TOP GUNS : In Game of Real Estate, an Elite Few Emerge as Big Winners

Real estate is the No. 1 game in Orange County, and the player ranks are filled with those drawn by the myth of easy money.

An average home resale price of about $250,000--second highest in the nation behind San Francisco--drives a furious market. So far, the number of homes listed for sale in Orange County is running at least 15% ahead of last year, according to Tarbell Realtors.

But competing for the commissions on those sales are about 35,000 licensed Orange County real estate agents and brokers.

When the dealing is done, most agents are lucky to make schoolteacher wages.

But a few--such as Valerie Torelli, Cherie Hartman, Jeannie Trinh Luong and Vijay Soni--break through to the top of the game where they take home more money than many chief executive officers.

In some ways, these four agents are similar. All pretty much stumbled into the business, but all are willing to sacrifice personal and family lives, and even their health, to succeed.

In other ways, especially in what fuels their ambition, they are unique.

Valerie Torelli

This is Valerie Torelli's refrain, her gleeful chorus, the spur that has driven her into the top rank of the Orange County real estate world:

"They said I'd never make it."

It peppers her conversations, flavors the flyers she leaves in mailboxes throughout Costa Mesa, echoes in the speeches she makes to high school students.

Feeling snubbed and belittled in secretarial and accounting jobs, Torelli, 35, decided three years ago to pursue success on her own terms.

She opened her own real estate company. Last year, she closed escrow on 75 homes for almost $20 million and earned, she said, well over $500,000. Most of the time she doubled her take by representing both buyer and seller on a sale. A few weeks ago, she sold a home in Costa Mesa for $910,000, which is believed to be a record high for that city.

In a field dominated by such giant companies as RE/MAX, Coldwell Banker and Century 21, Torelli has prevailed, and she glories in it.

"In the corporate world, I was told so many times that I had dumb ideas. But I knew I could make it happen on my own. And I did," she said.

Early one recent morning, the Torelli machine already was humming. Clad in jeans and Western-style shirt, she sat cross-legged on her office chair, plowing through her "to do" list with her assistant, Mary Gerber.

Torelli Realty, housed in the Mesa Verde section of Costa Mesa, is made up of herself, her husband, Guy, who serves as broker for the office, seven agents, her assistant and support staff.

A key bit of business this morning was to design a new flyer, one that will join the hundreds plastered on a wall of Torelli's office.

"You've got to keep the name out there all the time," Torelli said. In addition to keeping her name recognition high in her territory of 10,000 homes, the flyers also rub her competitors' noses in her success with such slogans as "It took only six days to create the world, why should it take six months to sell your home?" or "If you don't make dust, you eat dust."

The new flyer will feature the word "sold" in various languages, and Torelli was brainstorming sources of translations.

"Call the chef at La Biarritz for French. Use our dictionary for Spanish. Call that rabbi, what's his name, for Hebrew. Do we know any Chinese?"

In the midst of her rapid-fire decisions and delegations to her assistant, fresh flowers were delivered to her office.

"I have flowers brought in every week for the girls," Torelli said. "I was treated so badly as a corporate employee that I will never skimp. I pay people well. I take the girls to Vegas once a year. Last year, we also all went to La Costa. I haven't had any turnover in three years."

All Torelli's agents and support staff are women. "I probably wouldn't hire a man. I suppose I shouldn't say that, but we all work so well together, I think a man would interfere with that camaraderie. I also think that selling homes is an emotional thing and that women tune in better than men do."

At mid-morning, Torelli headed for what she calls her one real release from the high-stress business of handling up to 20 properties at a time.

At Silverwind Farms on the Orange County Fairgrounds, she parked her Toyota 4X4 ("I'm ostentatious enough. I don't need a Porsche."), replaced her blouse with a T-shirt and headed for the stables.

"This is Troubadour," she said, stroking the flank of a chestnut Dutch Warmblood jumper. "I bought him three weeks ago for $30,000. He's my Porsche."

Torelli put on a helmet and a pair of pink and black chaps ("company colors"), mounted the horse ("I pay an extra $75 a month to have him ready when I get here") and for the next hour, put him through a series of jumps.

She has ridden four years for show and relaxation. And, although 20 years older than most of the other riders in the ring, she rode with equal energy and an intensity they couldn't muster.

"When I'm up there on the horse, I'm focused. I don't think of anything except, do it right, do it right. Riding keeps my life in balance. I might be good in one field, but here I'm only learning," she said.

