Realtor, Durham, NC
Date of Interview: February 7th, 2017
Q: …and so now we’re recording there too, which is great.
A: Okay, great.
Q: So we’ll go ahead and get started, and if you have any questions along the way just let me know.
Q: Alright, so would you please state your job title, where you currently work, and how long it’s been since you graduated from college?
A: My name is Steve Gardiner, I work at Fonville Morisey as a realtor, and graduated from college in December of 1990.
Q: Excellent, okay. Could you provide a brief description of your primary job functions? We don’t have to get into too much nitty-gritty, but just the sort of overview of what it is you do as a realtor.
A: Well, I am a residential realtor, so I work on buying and selling residential properties. So I have buyer clients and I have seller clients. For the sellers, I list their house and sell it; and buyers, we go looking at houses and find one and once we get it under contract, we go through the whole process with the attorney and inspections and all that stuff, and then when we’re all done, we have a closing and they go to the courthouse to record the deed, and they own the house.
Q: Excellent, okay. Great, thank you. Can you describe the primary audiences to which you write and for what purposes?
A: I have two main audiences: clients and other realtors. So when I’m having a transaction with somebody and I’m representing either the buyer or the seller, on the other side is another person who’s represented by a realtor, and that realtor and I do the talking. So that’s really the two types of people that I deal with. Are you looking– what else did you ask?
Q: What is the purpose of those kinds of written communications, most often?
A: So with the buyer, it’s helping them look for a house, getting them information, finding out about what they liked or didn’t like about certain houses and it’s all a way for me to kind of fine-tune what they want. And then when they go under contract, there’s a ton of questions like, “Do you want a survey? Do you want to get an inspector? Do you want a pest inspection? Do you know what radon is?” – it’s all this stuff. So I’m sending them information, educating them about things, and then they need to make a decision on what they want to do. So with clients, that’s a lot of what is happening throughout the whole process. With the other realtors, sometimes it’s informational like, “Can you tell me how long the roof has been on the house?” and sometimes it’s a negotiation thing, like I say, “My client offers $200,000,” and they say, “We won’t take less than $210,” and I say, “$205,” and those type of things. The way that it works when you put an offer on a house, your initial offer you fill out an offer form, an offer letter. It’s this long legal form, made by the Real Estate Commission and the state bar association, and you fill it out and you send it in. So that’s when I say, “We’ll offer $200”. If they come back and they say, “We want $210,” or something, that part is done verbally or either on the phone or email and sometimes even texting. So I’ll talk to my client and say, “Can you do $210?” and then they say, “Yeah, that sounds good,” so I let the other realtor know, “Yeah, they can do it”. So there’s that negotiation. And once the house is under contract, when they do an inspection and they find things that need to be repaired, and we ask the seller to do it, that’s another negotiation. They can say, “yes, no, we’ll do half of it,” blah, blah, blah. So I would say kind of informational, negotiating, and kind of educating and advising people.
Q: Great, great, perfect. What forms or types of writing or kinds of documents do you most often complete? So you talked a little bit about that initial form and emails, are there any other types of writing, types of genres of documents that you work with often? Or are those pretty much limited to those?
A: Well, there are a ton of legal documents throughout the whole process. Since I’m not an attorney, I’m not allowed to write any language in those documents. I am allowed to fill them out and I’m allowed to explain them to people. So a lot of that is sitting down with this 13-page offer letter and explaining to the people, before they sign it, what it all means. So I’m not actually writing anything there, but I’m usually telling them that verbally. But, you know, if somebody’s out of the country or something, which happens sometimes, I can do some of that on email, but that can be like an hour-long conversation, so it would be rough on email. So that’s one, these legal forms. And then a bulk of my writing is just emails to and from the attorney, the listing agent or the buyer’s agent, and my clients – tends to be the bulk of it. So I’m dealing with them a lot. Sometimes we do text, sometimes we do Facebook Messenger, it really depends on whatever the client feels most comfortable with, and then I have to use that method, because that’s how they like to receive their information. So part of my job is figuring that part out, like, do they want me to have them come to the office and sit down and I talk to them and show them? Or do they just want a phone call, do they want text, do they not want any explanation, they just want to sign the thing? And then, as far as written communication outside of those people, I’m doing certain things like, when I list a house in MLS, there’s a part that says “agent remarks” and “remarks”, and that’s where I say, “Come see this beautiful two-bedroom cottage, nestled amongst the Eno River, and close to downtown shopping,” and blah, blah, blah and stuff like that. So you have that kind of thing, and sometimes that writing will get repeated in other things, like I might do a flyer for an open house and I’ll just use that paragraph again. There’s that type of stuff too. I mean, that’s the bulk of it really.
