How Victoria’s #1 agent sold through Stage 4 lockdown

Michelle Stephens from OBrien Real Estate Carrum Downs has won Residential Sales Person of the Year at the REIVs two years running, taking out the latest award during a year of financial and mental upheaval, and forced lockdowns. Michelle talks to Elite Agent about how she managed to do an award-winning job in spite of all the turmoil.

“I feel like I’ve been a bit of a real estate counsellor this year,” Michelle Stephens laughs.

It’s no big revelation that 2020 has been the most difficult year in living memory for the Melbourne real estate industry.

With a draconian lockdown enforced across the city, and in-person walkthroughs and auctions banned for months, many agents, vendors and potential buyers alike entered into a frustrating holding pattern. 

“People were really concerned,” Michelle recalls of the time. “I was just trying to give people peace of mind that they were doing the right thing.”

Ensuring potential buyers that bricks, mortar, and land would remain canny investments into the foreseeable future, while trying to help her vendors “move onto the next chapter in as quick a time frame as physically possible,” Michelle found her role begin to shift further into the aforementioned counselling service.

“Sometimes it’s not even chatting to your vendors about their home, it’s talking to them about how they’re feeling – and just being another voice in decisions, and another person to listen to them.”

Other conversations were spent reassuring vendors that Michelle and her team would continue to work on their behalf to secure the very best result. Often she dealt with clients who were suffering job losses.

“Normally, selling and buying a house is the biggest thing that you’ll deal with – but suddenly for some, it isn’t.”

Michelle readily admits that she isn’t particularly tech-savvy, relying upon letterbox drops and in-person conversations before the pandemic. But, like numerous others, she had to adapt.

“I’ve really bolstered my online marketing,” she explains.

“A lot of Facebook ads and online promotions. I had to really adapt, in a sense, to realise that technology was now the way of being able to get out there. 

“Not going down that traditional real estate path really opened my eyes to a different platform and a different way of selling properties.”

Not that she shifted her fundamental role in the business.

“At the end of the day, I list, I sell, and I negotiate, that’s what I’m good at.”

Just as her vendors relied upon her for emotional support, she leant on her “amazing support network” at work to help keep things rolling, noting that her team was crucial during this time, even if they couldn’t physically be in the same room.

“I found that extremely challenging,” she admits.

“Especially because of the sheer volume and numbers that I do sell, having to operate remotely has been one of the most challenging things.

“It’s not as simple as being in the office and going, ‘I’m ducking out here’ and it’s harder to dot your ‘i’s and cross your ‘t’s. You need to have that network, setting up a platform that we can all communicate on, so we know where everything and everyone is at. 

“I think everyone has worked double as hard this year, because of the challenging circumstances across the board.”

During the Stage 4 lockdown, with the property market all-but-frozen, Michelle focused on her own health as well as the well-being of her vendors

“The buyer inquiries weren’t there, the requests for appraisals weren’t there,” she recalls. “I nurtured my vendors.”

This nurturing took on different forms.

“I’m very much an ‘overservice’ kind of person,” she explains. “At any one time, I’ve usually got between 20 and 25 current listings on the market, and I’ll call my vendors at least five times a week, personally.”

Her phone time with each during lockdown depended on the vendors.

“Some of them were like, ‘Look Michelle, I’m doing me, just call me if you’ve got something to tell me’,” she laughs.

“Some I was checking in, seeing how they were, keeping them updated, trying to keep them in a positive mindset.

“Some of them I was on the phone for 30 minutes at a time, and we weren’t talking real estate, it was just chatting with them about where they were at with life, and how they were feeling.”

Michelle and her team were prepared when restrictions tightened further at the start of August, with a number of properties already photographed and listed, with others in the pipeline, ready to be pounced upon as the industry opened back up. 

“We got the announcement from Dan Andrews on the Sunday, on the Monday we were organising and pushing properties live,” she recalls.  

“I had about eight properties go live in the space of two days.

“I’ve never seen the sheer volumes of buyer inquiries that I received in the space of a 48-hour period,” she marvels.

“That’s when I realised we were coming back to a very buoyant market, because it was insane.”

Financially, Michelle had already ensured that her team could continue to run without cutting vital costs.

“The luxury of real estate is that we can always forecast for the future; we know what’s settling in 30 days, 60 days, 90 days, 120 days,” she says, “so I really just forecast and worked out what I needed. 

“At the end of the day, if I don’t get paid, I don’t get paid,” she reasons, “but as long I know that I’ve got the money to cover wage bills, it’s alright.”

She was envisioning different scenarios, based on when Melbourne was likely to leave Stage 4. 

“I forecast how long I could stretch things out for, while making sure I’m tightening my belt as well, because no one knew when we were going to be coming out.”

Selling roughly 210 houses in a calendar year means that Michelle had properties up her sleeve.

“I was able to have stuff in the pipeline, to know I could be looking after my team. 

“Knowing that I had properties to launch as soon as we came out, that was a big relief off my shoulders. We have stock to be bouncing back with, fresh stock to hit the market with, so I know I’m very fortunate.

“Don’t get me wrong,” she quickly adds. “It was a really stressful time.”

Preparation is key to how Michelle mitigates risk. And luckily she had a pandemic test run of sorts, a few years back.

“When we had a tightening in the market at the end of 2017, I really sat down and did a personal budget,” she explains.

“I now know what my overheads are, I won’t spend beyond my means. I did that a few years ago, running all the options.

“What happens if our figures do half? What do we need to be writing to have our team and to be paying all the bills? Where are we sitting, what do we physically need?

“It wasn’t like I needed to suddenly move in 2020; I knew all that from the tight market a few years ago.

“I’m always thinking ahead, planning for the worst – and if the worst doesn’t happen, then that’s fantastic.”

With the future in mind, what are her plans for 2021?

“To smash it out of the park,” she says firmly, before bursting into laughter.

“If I look after my vendors, the rest will come.”

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Nathan Jolly

Nathan Jolly was an in-house journalist with Elite Agent. He worked with the company from July 2020 to December 2020.