Realtor Melissa Leifer's job isn't like Million Dollar listing- but it's still exciting
Melissa Leifer has lived in New York City since she started college at NYU and has been a real estate agent there for the past fifteen years. She talked to us about how people skills got her into the field, how her acting background makes her better at her job, how she's been building her own business while she's built her own skills as a negotiator and salesperson, and how it's "an honor" to be part of a major decision in people's lives.
FAST FACTS ABOUT Melissa
Where she’s from: suburban Boston
Grew up with: mom and dad, 16-month younger sister
Education: Bachelor of fine arts degree in actigng from New York University
Where she lives now: New York, New York
Growing up she wanted to be: an actress
Now she’s: a real estate agent
Tell us about yourself growing up!
I was really into theater and acting and movies. I loved all of that kind of stuff and I was always into fashion and trends. I liked reading a lot too. I was not good at math. I was okay with certain sciences but the ones that had math involved like chemistry and physics, not into that at all. I have always had a lot of friends. I was very social. In my early teens I was doing gymnastics, which I loved and then as I got older I did more stuff with drama and chorus, stuff like that. In high school I was involved in eight million activities.
I always loved going to school. I didn’t like some classes but I loved going to school even just for the social element.
Were there other adults that were important to you when you were growing up?
I had some teachers that were great that I really loved. I had drama teachers, some friends of mine parents', too. Madonna was a huge influence on me believe it or not. I was obsessed with her. I loved everything. She had everything and now that I’m older and I’m realizing what a great businesswoman she was. I mean she was always so glamorous and fashionable. She had so much power and talent. She really had it all.
You moved to New York when you started college. How did you choose New York University?
I really would have preferred staying closer to home in Boston. I went to NYU because I wanted to go to an acting conservatory school. I went because that was the only conservatory I got into. It was the best one out of all of them that I had to audition for as well. I didn’t think I would get in.
On making a life in New York City: When I graduated, instead of going to class I just went to a job instead.
How did you like NYU?
Overall, I loved it. The first year was kind of an adjustment. The first year was hard but after that it was great. When I graduated what was nice is I didn’t have any weird period of acclimation into the real world because I was already living in the city and functioning and doing a lot of those things. I didn’t have a college experience. We didn’t have fraternities. I mean I think there were fraternities and sororities, I mean had no part of them and barely anybody did, so there were never any big campus parties. I just wasn’t…if you didn’t want to be involved in the NYU community you totally didn’t have to and you could just be involved in something else in New York. It was great. When I graduated, instead of going to class I just went to a job instead.
What kind of work did you do after college?
I had lots of jobs. I waited tables. I was a nanny. I had a brief job filing. That was horrible and I got a lot of paper cuts. I did voiceovers. I was in a lot of plays. Then I was a yoga teacher and then I got into real estate.
What was it like doing voiceovers? How did you get into that? How did you find out about that?
I loved it. It’s really, really fun. I just loved it. At NYU I took a class on voiceovers. In the class the teacher was like…I was always very good with accents and voices. The teacher was like you’re really good at this. You should make a tape and I can help you do that. I was like okay. So I took some lessons with him. He helped me make a tape. I sent it out and then he got me a gig with his agent and they started sending me on things. I started booking things. They didn’t really have another voice that sounded like mine in their repertoire. That was really good.
So what kind of voiceover work did you do?
I did a lot of videogames. I did a Coca-Cola commercial, a commercial for some kind of potato chip. I did one for the Georgia State Lottery. I was good with accents so they sent me out on all this weird stuff where I wound up auditioning for something in Japanese. That was cool.
What’s it like making your home in New York?
It evolved out of what was already going on and happening in my life. I never felt like I’m going to move to New York one day. I always thought it would be cool but I never really thought that. Then after my first year of college Sex and the City came out and everybody watched the show and we’d see them filming near NYU and then I started thinking this is really cool. By then I was already in New York. I already had an apartment and a job so it seemed totally possible and attainable.
I didn’t know I was good at business. I didn’t even know I liked business.
You eventually got into real estate. How did that happen?
By accident. I didn’t know I was good at it. I didn’t know I was good at business. I didn’t even know I liked business. I thought I would never be into anything like this. My mom’s best friend’s daughter started doing real estate and making all this money. My mom was like “Sarah’s doing real estate. She’s making all this money. You should do it too.”
Then I was assisting yoga at this very big yoga studio in the East Village. It was a really nice community so we all became friends. Two of my friends were like, “Why don’t you do real estate? You would be great at it. You’ll make great money and we’ll get you a job at Corcoran,” which was one of the big firms. I was like I’ll do it.
I took my test. I got my [real estate] license and I was like okay, I got it. My friend Sarah was working at this place and she was renting stuff way up in Harlem before it was cool at all. I don’t know it up there. I’ve always been kind of a downtown girl. So I looked up places in the area, lined up a bunch of interviews and I went with the one that was going to give me the highest commission, which was 50/50, and they were easy about requirements. There was another firm that I liked although they required everyone to be in by 8:30. This firm, besides giving me a higher commission split, didn’t care when you came in. I could come in at 10 every day and that would be fine.
I don’t know if I could work at a job where I didn’t [make my own schedule.] you don't have to be bound to your desk to do your job.
Do you manage your own schedule now?
Yeah, always have. I don’t know if I could work at a job where I didn’t. It’s a less traditional schedule. You don’t have to be bound to a desk to do your job. I can do everything from my phone, which is awesome.
So did you start off mostly doing rentals or sales?