Q: Great, okay, awesome. Were you familiar with any of these types of writing when you were a student?
A: Well, email and texting didn’t exist, so no. We didn’t do anything in school with phone calls or really any type of verbal communication. I remember I took one speech class, it was like, Public Speaking 101, or something like that, and that was– I was in there for a semester, and that’s all I ever had. So everything that I’ve learned has been just through experience and on the job, just doing it for years.
Q: Okay, great. How frequently are you required to write, and if possible, could you estimate in an average week, maybe what percentage of your job requires writing?
A: I write every single day, seven days a week, could be five in the morning, could be midnight, doesn’t matter. There’s certain times that things have to be done and you just have to do them. As far as the percentage of my day spent writing, probably about a third or so, I would say. Probably about a third writing, and then a third dragging around and showing people things, and a third shuffling papers and dealing with contracts and stuff like that.
Q: Gotcha, okay. Could you describe your writing process, including how writing tasks sort of come to you, what steps you take from the start of the project to completion? And I know this will vary a little bit depending on what kind of thing you’re writing, but let’s maybe start with emails. What is the writing process like for that?
A: Well, one thing I always try to do is think about who my audience is. I’m a realtor, I want people to feel comfortable with me. So if somebody writes me and they’re a friend of one my hip friends downtown, and they’re also 25 to 30 years old, and they say, “Tell me a little bit about yourself,” then I would say, “I love Durham, I go to Motorco all the time, and Fullsteam Brewery, and Ponysaurus, and we go out to this restaurant and see live music over here,” and that’s how I kind of deal with it. If it’s a little old lady who lives in the country here, that is a, “Dear Mrs. blah, blah, blah,” and much more formal, and usually would be more likely to need a face-to-face meeting. I even dress differently for customers, because if I wear a suit to some young hipster, he’s going to think I’m a nerd [laughter], and if I wear a jeans to a little old lady’s house, she’s going to think I’m a child, or something like that. So, it’s part of the whole– writing and how I write to them and how I phrase things and all of that is just dependant on who my audience is.
Q: If your documents go through changes, how do you approach those changes? Is there a drafting process with those emails, or is it a sort of, you write it once, it’s gone?
A: Certainly with emails and texts, you write it and it’s gone. It’s important for me not to look like an idiot [laughter], it helps me in my job. So, I try not to have– I’m a pretty good speller in general, but if I see any– well, let me back up. I’m a good speller, but I do a lot of typos, and so I have to go back and make sure– I reread everything once before I send it, just to make sure it’s saying what I want it to say, because I have misspelled words in the past, and I’ve also just done dumb things, just like wrote the wrong, totally unrelated word because I was thinking about it. So it’s really a lot of proofreading, as far as that goes. I even do that with texts. I don’t use textspeak too much, I generally write in sentences. Yeah, does that answer your question?
Q: Definitely. Yeah, perfect, thank you. Does anyone oversee your writing?
A: No, except for the people who receive it [laughter], because they’re– I don’t really have a boss in this job, except for if I do something wrong, I could get sued or I could get into legal trouble, or trouble with the Real Estate Commission. So there’s that to think about. But then beyond that is how does my client receive it, and I am communicating what I need to communicate? Because if I don’t, that can come back to bite me later on. If they misunderstood something and they signed an offer letter they didn’t mean to sign, that can go down a bad road pretty quick.
Q: Yeah, that actually leads perfectly into my next question, which is, what is really at stake in your writing? So that’s certainly a big thing, are there other things at stake that you could identify?
