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Ethnic energy

Pat Patera

Alice Escalante, an escrow officer at Ticor Title of Nevada Inc., often works with immigrant clients and knows the importance they place on offering refreshments to business and social guests.

But anyone can make a misstep.

Invited into a Vietnamese household, she was seated in the dining room table. On a nearby credenza sat a bowl of fruit. Naturally, her hosts offered, “Want a snack?”

“Sure,” she replied, taking a tangerine from the bowl. That innocent act ignited looks of alarm all around and Escalante realized she’d made a dreadful faux pas.

Indeed, what she took for a credenza was an altar. And what she took for a snack was an offering.

Now she waits until she is offered a specific snack.

Like Escalante, others who serve the fast-growing ethnic market for northern Nevada real estate quickly develop multi-cultural finesse.

Growth in the residential real estate market will be driven by the immigrant population known as “New Americans,” says a national housing survey by Fannie Mae.

Magda Martinez, a Realtor at HomeGate Realty in Reno, cites the survey’s prediction that minorities will drive one-third of all home sales in the U.S. by 2010.

Growth in the home-buying market will be driven by the currently underserved, she says women, minorities, new Americans and those with low income and poor credit.

To some, that may sound like a lender’s nightmare. Not so, says Peter Padilla, a loan consultant at Summit Funding Inc.

But working in the new paradigm takes patience that some in the go-go real estate industry may find foreign.

Padilla, for instance, specializes in the Hispanic market. “After half an hour of visiting, we start talking about a loan,” he says. And, if the applicant doesn’t qualify, the deal doesn’t drop. Rather, he helps the applicant recruit co-signers. Relatives are found, sometimes resulting in three or four people signing on a loan.

“It has to be a labor of love,” he says. While some Anglos already work with ethnic minorities, others choose to bypass the market, he says, because they’re comfortable with a faster flow in business or because of a simple ignorance of cultural mores.

In some cultures, time is not of the essence.

“Hispanics work on their own timeframe. They can’t be rushed,” says Ticor’s Escalante.

She wants to present a class on cultural differences for the Ticor staff. “It’s little nuances, guidelines, not 20 things to do for that culture,” she says.

One example arises if a client is 20 minutes late for an appointment. While Anglos think it’s rude to be late, she notes, Hispanics feel it’s rude to end a previous appointment that’s going well simply because they have another one scheduled.

The solution, she says, is to be flexible and allocate a lot more time. “You can’t expect someone to be on your schedule.”

Not, that is, if you want to work with the new markets. Minorities, Escalante says, will drive two-thirds of all growth in numbers of house buyers.

“I see the better companies hiring to put the right people in place,” she notes. “Wells Fargo is starting to hire at least one person per branch who speaks Spanish.”

Because the housing market has softened, minority buyers have become all the more important.

Many minority group newcomers to northern Nevada come from the Bay Area, where housing is not affordable. Here, they’re working the same kind of jobs in service or manufacturing but can afford a home.

During the real estate boom earlier this decade, Escalante says, some minority buyers couldn’t compete in bidding wars led by investors who hoped to quickly flip properties. Now some Hispanic, Filipino and other minority families are stepping forward to buy the homes dumped back on the market.

Unless they’re lured into the condo market first.

The Reno condo market is especially suited to purchases by extended family groups, says Erin Ruiz, managing sales agent at The Belvedere. Rather than pay high hotel costs at Lake Tahoe, a couple of family members often will purchase a condo as a shared vacation home. And when not using it themselves, they can rent it to others on a month-to-month lease.

The Belvedere plans a mailing campaign to 5,000 apartment dwellers, inviting them to a first-time homebuyer seminar.

“We expect to get some Hispanics,” says Anita Perez, managing sales agent at Belvedere Towers.

Downtown condo projects also are drawing interest from Asian buyers accustomed to high-rise living, common both in Asia and San Francisco.

In the single-family market, the growing number of minority buyers is changing the way that transactions develop.

Sellers may find it surprising, says Martinez, when Hispanic buyers present an offer accompanied by a personal letter telling how much their children would love to have that shady yard in which to play.

“We got a lot of sellers in here who were receptive to that,” she says.

When presenting a home, Escalante encourages sellers and their agents, put out treats. In Hispanic households, guests don’t leave with an empty stomach. Coffee, juice and cookies make prospects feel they’re an invited guest and welcome.

And it’s important for real estate professionals to get out into ethnic communities, says Padilla, who served as chairman of the board of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in 2004 and hosts Spanish language talk shows on radio stations KQTL (Radio Universal) and KBZZ (The Buzz).

“It’s a matter of living it, not just reading about it. Talk to Hispanic business people and organization leaders. Be at Cinco de Mayo. Visit the Wells Street businesses.” And never mind that you can’t understand the language, he says. Simply watch the body language of people in other cultures.

Professionals also need to remember, Padilla says, the differences aren’t solely those of language.

“Spanish customers all speak enough English to live here,” he says. “But they’re a lot more comfortable dealing with someone who knows the culture.”