After a stop at the escrow office to pick up papers and a car-phone consultation with her assistant about staffing open houses, Torelli returned to her office. She changed clothes again, this time to a black dress. She sat at her desk, applying makeup and asking her assistant to send a housewarming gift to a client. "With the number of houses I sell, I buy housewarming gifts in bulk," she said.

Back in her truck on the way to have a client fill out some papers, she stopped in the parking lot to order a salad from a lunch wagon. "I hardly ever eat lunch out," she said. "Waste of time, and it's fattening."

An hour later, she was back at her desk, wolfing down the salad and preparing for a meeting with a video producer. She wanted to film a sequel to the cable TV commercial she did last year featuring a pink Cadillac cruising the streets of Costa Mesa a la singer Randy Newman's famous "I Love L.A." video.

But the producer called to say he was late, so Torelli was on the move again, this time to her nearby Costa Mesa home for a rare, midday visit with her son Alec, 2.

"It was the nicest day of my life when he was born, but I know there's nothing in the world I can't do now after childbirth," Torelli said.

She's not kidding. After a 36-hour labor and Cesarean delivery, Torelli said she set up shop in her hospital room.

"They wanted me to watch TV. Can you believe it? I don't watch TV."

She paid for the other bed in the hospital room and had her assistant bring files from the office. She sold three houses before she went home. "I had to hand over one offer, though, to another agent. It just got to be too many phone calls."

Torelli works seven days a week, roughly from 9 in the morning to 9 or 10 at night, with a two-hour break in the evening at home. She tries to spend Sunday mornings with her family. She goes months without a day off. Sleep, she said, "is a waste of seven hours."

She prizes the two hours before work and the two hours in the evening she spends with her son. But she said it took a lot of effort for her to pry even that much time away.

"I was embarrassed at first to set time apart for me," she said. "I was afraid people would say, 'Oh, God, she's just not working hard enough.' "

But sometimes--seeing her son cry on this recent afternoon when she left him with the housekeeper, for example--she wonders if the price of her success is too great, the reward too little.

"I'm tired," she said, resting her head on the truck's steering wheel back at her office parking lot. "It's hard seeing him cry like that. I wonder if it's worth it.

"I'm a terrible wife in all senses of the word. I used to be pretty. I used to cook. I'm losing my fitness. All that bothers me a lot.

"But I created my success. Part of me just wants to see it grow.

"I want to sow seeds, to change lives. Maybe teach, maybe get into development, build a home for abused kids.

"I want to be remembered."

Cherie Hartman

Cherie Hartman wheeled her Jeep Wagoneer up the long, curving drive to the white stucco mansion.

No "For Sale" sign graced the front lawn but Hartman knew the owners want $1.5 million, the lowest asking price on this block that commands a sweeping view of San Juan Capistrano and the ocean.

Stepping through the front door onto the immaculate white carpet, Hartman cast an appraising eye about the place.

"The marble is good, very much in demand," she said. "Granite is better, though. The woodwork here is OK, but it's what you'd see in less expensive homes. Buyers in this range are looking for more detail work."

She stepped into the living room and stopped. "Where's the ocean view? This house is oriented all wrong."

In the sprawling kitchen, she nodded, impressed. "Sub-Zero refrigerator, very good. This is a $3,000 to $4,000 unit. Very popular. And the colors here, very nice. The teal and whitewashed wood are in."

Walking into a bedroom, she immediately identifies the wallpaper as a pattern made by a small firm in Corona del Mar.

Through every room, right down to the maid's quarters in the basement, Hartman showed the stuff that has made her a leading player in the heady "high-end" real estate market of south Orange County--a territory that includes the oceanfront villas in San Clemente as well as hilltop manses such as this one.

After five years with Coldwell Banker, Hartman last year closed deals worth more than $12 million and earned, she says, about $230,000. She is one of the top 10 real estate agents in Coldwell Banker's force of 2,500 agents in Southern California.

The twist to Hartman's success is that only a few short years ago she almost lost everything to the caprice of real estate.

The recession and building bust of the early 1980s dashed the custom home business on which she and her husband had staked their dreams.

"We escaped only by the skin of our teeth," Hartman, 41, said. "I never want to be that close to the edge again. I never want to be in debt again."

All of which makes sweeter the way she has used real estate to reverse her fortunes and secure her family's future.

On the way back to her Capistrano Beach office one recent afternoon, Hartman reflected on what it took to achieve such success in so short a time.

"A lot of young agents walk in the door, brand-new, and expect to make the same money I do with far less effort. To sell as much property as I do, you have to work and work all the time."

