A day in the life of three Berkeley real estate agents

Zanna Knight, a real estate agent with 15 years’ experience, in her cubicle at Coldwell Banker in Berkeley. Photo: Janis Mara

Furiously working the keyboard of her iPhone in its hot pink pleather case, while simultaneously explaining a complex transaction to a client, real estate agent Zanna Knight was in her element behind her desk at Coldwell Banker’s brokerage in Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto recently.

Multitasking comes naturally to Knight, who has learned over the years how to juggle more than one task at once. Many people think agents spend the bulk of their time showing properties to potential buyers, but communicating with buyers, looking up comparative prices and communicating with colleagues – all at the same time – is how much of their day is spent, according to local real estate agents.

Berkeleyside recently shadowed three agents — two seasoned veterans and one newcomer — to get insight into what agents really do. Knight has 15 years of experience and ranks as one of the top producers in Coldwell Banker’s Berkeley office. Another top producer, Ann Arriola Plant, has been a partner/owner at Marvin Gardens Real Estate, a local brokerage, since 1980. Plant is mentoring Lynn Signorelli, a rookie agent with just one year of experience.

Zanna Knight: Contacts are everything

One Monday, Knight’s day started with a trip to the dentist. She returned to her Oakland home at 10:30 a.m. and worked on an offer for an Oakland triplex that she planned to present to the listing agent at 3 p.m.


“Did they have the sewer laterals taken care of? Who did it? I had to check with the lender, get all the paperwork together and get to the seller’s agent’s office,” said Knight.

“I realized I made a mistake, but it was a good mistake,” Knight said. She had said the buyer was putting 20% down when it was actually 30%.

Straightening out the mistake was easy, she said, because, unlike the hyper-competitive agents on the Million Dollar Listing TV show, “our agent community here is so cooperative. It’s not that conflicts don’t come up, but when you know people and they trust you, things go smoother,” she said. “Nobody is pointing fingers. It’s not adversarial. It’s like, ‘How do we make this work?'”

Knight said the lack of realism in Million Dollar Listing makes her cringe. The show, which has spinoffs in L.A., Miami and San Francisco, focuses to a great extent on male agents. In reality, as of April 2017, 63% of the 1.2 million members of the National Association of Realtors are women, according to the association.

Knight is not atypical. She owns her own home and worked in marketing before she joined Coldwell Banker. Most agents have around 10 years’ experience, own their homes and had careers in other fields prior to real estate.

After working with the seller’s agent to straighten out the mistake and conducting a series of negotiations Monday, “by 7 p.m. I had a ratified offer,” Knight said. In layperson’s language, this means her client’s offer was accepted — a coup in today’s overheated East Bay market, in which multiple offers and competition over homes are common. The agent didn’t know if this was a multiple-offer situation, but said a number of other buyers had expressed interest earlier.

Immediately afterwards, Knight went to work on behalf of other clients. She was up until 11 p.m.

One family had just received its pre-approval for a mortgage, meaning that Knight now knew their price range: $1 million. She found properties for sale at that price in Emeryville, Berkeley, El Cerrito, Kensington and Oakland, and emailed links to the couple. Another set of clients, a couple with a small child, needed to ready their home for sale. Knight broke down the entire process into steps and outlined the steps for the couple in an email.

“I’m answering their questions before they ask them,” Knight said. At that moment, the iPhone in the hot pink case rang. It was an e-lead — an electronic notification of someone interested in buying or selling a house, automatically generated when the potential client clicked, “Notify an agent,” on an online real estate portal. Knight got three leads in the course of 30 minutes.

Agents with a solid amount of experience – say, more than five years – can pull in a tidy income. To give a general idea, the median gross income of Realtor households was $111,400 in 2016 in the United States, according to the National Association of Realtors. This doesn’t take such things into account as the number of years of experience, a critical factor, or the state and municipality where the agent is working, probably the most important factor.

The median income of an agent, Knight said, varies wildly from city to city. Agents in Silicon Valley, for example, will make a lot more money because the median price of a house is so much higher than that in the East Bay. She said a new agent would be unlikely to make the $111,400 median amount, while someone who works in, say, Silicon Valley or Orinda with its high price points might have five to ten deals a year and exceed that amount.

One Berkeley real estate agent who asked not to be named said that an agent might net $12,500 to $22,500 on the sale of a $1 million house. A typical agent might make four sales a year, he said.

As to how it feels to lose a multi-million dollar sale, “In today’s market, you have to get used to it with all the multiple offers,” Knight said. “You just get over it and move on. Hopefully, you have other things in the hopper.”

Knight said there was little difference in Berkeley between the current boom and the Great Recession. “There were still multiple offers,” she said. “People still competed over homes, but the incremental increases were much, much lower.” Prices dropped 25 to 30 percent in Berkeley, even as they plummeted as much as by half in Richmond, Vallejo, and Brentwood.