I started doing rentals. I would continue to show [apartments] myself and I did that for about two or three years. I’d built up a team as the years went by and at any given time I’d have five to eight people working for me showing apartments. I would find the apartment, pick them out, and then close the deal and get them approved.
About three years ago, I switched to sales because the rental business is really intense and it’s really fast, very similar to working on a trading floor. They go so fast especially downtown stuff, which is a lot of what I did. I can’t even believe I lasted as long as I did. I should have probably left way earlier. Now I’m mostly a sales broker. I have a new team which is going to be a more high-functioning team with more structure to it so that it can function at a much more efficient level.
Who are the other people that make up your team?
Right now, I’m looking for a really good administrative person, somebody who can organize everything, keep track of everything, so that I can be out calling people and meeting people for listings or showing buyers. I have people who do that. I still have showers who show buyers mostly. I mostly handle the listing side of the business. I have somebody who just makes phone calls for me. That’s their job.
Do you focus on a particular geographic area or price point?
No. I actually don’t and they say you should just become an expert in a small niche. However I want to grow a business faster than that. So I’ll go everywhere. I have listings in Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn and working on Staten Island.
You’re part a bigger real estate company but you operate pretty autonomously within that? Do you work with other real estate agents?
That’s why I came specifically to this company so I could do that. I’m working the listing end. I prefer there to be a buyer’s broker versus me doing both sides. It’s really hard to look out for both people’s best interests simultaneously. It’s really important that whoever I’m representing, whatever end, I’m just totally looking out for what’s best for them.
It’s really an honor for someone to let you in their life and let you help them.
What’s it like being part of a major life decision for people?
It’s very rewarding. It’s really an honor for someone to let you in their life like that and let you help them. It’s really a privilege. That’s how I really see it. New York City is different than other parts of the country. I must know a complete financial history of this person before we even see properties. If I don’t then I’m going to show them things that they can’t qualify for. That’s completely doing them a disservice.
I probably work with fewer people because they don’t want to show me everything. If they’re not going to show me up front, I can’t help them. If they have issues, just tell me the issues because we can get around the issues. There’s always ways and there’s always buildings out there.
How do you build and maintain that trust with your clients?
Referrals. When somebody refers me, which is always the highest compliment, they’re coming to you already knowing that they can trust you so that’s a little bit easier. With people that I don’t know, I want to make them feel as comfortable as possible. I tell them about the process and give them as much education as I can so they understand why it’s important that they disclose things to me that they wouldn’t necessarily disclose to anyone else except for their financial advisor. It’s easy for me to do it because I’ve been doing this so long. I’m not afraid to ask those questions whereas when I was younger, I totally was.
I’m not asking to be nosey or to be weird. I really want to help you and I need to know these things in order to really help you. This is what I need to know, if you want to buy property in Manhattan.
I started to take classes in the art of the deal and how to win with sellers, how to win with buyers. It’s really changed my business.
There’s a lot of negotiation in real estate. How did you build up those skills?
Practice. I would follow people around who were really good at it. I would listen to them on the phone. Then later on I started to take classes in the art of the deal and how to win with sellers, how to win with buyers, just all sorts of classes. One of the reasons why I joined Keller Williams was because they continually educate you. They have classes constantly so you can always keep learning. They’re incredibly helpful. It’s really changed my business.
What skills or personality traits do you have that made you well suited for what you’re doing? Why do you think people suggested real estate as a career for you?
I think because I’m really good with people. Everybody told me, “You’re a real people person.” I was well liked too so I think that helped. I was always good at fixing problems and matching people to things. That’s really what real estate is, solving someone’s problem. They need to sell their apartment and they need to sell it by this time for this amount of money.
What would you tell someone who wants to be in real estate?
It’s always changing and it’s never the same. I mean you can keep growing yourself while you’re growing your business too, which is cool and fun. You keep growing and learning new things in an industry that really supports your own personal growth.
It’s not Million Dollar Listing. That’s so unbelievably unreal. It’s not even close to that. If it was everyone would do this and like 90 percent of realtors would quit after the first year. It’s a lot of rejection. Coming from the acting background I was so used to rejection. It was all rejection and real estate was only 50 percent rejection. I was winning more often than not.
Was there anything else from acting that you feel like has served you well?
It teaches you how to listen. You need to really listen to people to find out what the problem is that they need to solve, because yes, they need to sell their house, but why are they selling it? I think acting really taught me different ways to communicate with people depending on what their situation is. It really also taught me when I was scared or nervous about something to pretend that I was super confident even when I wasn’t.
We did all this psychology stuff with the acting. That was incredibly useful and still is in selling real estate. You’re really understanding how people’s lives work and what their decision making process is. Once you understand you can effectively communicate with them. It’s different for all different kinds of people. That’s what makes it exciting. No two deals are ever the same, especially with sales.
What do you do outside of work?
Right now not a whole lot because I’ve been so busy, but usually I like to go on vacations with my sister or with friends. I go to the beach a lot. I mean I read, yoga. I hang out with my friends, go to dinner, get drinks, that kind of stuff.
I still feel like I’m 15 just with a better wardrobe and disposable income.
How does your life today compare to what you thought your life would be like when you were growing up?
Totally different. I didn’t even imagine this. I thought I’d be some kind of an actor, artist, doing independent films and traveling all over the place and creating art and stuff like that. I never thought I’d be creating a business and working for myself and negotiating huge deals. I don’t feel like I’m a grown up. I still feel like I’m 15 just with a better wardrobe and disposable income.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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