15 Secrets of Real Estate Agents

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Real estate agents play a huge role in one of the most important financial decisions of our lives. When it comes to buying, selling, leasing, or renting, they’re the ones who shepherd us through a process that can only be described as overwhelming. We talked to a handful of agents across the country to learn more about the tricks of their trade—and in the process, picked up a few tips for you.

1. CRIMINALS ARE BAD. KIDS ARE WORSE.

It isn’t just an urban legend that criminals will visit open houses to case them for a burglary. Colorado realtor Crip Erickson said these incidents happen in waves, and sometimes the crime has a super-specific target, such as prescription drugs in a medicine cabinet. Still, he said criminals aren’t the only ones to worry about during an open house. “By far the biggest problem are couples with young kids who don’t watch them,” Erickson says. “There’s been major damage done.”

2. WHEN IT COMES TO STAGING, THEY HAVE PLENTY OF TRICKS.

Chocolate chip cookie spray may be the cliché, but the realtors we spoke with emphasized music and interior design when getting a property ready to show. In addition to a little freshly popped popcorn, Erickson says he plays low-key tunes that visitors won’t know (to avoid any bad associations with a certain song). Monica Webster, who works in New York City and Greenwich, Connecticut, says her musical accompaniment depends on the property: “If I have a 6-million dollar beautiful brand-new build that's very cosmopolitan and metropolitan, I’m going to play different music than if I have an 1875 Old Greenwich house. It all depends.”

Webster says she also advises fellow agents to get dogs out of the house, turn the lights on ahead of time, make sure people walk through the front door instead of the garage, and depersonalize when necessary so prospective buyers can envision themselves in the space.

3. THEY CAN’T TELL YOU IF A PROPERTY IS HAUNTED.

An agent or broker isn't allowed to “stigmatize” a property, which can include suggesting a house is haunted. Sellers and their agents must disclose material defects, but spooky happenings can be kept quiet. If you’re truly curious, neighbors are often a great resource. Erickson says he tells prospective buyers to Google a property and check the county sheriff's website for any news stories, criminal activity, or building permits associated with the address.

4. THEY’RE ON-CALL 24/7.

In the wee hours, agents’ jobs are equal parts salesperson and therapist. “I’ve had lots of midnight phone calls with someone sobbing on the other end of the line,” Erickson says. Webster agrees: "I call myself a psychologist,” she says. “We’re in people's bedrooms!” Every agent talked about the difficulty of making people happy in the high-stress environment of finding a home. The word “compromise” came up a lot, and it applies to both the agent-buyer/seller relationship and among the buyers/sellers themselves. Erickson says that when dealing with a couple, he has them separately write down what they’re looking for in a home. “Sometimes they’re on the same page, and sometimes they’re not,” he says.

5. LITTLE SLIPS CAN COST THEM THEIR GIGS.

Webster says the hardest part of the job is finding out what buyers and sellers really want and managing their expectations. Keeping a seller happy can be just as important as perfecting a listing. Once, after a showing of a $10 million listing, Webster was fired for not calling the owner with an immediate report. “Our job is very intense,” she says. “We’re always on the front lines. Always.”

6. THEY SEE THE EXTREMES OF HUMAN EMOTION.

A stressed-out looking couple reviewing files near a laptop
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Paul MacMahon, a realtor in Dallas, says: “We work with people in all stages of life, good and bad … Selling and buying homes is almost always an emotional roller coaster and we are there with our clients every step of the way. We talk to people when they're ecstatic, infuriated, excited, and defeated.”

7. THEY SPEAK THEIR OWN LANGUAGE.

There’s a skill to crafting the perfect, limited-character sell. Erickson says a few things to look out for are “charming” (a.k.a. “small”), “cozy” (“a shack that’s about to fall down”) or “mature landscaping,” which often means there are dead trees that will need to be dealt with. Virginia agent Sarah Marchese adds that “potential” means it’s old and falling apart, “won’t last long” means it’s already been on the market too long, and “motivated seller” means it’s overpriced and any offer is good.

