Michelle Pais opened her real estate firm two years into the recession — just as homes had reached their lowest prices in decades — without hesitation.
And full of confidence.
“It was absolutely the right time,” she said.
“Real estate offices were closing their doors. While everyone was running away from the economy, I ran toward it. You know you’ve made it when you can be successful in the economic ‘winter.’”
Six years later, the 36-year-old founder and CEO of Signature Realty in Springfield is selling over $80 million in real estate, or about 100 homes, per year.
“I’m not a typical broker,” Pais said. “You typically work either in the business as a Realtor or you work on the business as a CEO.
“I do both.”
Named to this year’s NJBIZ Forty Under 40 and one of the “100 Most Influential Real Estate Agents in New Jersey” by Real Estate Executive Magazine, Pais has quickly established herself as one of the state’s top agents by selling over 1,200 homes thus far over her 15-year career.
A career, Pais said, that she fell into by accident at the age of 20.
“I saw an advertisement in the newspaper: ‘local residential brokerage seeking secretary,’” Pais said. “I was going to school at Kean University at the time, looking to get into law, and I wanted a job to help me pay for my education.”
Pais began working at the local brokerage and figured she would get her real estate license as a backup.
“I sold 25 homes within my first 10 months on the job,” Pais said. “I knew after my first sale that I was destined to be in this business. The feeling was euphoric.”
New Jersey residential real estate market
New Jersey is a great market, Michelle Pais, founder and CEO of Signature Realty in Springfield, said.
“We are so close to New York City, making it very convenient for the commuter, plus you will get more bang for your buck in comparison,” she said.
Right now, even first-time buyers can purchase homes with around 3 percent interest.
“You can buy a home (now) with very little down payment,” Pais said. “You are making an investment in something that could potentially give you a lot of return. So, take advantage of what’s out there.
“You can sit down and talk to someone like myself who can educate you on the pros of homeownership, which is not for everyone, and the pros and cons of the tax savings. I like to find out why someone wants to own a home, exactly.”
Pais said issues typically arise when buyers rely on friends and families to help them with what could be the biggest financial purchase of their lives.
They are also not likely to do their due diligence.
“They fall in love with a home online, but they don’t understand the community or the commute,” Pais said. “I find that buyers need to be better educated because it’s not just a home that they are buying. They are also buying a lifestyle. I don’t like to see someone fall in love with a home and two years later realize they bought in an area that isn’t right for them.”
Pais said this is why it is so important to interview at least two or three competing real estate agents.
“I think that when you are picking a Realtor, their experience, knowledge, expertise, credibility and marketing should set them apart from everyone else,” Pais said.
However, with the election right around the corner, Pais said, the interest rates will not stay the same for long.
“In my experience and historically, every time there is an election, interest rates go up. People become a little nervous and shy and are not as quick to pull the trigger,” Pais said. “I think between now and then, we will (see) a lot of buyers actually purchasing and taking advantage of the interest rates being so low.
“My forecast is that homes will sit a little longer on the market as sellers try to also take advantage. And when there is too much inventory, demand starts to decrease.”
Pais began immersing herself in all things real estate, including working for Coldwell Banker in order to not only gain experience, but to save up capital.
“The corporate environment was so structured — very cookie-cutter and old school,” Pais said. “I simply needed to feel like I had enough knowledge, education and credibility to open up my own firm one day. I was just very cautious, careful and calculated as to when and where.”
Pais first opened Signature Realty in 2010 with a partner, hiring nearly a dozen agents in the first few months.
“I knew I wanted to be successful while inspiring others and leaving a mark on the world,” Pais said. “Developing my own signature brand would not only be fulfilling, but would also leave a legacy.”
Pais obtained sole ownership and leadership of the company in January of this year. Since then, her business has nearly doubled in sales and staff.
“When you have a partner, you are almost limited in what you can do. Everything is now a reflection of me, so my work efforts have also doubled,” Pais said. “Success to me is freedom and financial independence. I think the company has grown so much in the past 12 months because I am starting to think more like an entrepreneur and am establishing systems.”
Pais leads a team of nearly 35 employees, whom she says work under her leadership and guidance, but run their sales independently.
“I am extremely proud of our team because they are a good fit for our culture,” Pais said. “We surround ourselves with like-minded, entrepreneurial, caring people who are not self-serving. Our motto is ‘seek to serve’ and ‘people before profits.’ It’s very important that whoever is part of our team has the desire to do well for others as well as for themselves. Honesty and integrity are a big part of our culture.”
That may be rare in the real estate market these days, she said. When Pais opened in 2010, it was much easier for the “cream of the crop” in real estate to rise to the top, she said.