A: Yeah, for instance, realtors have to disclose anything that they know that is majorly wrong with the house. So, let’s say I was selling a house and it was the middle of summer, and I knew the heater didn’t work. I couldn’t just not tell people – I have to tell them. I have to say, “Oh, by the way, the heater doesn’t work”. If I don’t tell them that, and they buy the house and then winter comes around and they turn on the heater and it doesn’t work, they could come back and they could sue me personally. I could lose my license for certain infractions; I could get fined by the Real Estate Commission. And so what I say could really be helpful, or it could hurt me if I say the wrong thing. So there are times when I’m not sure about how to respond to something, legally. That’s when I can go ask the person in charge of our office or one of the other long-time agents, like, “Hey, what would you recommend I say here? I don’t want to get myself into trouble, I don’t want to break any laws, I just,” you know. So that’s probably the closest I get to a peer review – it’s just going over stuff with experienced agents.
Q: Could you give me an example of a situation like that? Like when you say a potentially legal situation that you’re not sure how to handle, is it some things such as, “Is this a big enough deal that I have to disclose it?” like an issue with a house, or are there other issues that come into play there?
A: Yeah, so for instance, I have a house that is listed and it’s in a really low part of the water table, and the town runoff goes through their back yard. When it rains a lot like during a hurricane or something like that, that water rises, and it’s actually flooded part of her house before. So she had to pay to get that fixed – spent thousands of dollars putting in drains and stuff like that, but because she’s so low, it’s still wet underneath the house. So my question is, I don’t have to disclose things that used to be wrong, like I don’t have to tell people that the house floods if she paid to fix it. But, my question to my boss was, “But it’s still wet under there, it isn’t necessarily from the flooding, it’s from something else. What do I have to tell them?”. So I was kind of a little unsure about that. She told me that it would probably be a selling point to disclose the work that you have done, and feel free to tell them about the problems in the past and tell them you’ve solved it, and explain why it’s still wet now. So, I think the answers tend to often be– if you ever think you’re hiding something, it’s probably a good idea just to tell them.
Q: Got it, okay, that makes a lot of sense. So because you don’t have a boss, this next question is a little bit different than it might be for someone else. But how would you say that the success or quality of your writing is judged? Or maybe, how do you judge the success or quality?
A: Well, how I judge it is if can get my point across in a way that is not too verbose, kind of straight to the point. People don’t read that closely, especially in email and especially in text, so I can’t bury the good information. So sometimes if I have two important things to ask a client, sometimes I will ask them one in an email, and a couple minutes later, send them a second email with the other question in it. Because if I list multiple questions, sometimes they’ll answer the first one and then then they never answer the rest. And texting, I found out, you can’t ask two questions in the same text. You can’t say, “How are you doing today? When are you coming to see me?”. They’re going to write back and go, “I’m doing fine!” or, “I’ll be there on Tuesday!”, but they will not [?19:13]. And then, my clients often, when the process is all over, they give me recommendations. The thing that I keep seeing over and over is, “Steve is so helpful, he explained things to us, made a lot of sense, he took this process that we didn’t know anything about and he made it easy,” – so that’s kind of how I judge myself. Because at the end of the day, if my clients are happy, then I’m fine.
Q: Great, okay.
A: But if they’re unhappy, I’m not.
Q: Right, okay, that makes perfect sense. Have you had any training that is specific to writing since you’ve graduated from college?
A: No [laughter]. Except having a wife who’s a college English professor, and will tell me if I do something wrong, but yes.
Q: [laughter] It’s its own kind of training, okay, perfect. Do you do anything to prepare to write? This sort of goes back to that question about your writing process, but is there anything that you do in preparation to sit down and write?
A: Not too much, really. Of course, there’s certain topics where, for instance, if I’m explaining to somebody in an email the good and the bad and the ugly from their inspection report, I’m going to have to have that report with me and reference it, and then I comment on it and then I attach it to the document, or something like that. But no, I’m kind of– in this business you have to respond very quick, and that means you might not be home, you might be on vacation, you might be whatever. So just being quick and clear, and answering their questions in a most succinct way as possible is what works.
Q: Gotcha, and that sort of speaks to my next question – how long do you typically have to complete a piece of writing for your job? You said “pretty quick” – what does pretty quick look like, on average?
A: Usually just minutes. I don’t ever write anything and set it aside and come back to it later. Even when I’m listing a house, that paragraph about how great the house is – that isn’t something that I work on, really. I sit down and then I just write it, and then I read it over and I edit it, and then it’s done.