8. THEY NEED SALES.

Most agents are independent contractors working under brokers and are paid solely on commissions, which means they only make money when a transaction closes. Agents generally make between 5 and 7 percent, and depending on the state, that amount goes to the listing agent’s broker or can be split between the buyer and seller’s agent brokers. Lease commissions vary, but they're usually between 40 and 100 percent of one month's rent.

9. THEY REALLY DO HAVE TO ALWAYS BE CLOSING.

A hand passing over keys to another hand, with a printed agreement underneath them
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Given this financial structure, it’s no wonder agents will go to great lengths to secure a sale. Agents have seen it all, and done it all. MacMahon has one story of going the distance: “I once hiked down a mountain in Canada while trying to keep a deal from falling apart on the phone. It was getting dark so I had to use the phone's flashlight while I was talking. While I was talking to the other agent I heard my sister-in-law tell my wife not to worry, but there were bears on the mountain. I've had more relaxing vacation days.”

10. THEY WANT YOU TO BE PREPARED.

It helps if clients have done their homework. At the very start of the process, Webster gives clients a form outlining every step of the process to prepare them for what’s to come. Letting them know that it's important to get finances in order, determine a budget, and get pre-approved for a mortgage helps to set realistic expectations. (Most sellers won’t consider an offer without a pre-approval letter anyway.)

They also want you to know your limits. Both Marchese and Erickson say that one of the biggest real estate mistakes people make is trying to handle buying or selling on their own. Sellers often don’t know how to properly price their home and don’t anticipate the work involved in dealing with lenders, appraisers, attorneys, inspectors, and buyers.

11. ASKING PRICES AREN’T ARBITRARY.

A realtor and family looking at a new home to purchase
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Agents price a home based on comparable properties around the neighborhood and predictions about where the market is headed both on a grand scale and with the seasons. An agent will run a “comparative market analysis,” which collects active listings as well as those pending or under contract and then evaluates things such as the age of the structure, renovations, lot size, views, and neighborhood.

Seasonal trends also affect sellers’ prospects. For example, Erickson told us things slow down after the Fourth of July when people begin to think about school starting up again and aren’t necessarily looking to move.

According to MacMahon, it’s about finding a sweet spot that maximizes the seller's profit but isn't too high . A property has to pass an appraisal report to get a mortgage approved. Banks won’t extend mortgages for sale prices that wildly deviate from appraisals, a policy that dooms many sales. Appraisals also help protect buyers from paying too much for a home only to discover they're deep underwater on their mortgage.

12. IF YOU’VE FOUND A PROPERTY YOU LOVE, HANDWRITTEN LETTERS HELP.

If a seller is fielding competing offers, letters, photos, or videos can sway their decision. These tokens of your affection for the property can distinguish your offer from the pack or simply allay sellers’ fears about what’s going to happen to the property once they’ve moved on. “The smartest thing I could do would be to tell a buyer: ‘Write a letter and say you’re not going to tear this house down,’’’ Webster says. Marchese wrote that she’s known sellers who have taken an offer based on a heartfelt note, even if it wasn't the best move financially. “Never underestimate the power of emotional attachment,” she wrote. “It raises its head in so many ways.”

13. BUT DIVINE INTERVENTION CAN HELP, TOO.

Those aren’t the only tactics buyers can use to secure a property. Erickson says buyers sometimes contact the sellers directly—he doesn’t advise that path, but admits it can work out. Webster tells us there’s also a relatively recent superstition that sees buyers and sellers burying a statue of St. Joseph to help the process along.

Marchese wrote that she’s seen buyers “stalk” certain areas for listings, contact homeowners out of the blue to ask if they’d be interested in selling, and even submit backup offers in case a deal with another buyer falls through.

14. THEY’RE NOT JUST SELLING HOUSES.

Real estate agent showing new home to clients
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Agents also have to sell themselves, because large portions of their business come from referrals and repeat clients. Many come to be known as neighborhood experts by moving a large quantity of homes in a given area, and that perception alone can be enough to get hired. Agents can also "farm" areas, meaning they choose a specific geographical area and target their marketing efforts there.

