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How a top-tier agent built his business through word of mouth

The Thousand No. 8 individual agent nationally by transaction sides talks about flat fee brokerage models and the importance of good customer service

Massachusetts-based HomeZu agent, Jason Saphire is confident that the flat-fee brokerage model will be able to handle whatever changes are coming to the uncertain housing market.

Licensed since 1998, Saphire is a co-founder of HomeZu and the founder and principal broker of New England agency, He’s a flat-fee brokerage veteran, who has witnessed the real estate industry and housing market undergo numerous changes over the years.

Growing up in a family involved in hospitality and special occasion rental properties, real estate and customer service have always been a part of Saphire’s life.

“I grew up in the real estate and hospitality industries,” he said. “I got my license when I was 18 [years old] and I worked with my family, but pretty soon after that I got my broker’s license so I wouldn’t have to ask my father, who was a broker, to set up appointments for me at every property I wanted or a client wanted to see.”

From an 18-year-old just getting his start to one of the top-performing agents in the country, Saphire has come a long way. In 2021, Saphire recorded 704 transaction sides and generated $346.7 million in sales volume, making him the No. 8 ranked agent nationally in the individuals by transaction sides and No. 37 by sales volume in the 2022 RealTrends The Thousand rankings.

RealTrends recently caught up with Saphire to discuss his journey in real estate and how he has made the flat fee brokerage model work for him.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Brooklee Han: Can you tell me a little bit about how you first got into real estate?

Jason Saphire: My family did a lot with hospitality and rentals. They had a banquet facility, and they purchased a manor house with an [attached] 16-unit guesthouse where they did weddings and things. Over time, they acquired other rentals, like apartments and single-family homes.

My first career though, was in the restaurant side of hospitality. Real estate was something I just did on the side. I helped my family out when they needed it, especially on the rental side, but I never worked as a traditional real estate agent.

Eventually I got tired of dealing with restaurant employees. I had a seasonal restaurant that ended up closing. From there, I was trying to figure out what to do next and that’s when I decided to do real estate full time because — at that time — it felt a like a lot less stress than running a restaurant. That was in 2006.

BH: That was certainly an interesting time to go full force into real estate. Can you tell me a bit about the various challenges you dealt with early on and how you overcame them?

Saphire: So, yes that was right before the real estate crash, but the business model I was using and the one I still use is a limited services listing agency model. I launched this about six months before the crash, and I did not see it coming.

For me, though, there wasn’t a downturn because the business model I was using was helping sellers save money since it was a discounted commission model. During that time, [buyers and sellers] were looking to save as much money as possible. Even now, regardless of market conditions, everyone always wants to save as much as possible. I won’t say this model is recession proof or anything, but people always want to save as much as possible no matter the market conditions.

That first year I ended up listing 350 properties.

BH: Lead generation is something a lot of new agents struggle with. How did you manage to list so many properties your first year?

Saphire: At that time, Google AdWords was just starting and there were hardly any real estate companies advertising with my kind of business model. So, literally the first day I started my Google AdWords campaign, I got listings, and it just kind of picked up from there with word of mouth. I started receiving referrals and, eventually, expanded throughout New England. Now, I am in every state in New England, as well as a few others, but New England is my primary business.

In addition, I used postcards, which is something I still do. I also go through expired listings and reach out to those homeowners.

BH: How has your business model helped you grow and expand your business over the years?

Saphire: As I got more business, I expanded into new states and that grew my referral network. On top of that, I make sure I provide excellent service and am as responsive as possible. In each new area I entered I knew word of mouth would end up being the vast majority of my business over time. So, if you provide excellent service, there’s no reason for someone not to recommend you.

Sometimes when I entered a new state, I would do my first few listings for free, just to get things going. But the vast majority of my growth is from word of mouth, and I usually attribute that to the service I provide.

BH: You have been doing this as your full-time job for 16 years now, what do you like about being in the real estate industry?

Saphire: I get a lot of satisfaction helping people achieve their goals. Also, getting complimentary feedback about how satisfied they [customers] are with me is really nice. I also love getting referrals, because I know it means that people are happy with me. But with the day-to-day, I like talking to people and hearing their stories and the stories of their homes.

BH: Is there anything about the industry that you dislike or wish you could change?

Saphire: Some of the competition and agent’s perception of what they are entitled to in terms of listings is frustrating. I get a lot of complaints from other agents saying I am taking business from them and single-handedly destroying the real estate industry. I see that as a compliment, because I don’t think anyone could have enough power to single-handedly destroy real estate. I am not doing anything earth shattering with my business, but I pick up the phone and am responsive. I like the competition of real estate, but not when it gets angry like that.

BH: What prompted the decision to stay as a limited services listing agency and only work with buyers in Massachusetts?

Saphire: With what I do, I can do it about 99.9% of the time from anywhere, anytime of day, so it has enabled me to expand. The only limitation to my range is where I am can be licensed. It is essentially a virtual service. So, I do a lot of phone calls, Zoom and email.

I started representing buyers in my home state, because I was providing sellers with service they were happy with, so they would ask me to represent them on the buy side.

On the buyer side, I had brokers throughout Massachusetts who would accompany by buyers to showings, inspections and closings. I pay the brokers a flat fee for each of those things, but I still represent the buyer. So, that means that I prepare and present all the offers and do all the negotiating and deal with the listing agent, but I can still do that from just about anywhere because I negotiate over the phone and with email and DocuSign. It is easy to prepare the paperwork.

I work only with brokers because they are experienced, and they know what they are doing.

BH: How has the real estate industry changed since you started out in 2006?

Saphire: Probably the No. 1 change is technology. Zillow didn’t exist then; neither did the proptech companies and lead generators. All these technological advances have been the game changer. But the industry is always changing. Right now, the market is going through another shift as we move back to more normal market conditions.

BH: You’ve already navigated one major market downturn shortly after you started. How are you feeling about the current uncertain market conditions?

Saphire: As I said, people always want to save money, so that is a help. There are always people who want limited services, like builders, flippers, and investors, and that is a good percentage of my business. That will probably never go away. Then, of course, there are multiple lawsuits out there right now about agent commissions, so I’m watching those to see what will happen with the industry as a whole.

BH: Why is real estate a good career option for someone?

Saphire: If you’re an independent, entrepreneurial person, you’re basically making things happen for yourself in real estate. So, if you are a hustler and an independent thinker, then it would be a good fit for you.

BH: What is your best piece of advice for a new real estate agent?

Saphire: Be as responsive as possible. Answer your phone every time it rings and invest in a live answering service so no matter the time of day, if someone calls, they get to speak with a real person. Even if that person just says that you will give them a call back, it makes a huge difference. People are so used to everything being on demand and they want their realtor to be as well.