“Now, everyone is getting his or her real estate license,” she said. “It is a challenge to go up against people who don’t necessarily take this job very seriously. I often come across clients, especially first-time home buyers, that don’t understand that, when you are picking an agent, it is so important to find someone who knows the market well.”
Pais said she would like to counteract this trend by opening up real estate clubs to help educate not only buyers and sellers, but also fellow real estate brokers.
“People start to see shows like ‘Million Dollar Listing’ and they think this job is all about the glitz and the glam lifestyle,” Pais said. “They fall in love with this illusion that this could be the career for them because of that.
“This is a sales career. We get paid on performance. If a home does not close, we do not get paid.”
Often times, Pais said, agents will spent countless hours, days, weeks and sometimes even months with a client just to find out that they have decided not to buy or sell.
The hottest New Jersey residential markets
Here are Michelle Pais’ top picks for the hottest towns to buy in New Jersey right now:
- Millburn/Short Hills: “It is known for its great public schools, train access to New York City and its great shops. It is an affluent community that is also within minutes of the famed Short Hills mall.”
- Chatham: “Located just 20 miles from New York City, many of the homes are within walking distance to the downtown, where you can be surrounded by historic charm and great amenities.”
- Westfield: “It has a vibrant downtown filled with shops and amazing restaurants and great schools. It is a town that appeals to all generations.”
- Summit: “It’s a friendly, walkable neighborhood with great schools, gorgeous homes and a bustling downtown.”
- Maplewood: “It has been recently called the ‘Brooklyn West’ because of its diverse, hip and cultured community.”
- Mountainside: “One of the things that attracts so many people to this small town are its low taxes. It has about 2,400 homes surrounded by peaceful, tree lined streets and is in close proximity to other great towns such as Westfield and Summit.”
“Now that younger generations, especially those who are in their 20s, are viewing real estate as a full-time career, I think people need to realize that this is something that you can’t go into thinking you are going to start making money right away. I would say have at least one year’s worth of salary saved, because it’s not going to happen overnight.”
Despite the lack of career background that is made available to new talent, Pais said she thinks the higher level of interest in her field will ultimately be positive.
“I love taking on young talent that does not yet have many bad habits,” she said. “They are at least starting off their career fresh.”
Pais is in the process of taking her career much further.
While she started her firm in Springfield, a typical mid-entry market, she has been focusing on marketing herself and her business to the luxury market.
“It stemmed from thinking, OK, who is my ideal client, where do I see myself and what do I want to do?” Pais said. “Marketing is very important, and so I not only spend money in that area, but I am also very targeted in the marketing that I send.”
Her marketing, she said, is designed to reflect who she is.
“It’s my personality. If you go to my office, it feels like you are in my home,” Pais said. “Sleek, modern, contemporary — it’s my personal brand and style. It comes across as modern luxury because that’s who I am.”
Coined the “Barbara Corcoran of New Jersey” by Bella Magazine in September, Pais intends to live up to and surpass such expectations.
For example, she recently partnered with a builder in Morristown to design 29 apartment units in the sizzling market.
“I am involved not only as an agent, but also as an investor,” Pais said. “This is a project that I am really proud of.”
She is also in the process of working with media consultants and production companies to produce her own real estate show for television.
“My business has doubled and I am growing so quickly,” Pais said. “I’m working not only in the business, but also on the business. I’m investing. I’m building. I’m starting real estate clubs. I’m ready.”
Her biggest challenge, she said, is balancing work and life — a goal that she would like to be able to address over the next year or two after she gets married to a national real estate speaker in June 2017.
Women in real estate
Michelle Pais, founder and CEO of Signature Realty in Springfield, sees an advantage to being a woman in the male-dominated business of real estate.
“Women, I think, are naturally more intuitive. We are by nature more nurturing and better listeners,” Pais said.
When it comes to the selling of one’s home, Pais said, it is not all about business — it becomes very personal.
“You have to look at real estate, especially residential, as an emotional investment. I tell all of my agents that they need to make human connections.
“Most people do business with people that they can relate to.”
“He is my partner in life and in business — we thrive off each other,” Pais said. “Just as I don’t settle in business, I don’t settle when it comes to my personal life, and I am so grateful to have found someone who is my idea of who a perfect partner should be. Everything makes sense now; I’ve never been happier.”
It helps also that when she goes to work, it doesn’t feel that way for her.
“I truly love what I do,” Pais said. “It is fun for me.”
Her professional success has afforded her the ability to support her family, including her first-generation immigrant parents.
“I do not come from a family of wealth,” Pais said. “My family is Portuguese and have been working all of their lives on farms and in construction.”
Pais recently purchased her parents a home and a car.
“That is a personal accomplishment for me at the age of 36 — to give my parents a life that they have not yet had.”
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On Twitter: @megfry3