Aside from investing in professional architectural photographers, sending out postcards, and networking, MacMahon says he’s also strategic about his online presence, because he knows potential clients will do their research: “We're all small business owners and we have to be aware that we're our own PR firms.”

15. THEY DON’T WANT YOU TO BELIEVE EVERYTHING YOU READ ON THE INTERNET.

When Erickson meets prospective clients, he says his goal “is to try to establish a rapport so you don't come off as a salesman.” He believes that big real estate sites like Zillow and Trulia make people wary of agents because listings aren’t always accurate, and a simple inquiry can result in multiple realtors—often not local—contacting someone. “That process doesn’t work,” Erickson says. Marchese addresses the way the internet has changed real estate with a slightly different perspective: “I think there is a big concern among agents today that, with the internet, our profession will become obsolete. But I think it’s only helping to strengthen the industry. The more informed people are the better we have to be at our job!”

Note: This article originally misstated that people bury statues of St. Anthony for good luck.

A version of this article originally ran in 2015.

13 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Dog Show Handlers

Dog handler Kellie Fitzgerald poses with her English Springer Spaniel 'James' after winning Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club's Dog Show in 2007
Dog handler Kellie Fitzgerald poses with her English Springer Spaniel 'James' after winning Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club's Dog Show in 2007
TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

Every year, roughly 3000 dogs from around the country flock to Madison Square Garden to strut their stuff at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. In all, some 190 breeds can enter the ring, each competing to look and act exactly as required for their breed’s ideal standard. But it takes a lot of hard work from dedicated handlers to produce a dog that can compete with the best of them. “What you see at Westminster, that’s the very final touch,” says Karen Mammano, who handles dogs with her husband Sam. “That’s the final product of everything we do.” We talked to a few handlers who have been at Westminster about what goes into training a dog with a shot at Best In Show.

1. The dogs have treadmills.

Among the qualities the judges take into consideration is the dog’s trotting pace. Many handlers put their pups on doggy treadmills set at a certain speed to get them used to keeping a particular trot. “It teaches them foot timing and the right kind of gait we want them to have,” Mammano says.

Some doggy treadmills cost more than $1000. But, according to dog handler Sharon Rives, that’s just part of these athletes’ training routine. “They’re developing their muscles just like any athlete,” she says, “any runner or football player or any athlete that has to train muscles to do something over and over again.”

2. Soup cans might be a dog handler’s best friend.

Judges also look closely at a dog’s stance—how it holds itself while standing still. “It’s kind of their supermodel stance,” says Rives. Every breed has an ideal stance, but teaching a dog to maintain that position while a judge pokes and prods often takes some creative training techniques. According to Rives, when her parents trained dogs in the 1980s, they used to have the dogs stand on four soup cans placed the correct distance apart.

“Everybody has their own way of doing it,” she says. “Now I have what we call stacking blocks, sort of a wooden device with four feet on it for the dogs to stand on and it’s adjustable. I start when they’re puppies with that and they stand on it for a couple minutes and as they get older they spend more time on it, maybe 15 or 20 minutes a day, to help train their muscles and body to remember to stand in that correct position.”

3. The dogs have ridiculously long names.

'Flynn' the Bichon Frise, with handler Bill McFadden, poses after winning 'Best in Show' at the Westminster Kennel Club 142nd Annual Dog Show in 2018
'Flynn' the Bichon Frise, with handler Bill McFadden, poses after winning 'Best in Show' at the Westminster Kennel Club 142nd Annual Dog Show in 2018
TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

Professional pups have very fancy monikers that reflect their pedigree. For example, Rives’s Australian Shepherd answers to “Wiggle” but her full name is “Veritas Sexy and I Know It.” “Typically the prefix of the name is the kennel the dog is from,” she explains. “Veritas is my kennel name, so whenever I breed a dog, every dog has the word veritas in their name.” As for the rest of Wiggle’s full name, Rives says the litter theme was Top 40 Songs, so every puppy had a different song title in its name.

