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Selling Grand Rapids
Three of the city’s longtime real estate
agents share their experiences.

By Terri Finch Hamilton
Photography by Johnny Quirin

Sure, Realtors help people buy and sell houses, but there’s more to it than you think.

Katie Karczewski has stuffed dirty dishes in the oven before a house showing and taken stressed clients out for a night on the town.

Peter Albertini is part anthropologist, part philosopher and part comedian during a typical real estate deal. He might even remind you a little bit of your mom.

Is your carpet disgusting? Your wallpaper tacky? Chuck Gallagher will tell you flat out — no apologies. He talks tough, then reveals a softer side that shows he’s also part therapist.

What does it take to sell a house in West Michigan?

The answers from three top-selling longtime Realtors might surprise you.

Navigate the chaos
Peter Albertini wears a lot of different hats.

 

Peter Albertini

His official one is professional real estate agent, a longtime successful seller with Coldwell Banker. But he often puts on his counselor cap.

“All the time,” he says cheerfully. “I call it ‘real-a-therapy.’

“Make no mistake — real estate is an emotional experience,” says Albertini, 67.

People selling their houses often are going through some of life’s big stresses, he says — new job, divorce, maybe a death. Some are adjusting to an empty nest and an unfamiliar hole their kids used to fill.

As their real estate agent, he’s along for the often bumpy ride.

“I might have a baby boomer couple who say they want to downsize. So I show them a house that’s 2,000 or 1,800 square feet — which is still a lot of room. When I get them in the house, they say, ‘This will never do.’

“I tell them, ‘You have to let go of this stuff,’” he says. “Let go, or be dragged. You’re hanging on to a life that doesn’t exist in that form anymore.’

“Empty nesters will say, ‘We need more room for when our kids come to visit.’”

He smiles.

“This is where I get to be the villain,” he says. “I tell them, ‘Your kids aren’t going to visit that often. And when they do, they won’t want to stay that long.’”

Ouch.

“Moving is one of the most distressing things you can do,” Albertini says. “My job is to remind people it’s OK to feel overwhelmed by chaos — and to help them navigate through the chaos.

“I ask them: ‘Are you eating well? Sleeping well? Getting exercise?’”

He’s sort of like your mom.

“My job is to figure out how to parallel your move with your existing life,” he says. “You can’t abandon your life to buy a house.”

Albertini was a theology major in college. That surprises most people. He says it comes in pretty handy.

It doesn’t take long before he starts sounding kind of deep.

“You can’t ask for something you don’t know exists,” he says. “In theology we call it grace. In real estate, we call it your agent. You have to raise people’s consciousness to what’s available.”

And once you ask for it — four bedrooms please and a mud room and a fireplace — Albertini wants to know why.

Next hat: anthropologist.

“I have to understand the culture of the person I’m talking to,” he says. “How do you live? What’s important to you? People say, ‘I need four bedrooms and a finished basement.’ ‘Do you know why?’ he asks them. ‘What do you do as a family?’

“They say, ‘I want a place where my kids can play outside.’ That’s an urban legend,” he says. “Kids don’t do that. Your kid will be the only kid on the street. People need to know who they are.”

Who you are is probably different than who you were, he says.

“You outgrow your house in different ways,” he says. “Not just physically, but emotionally. Maybe there was a time you enjoyed an autonomous life on a wooded site. Your daily activity was so busy that you sought retreat at the end of the day. But once your kids are gone, you like a more active community.”

Community is important to Albertini. He’s served on the board of Grand Rapids Children’s Museum, Grand Rapids Rotary Club and the Aquinas College alumni board.

“You don’t live in your house; you live in a community,” he says. “Your house is where you reside. People tend to microcenter on their house, but you can’t be limited to that.

“Your house is your refuge, your safe keep, your nest — but you have to live outside your nest.”

Albertini is the kind of guy who makes a friend with every home sale. He’s funny, affable, honest. And he’s starting to sound deep again.

“It doesn’t hurt to have a theology degree,” he notes. “Life is a spiritual journey. We all have a spiritual nature, whether we consciously embrace it or not. It’s what makes parents good parents, neighbors good neighbors, Realtors good Realtors.”

