In the latest Tips From the Top, we sat down with Abe Lee of Abe Lee Realty Hawaii to discuss his career and his advice for fellow agents. Abe Lee has been a licensed Realtor since 1973, developing more than 150 projects including CPR (community property regime) projects. He started his own brokerage firm Abe Lee Realty, which in 2017 became a franchise partner of Century 21. Lee also founded Abe Lee Seminars, the largest real estate school in Hawaii.
REAM: What’s the most important piece of advice you’ve received during your time as a real estate agent?
AL: Be honest and care for your client’s needs more than your commissions.
REAM: Why did you decide to start Abe Lee Seminars?
AL: Many Realtor friends would ask me how I did a small development project with 2 or more units. They would also ask how do you condominiumize a lot versus subdivide? What are the zoning rules to develop a property?
REAM: Were you a teacher before starting your Abe Lee Seminars business?
AL: I have a master’s degree in education from the University of Utah and taught at an elementary school in Salt Lake City. I knew that I could not support my family on teacher’s salary and started my own real estate school when the opportunity arose in Hawaii.
REAM: Tell us more about being “Hawaii’s CPR King.”
AL: I have developed over 170 projects in my lifetime. Most of the projects were 2 to 4 units/homes using the CPR process. As I learned more about zoning, the CPR laws, finance, etc., I started to teach my fellow Realtors. I have taught over 10,000 agents in real estate classes.
REAM: What is your biggest challenge running a business? How do you overcome it?
AL: My real estate company requires that I attract good agents to work with me and provide great training and guidance and keep the cash flow going to pay bills and make some money. Recessions cause a lot of uncertainty and requires good fiscal management and encourage agents to find ways to help their clients. The real estate school requires that I stay up to date on the changes in the law and teach agents about the changes and teach in a fun and engaging manner so that we don’t bore the students.
REAM: What is more enjoyable for you – holding seminars or selling houses?
AL: I love teaching new students about the real estate process and laws and contracts, etc. I enjoy working with my clients to buy their first home or sell their home and buy something else or move to another state or island. Real estate can be more stressful because of the many variables that pop up and differing personalities of the buyers and sellers and people that we deal with in the transaction. Teaching is much easier since I am teaching students who want to learn and they are not being forced to take the classes.
REAM: What is your best advice to other agents for managing seller’s expectations?
AL: Go through the seller process and teach the clients about what to expect and manage their expectations. Once you educate them about what to expect, it is easier when there are problems that may arise. Teaching them the steps involved in the process removes some of the anxieties that sellers face when they sell their home.
REAM: How has the real estate industry evolved throughout your career? How has your team adapted with the industry?
AL: Technology has made real estate information much more accessible and the consumers are better educated about the market. Contracts went from two pages to the current 14 pages which requires the agents and consumers to be up to date on the details of the contracts. Disclosures, lead paint addendum, fair housing laws, etc., require the agents to be more knowledgeable about the sales process.
REAM: Tells us about how COVID affected the Hawaiian market and shifted the real estate industry.
AL: COVID has made the whole buying and selling process challenging in that we could not have open houses except by appointment. The low interest rates drove up the prices of homes and we had multiple offers way over list price which was not expected. Prices for homes and condos increased too much for the market and buyers were getting frustrated when their offers were not being accepted due to multiple higher offers.
REAM: What first drew you to the real estate industry? Did you work in a different industry previously?
AL: I sold insurance out of college and made the insured’s family have some money when the insured passed away. I thought I could make the insured wealthier by selling them homes and investment properties. I eventually stopped selling insurance and focused on the real estate sales, the real estate school and developing small projects.
REAM: Tell us about your first sale.
AL: I worked for a broker whose husband developed midrise and high rise condominiums. First preference was given to owner occupants. I had just graduated from college and had poor friends who could not afford to buy a house. I started to talk to anyone who might be interested in buying the projects that our company was selling. I was fortunate to find eight first-time homebuyers, and I was one of the top sales agents for a project.
After, I worked for a large developer selling his project and due to the high interest rate of 18% in the late 1970s and early 1980s, all my 50 buyers cancelled their purchase. I had to get a job at Hawaiian Telephone to feed my family. When the market got better I went back to selling real estate and developing my own small projects.
REAM: How are you involved in your community? Is there one group you support especially? Why did you select that cause/group?
AL: Our company has a charity donation program where our agents agree on a voluntary basis to donate 10% of their commission to a favorite charity of the agent’s choosing or the client’s choosing. We donated to 50 charities last year about $75,000. We are proud to give back to our community and help the wonderful charities accomplish their mission. We have donated to schools, churches, Make a Wish, Big Brothers and Big Sisters, Foodbank, Arthritis Foundation, Cancer Society, Kidney Foundation, Boys and Girls Club, etc.
REAM: How do you work to maintain balance between your home life and work life?
AL: When I was younger I took time off to coach my children’s basketball team, go to the various functions, do volunteer work with the Boys Scouts, my church, etc. My wife who worked was the glue that kept our family going, and I was there to help. Now that our children are all adults it is easier for me to focus on the business and charity donation programs, teaching, developing, etc.
REAM: What do you enjoy doing outside of work? Hobbies? Sports?
AL: I enjoy exercising on my elliptical machine. I used to surf a lot when I was younger. I love to watch YouTube videos on Think and Grow Rich, Simon Sinek, Jim Kwik, Jeopardy, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Ninja Selling, etc. I enjoy watching pro football, basketball, college football and baseball on the TV. I deliver food for Hawaii Food Bank to homebound people who cannot get out twice a month. I work with the University of Hawaii Shidler school of business, and I am a guest lecturer on real estate. I speak to real estate groups on zoning, CPRs, permits, etc.
REAM: Is there anything else you would like to add?
AL: I am very grateful that I have been blessed with good health, a wonderful wife and family and grandchildren, great agents at our firm, Century 21 iProperties Hawaii, wonderful charities that I work with. We have been blessed to live in Hawaii and to have businesses that are doing well. Life is great, and I appreciate everything that we have been blessed with. Happy holidays to you and your family.