Author and real estate broker Sissy Lappin talks with Opportunist’s Managing Editor Leslie Stone about her book, her website for homeowners who want to sell their own home and why she believes in sharing her knowledge.
When a close family friend contacted Sissy Lappin during a personal crisis to say that she needed to sell her home fast but couldn’t afford to pay a commission, the broker-owner of Lappin Properties in Houston invited the woman over and showed her, step by step, how to price, market and sell the property on her own. “She ended up selling her house and walked away with $23,000 instead of having to pay more than that in commission—and saved her credit too,” says Lappin. “That was my ‘aha!’ moment when I thought you need to do this for other people.” So Lappin wrote the book Simple and SOLD to show other people how they too could sell their own home and keep the commission.
Giving up the opportunity to make a commission might sound like the last thing a successful Realtor like Lappin, who has amassed half a billion dollars in sales during her 32-year career, would ever envision herself doing. But she says the concept is about giving people “legitimate choices.” “There will always be people who use full-service brokerage firms. There are others who will use discount firms. And then there are the for-sale-by-owner (FSBO) sellers. There is no reason they cannot all exist.”
Together with her husband, Mark, Lappin also co-founded ListingDoor, a service that provides step-by-step instruction that “takes away all the guesswork in DIY home selling” and combines “practices of a real estate agency with today’s technology.” ListingDoor was named by Forbes as “The Uber of Real Estate.”
“ListingDoor came from seeing a need and seeing how bad the homeowner’s options were,” Lappin adds. “I really believe it is a game changer. Let’s face it, who really wants to pay 6 percent commission? One customer sent us an email saying she took her grandkids to Disneyland with the $26,000 she saved. We are here to make the world a better place for homeowners.”
Sissy Lappin: Dramatically. It has gotten incredibly efficient. Buyers and sellers are more educated. They have access to all the data and can analyze it—often more than a real estate agent does—for a particular area they want to be in. I joke that they are on the Internet more than I am, looking at homes. [Laughs] I love it—I think I’m one of the few who believes it’s great. I think one thing we have done as agents and brokers is underestimate consumers’ intelligence. They are very smart.
When I was hired by the late Kenneth Schnitzer, one of the top three developers in the country, I had no real estate experience. He was like Donald Trump in the 1980s. He was brilliant and I tell everybody that working with Kenneth was like getting my Ph.D. in real estate from Harvard. I learned so much from that man. He hired me when Houston had empty buildings. No matter how much you lowered the price there were no buyers. He taught me to always think outside the box and not to think like a real estate agent. Ric Campo, president of the publicly traded firm Camden Properties, is the other person who trained me. They are both the most brilliant people I have ever had the pleasure of working with.
Some agents believe less is more when it comes to disclosure or they feel they’re jeopardizing their relevance by giving information, but I believe in giving the consumer everything. I believe in sharing our knowledge—even with our competition. I would rather share what we know to ensure that people get accurate advice. Competition is for the competent.
Opportunist: Please tell us more about ListingDoor.
Sissy Lappin: I like to call it a marketing firm. For somebody who wants to sell their own home, there are all the components they need. So instead of having to go to one site and then another, we have put it all on one website. And more importantly, everything on our website has been tested. It’s not based on theory; it’s based on practice. I know real estate like the back of my hand. I’ve been through three recessions.
We have a pricing report, which we call our intel report. That data comes to us in 15 pages and we simplify it into five. It gives you a value of your home, which is a starting point. We walk you through all the steps to take the sold, actives and the condition of your home and price it on the market. It’s a little worksheet and it takes less than 15 minutes to price your home.
Step 2, you need marketing materials for your home. You receive a sign to place in front of your home that has a URL that people can type into their smartphone and pull up a virtual tour on your house and everything they want to know about it in five seconds. You also get brochures. You give us your ZIP code and the very next day your marketing materials arrive at your local FedEx for you to pick up. Everything we do is about your home. You get a designated website just for your home that is free of ads or competing with all the other listings. It’s a wonderful template. We even tested the color green on the side. You can drag and drop photos. And if you don’t have good photos, we will send a photographer to your home.
Step 3, you click a button that pushes it out to all the major websites. Putting it on MLS is an upgrade. Everybody is looking on Zillow and Trulia, Yahoo Homes. We also do a Facebook ad campaign that shows the home in front of people on Facebook. We figure out the demographics in your area and who is looking for homes. We are having great success with the Facebook ads. Those things are going viral. One home had 1,600 hits in a week. I couldn’t do that if I was with Sotheby’s in New York. [Laughs] We do Instagram as well. It’s super easy because Facebook owns Instagram and you just check the box. The key is pulling the demographics correctly for the specific area.
Opportunist: Are your services available to potential sellers across the country?
Sissy Lappin: Yes, we are national. When FedEx signed the agreement with us that opened up a whole new level of service. We even have real estate agents using it because the graphics are so good. Realtors have told me they love the personalized sign, the personalized website. There are some who have used ListingDoor for the professional marketing services. Let me tell you, that shocked us. We have also had licensed agents use ListingDoor to sell their personal homes.
Opportunist: What was involved in creating ListingDoor?
Sissy Lappin: My husband oversaw programmers for Dell computers and Quest. He’s an automations systems expert. He was called in to make something more systematic and automated and more efficient So I couldn’t have done this by myself. We also have five of the best programmers I’ve ever seen. It’s funny because I would tell the programmers I need this, this and this and joke that there’s real time and programming time. And one of the programmers said, ‘Do you understand the code in this is the equivalent of the code in eBay?’ That is when it hit home. They have these charts on everything and all I care about is the end product? [Laughs] And the customer just wants to know whether their sign is going to be FedEx’d the next day. The programmers are a great group of guys who do not get thanked enough.
