When I first got into the real estate business, I was 35 years old and had just moved back to Houston after living in Japan for 14 years. I had never really lived in America as an independent self-sufficient adult because I had gotten married a mere month after graduating from college and immediately moved abroad. I had never worked a full-time job in the U.S., had never bought a car in the U.S. and was undergoing severe reverse culture shock on a daily basis. The year was 2007 and most of you who have been in the business long enough to remember that time when people like me, with no credit history and no job, were somehow able to move to America and immediately (and miraculously) get a loan and buy a house.
My broker was a working broker and did not have time to train me. I decided to take classes and build my resume in order to build some credibility. After all, who would hire a newbie to handle one of the largest purchases of their lives? I remember taking a GRI class (highly recommended, by the way) on marketing and the teacher specifically glaring across a sea of earnest eyes saying, “If you are new in this business and you don’t have a niche, you are probably not going to make it.” Ouch! That was me. I was that newbie and had no idea what my niche could be. I went home that night and thought about what could possibly set me aside from the other 30,000-plus Realtors in Houston.
I returned to class the next day with a list of three key concepts. I had just come back from Japan after a full immersion experience (I could talk days on this former life) so I was actually fluent in Japanese. As life would have it, I had worked as a radio personality in Japan for nine years so I had a decent ability to gab with all types of people. And after going around the world and back, I had found myself in the exact same neighborhood that I had grown up in thanks to my parents never moving even after 30 years (yes, they are actually STILL in their original home today). Armed with these three facts about me, I decided to brand myself as an international Realtor.
Houston was booming and as luck would have it, there were several large Japanese petrochemical companies setting up chemical plants in the Bay Area. Being in my backyard, I decided to try and first capture this local market. I first printed up dual-sided business cards — English on one side and Japanese on the other. Word got out that a Japanese speaking Realtor could help expats lease homes, so one after another, I was able to help family after family find homes and apartments. It was time to create a website so that people could find me, so I hired a local webmaster and asked him to help me make both a blog site (www.yokoso-houston.com) and a bilingual website, one in English (www.annourarealty.com) and one in Japanese (www.annoura-fudousan.com). As our book of business grew, I could see a pattern of the same problems our clients were facing. They were not familiar with unclogging garbage disposals, resetting GFCI’s, or seeing insects (or roaches, gasp!) inside their homes. It was time to make an FAQ sheet in English and Japanese to help our international clients deal with everyday problems they faced when leasing a home. This FAQ sheet would eventually turn into a mini-book over 20 pages long!
I was able to land a few interviews with some major Japanese corporations that were moving to Houston or setting up a branch here. They needed a Realtor to help them find housing for all of their incoming expats. Because their companies were in the Galleria area, downtown, and Memorial, these are the areas that I also became a specialist in. Doctors and researchers were coming into the Medical Center and one by one, they told their friends, and their friends told THEIR friends, and from there I grew a whole new income stream mastering the art of apartment locating. When a Japanese supermarket tapped me on the shoulder to help with their site selection and commercial lease, I was more than honored to represent them. A Japanese kindergarten and a Japanese bakery would soon follow.
Building your international brand is very feasible in Houston, America’s 4th largest and most diverse city. The recently released 2021 Texas International Homebuyers Report reveals that Texas ranks 3rd behind Florida and California for homes sold to international buyers. Forty-two percent came from Latin America/Caribbean, 30% from Asia/Oceania and 29% from Mexico. Seize your piece of the international market and get involved! I joined the Japanese Business Association of Houston and try to participate in or sponsor local events like their annual softball tournament, bi-annual golf tournaments, and the Japan Festival. Last year, my company started a bilingual newsletter to keep connected with hundreds of our past clients. Of course, creating a company Facebook page and Instagram account also keeps you get in front of your international clients. Ultimately, being as helpful as you possibly can makes the biggest difference when working with Houston newcomers. Your reputation will help them initially find you, but it is your exceptional caring for them that will resonate in such a way that they will then promote and refer you to all their friends and colleagues.