Drastically cutting the fees that agents pay to their back offices has helped them stay in business during the downturn, allowing them to cut their commissions in some circumstances to seal a deal, Rutenberg agents said.
But smart managing during the downturn was one reason Rutenberg earned its No. 4 midsize company spot on the Chicago Tribune's Top Workplaces list, based on survey results by Exton, Pa.-based consultancy WorkplaceDynamics.
The firm has about 760 active agents, up 9 percent since the end of 2007, said Ray Zabielski, owner and managing broker. He said the office moved up one spot, to 13, in Chicago-area sales volume rankings this year.
Rutenberg lets agents choose from among commission options. One, for example, charges agents $35 per month, plus $325 for each property sale. Typically, brokers take half or more of the commission on a sale, experts said.
When it's cheaper to do business, it's easier to stay in business, said Richard Chimniak, an agent who has been with the firm since 2005.
But easy is a relative term, and no one is saying selling real estate is easy.
"This year, things got even worse," said Penny Altheide, another Rutenberg agent. "There are more foreclosures and lower prices."
Altheide, a former teacher, said she has done sellers' yardwork, painting and measuring for carpet in the past year in hopes of getting the best possible price in a down market.
Agent Julie Doss does home staging on the properties she markets.
And Rutenberg agents are on their own for some expenses, like business cards and marketing efforts typically picked up by a real estate office.
Still, agents said that controlling their costs through the lower office commission scale allows them flexibility to work with buyers and sellers to get overall costs to a number that everyone can agree on.
"Sometimes it's crazy stress, especially if people need to sell to avoid a foreclosure or get into a home by the start of school," Doss said. The staging has really paid off, she said.
"I recently sold a staged home in one day in Plainfield," she said.
Agent Brian Houser agreed that stress has intensified during the downturn.
"Average sales prices are down and so are the number of transactions," he said. Still, he said, he doesn't feel as though he's missing out on support from the real estate office because of the lower cost structure.
"I don't feel I've gotten anything less by being here," he said. "Ray is constantly sending us ideas" on how to sell in this market.