Hartman came to Orange County in 1970. At the time, she was working as a flight attendant for an international charter airline. She flew for four more years, but after the first of her three children was born, she decided to work closer to home and chose real estate.

"At the time the business was 95% men," Hartman said, "and it was tough for women to get in. When I was in training at a realty office in Laguna Beach, it was my birthday and they made me stay until 8 at night just to see if I would. None of the men had to. They doubted my dedication since I had a family. But, of course, I stayed and I made it."

Hartman got her license, had two more children, worked for a small real estate company and then ran her own office from her home for two years.

She and her husband then went into the business of designing and building custom homes. When the bottom fell out of the housing market in the early 1980s, her husband had to go back to his engineering job, "and I knew that if we were going to recover, I had to go back to work too."

She joined Coldwell Banker in 1983. She started at the bottom, working "the floor"--taking walk-in and call-in clients, slowly building a name for herself.

She made a crucial decision to concentrate on selling homes in the upper price range--a niche inhabited by very few real estate agents.

"Most agents are afraid of the high end. They are intimidated by the money; they don't know what these people are like."

The cash rewards are greater in the high end, Hartman said, but deals take more time and work. High-end homes typically can sit on the market for six months or more.

"At the high end, buyers and sellers are sophisticated, knowledgeable about real estate. I can't bluff anyone."

Hartman said she is expected to be versed in the details of the Orange County market in expensive homes, of construction techniques and financing options as well as important finer points.

"I have to be able to tell a seller how to choose tile, paint, carpet to make the house fit the marketplace. Very few agents have the ability to do that kind of total marketing."

Women usually play the key role in home-buying decisions, and Hartman anticipates their concerns.

"I have to know that a woman will be concerned with how a slate floor can give a house a cold feeling or know how to put a price on the emotional value of an ocean view."

Hartman said she also attunes herself to the special expectations of the rich.

"They generally are very serious. They want to be treated seriously and well; they expect everything to be done smoothly, no hassles. Confidentiality is crucial in the high end. I never gossip. I make a point of telling them that no information will be repeated to anyone."

Hartman said she zealously maintains a professional distance between her and her clients.

"I don't drink with clients. I never socialize with them. I'm different than a lot of agents in that regard."

She turns away clients who try to break through that barrier.

"Some clients are condescending, trying right from the start to keep me in my place," she said. "When people treat me that way, talk down to me, that's it. I say, forget it."

Occasionally the intrusions are more unusual.

"I lost one listing because the woman not only wanted me to take her drinking but wanted me to introduce her to men."

Hartman said the personal image of a real estate agent plays a big role when a high-end seller chooses an agent.

"It's very important to clients in this range how you look and dress," she said. "I try to look classy. I dress well. I buy $700 suits, European clothes. I hardly ever wear slacks, even at home, in case I have to leave to go meet with clients."

She does, however, break from convention.

"I think the Jeep these days functions as a status car, but now that I'm dealing in more houses over $1.5 million, I'm feeling pressured to upgrade. Nothing overt really, just people wondering how come I don't drive a Mercedes or BMW.

"My problem is that an expensive car is just not me. I bought my husband a Porsche for his birthday. So I guess when I go out to get a $5-million listing, I'll drive the Porsche."

She also has no car phone, an almost universal fixture in cars of top agents. "I wanted peace and quiet somewhere, and the only place I can find it is in the car."

The immense effort she expends getting clients and making sales has exacted a steep personal price.

Hartman, who lives in San Clemente, routinely works six or seven days a week and averages about 10 hours per day. She frequently works late at night showing a house, presenting an offer or negotiating. She rarely vacations.

"Staying healthy is a struggle," she said. "I have to force myself to eat meals."

She regrets the time away from her husband and children and tries to compensate as best she can. She makes a point of taking her children to and from school each day and is involved in their sports activities. She also takes them to appointments.

Hartman said she doesn't know just when, but that the time will come before long when she has had enough.

"I'm not a career-minded person. My goal is to make enough money for us to build a new home and then be a mother," she said.

Jeannie Trinh Luong

Jeannie Trinh Luong arrived in Orange County in 1975 with four children, no job, no car and no money.

Today, she is one of the hottest real estate agents in California, drives a Mercedes 420 SEL and has made enough money to put her children through private college.

But along the way from destitution to financial success, Luong said, she has not lost sight of one cardinal rule: Take care of your own.

"I have achieved much success in this country, but everything I've done has been for my children, to give them the chance to make their lives a success too," she said. "And I owe it to the Vietnamese people because they gave me the opportunity to work."