Q: Perfect, great. What challenges did you face when you entered the workplace as a writer? Are there ways in which you felt particularly prepared or unprepared?
A: When I very first entered the workplace, the communication was all phone, and I was very uncomfortable with that. And then email came about and I was really comfortable with email, and could really be clear and thoughtful and all of that stuff in an email much better than I could talking. And then when it came to texting and stuff – half the time I don’t even know what people are saying to me, because they use so many abbreviations, but I look it up and figure it out [laughter]. I don’t know if that answered the question?
Q: It does, it does, yeah. And do you face any challenges in your workplace writing now, beyond what we’ve talked about, sort of the timing issue and things like that?
A: Well that paragraph that I write about why the house is great – after you’ve done this dozens and dozens and dozens of time and you see houses all day long every day, it’s kind of hard to make that paragraph very interesting [laughter], or unique, or just something so that people will pay attention. It really tends to end up being less flowery and more fact-based, like “new roof, new water heater” – like that kind of almost like bullet points. I feel like we’re getting closer to the point in our society where everybody just wants bullet points for everything, whether you write them out or talk them or text them, or whatever.
Q: Yeah. Are you able to identify a change in your writing style between college and now, and if so, what do you attribute that change to?
A: What’s interesting is that when I was in college and before college, I didn’t really have a writing style at all. I did the five paragraph essay in highschool, and I wrote the term papers, but didn’t really do much beyond that. And it wasn’t until I got out and especially when– I used to be big into those email listservs, like on music, or whatever, and I would meet a lot of people, and we would write all day long. I’ve never had any training, but just the constant, for maybe 27 years now, of constant reading, responding, writing, over and over and over, I mean you just get better at it, it’s just [laughter]. But I don’t really think– the only thing that I feel like school, including college, taught me was just the groundwork, the basics, like grammar, spelling, how to form a sentence correctly. Because like I said, when I’m talking– if somebody from an English professor from Duke calls me up, I better at least spell my words right [laughter].
Q: Okay, and other than– you sort of referenced paying a lot of attention to emails that came across listservs and things like that, and sort of seeing– so are there other practical things that you think you’ve done since you’ve been in the working world to overcome writing challenges or to improve?
A: I think it’s just repetition really. I didn’t really utilize any tools or proofreaders or anything like that. Just kind of trial and error, and trying to figure out– for instance, sometimes I write postcards, and I send them out to a neighborhood, and I say to people, “Hey, if you want to sell your house, let me know, I’m a realtor,” basically. And there’s many different ways to say that and you can be long and verbose and say where you went to school and blah, blah, blah, or you can just be like, “Do you need a realtor? Call today!” or whatever. So you have to make those type decisions, and trying to figure that out. And sometimes with those things, you’ll phrase it in a way and you’ll get a better reaction. And then you’re like “oh, okay, I’m going to start doing that now and not the other way”. So, just a little trial and error going on. It’s not direct feedback, they aren’t telling me what they think about my writing, but it is feedback that I can use.
Q: Absolutely, okay. And two more questions – would you say you’re a successful workplace writer, why or why not?
A: Yeah, I think I am. People usually understand what I’m talking about, and sometimes these can be pretty complex. Like if I ask you if you want to get your basement checked for radon, most people don’t even know what radon is. So I have explain that to them, and I explain the pros and cons of it, and why it’s important to do it, and et cetera, et cetera. And I go through it that way. Did I answer the question?
Q: You did, great. And then the last question: what skills would you say are the most central to writing in your very specific job?
A: What was that again?
Q: What skills would you say are the most important in writing in your job?
A: I think just phrasing, really. I’ve talked a lot about trying to write succinctly and straightforward, so a variety of people understand them and all of that, and that’s what I think about the most. When I’m writing I’m not really thinking about spelling, because I can generally spell all right and all that stuff, and I’m not necessarily thinking constantly about the goal in mind, it’s really just thinking a lot about the phrasing, how I write it so it’s clear. And I guess I learned that from school too, probably, but it wasn’t from a specific class, it was just from doing a lot of reading and studying. But really, these years of just communicating with people in a written form, that has made my writing better than anything.
Q: Alright, thank you!