She’s had doors slammed in her face, worked during the crash in the real estate market, experienced rampant sexism and fled from gun-toting homeowners – more than once.
Subject material for a Hollywood blockbuster perhaps? Not exactly. These are just a few of the dramatic moments in the life of one Penticton, B.C. Realtor.
“I can truly say, I have seen and done it all,” says Bea Smith, who retired in March after 48 years in the industry.
Her journey started in Vancouver when, as a young mother with two girls, she met a woman in an interior decorating course who was selling real estate and making $300 per sale. “In the ʼ60s that was a lot of money,” says Smith, whose husband didn’t want her to work outside the home, but eventually relented, thinking she would do it as a hobby for “pocket money.”
She would turn it into a successful full-time career, one that included serving on countless committees, being elected to the Board of Directors of the B.C. Real Estate Association for two years and eight years on the South Okanagan Real Estate Board including two as president. She also traveled the country lobbying on various real estate related matters in Victoria and Ottawa. Some “hobby!”
But starting out in what was then a male-dominated industry wasn’t easy. “You had to be sponsored by a company in order to apply for the real estate course. But most of these companies didn’t sponsor or hire women, so it was tough to do,” she says.
The challenges didn’t end there. She recalls once being sent out to follow up with a farmer in Chilliwack who wanted to sell his property. “He opened the door and said, ‘You’re a woman, go home and make babies.’” Smith laughed and chalked it up to ignorance.
“I had the same response, believe it or not, in the early 1990s when my (male) partner and I made a proposal for a 48-unit townhouse development in Oliver, B.C.” They didn’t like dealing with women, she said. “The foreman told me to ‘go home and make cookies.’” So she did – after she got the contract. She baked cookies (something she normally never did) and brought them in for the crew every Friday for three years. “I’m not very domestic and I don’t think they were the best cookies,” says Smith.
By the time she was working as a managing broker at Realty Executives Vantage, she decided to bring a lawyer in to give a sensitivity training session to the 20 people (staff, salespeople and property managers) in her office. “We can’t have this (harassment) because if you allow it, you’re part of it,” she says.
The real estate market crash in the 1980s marked another chapter in Smith’s life. Interest rates had shot up and people were losing their homes at a time when she was doing appraisals for a bank. “People couldn’t meet their obligations. It was a sad time.”
It was also scary time. She recalled showing up at one farm, which was a grow op, and found a man standing in the window with a shotgun. “So I drove around the house and drove away and said to the bank, ‘you go out there.’”
She knew what to do the second time she encountered a homeowner at the door with a shotgun. “He nodded and I nodded and I said, ‘I guess this isn’t a good time’ and walked away.”
Her most memorable “sale,” meanwhile, wasn’t really a sale at all. A client had listed a 100-acre farm in Chilliwack that he’d inherited and a buyer was found right away, but the entire family was upset. “A relative stepped in and offered to scrap the deal and pay the Realtor commission,” says Smith. The buyer backed off, she says, “so even though the sale was cancelled, I still got paid.”
Over the years, Smith has witnessed many changes in the industry. She once worked with a man who, before there was a provincial licensing system, used to boast how easy and inexpensive it was to get a license. “He always said he paid $5 for his license just like he paid for his hunting license.” B.C. later gained a reputation for its strict licensing system.
Was anything better in the early days? “We didn’t have all the paperwork,” says Smith. “Today we feel you have to be a paralegal and have all the answers, which wasn’t (the case) at that time.”
She says salespeople are held accountable for everything they say and do, that the public is more educated, everyone is online and people have no qualms about suing you. “Something goes wrong, they don’t like the colour of the dishwasher, let’s sue the Realtor.”
Another big change has been the increasing number of women who have entered the field (Smith estimates the male/female ratio is now about half and half in B.C.) and an increasing number of younger people entering the industry. “In the past, it was a second career for many men and that has changed.”
Would she advise a young person to get into the business now? To do well you have to “work at it,” she says, noting that 20 per cent of the salespeople make 80 per cent of the business. “If you look at a national average of income it’s pathetic.” She says while most will make at least one sale to a friend or family member, you can’t rely on only selling to people you know.
Smith says the high point of her career has been the last decade with Realty Executives Vantage, the largest property management firm in the South Okanagan. In February, the company hosted a big retirement party for the 77-year-old real estate professional. And, as a self-described A-type personality and the social convener in the office, it’s not surprising she offered to organize the event with 100 friends and colleagues in attendance!
“Real estate is the only career I’ve ever had. I’ve had a good run and it’s nice to end on a high note,” says Smith, who plans to spend more time with family, go for runs with her granddaughter and do some more golfing in her retirement.
“One of the company owners brought me a photo of a bed and breakfast sign in Ireland that says ‘Bea’s Way’. This does sum up my life a bit.”