Luong, 47, is one of the top 10 agents in California for RE/MAX and has been for several years. Last year, she closed 85 deals worth more than $17 million from her Irvine office. She won't say what she earned except that "it was over $100,000." The figure is almost certainly much higher because, as a RE/MAX agent, she keeps 100% of her commissions.

Luong said that about 80% of her clients are Vietnamese or of other Asian origin.

"Life is a two-way street," she said. "You earn the trust of your people and they will help you in business."

Luong was an administrative assistant for the U.S. Embassy in Saigon when Communist forces advanced on the city in April, 1975. She and her four children were evacuated before the city fell. Her husband, a military police officer, did not escape until several months later.

She arrived in Orange County on a Friday afternoon and moved in with an older sister, she said. "Monday, I was out searching for a job to support my children. I had no driver's license so I took a bus everywhere."

At the county government offices, Luong met a kindred spirit.

"One of the men who interviewed me was a Polish refugee, and I think his heart bled for my story."

Luong, fluent in English, Vietnamese and Chinese, was hired by county welfare officials to help process the growing number of Vietnamese refugees arriving in the county.

"A week after I arrived in this country I had a job for $9,000 a year. Not much, but a job," she said. "I didn't like welfare or seeing my people on welfare, but everyone needed help then getting started. Interpreting rules, understanding health insurance, getting driver's licenses, registering for school."

She stayed in the refugee assistance job for three years until, one day, she saw a newspaper ad for bilingual real estate agents.

She took a part-time job with a real estate company in Westminster, helping Vietnamese clients.

In 1979, she joined RE/MAX and quickly built a business, mainly through word-of-mouth referrals in the Vietnamese community. Her career accelerated.

"I was working 12 or 13 hours most days to get more income," she said. "We needed to provide for our kids. They came first. But I believe that, without challenge, life is meaningless."

Luong was challenging her cultural tradition by pursuing her career.

"In Vietnam, a woman in her 40s is slowing down, relaxing. Not me."

Her husband, working in a lower-paying job, had to relinquish the status he had in Vietnam as the family leader and role model, Luong said.

"He had a hard time at first. But he is a very flexible man and very supportive. He believes, we both believe, that providing for the children's education is reason to overcome anything."

Luong, who recently moved from Irvine to Newport Beach, attributes much of her success to understanding subtle factors that influence buyers and sellers.

"I take the time to understand the family setup," she said. "I have the patience to listen to what their needs are. I'm a soft-sell person, a consultant."

She maintains a laissez-faire attitude about the outcome of transactions. "Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose. Sometimes you're rained out."

Luong also trades on her knowledge of some of the idiosyncrasies that can make or break sales for Asian buyers.

Houses located at a T-junction of two streets, for example, are considered unlucky by Chinese. Staircases visible from the front door are also considered invitations to misfortune to enter the home, Luong said. "I had one client who bought a home in Fountain Valley and for months would only enter the house through the garage. He remodeled the house so that the stairs could not be seen from the front door."

Luong said she also is careful to be humble in the presence of male Asian buyers who tend to expect that from women. Sometimes even that is not enough.

"I had a male doctor who wanted to see a house," she said. "He refused to be driven there by me. I accept it."

Luong wants to expand her non-Asian clientele, but some of her experiences make her wonder how she will be received.

"There have been moments of tears," she said.

Once, she said, she presented a better offer on a home in Irvine than a competing agent but lost out because the sellers preferred a white agent.

"I was thunderstruck, really mad," she said. "This is a white man's world, I said to myself. My heart was broken. I left and thought about filing a discrimination complaint, but my boss told me not to fight the system.

"But I felt I had to do something, so a week later I signed up for a course to get a broker's license. I believe you should better yourself instead of bearing a grudge."

Luong's success has been double-edged in its effect on her family. On the one hand, her children are going to good schools and are on their way to professional careers. On the other, they haven't seen much of her since she began her real estate career.

"I work very hard for balance between my work and family and social life," she said. "Otherwise, life is an empty hole. I've talked with my kids about why I'm not there 100% of the time, and they have had to learn to adapt.

"But I do my best to be there for them. My daughter was in a softball championship this year, and I promised her I'd be there for the 4 p.m. game. Well, my last appointment wasn't over until 5:30, but I made it for the top of the seventh inning.

"I would rather be there for the whole game, but I also could say, no way I could make the game. I compromise and never give up."

Luong said she might be able to slow down in seven more years, when her children are through school.

