From the September/October issue of Commonwealth:

International clients. Immigrants. Foreigners. New Americans. Green-card holders. You are already selling to them, right?

If not, why not? Think it would be too complicated? Think there’s a language barrier and a culture barrier? Wondering if immigrants can get a mortgage?

Don’t. One Northern Virginia agency, in fact, is doing a booming business that’s comprised of 90 percent foreign-born clients. But more about that in a moment.

Instead, how’s this: If you want your business to grow, you need to work with immigrants. Period. They’re coming to the U.S. — and to Virginia — in droves.

According to a recent study by the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, one in 10 Virginians is foreign-born. In Northern Virginia, that statistic becomes one in five. And there are still a lot of people coming to Virginia from other countries.

And “a lot” isn’t an exaggeration. It’s backed up by research from the University of Virginia and the U.S. Census Bureau.

The University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service breaks it down in a July 2008 report: “Until 1970, one in every 100 Virginians was born outside the United States. In 2006, one in every 10 Virginians was foreign-born.”

Know Nguyen to say Nguyen

These numbers are already having an impact; Angela Eliopoulos of the Global Owner Team at Long & Foster in Washington, D.C., said that 40 percent of her business volume “has an international aspect in it.”

And agents at Westgate Realty Group in Falls Church are selling homes to these new arrivals in droves. Managing broker Jo Anne Johnson estimates that 90 percent of Westgate Realty Group’s business is listing or selling with people not born in the United States.

Westgate’s Web site, westgaterealtygroup.com, stands out immediately for its accessibility to foreign-born visitors. Eleven languages and flags adorn the home page, making it easy to switch between languages with the click of a button. In fact, of about 150 agents in the Westgate Realty Group office, fewer than 20 were born in the U.S.

Johnson (who was born here) has worked primarily with foreign-born agents and clients since the early 1980s, and her advice is sought by organizations such as the Asian Real Estate Association of America (AREAA) and Dearborn Publishing’s Dearborn Real Estate Education imprint.

Her partner at Westgate, broker Vinh Nguyen, has more than 20 years of experience in real estate. The two have been in business together since 1984.

Nguyen, in fact, is one of 39 people with that last name working at Westgate. “It’s the most common Vietnamese name there is,” Johnson explained. Isn’t that a filing nightmare? A simple solution: “We alphabetize by first name.”

That kind of flexibility is necessary when working with immigrants, who, obviously, may come from cultures where things are done differently. You need to go a little further to help clients overcome the obstacles that any new culture — and legal system — presents. Communication goes a long way.

Culture clashes

When it comes to working with people from other backgrounds, “a REALTOR® really has to pay attention,” said Christi Rhodes of RE/MAX First, The Decker Group in Virginia Beach. “If you are dealing with someone from another culture, it’s important to find out how willing they are to negotiate – are they willing to negotiate at all?”

She explained that some clients might be insulted more easily if an offer is modified after it’s submitted; Rhodes said it’s possible for someone to get insulted and back out of the deal.

Rhodes is always aware of this kind of sensitivity. She tells the other REALTOR® to prepare their client for the offer, to not be insulted, and simply to counter the offer if that’s what they need to do.

“REALTORS®,” she said, “just don’t communicate with each other enough.”

Rhodes has worked with foreign-born clients since the beginning of her career. One of her first experiences was with an Indian client who was listing a home.

“He had very particular tastes, clearly coming from his background,” Rhodes said. “Rich Indian rugs, not mainstream of what people thought of for décor.”

Rhodes’s agency had a hard time getting the home sold, and she recalled that it was challenging to help him understand why potential buyers didn’t respond well to the rich interior – there were fabrics on the walls and textiles in the interiors. Overall, the style was not what U.S. buyers were used to seeing.

“There was a point where he was ready to drop his listing,” Rhodes said. “I would call the [potential buyer’s] REALTOR® and ask for feedback. I gave the seller that feedback and said the client loves the neighborhood and the yard and the exterior but said the inside wasn’t for them. They’d have to redecorate flooring and everything.”

The seller was less than pleased with the feedback.

“‘You are damn and trash!’” she recalled him saying. “That was his way of saying ‘I am very angry.’ He was ready to drop his listing and everything, and I said, ‘Wait wait wait, let’s call the agent!’”

After speaking with the potential-buyer’s agent, they were able to get things back on track.

“I try to just keep in mind that my job is to listen to what their needs are and take my tastes — what I like — out of it,” Rhodes said. “I look at everything kind of like an adventure.”

Sometimes cultural issues rear their heads in other ways.

Eliopoulos recalled an incident five years ago, when she was working with a professor from the Middle East who was buying a property in Washington, D.C.