He smiles.

“We’re all in this same boat together. It’s called a life boat.”

Listen and be empathetic
Katie Karczewski is chic perfection in sleek black, with leopard shoes, a leopard belt and a flowing zebra print scarf. Her trendy glasses look expensive.

She’s quick to hire a professional stager to style a house for showing. But Katie K. also gets her hands dirty as a real estate agent with Keller Williams Realty.

“I’ve shoveled sidewalks, washed windows, made beds, bought shower curtains, washed dishes, planted flowers,” she says. “When I’ve had to show a house last-minute, I’ve shoved piles of mail into the oven to get it out of sight.”


Katie Karczewski

When she called one client at work to tell her a prospective buyer wanted to see her house that day, the homeowner told Katie the family dog was home, and he didn’t like strangers. He might attack.

So Karczewski, 63, scooped up the growling canine and took him to his vet for a day-long boarding. Sorry, the vet told her — the pooch wasn’t up-to-date on his shots. So Katie forked over $150 for the vaccinations and dashed back to show the house.

“They don’t teach this kind of stuff in real estate classes,” she says.

“I’ve trimmed bushes, shoved clothes underneath beds, painted, taken wallpaper down. I’ve borrowed art for showings from the Grand Rapids Art Museum. Did you know you can do that?”

She’s stripped her own expensive bedding off her beds and put it on the beds in a house she was showing.

Blink and you might miss her. But she also knows when to slow down and listen. Like when the couple selling their house is going through a contentious divorce.

“You have to stay neutral and you have to stay empathetic,” Karczewski says. “It’s especially hard if either the husband or wife doesn’t want to divorce.”

When one client wouldn’t sign papers needed to put the house on the market, she took him out for coffee and a talk. “I said, ‘You have to focus on the future now. You have to rise above it. You not signing the listing contract isn’t going to bring your wife back.’

“Sometimes you have to have very difficult conversations,” she says. She’s not afraid to share her personal tales if she thinks it will help.

She’s battled cancer twice. “I told this guy about it,” she says. “I said I had two choices: I could fall on the floor in a puddle of tears, or I could take the bull by the horns and get through this. I chose the bull and that’s what you have to do.”

She smiles.

“Life is short.”

So she’s part counselor?

She laughs.

“Psychiatrist,” she says. “With a prescription pad for drugs.”

Well, not really. (Put down your phones, everybody.)

“Your home is your respite, your haven, your safety net,” Karczewski says. “It’s where you feel protected and secure. Selling it is very stressful, very emotional.

“Communication is key,” she says.

“Any problem in the world can be solved with good communication. Listening is very important. People want to know they’re being heard and that somebody cares.”

Karczewski craves perfection. If she’s planning to list your house and she says, “So what’s going on over there with that rug?” — you’d better plan on buying a new rug.

But the buyer won’t be getting the rug, you protest. No matter. People want a house to look move-in perfect, she says.

Well, not everybody. Take her, for instance.

When she bought her current house, a charming white Cape Cod overlooking Reeds Lake, it was in pretty bad shape. She brought her three sons to see it.

“The youngest one cried, the middle one said, ‘You’ve lost your mind,’ and the oldest one, who had just graduated from college, said, ‘It’s an absolute dump, but I don’t care — I’ll never live here.’”

She lived with the outdated kitchen for 12 years before finally launching a remodel. When she told her contractor she wanted to donate the old cabinets to Habitat for Humanity, he bluntly told her they were so crappy, Habitat wouldn’t take them.

“There was pink wallpaper on every wall,” she recalls.

But she knew potential when she saw it. Now it’s bright, elegant and charming and the only original house in the neighborhood. All the others are new, built where old cottages used to be.

Katie K. adores her home. She wants that feeling for everybody.

“I still get a rush of adrenaline when I find the right house for somebody and put a deal together,” Karczewski says. “At the end of the day, I feel good.”

Be in the know
Chuck Gallagher unlocks the door to the luxury condo on the 28th floor of River House with an easy air of confidence.

