Like so many agents, Steven Koleno, an agent with EXIT Strategy Realty, first got his real estate license in order to represent himself in investment property transactions.
“I got into real estate because I started to buy investment properties with a high school buddy of mine,” he said. “By the fourth property, I decided to get my license to buy properties for us. By house number 27, it was my full-time job and that was 2007 when the downturn hit.”
Despite quite a bit of turbulence over the next five years, Koleno ultimate decided to stay in real estate. “I knew I had a passion for real estate,” he said.
Koleno’s passion for real estate has ultimately led him to become ranked No. 3 by transaction sides and No. 14 by sales volume in the country, according to the 2022 RealTrends + Tom Ferry The Thousand agent and team rankings. In 2021, Koleno, who uses a limited services model, closed 1,404 transaction sides for a total of $505.19 million in sales volume. Koleno holds real estate licenses in Alabama, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, North Carolina, South Carolina and Wisconsin.
RealTrends recently caught up with Koleno to talk about the importance of being different and finding your niche.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
BH: Can you tell me a bit about what you did before entering into the real estate industry?
Steven Koleno: I studied engineering in school, and I ended up working in the healthcare field for 12 years as an engineer for a Fortune 500 healthcare company. I quit my job in 2006 to pursue real estate.
BH: The Great Recession hit the housing market not long after you moved into real estate full-time, how did you manage to weather that storm as a new agent?
Koleno: I took a job for a private equity company that was supposedly purchasing thousands of homes in Chicago, and I really liked working with them to buy properties at a larger scale, but they never got to the scale they wanted.
We were supposed to buy 2,000 homes, but we only got to 283 before they pulled their funding because prices went up too fast. Shortly after, in 2014, I became vice president for American Homes for Rent. I had a team of 46 people, and we managed 4,900 single family homes in Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin.
That was my first inkling in how running things to scale can really boost your numbers. That first year we acquired 700 properties, rehabbed and rented them. From there, I moved over to Invitation Homes, which, at that time, was just a division of Blackstone, and I became the leasing manager and the managing broker in certain states.
We were listing 1,200 rentals a year, so I got good at using the MLS and using my skills as a licensed agent. Then in 2017, I opened a brokerage for a new company coming to Chicago, North Clark Realty. There, I leveraged what I knew doing listings at a larger scale. The first few years I focused on building relationships and building out the business. In 2019, I sold 297 homes and made it to my first RealTrends 500 list.
BH: What prompted you to go more of the MLS listing service route and not the traditional agent route?
Koleno: I really liked doing listings for publicly traded companies, and it was a niche that not a lot of agents get into. I liked the systemized nature of it as I am a very systems-driven person. I like selling homes, but I like doing it at a large scale.
My goal is to sell your house and if I can do it and save you money, I think that is a win.
BH: When you started your brokerage you certainly had quite a few industry contacts, but how did you go about building your business from that base?
Koleno: I did is through strategic partnering. I am very non-traditional. You will never see any marketing from me. Instead, I strategically partner with different companies and people to give me the opportunity to leverage technology. But those partnerships have allowed me to gain access to additional markets. Now I am licensed in 11 states. I do a lot of for sale by owners, plus clients from my partnerships.
BH: Can you tell me a bit about how your flat-fee model works?
Koleno: In the real estate world I see three different ways to service a customer. There is the full-service, white-glove treatment that the Compasses of the world are doing. If someone wanted that, I would refer them to a Compass agent because that isn’t me. Then, at the other end, you have the flat-fee model where all they do is list the house on the MLS. While we will do that, it isn’t our specialty.
We are somewhere in the middle. We leverage technology to do things like 3D tours to help customers boost their listings. We offer à la carte services for other services, like detailed CMAs or drone photography. Those services can be added on to our base listing fee.
We have vendors in the local markets where we operate that handle the photography and things like that. I can do flat fee to full service all because of technology, and I could be in all 50 states if I wanted to eventually.
BH: What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced in your career?
Koleno: I am still overcoming the pandemic. We made some phenomenal income in 2019 and had a system in place and processes that we thought were great, but the pandemic hit and took all my top customers and stopped them from being able to sell because nobody would move out of their homes and the eviction moratorium was in place.
So, everything froze and, because I wasn’t marketing to regular folks, I didn’t have that base of business. So, that has been a challenge. It is getting better, but it forced us to regroup, and it prompted me to get my license in other states.
I am a strategic planner. I am a visionary. If you saw my walls, they are covered with vision boards. But back in 2015 or 2016, the National Association of Realtors published something about top dangers to the real estate industry, and I used that as my market research to come up with my plan.
I made my plan counter to the traditional agent’s business model due to the whole idea of blue ocean strategy. In a blue ocean you are by yourself, but in a red ocean it is a blood bath fighting with other agents for the same business and I knew I wanted to be in a blue ocean and be different.