43-year real estate vet Cliff Meredith on finding success in a slow market

Being candid with clients is key

As a real estate broker for more than four decades, Cliff Meredith has seen his fair share of tough housing markets. Currently a broker at Meredith Fine Properties on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Meredith was recognized in the RealTrends + Tom Ferry America’s Best Real Estate Professionals in the Individuals by Sales Volume category in 2022, with a volume of $115 million.

Meredith is also ranked among the top 20 real estate brokers in the U.S. by the Wall Street Journal and has held the “Highest Volume in Combined Sales Among All Agents in Talbot County” title for more than 30 years.

Meredith sat down for a Q&A with RealTrends on how he is navigating this slow market and his advice for other agents.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: How did you start your career in real estate?

A: I’ve been in real estate since 1980. I was in the construction business and also development. I owned two lumber companies. The logical involvement into real estate was because of the development side of buying property and subdividing into different parcels. It made sense for us to have the in-house sales, as opposed to giving it to a different firm.

Q: What are some of the lessons you’ve learned to remain successful from 2006 until today?

A: In November 2005, the real estate market started a downward trend. It continued through 2006 into 2007. And then in 2008, the bottom fell out. Across the country, the average loss of value on each residential property was about 54%. Just like anybody else, we were affected by that slump. It was called a very deep recession.

We had one after another call from somebody in trouble. We were either going into foreclosure or already in it. We had to, in many cases, cut commissions and deal with the banks.

Everything you could think of that went wrong went wrong during 2008 and 2009. So we were fortunate that in the preceding years, I had enough history and had continuously put aside money every year, just because that’s my nature to be conservative. 

Our company did not do well. We lost a lot of money in 2008 and 2009, but we didn’t go out of business and we paid all of our vendors…There wasn’t anything anybody could do. And I think the proof of that would be just looking at the overall picture and realizing that blue chip companies like General Motors who had been in business for decades, ended up going bankrupt.

The net result was that we were fortunate that we had saved money during the good times, and were able to weather the storm during the bad times. I think that would be the best advice I could give anybody: be conservative.

Q: With the slower housing market today, how do you stay positive and how do you encourage your team to stay positive?

A: In reality, are we positive? I think that is a fallacy. A true real estate professional recognizes when there’s a real problem and to be positive about a negative is not really logical. It might come across that way to people if they want to sell or buy, but you have to be realistic whether you’re representing a buyer or a seller. You can’t go and be Pollyanna and just say everything is going to be great when deep down inside, you know it may not be. 

And that’s one thing that we have never done. We’ve always watched the markets. We’ve told our clients exactly what we thought was going to happen, whether it was good or bad. I was talking to people as early as 2006, telling them that I thought we were going to see a huge decline in values, and it certainly happened.

At the moment, I don’t think anybody knows what is going to happen over the next two or three years. The world changes every day. And we are seeing substantial softening in the market. Our sales are down this year. And I think most people in real estate are experiencing the same thing.

Q: You’ve been through a lot of different markets. How does this housing cycle compare to others?

A: We’d have to start with the pandemic. There is nothing to compare that with in our lifetime. People in cities and areas that were heavily populated wanted to get into rural areas and get away from people. So if you were in real estate, and you had a business that was outside of a major metropolitan area, the influx of people was incredible.

During the pandemic, most Realtors flourished. We can’t compare that with anything else because we’ve never experienced that before.

What we don’t know is where we are going to be a year from now. Our sales are definitely off, and we know we’re going to end up way behind last year. We’re still doing fine, but not as good as we were doing during the pandemic.

I don’t think we appear to be following the same kind of pattern that was happening in 2008. The biggest difference is that the portfolios and loans appear to be much better than they were in 2008.

We’ve been conservative since we’ve been in business — we are not extravagant in whatever we do. My guess is that Realtors that are successful probably have the same guidelines. Individual Realtors may do something different. Maybe they have a really good year and they go out and buy a new home and a Mercedes Benz or Rolls Royce. And the next year is not so good, and they lose everything. That’s not the optimal way to run a business.

Q: What are some of the tech advances that have helped you over the last several years that weren’t available in earlier downturns?

A: To start with, the web and being able to go online and look at properties all over the world. With just your cell phone, you have everything at your disposal. You can communicate by email, you can take photographs — that may be the biggest single change for me.

The bigger picture would be looking at Zillow, and Redfin. A buyer can go online and pick a ZIP code and they can see almost everything that’s available in that ZIP code. You couldn’t do that 25 years ago. It requires sophistication on the buyer’s part. 

Q: What advice would you give to industry professionals who are now struggling?

A: The best answer to that is hard work and never giving up. Be conservative and realize that tomorrow may not be as good as today. It’s mostly common sense that if you pay attention to what’s going on, live within your means and keep your company within its means, you should be able to survive.

We also need to keep clients realistic about what’s going on. If they want to sell their house, they need to price it to the market, not to some fictitious number that they want, and they should also buy with the understanding that markets go up and down and be prepared for the downtime.

The market is what it is. Individual Realtors do not control the market: we have to live with whatever the cards that we’re dealt.

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