4. Handler cars must be inspected.

According to Mammano, the American Kennel Club inspects handlers’ vehicles before they can be listed as a "registered handler." What are they looking for? A car that could keep a dog alive in the most dire of conditions. “We have a generator, air conditioning, heat, a 30-gallon water tank,” she says. “We have to have fire extinguishers that haven’t expired and a heat monitor in the vehicle so if the air conditioning goes out the monitor knows. We’re pretty much self-contained.”

5. Dog shows aren’t natural.

Handlers are the first to admit that dogs weren’t made to trot around a ring. “Golden retrievers were never meant to run in circles in a show ring,” Mammano says. “They were meant to be out hunting and doing that job and other breeds were meant to be out pulling sleds. So I try and make it as fun for them as possible.”

6. There’s one quick way to get disqualified.

“If a dog bites a judge or a handler or another dog, that’s pretty much it for the rest of its career,” Rives says. “Aggression is not ever acceptable.”

7. You’re not a real handler until …

... you trip and fall in the ring. “I think we’ve all had a moment where we’ve fallen,” Rives says. “That’s always embarrassing. But I think I like to say that’s sort of like the dog show hazing. You haven’t been fully initiated into dog showing until you’ve completely wiped out in the ring.”

She also shares a hilarious story of one of her earliest shows, when she was just 16 years old. “Normally I use hot dogs or string cheese as bait, something I could put in my mouth, and I happened to only have liver that day, which I’m not gonna put in my mouth. I was wearing a suit that didn’t have pockets, but I had panty hose on so I thought I’ll just real slyly stick this in the waistband of my pantyhose under the flap of my jacket and when I need some bait I’ll just break off a little piece. Well, the liver made its way down the waistband of panty hose to my ankle and dog starts licking it. The judge is going, ‘Ma’am, the dog is licking your leg.’ I was just mortified.”

8. Handlers’ wardrobe choices are strategic.

When deciding what to wear for the big day, handlers have to make sure they’re not overshadowing the dog with fancy flair. “You want to dress to compliment the dog’s colors,” Rives says. “If you’re showing a black dog you don’t want to wear a black skirt because then you’re obscuring the dog.”

The more prestigious the show, the better the handlers dress. “We always joke that last week was fashion week for us because we were all trying to get suits for Westminster,” says Mammano.

And for the bigger shows, they invest in nice footwear, not only because they’re on their feet all day, but because their feet and ankles are going to be on TV. Rives is wearing the shoes she wore to her wedding. “They’re little silver ballet flats that have sparkly crystals on the toes,” she says.

9. It’s hard on the body.

Co-owner and handler David Fitzpatrick holds Pekingese Malachy after winning Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in 2012
Co-owner and handler David Fitzpatrick holds Pekingese Malachy after winning Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in 2012
Michael Nagle/Getty Images

“A lot of my peers have had their knees and hips replaced,” says David Fitzpatrick, a professional handler who works with the Pekingese breed. “You get tired just from being at the show.” And because dogs are always making left-hand turns in the ring, the handler’s left leg tends to take a beating.

10. They have lucky leashes, toys, and rubber bands.

Dog show people are quite superstitious. Fitzpatrick, for example, has a lucky leash. “I have one I’ve been using probably since 2004 because I know many dogs have had great success with it.”

Mammano won’t re-use a leash once it’s been used on a winning dog, opting instead to retire it. And she always wears three rubber bands around her arm to hold her number.

Also, Fitzpatrick says some owners carry around special toys for dogs, similar to the “busy bee” in Best In Show. “Most of these dogs do have a favorite thing and when you go into the ring and you can’t find that toy you do kinda go crazy like ‘Where is the busy bee?!’”

11. The dogs eat whatever they want.

Well, in the ring at least. “I had one dog way back in the early 2000s and all he wanted was filet mignon,” says Fitzpatrick. “He wouldn’t take chicken or liver, but the filet he would eat. So they get whatever they like. Or I had a Pomeranian that only liked potato chips. I had another dog who liked apples.”