“He came to closing with a large brown bag full of dollars,” she said. “The attorney and all present were flabbergasted. I had to put the client in my car and go down the street to his bank to issue a cashier’s check.”

The Americans weren’t the only ones taken by surprise.

“The funny thing was the expression [my client’s] face: completely astonished that we were making such a big fuss over the most straight-forward way of transacting: in cash!”

Sometimes, of course, there’s less at stake — at least in terms of the deal.

Another time, Eliopoulos was working with the American Embassy in Saudi Arabia. “We were invited by a member of the royal family for tea. The ‘tea-boys’ kept refilling my cup during the visit and I kept drinking it while my stomach was exploding. Then luckily my colleague explained that I had to shake my cup left and right several times to indicate that I don’t need another serving!”

Language isn’t always spoken.

Bite the wax tadpole

Working with immigrants means, obviously, speaking the right language — or at least not speaking Realtorese.

“A big problem for the foreign-born right now is that when they buy a foreclosed house or short sale, there’s an addendum, and it gets complicated,” Johnson said.

Johnson said that in Northern Virginia there are whole companies that speak Spanish or Korean. These multilingual officers and representatives can be a great resource when explaining an addendum or other document to a client, Johnson said.

“It’s not just reading English,” she explained. It’s also getting a client to understand it.

Even when language doesn’t appear to be a barrier, Johnson encourages agents to give a copy of the contract to the client on the first day – a “buyer interview,” she called it.

“Give them a copy and put a check on the things you want them to read and understand,” Johnson said. What may be a small thing to you, as someone who knows the ins and outs of American home buying, may confuse someone who’s new to the process.

It helps a lot if you speak the same language. “Often we fall into our own Realtorese,” Johnson said. So be extra careful to make sure they understand in plain English. Go over each concept thoroughly until you’re certain your client has a clear understanding of what everything is.

For example, the concept of “adequate title” has concerned several foreign-born buyers Johnson has worked with. (She explains to them that this isn’t a big deal because most third-party places pay for that insurance.) It’s just one issue that can crop up in an addendum that’s full of tiny print. She recounted another instance where she was working with a client who spoke English but was having a hard time understanding a few things like “contingency” and “convey.” (To be fair, even people born in the U.S. have trouble understanding some of this stuff.)

Of course, everyday language isn’t always easy, either. As Eliopoulos put it, “Let’s not forget that successful communication requires more than words.”

Rhodes recalled working with a Vietnamese couple; the husband wanted to buy some investment properties. “His wife didn’t speak any English at all, so it took more time,” Rhodes said. But she had a card up her sleeve: “My best friend growing up was Vietnamese, so I think I felt more comfortable because of that experience. It wasn’t so foreign to me.”

“I took the extra time to listen, and ask more questions. I think he understood that I was just trying to make sure I understood – maybe because I kept repeating it over and over again.”

Rhodes said she spent a lot of time saying, “I’m sorry, I didn’t understand that – please repeat that, I’m just trying to make sure I understand so I can get the best deal for you.”

Don’t hesitate to call

Besides a satisfied client, Rhodes admitted there was another benefit to that relationship. “His wife makes outstanding Vietnamese spring rolls,” she said. “She knows that that’s my weakness, so that’s what she makes for me when I visit,” Rhodes said. “That’s how she and I communicated — with food.”

Another piece of advice from Johnson: Make sure your client has someone to call if they have any questions – and make sure your client is asking questions. Don’t leave them at the mercy of the world.

“They have to do what the lender says; you have to explain that if you have any questions, call me. We’re not talking about just reading English,” Johnson said.

You’ve got to make it crystal clear to the client that if he doesn’t do what the lender says (and yes, that includes not buying a new car), they could end up defaulting on the loan. You might need to be more certain than usual that you’re being clear on this point, Johnson said.

“I had a foreign-born client — I wasn’t the agent, I was the manager. On the day of settlement, I got a call saying he has to have another ten or twelve thousand dollars,” Johnson said. “And I said, ‘Why?’ Because he bought a car and his credit went down. And I called him and said, ‘Why’d you do that?’ And he said the people at the car place told him it wouldn’t go on this credit.”

“You should have called me. You can’t just go out and buy things like that – it means you’ll default on the loan,” Johnson said she told him.

Johnson reiterated how important it is to have that initial interview with the buyer.

Take the time to go through the paperwork. Johnson suggests that a thorough buyer interview can help agent and buyer avoid misunderstandings later in the process. The agent should explain what each section covers and what it doesn’t, and, of course, explain the difference between what is a walk-through item and what isn’t; explain what “default” means.

Is this extra work? To be sure. But it’s also something that gets easier as you grow more comfortable with it. With thousands of people coming to Virginia from overseas every year, it’s a market opportunity that you don’t want to miss — and one you can even get ahead of.