Opportunist: How are the services offered by ListingDoor different from other websites that serve the for-sale-by-owner market?
Sissy Lappin: No. 1, ListingDoor is all about your home. I don’t care what anybody says—and I appreciate that ForSaleByOwner wants to sell ForSaleByOwner—but providing homeowners with black-and-white For Sale signs and expecting them to pull out a Sharpie and write their address on them is just bad graphics. Selling a home is a visual experience. Everything we do has a polished look. The other thing is ForSaleByOwner is a corporation. I shake my head after reading some of the things on their blog, and think please, have somebody who sold a home write your blogs. I think it’s very important to know what you’re talking about. I believe the greatest sin in business is giving advice when you haven’t done it yourself. Especially advice on selling a home when you’ve never sold a home yourself. It kind of reminds me of a friend who has been married five times dispensing marital advice. [Laughs]
Everything we do is designed to help somebody get their home sold. A venture capital firm once told us we need to make our logo bigger. But then, to me, that’s not about the home—it’s about my logo.
Opportunist: What would you say to real estate professionals who might see your service as a potential threat?
Sissy Lappin: That’s a very natural reaction. And, you know, we all overlook one thing: it is the person’s home. They have a right to make choices. It’s not that real estate agents are bad or that we are trying to put them out of business. Each individual needs to decide what’s best for their situation.
At ListingDoor we believe in the value of sharing our knowledge and embracing our failures. When a couple of homes didn’t sell, we asked ourselves what we did wrong and what could we tweak. We believe homeowners should decide what’s best for their situation. I think the real estate industry has treated them like ‘Oh, you’re smart enough to buy real estate—and I will assist you there—but you’re certainly not smart enough to sell it.’ If they’re smart enough to buy that house and make the down payment, trust me, they’re smart enough to sell it.
Opportunist: How can homeowners benefit from reading your book?
Sissy Lappin: It’s a great book because it helps you make sure your home is priced correctly. All you’re doing when your home is overpriced is giving your neighbor a marketing tool to get their home sold. My book offers great tips on how to get your house ready for sale. How to declutter. How to negotiate the contract. Real estate agents, unless they’ve taken a negotiating course, don’t typically know how to negotiate. There is no training about negotiating in real estate school.
Opportunist: What is your success rate?
Sissy Lappin: Our success rate is 90 percent. Are we self-sufficient? The answer is yes. It’s interesting that we are usually the second choice after the Realtor doesn’t sell the home. I want us to be the first choice.
I am a data tracker. We want to constantly improve our product, so lots of times I will call a seller and ask questions. When one buyer bailed quickly and ended up listing with an agent and selling for $53,000 less than her asking price, I called to find out why. Her house was originally listed for $575,000 and she got a contract for $540,000 but didn’t counter it. She obviously didn’t read Simple and SOLD because in the book I tell people they should counter every contract. I tell everybody they’ve got to read the book—I almost say I won’t let them through the gate if they don’t read the book. [Laughs] When I heard she paid a 6 percent commission on top of discounting her price it just made me ill. So I called and told her I wanted to find out where we failed her. She said she was having her second baby and was just overwhelmed. Looking back, she saw where she made mistakes. She wanted her home sold in a week. She was shocked when I picked up the phone and called her.
I went over the mistakes with her and wrote a blog about the lessons learned.
Opportunist: Are there more books in your future?
Sissy Lappin: Yes. My next book is being released the first week of February 2016. It is about how to buy a home and save the commission. One out of five homes is now bought without an agent. The book provides a checklist showing people exactly what to do and giving them very thorough instructions. I’m still working on the title.
Our goal is to make real estate radically better. It’s kind of ridiculously easy. We are reinventing everything when buying and selling a home.
Opportunist: What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?
Sissy Lappin: The emails I get from people who have sold their own home telling me what they’ve done with the money they saved.
Helping a woman named Lucille Bridges, mother of Ruby Bridges, who in 1960 was the first black child to go to an all-white school in New Orleans. I met Lucille when she was penniless and had lost everything in Hurricane Katrina and relocated to Houston. I kind of adopted her not even knowing who she was until she mentioned in conversation one day that she had been to the White House. She was living in Section 8 housing, which is government assisted, and also FEMA was paying her housing after Katrina. This apartment project was getting two rents. One day the housing authority came to her door and told her she had 24 hours to leave because she had committed fraud with HUD. It was the most unbelievable thing. The folder on her case was stamped ‘fraud.’ I tried to reason with them, and I found her a place to stay. It took me four months and well over 1,000 hours to help her, but I was determined to get her case overturned. This was the stupidest group I ever worked with—they even pulled out carbon paper at one point. Developing ListingDoor was a piece of cake compared to them. It was the first time HUD ever overturned a fraud case. She also had stomach cancer and we were able to get her in to a doctor at MD Anderson Cancer Center. I joke with her that God wanted her to be here so she could be treated at MD Anderson but that I just wish he would’ve found a better way to get her here. [Laughs]
Leslie Stone is an award-winning writer, editor and journalist with more than two decades of experience covering business, finance, real estate and lifestyle issues for newspapers, magazines and online publications. Originally from Virginia, she currently resides between Florida and Michigan. Follow Leslie on Twitter: @lescstone.
Follow Sissy Lappin on Twitter: @SimpleAndSold