He knows we’ll love this place.

Gallagher starts talking about its 3,600 square feet and the exotic tigerwood kitchen cabinets, but it’s suddenly all just background noise to the gasping. This place is right out of a movie, with its sleek furniture, $22,000 dining room light fixture and sweeping city views.

If you lived here, Gallagher says smoothly, you could pour a drink, watch the downtown fireworks from bed, then push a button on a remote to slide the drapes closed.

Did he mention there’s a refrigerator in the master bedroom’s walk-in closet?

Sold, Chuck! Wow, you’re good. How much?

“$1.6 million,” he says cheerfully.

Oh.

Gallagher, 50, is one of Greenridge Realty’s top sellers. But not today. Instead, let’s talk about the skills it takes to be in this business.

“Doing the paperwork is easy,” he says. “I know the laws, the contracts, the rules — a monkey could do that. Well, maybe not a monkey.

“But being able to read people, to say what needs to be said, to tell a seller they have to come down $25,000 on their price of the home they love ...”

 

Chuck Gallagher

Things can get heavy. So Chuck tries to keep things cool.

“I do things in a laid-back sort of way,” he says. “I like to keep things fun and lighthearted.”

Sure, there are often snags, setbacks, delays, problems.

“I try to deal with them before the client even has to know about them,” he says. “People say to me, ‘Chuck, why aren’t you stressed out?’” He shrugs. “Cool heads prevail. I say, ‘Everybody breathe. What’s the end goal and how are we going to get there?’

“It helps everybody if I stay calm.”

That’s what you should do, too, when Gallagher strolls through your house to assess its sale potential and tells you about the need for new carpet, fresh paint and, well, an entire kitchen redo.

“I’m brutally honest,” Gallagher says. “I tell clients, ‘I’ll tell you exactly what you need to hear, and you might not like it. But I’ll sell your house. You might pick somebody else because they make you feel good. Call me in six months after he doesn’t sell your house.’”

So we’re guessing he’s not the type to bake cookies for an open house or swing by the florist for a bouquet for the kitchen table.

Gallagher waves his hand dismissively.

“I don’t put much stock in open houses,” he says. “Eighty percent of the people walking through are your neighbors. These days, with the Internet, people have already ‘walked through’ eight times on a virtual tour.

“Cookies are OK,” he says. “But I let the house speak for itself.”

Gallagher has this no-nonsense thing down, but then he reveals a tidbit that shows he’s part big softy.

He has his sellers write a letter to their prospective buyers.

“They write about all the things they love about living there,” he says. “How they love shopping at Forest Hills Foods, how the tavern down the street has live blues on Friday nights. People read the letter and suddenly this house is a home.”

Gallagher has made his home all over the area. He grew up in Forest Hills, bought his first house in East Grand Rapids, raised his two daughters in Rockford, and now lives on the 30th floor of River House with a panoramic view of Grand Rapids.

He can tell homebuyers about the great teachers in Rockford or the delicious walleye dinners at One Trick Pony because he’s been there.

“Being in the know so that you’re an expert,” he says. “That’s what a Realtor should do.”

He can handle the personal stuff, too. He’s commiserated with mopey empty nesters, then perked them up with tales of how great it is to be able to dart off to Chicago for a weekend.

Maybe a client is going through a divorce. He’s been there, too. “Sometimes I’ll say, ‘You loved this person once. Maybe you should try again.”

He smiles.

“I know that has nothing to do with real estate.”

Gallagher talks a lot about dreams and the art of making a good life. It all revolves around home, he says.

“You’re planting your own flowers, putting Christmas lights up and posting the picture on Facebook,” he says. “You’re having bonfires in the backyard. You’re creating a life.”

He tells of a recent couple who were big dog lovers. He showed them a house he knew had a charming indoor dog house built under a set of stairs — a little pooch cottage complete with shingles.

He set them loose in the house, and waited.

“Soon, I hear the wife scream, ‘Honey, honey! Oh, you have to see this!’”

He grins.

“That’s just fun.” GR

 
   
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