12. Chalk and dryer sheets keep the dogs looking sharp.

Show dogs are some of the most pampered, well-groomed dogs in the world, but it takes a lot of work. “Every breed is going to have their own quirky thing they do to make the coat look a certain way,” Rives says. “One handler told me you should put dryer sheets on a wavy coat. Others say you should wash your dog’s coat in Dawn dish soap if you want it to be straight.”

Chalk is often used to make a dog’s coat look whiter, Fitzpatrick says. “Whatever it is to make the dog look better for the show, there’s probably a product out there for it.”

But according to Rives, grooming is a taboo topic among handlers because “people don’t want to share their secrets, and because there are things that are not allowed.” Indeed, too much grooming is considered cheating, so owners keep their tips and tricks to themselves. And if a handler sees another handler crossing the line, they’ll snitch. “It’s a self-regulating sport,” Rives says. “If you see somebody doing something they shouldn’t be, you’d report it.”

13. Best in show doesn’t come with a cash prize.

“You don’t win any money,” says Fitzpatrick, who won Best in Show at Westminster in 2012 with his Pekingese Malachy. “You get trophies and a lot of swag. We came home with bags of loot, but not one penny. It’s not about the money. It’s about competing at this historic event.”

This list first ran in 2016.

8 Secrets of Air Traffic Controllers

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As the United States enters into the second month of a government shutdown that began on December 22, 2018, federal employee shortages are becoming an increasing problem. On the morning of January 25, 2019, the FAA announced that due to air traffic control staffing shortages along the east coast, they were halting flights into New York City's LaGuardia Airport. It's a potent reminder that while pilots and flight attendants are key to making air travel safe, air traffic controllers—though less-visible—are just as essential in getting you from Point A to Point B.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) employs more than 14,000 of them to choreograph the flow of airplanes on the ground and in the sky, whether that means using radar and other tools to direct aircraft at take off, communicating with pilots about flight paths and weather, or helping pilots land their planes safely. Take a look at these secrets of air traffic controllers to learn about their unique lingo, high degree of job stress, and occasional UFO sighting.

1. Many of them don't work at airports.

When you imagine an air traffic controller, you probably envision someone working in a tall glass tower at an airport. However, many controllers toil at either a Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) facility or at a route center, which may be located far away from an airport.

According to air traffic controller Chris Solomon, who controls planes for the military, controllers in each of the three types of facilities have different responsibilities. “The typical tower controllers get the planes from the gate to the runway and then airborne to within five or so miles of an airport. The aircraft then becomes under the control of the approach controllers [TRACON],” he told the website Art of Manliness.

These TRACON controllers usually control the plane during its ascent and descent from the airport. When aircraft reach an altitude above 18,000 feet, the route center controller takes over, using radar to guide aircraft at cruising altitudes until the plane begins its descent. Then the approach controller takes the reins, followed by a tower controller who guides the plane’s landing.

2. Age is a major factor.

Some air traffic controllers begin their careers in the military, while others apply to the FAA’s Air Traffic Control Academy. But no matter how they enter the profession, they must have good vision, a sharp mind, and the ability to think quickly and clearly under pressure. The FAA requires that applicants be 30 years old or younger when they apply to the job, and controllers must retire at age 56, before most of them experience any age-related mental decline.

3. They have their own lingo.

Inside an air traffic control room

Pilots and air traffic controllers around the world must speak English to communicate (it's required by the International Civil Aviation Organization), but they also have their own flight-related language. This phonetic alphabetic and numerical system, which replaces letters (A to Z) and numbers (zero to nine) with code words, minimizes confusion and misunderstandings between air traffic controllers and pilots.

For example, controllers say “bravo” instead of the letter “B,” “Charlie” instead of the letter “C,” and “niner” instead of the number “nine.” (Theories explaining the origin of the code word “niner” differ, but aircraft enthusiasts speculate that the extra syllable differentiates it from the German word for “no” or distinguishes it from the pronunciation of the number “five.”) Air traffic controllers also have their own slang and, for instance, use the phrase “souls on board” to refer to the number of people on a plane.