"Then, if not real estate, maybe I'll go into law," she said.

Vijay Soni

When Vijay Soni was winning battlefield medals in Bangladesh building roads under enemy fire, "little did I realize that I was going to be selling real estate in California."

But now Soni sees that waging war and selling houses are a lot alike.

"Every transaction is a challenge," he said. "It's bringing people together and making things work the way you want them to work."

In the battle field of Southern California real estate, Soni has again won accolades. At 44, after five years in the business, he has established himself as one of the industry's hottest agents.

Last year, Soni closed deals on 60 houses worth more than $14 million, making him the No. 2 agent for Tarbell, one of the largest independent real estate firms in the nation.

"My goal for this year is $25 million, and so far I'm on track," he said.

Soni was born to a poor family in Delhi, India. At 15, he joined the army. At 21, he said, he became an officer and served for 12 years in the army's corps of engineers.

"When I was young, I saw well-dressed officers walking by, and that made a lot of impact on my mind. I was thinking it would be a good life to be an officer," he said.

When he eventually tired of military life, Soni pursued a career as a civil engineer. In 1982, he followed the rest of his family to the United States and settled in Orange County.

But it wasn't long before he hungered for new conquests.

"I was not finding challenge in the work of engineering. I did not feel I was using my time effectively, driving two hours to work and two hours back. I needed a change," he said.

At the urging of his brother, a Newport Beach doctor, Soni took a stab at real estate.

"My brother thought I had the personality for real estate, but I had never sold anything in my life," Soni said. "So my brother bought a house through me, my first sale, for $1.43 million. This, of course, gave me a big push."

Soni joined Tarbell in 1984 and quickly moved to the front.

Like other top-selling agents, he works relentlessly: 8:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., seven days a week.

"I try to take one day off every two weeks and a long break in December when things are slower," he said.

About half of his business now is referred by clients, but Soni never stops hustling up new prospects.

At least once a month, Soni, who lives in Newport Beach, practices old-fashion real estate "farming"--planting seeds of new business in a neighborhood by distributing flyers and knocking on doors. "People must see your face all the time," he said.

He still regularly works "the floor" at Tarbell, taking walk-in and call-in clients. "Every little bit counts."

His efforts can take a long time to pay off. "It's happening to me all the time that I sent a flyer out two years ago and someone calls me up now to sell their house," he said.

And no deal is too small. "That $150,000 client will get me $2 million in business down the road."

Soni credits much of his success in making deals to the wisdom of the late Dale Carnegie, author of the 1937 classic "How to Win Friends and Influence People" and many other self-improvement books.

"I read every book of his. In India once, I wrote to him, hoping he'd reply," Soni said. He didn't know at the time that Carnegie had died many years earlier.

Soni said that when he meets a prospective client, "I start building rapport right away. I key in on the one who will make the decision. Usually it is the woman. Unless it is an Indian family; then if the man says yes, the answer is yes.

"I look for common denominators between us, likes and dislikes. I'll look around the house, see golf clubs, start talking about golf. I let the client know I appreciate some of his good things. If it's a good house, I'll mention how well-kept it is.

"Mostly I have to be a great listener."

Soni sees his race as an advantage. As many as 10% of his clients are Indian or Pakistani, but others also "see me and say that if I came here from India and do this well, then I must be good."

Choosing a car is important in building a successful image, Soni said, but he has gone most agents one step better in refining the idea.

In Newport Beach, he drives a Mercedes 560 SEL, "very important for high-priced buyers and sellers because it says, 'He's successful.' "

But when he is working in Irvine, he drives a Nissan van. "I don't want the guy in the 80K condo to feel uncomfortable and say, 'Here I am struggling to make a down payment and he's driving a 560.' "

Soni sees his wife, Supriti, an accountant, during the course of doing business, but he has little time with their two small children.

"When I am home, I try to make the best of it by spending the time with them."

Staying on top of 25 listings at a time often leaves Soni feeling fragmented and frazzled.

"Time, organizing my time, is my biggest problem. I have to set priorities and write everything down," he said. "I keep a little book by my bed so that when someone calls, I write it down and I don't have to try to remember it. I sleep much better that way."

Soni said he works as hard as he does so that he and his wife can realize their dreams.

"We feel we need to make together about half a million a year to reach the standard of living we want. We came close last year.

"My wife's dream is to live in a big house on top of a hill," he said. "She pushes me to work hard.

"I myself would like to be a big developer with an office on a hill and a view of the ocean. I want to use development to improve society, the community, make a difference.

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