Coldwell Banker is a national brokerage with about 3,000 offices. While Knight has a cubicle and an office phone there, she’s not an employee in the conventional sense. She is an independent contractor who works on commission, a typical arrangement, according to the National Association of Realtors’ 2017 member profile. Generally, agents are independent contractors affiliated with an independent company catering to local markets.

The commission on an East Bay home is usually around 5% to 6%. This is split up four ways between the buyer’s agent, the buyer’s agent’s brokerage, the seller’s agent and the seller’s agent’s brokerage. The commission is paid by the seller of the home. The buyer doesn’t pay a commission.

When an agent starts out, typically they pay a higher percentage of the commission to their brokerage. This is one of many reasons the profession is tough for agents starting out.

“Your first year can be hard,” Knight said. “It helps if you have 56 cousins and a restaurant,” referring to the fact that contacts are everything in real estate.

Lynn Signorelli, Ann Arriola Plant: Lots of minutiae

Lynn Signorelli knows all about how hard it is to get started in the business. The Marvin Gardens agent has just one year of experience.

“It’s very tough for newcomers,” said Signorelli, who rows crew in the Oakland estuary with the East Bay Rowing Club and appears completely unflappable, despite the endless stream of texts, phone calls and email from lenders, clients, appraisers, stagers and fellow agents assailing her and her mentor, Ann Arriola Plant, on a recent Wednesday.

“People told me I should be prepared to sustain myself for two years when I went into the business,” Signorelli said. This tallies with official stats: according to the National Association of Realtors, 56% of all agents with less than two years’ experience made less than $10,000 a year in 2016.

Signorelli is doing better than most newbies. She has sold a total of three houses, she said.

“My idea was to be part of a team because the learning curve is so steep,” Signorelli said. She works with Plant at Marvin Gardens’ North Berkeley office on Solano Avenue and it’s clear the two have developed a rapport.

“There’s a tremendous amount of detail in this job…” Plant began, and Signorelli filled in, “minutiae.”

The rookie real estate agent created a spreadsheet for more than 100 details that need handling in a Berkeley Hills property she and Plant are preparing for sale. “I went through the whole place and made a list. Is there a cabinet with a sink for this bathroom? Who will install the exterior tile?”

Getting every detail perfect, such as attractive light switches, immaculate bathroom tile, and freshly painted rooms, helps ensure a home will sell for top dollar, Signorelli said. “It’s our fiduciary duty to our clients.”

At one time, agents did spend much of their time driving clients from house to house. Now, however, home buyers tend to go online, visiting sites like Redfin, Zillow, and local real estate companies’ websites to look at homes, scanning the plethora of photos available for each property. Sellers use such sites as well.

Plant had closed escrow on three separate properties the preceding week, one of which was co-listed with Signorelli. On Wednesday, Plant was hopping and bopping at light speed to resolve a problem with a toilet in an Emeryville condo near Pixar known as the Besler Building. A buyer was in contract for the condo.

In the space of two hours, Plant received six or seven calls about the expensive wall-mounted toilet. “It’s a really good toilet, but the handle leaked,” Plant said.

Making the rounds, the two drove to a condo on Ninth Street near University Avenue in Berkeley that is now in contract after receiving multiple offers. “We’re checking the carbon monoxide detectors to make sure they all are in place” before the appraiser arrived, Plant said.

Signorelli practiced her agenting skills by showing the house to the reporter. Leading the way, she opened the door to a closet, proudly displaying the detail work inside, including wainscoting. “It’s unusual to take so much care with a closet,” she said.

The next stop was a luxury home in the Berkeley hills that is being prepared for sale. The two were visiting to see how the preparation was going, and to keep an eye on the house, whose owners had already moved to a different home in the hills.

“You’d be surprised what can happen to an empty house,” Plant said. “I’ve seen people move into the driveway with their motor homes.”

Plant, a former marketer in the clothing industry who, on the day we met, was turned out elegantly in a gray leather jacket, a silk scarf and gray wool pants, didn’t hesitate to grab a heavy package that had been left in the dusty driveway for the owner. She stowed it in the car to deliver to the seller’s family. Meanwhile, Signorelli gathered a pile of mail to take to the seller, and the two made a quick stop at the seller’s new home to drop off the items.

On her way home, musing about the preponderance of women in the profession, Plant said, she thinks lot of women go into marketing and teaching, and real estate because of the relatively flexible schedules those careers afford.

As her phone buzzed for easily the fifteenth time in two hours, Plant added: “It’s like raising kids. Things never stop coming up. Not for a minute.”

Update: Sept. 6: Because of an editing error, the story originally said an agent could net about $60,000 on the sale of a $1 million house. That figure did not take into account the fact that the fee has to be split with the real estate agency.