bat mating season to end. The buyers were Florida residents who understood the situation and were flexible. Ultimately, they closed on time and moved in with the bats still in the attic. As for the bats? They were safely relocated after mating season, and the new owners couldn’t have been happier. The takeaway is that there are few problems you cannot resolve through open dialogue and collaboration between buyer and seller.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Yes. Sundae is beginning to develop a more extensive and powerful marketplace offering that brings together home sellers and property investors. Our mission as a company is to help get homeowners the best outcome when selling a house that needs some love. Creating a new way for off-market homeowners to sell their distressed house to the highest bidding investor helps us accomplish our mission. But we also get to help more families looking for a place to live, as well. This new approach means more homes coming through our marketplace, many of which we will help rehab and resell with our full-service brokerage at Sundae Homes. This brings more move-in ready inventory to the housing market, giving more buyers a place to call home.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

As I mentioned, we are fundamentally about helping homeowners sell their house for more money, while giving them a transparent, worry-free process. But we also often get to see the joy on the faces of new homeowners when they find and purchase their new home. We recently renovated a distressed house in Southern California, and then listed it with Sundae Homes. A first-time homebuyer went under contract for the house, and on the day of closing, when the agent met the buyer at the house to hand over the keys, the homebuyer got down on one knee and proposed to his girlfriend. It was a touching moment, and a nice reminder of the human impact our business has.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Of course, in my career there are many people who have helped me and provided positive influence along the way. The most influential person in my life overall was my father. It was not only him teaching me about having a good work ethic, but more importantly, I saw how he worked hard and still found time to be a great and loving father. Later I met Al LaPeter. He was the broker who hired me when I was just 20 years old. Like my father, he taught me a great deal, usually by throwing me in the deep end and then giving me pointers on how not to drown. Everyday watching him work longer and harder than everyone around him, I saw how he made even the most challenging situations seem effortless. I learned that this was due to his drive to keep learning and improving his trade every day. His ability to be honest, solve problems, and make tough decisions inspired me. I wanted that ability, too, and I strove to acquire it. He also taught me that you have to be tough yet smart as you deal with uncomfortable situations. I remember one instance where he gave me an address of a house to meet an appraiser. When I got closer, I realized it was in one of the most dangerous areas of the city. I kept my wits about me and forged ahead. As I was getting out of the car, I was so out of place that a police car stopped and questioned why I was there. Even after I explained that I was meeting an appraiser, the officer didn’t believe me and stuck around until I was done.

Ok. Thank you for all that. Let’s now jump to the main core of our interview. The Real Estate industry, like the Veterinarian, Nursing and Public Relations fields, is a women dominated industry. Yet despite this, less than 20 percent of senior positions in Real Estate companies are held by women. In your opinion or experience, what do you think is the cause of this imbalance?

It’s impossible to state all the reasons women still lag in senior positions, as those reasons are numerous. But one I’ve observed is related to the reasons people get into the real estate business in the first place. I’ve seen many women go into real estate because they’re attracted by what they see as a flexible work schedule. This is especially important to women who are also full-time moms. They see the opportunity to earn a significant income while also managing and curating their daily and weekly schedule around family obligations. Real estate seems like a good scenario since they don’t have to give up their flexibility. But this mentality can limit their opportunities for advancement. In some cases, certainly not limited to women, they treat their role like a part-time job instead of a dedicated full-time career. It may be partially because they haven’t had access to mentorship or an influence who could show them how this business works. Or, perhaps they haven’t seen enough other women in positions of leadership in real estate. I think this is a problem in the real estate industry overall. Many people just getting started in real estate simply don’t realize that it’s a craft like any other. It requires commitment, hard work, continuous learning, and hunger for improvement.

What 3 things can be done by a)individuals b)companies and/or c) society to support greater gender balance going forward?

  1. From what I’ve observed in my career, when men see an opportunity for advancement, most will throw their hat in the ring without second thoughts. But women tend to stand back and wait until they’re a little more prepared. From an individual standpoint, I think women have to learn to trust themselves and dare to take chances, knowing that they have the skill sets to succeed in leadership roles.
  2. Companies should not only elevate women as role models and mentors for younger women, but should rethink and expand their perception of managerial and leadership roles to offer more flexible work schedules. We’ve learned a lot about this during the pandemic, which has proved that doing more remote work is possible. Women are often attracted to jobs with a lot of schedule flexibility since they’re balancing many other responsibilities. Performance is the measurement of success, and opening up flexible work hours enables women to perform better and the company to succeed.
  3. The key in my mind is having more role models. Successful women inspire more successful women. We’ve learned that women can be doctors, lawyers, and airline pilots. We need to also see more women leaders in real estate, to inspire the next generation and show more young people that women can be the big power brokers.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

There’s a double standard that exists between men and women in leadership roles, especially in real estate. In this industry, you have to be an aggressive deal maker and tough negotiator. These traits are not considered feminine. Men who play this kind of hardball are considered strong and effective while women who do the same thing immediately get slapped with the “B word.” The other common challenge that women face is the fact that they’re almost always outnumbered at the senior level by their male counterparts. This can isolate women and make it harder to build good relationships, even when they have the confidence, knowledge, and background to be successful.

Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the Real Estate industry?

  1. I love being able to help people realize their dream of actually owning a little piece of the world that gives them a feeling of foundation and stability.
  2. It is amazing to see that even through an unprecedented period of chaos, real estate has been a stabilizing factor. It has provided employment in the design, construction, and finance industries, as well giving people a safe haven for their families and their businesses.
  3. The flip sector of real estate excites me the most. First, helping a seller move onto a new chapter in their lives and, second, the excitement of taking a completely run-down property and turning it into a home that people not only want to live in but often fight to own.

Can you share 3 things that most concern you about the industry? If you had the ability to implement 3 ways to reform or improve the industry, what would you suggest?

Instead of three things, I will say one above all others because it is so important in my opinion. I would change the way real estate agents are trained. In addition to the standard book work and final exam, there also needs to be a period of internship just like doctors. Would you want a surgeon cutting into you if she has only read about the procedure in a book? Just like surgery, a real estate transaction has so many idiosyncrasies that it is impossible to navigate them without experience or in the beginning oversight. And also like surgery, the results of real estate transactions can have far-reaching effects on a person’s life and livelihood.

What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?

You have to lead by example. Just because you have been promoted to a leadership position doesn’t mean that you get to work less. It means you work more. You have to work as if you have the toughest boss ever, because you do: yourself. You have to treat this like a real job. You get out of bed early, call your team to do likewise, work your files, dig up leads, think creatively about how to build up your team so they all see your vision and share your goals. My first mentor, Al LaPeter, used to say, “You have to get your own back off the mattress and your feet on the floor because in this industry, you don’t have anyone telling you what to do.”

Ok, here is the main question of our interview. You are a “Real Estate Insider”. If you had to advise someone about 5 non intuitive things one should know to succeed in the Real Estate industry, what would you say? Can you please give a story or an example for each?

  1. This business is very hard work. It’s thought of as a business where you just show up with a key and let people see houses and then make a commission when they find the one they want. But in reality, the real estate agents and brokers who are most successful are the ones who study, speak to other industry pros, learn the financial aspects, put in the extra hours, and constantly dedicate themselves to getting better. I learned this personally by seeing the difference in work ethic between brokers who moved a lot of inventory and the ones who didn’t. How they chose to spend the hours in their days spoke volumes.
  2. On a related note, the higher you climb, the harder it is to stay there. Getting to a position of leadership doesn’t mean you get to sit around and tell other people what to do. It puts an even bigger burden on your shoulders because you have to lead by example. This is critically important for helping younger people in the industry understand what it takes to be successful.
  3. You never know when a single customer will change your life forever. In real estate, you have to talk to a lot of people. But though you might meet 10 clients in a day, you still have to be your best version of you for all 10 of those meetings. You can’t take it easy on one, because that person might become the conversation or deal that changes your entire career. When I was in the early stage of my career, it was a random phone call that I received while working after hours that changed my future.
  4. Real estate agents need apprenticeships. Learning the terminology, laws, and history of real estate is super important. But the light bulb won’t really go off until you’ve been knee deep in a real estate deal. I spent hundreds of hours on phone calls with clients, hearing everything from the joy of finding a dream house to the fury of deal falling through. These experiences taught me more than anything else.
  5. There are two extreme views about flipping houses, but neither are entirely true. On one side, there is a glorified view of that is a result of all the countless HGTV shows and cultural obsession with home makeovers that will turn a hidden gem into a million dollar house just by making a few smart decisions. On the other side of the coin, there is a common view of flippers as parasites who prey on communities and push people out of homes and then drive up cost of living in the neighborhood. The reality is different. Successful flipping is a difficult job and there are no magic tricks that can make you get rich overnight. At the same time, flippers aren’t all greedy scammers looking to profit by bilking people out of their homes. In reality, the flipping business plays an extraordinarily important role in the real estate industry, as it is the only way, short of costly new construction, to help prepare home inventory for new families. Flipping houses is meaningful work that can help communities, but it’s difficult and not advisable to people who aren’t ready to work hard and conduct themselves with high ethical standards and respect for customers.

Because of your position, you are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I’ve already alluded to it a couple times, but I would love to create a new industry-wide standard that every new agent, salesperson, broker, or property manager needs to complete some form of internship or field work. It might make it harder to break into the business, but that might also result in better performance for customers, better deals, and ultimately better pay. It would also cut down on the number of unreliable people working in real estate who give the industry a bad name.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can check out the Sundae Homes Blog where I frequently contribute or follow us on Facebook and Instagram.

Thank you for your time, and your excellent insights!

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