The phonetic system is spelled out in detail in the FAA Order 7110.65 manual [PDF], along with other key code words, phrases, and procedures. Controllers call the manual their "bible," study it during training, and review it regularly to keep apprised of any updates and additions.

4. Pilots with heavy accents can frustrate them.

Although English is the official language of aviation, not all pilots speak it well. Air traffic controller Brandon Miller, who works for Potomac Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) in northern Virginia, tells Mental Floss that it can be difficult to communicate with foreign pilots. “However, we are in the business of communication,” he says, explaining that learning to solve potential communication issues is part of their training. When talking to a pilot who has a heavy accent, controllers may speak more slowly, enunciate words more dramatically, and try to avoid changing routes as much as possible.

Stephen, an air traffic controller with the FAA, echoes Miller’s point. “We mainly just bitch amongst ourselves, say things very slowly, and do the best we can” when dealing with pilots who have heavy accents, he wrote on Reddit.

5. They alternate between stress and boredom.

An airplane and an air control tower

Because they’re responsible for thousands of lives 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, most air traffic controllers experience a high level of job-related stress. “We often miss birthdays, we work on holidays and weekends, and often operate on alternative sleep cycles,” Miller explains. Staying focused is essential, especially during times of busy traffic and bad weather, so most air traffic controllers take a break every hour or two, depending on the rules at their facility.

According to Miller, the diversity of tasks in his work day keeps his job challenging. At any given time, he may be directing Air Force One or other VIPs (from our country or a foreign one), sequencing commercial passenger jets into a variety of airports in the Washington, D.C. area, assisting police or paramedic helicopters, expediting military fighters and military transport planes, or looking for suspicious aircraft in the Washington, D.C. Special Flight Rules Area.

On the other hand, graveyard shifts and periods with less traffic can be tedious and dull. “Hours and hours of boredom combined with moments of sheer terror, as we like to say,” Stephen told Reddit. “But if you like the challenge and want to be where the action is, it's a great job!”

6. They're probably overworked.

In a 2011 article for The Daily Beast, Bob Richards, who worked as an air traffic controller at Chicago O’Hare International Airport for more than two decades, described his job as “thrilling, fulfilling, and utterly exhausting.” Richards noted that four of his coworkers died of sudden cardiac death, two died of pancreatic cancer, and many others suffered from stress-related gastrointestinal illnesses. In his early 40s, Richards himself suffered from atrial fibrillation, which eventually progressed into congestive heart failure.

A secret study conducted by NASA in 2011 found that almost one-fifth of controllers made significant errors, partly due to chronic fatigue caused by their lack of sleep and busy shift schedules. To combat fatigue and address controllers who were allegedly asleep on the job, the FAA issued a series of new rules that increase the mandatory time between controllers’ shifts.

7. UFO sightings definitely happen.

A screen showing radar

During the course of their careers, most air traffic controllers have personally spotted (or have a coworker who has spotted) some sort of unidentified flying object. UFO sightings are more common at night, when air traffic controllers may see an unexplained blinking light that doesn’t appear to be coming from an aircraft. But strange sightings aren't necessarily alien life forms—radar is so sensitive that it may pick up items such as clouds, a flock of birds, or even a large truck on the ground.

8. RObots won't be replacing them.

Commercial aircraft landing

Although air traffic controllers rely on radar and other technology to do their jobs, they’re not in danger of technology replacing them any time soon. With so many lives at stake, air traffic control will likely always require humans to ensure that automated systems function properly and technology doesn’t malfunction. And controllers enjoy the sense of satisfaction that comes with using their knowledge and skills to help passengers get from point A to point B safely. “There is a great amount of pride that my coworkers and I take knowing that safety of air traffic control is the last thing on passengers' minds when they get buckled in the airplane,” Miller says.

An earlier version of this story ran in 2017.

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