Power Brokers

When talent agents from The Apprentice came knocking on Hans Brings's door, he told them, “You're fired.” Well, not in so many words. But having sold $46 million worth of real estate in Waltham last year, Brings doesn't need the exposure Donald Trump could bring his real estate business. And he certainly wasn't interested in the prize — a $250,000-a-year job. For him, that would have been a pay cut.

Brings, who is 37, is part of an elite corps of real estate brokers that is transforming what was once a profession populated by part-timers and second-careerists into a high-tech, high-service business filled with polish and professionalism — and profits.

What separates the brokers at the top from the other 70,000 agents and brokers in Massachusetts? Commitment, market knowledge, service, and an understanding that real estate is about more than just location, location, location. “These days it's all about product, product, product,” Brings says. “You can have a house in a beautiful location that's unaffordable, or in a lesser location that's beautifully constructed.” Different buyers attach different values to each situation, so the trick is finding a real estate broker who can make the most of what a seller has — and what a buyer is willing to pay for it.

No Massachusetts broker sells more than Lillian Montalto, owner of Lillian Montalto Signature Properties in Andover. Last year, Montalto sold almost $200 million worth of houses — more than all but two other brokers in the country. In volume, service, and style, she's taken selling real estate to new heights.

Rather than the typical arrangement of cubicles, Montalto's Andover digs look like an art gallery, showcasing her personal collection: Aboriginal masks in the conference room, Biedermeier furnishings from Austria in the waiting room. Even the bathroom has antique tables imported from Singapore. Montalto escorts her clients around town in a London taxi she imported last year. With a driver in front, she rides on a jump seat in the back so she can sit face to face with her customers. Her signature white lily logo is painted on the car's black doors and is embroidered in the leather seats.

Montalto is intent on wowing her clients and advises people to interview their broker like they would a doctor or a lawyer. Partial to St. John suits, manicured to perfection, and unafraid to show a little cleavage, Montalto says every seller should be asking potential brokers: How many homes have you sold in the past year? In the past month? Year to date? “To get the highest price for your house, you've got to expose it to the world,” she says. “I can show a seller how they can make more money selling with me than selling their house themselves, even after paying me a commission.”

Montalto uses conventional methods such as registering properties on the Multiple Listing Service. But she's also plugged into worldwide relocation networks and works seemingly around the clock to meet her goal of making 100 phone calls a day and holding

20 face-to-face meetings a week. “It's fun,” says Montalto. “I make a game of it, and I enjoy it. I don't know anyone I've ever met who doesn't enjoy talking about real estate. If I can give them insight or answer questions, they're glad to talk to me.”

Seasoned real estate agents try to disabuse people of myths like the one about spring being the best time to sell. “In real estate, spring begins on Super Bowl Sunday,” says Steve McKenna, the top broker in Arlington, who sold $49 million worth of houses last year. “The best time to sell is between the end of January and the beginning of March, because there's no competition.” McKenna also sees an advantage to listing in late August when there are fewer homes on the market.

Like other power brokers, McKenna prides himself on providing service other agents won't. His assistants help sellers hire contractors to spruce up their homes, get competitive bids for movers, and attend inspections. “I don't want my sellers to have to do anything,” he says.

McKenna dresses with almost military precision — crisp shirts, pressed pants, close-cropped hair — and he runs a tight ship, helping sellers prepare their homes for sale and making the all-important decision about pricing. “I come up with a marketing plan based on comparable homes, but also on demographic information,” he says. “The most important thing is knowing who the potential buyers are going to be.” And what they'll be willing to pay.

As any seller knows, however, what buyers are willing to pay can vary from one Sunday to the next. “Part of what determines the price is who's walking around with their checkbook and what their circumstances are,” says Diane Davidson, who sold nearly $70 million worth of homes last year in the South End, Back Bay, Beacon Hill, and waterfront. “A lot of pricing is just instinct.”

A common trait among these brokers is their passion for their work. “I eat, breathe, and sleep real estate,” says Davidson. “I absolutely love it.” She's been known to go with clients to Home Depot to pick out cabinets and recommend paint swatches — usually Benjamin Moore's Montgomery White — and to develop long-lasting friendships with people who just happened to wander into an open house. “This is a very emotional business,” Davidson says. “Relationships become very deep and important.”

On the other hand, as Davidson will be the first to tell you, relationships are no substitute for service. She's astounded, for example, by how few real estate agents create online virtual tours of their clients' high-end properties. “Sellers should expect that from their brokers,” says Davidson, who favors Burberry and double-parks her white Range Rover outside her office in the South End.

Davidson is full of tips for sellers who are renovating. She says she doesn't mind if clients like their houses so much after they've fixed them up that they no longer want to sell. Besides general de-cluttering, she says, one thing sellers can do to make their property presentable is to wash the windows. She also advises clients to remove the screens to let in more light.

Although the Boston-area market has become more balanced lately between buyers and sellers, buyers can still find themselves in bidding wars. To sweeten their offers, Davidson advises buyers to remove their mortgage-approval contingency or reduce it to just an appraisal contingency. And she suggests that they agree to schedule a home inspection within seven days rather than the usual 14, and to put 10 percent down when signing a purchase-and-sales agreement. But Davidson says she tries to never cross the line by pushing buyers toward a purchase they're not comfortable with. “If they're not ready, they're not ready,” she says.

Davidson speaks from more than 25 years of experience in the business — one more year than Dorchester's top real estate broker has been alive. Last year, 24-year-old Justin Green sold $17 million worth of triple-deckers, condos, and single-family homes. “With so many three-deckers going on the market, getting converted to condos, and coming back on the market, it helps to be young and energetic,” says Green, who on one recent day listed six condos, took an offer on a two-family, and attended a walk-through, three showings, and one inspection.

Green has met some of his best contacts in the industry just by walking around his Pleasant Street neighborhood. He approached one developer who was standing in front of a house with a hammer. He met another in a restaurant. “This is a people business,” Green says. “Whether it's a landlord, a buyer, or a seller, people need to feel comfortable with you and know that you'll work hard for them.”