Steve Harder is a relative newcomer to the real estate industry, but he’s already making a huge impact. In just six years, he and his wife Kathy have built a thriving business, Harder Properties with Equity Colorado RE, that’s dedicated to serving clients “with integrity, professionalism and genuine care through consistent communication and personal attention.” And Steve knows a thing or two about running a successful business. As a serial entrepreneur, he’s owned and operated six of them over the years. Even more impressive? He recently launched an effort for legislation that will help first-time home buyers save up for a down payment through a pre-tax, employer matching program.

Last month, Steve took home SMDRA’s 2018 Rising Star Award. Eave caught up with him to ask about what he’s learned since entering the real estate game in 2012. Here’s what he had to say:

How did you get into real estate?

I’ve been entrepreneurial my whole life. I’ve owned tech companies — large scale integration companies — for about 35 years. I wanted to start a business with my wife. We wanted to find something that we both enjoyed and that would help and benefit the people that we served. We both wanted to contribute. My wife has a set of skills that is very unique and different than my set of skills. I’m more of the business person, more pragmatic. Kathy has a higher emotional intelligence. We really wanted to leverage both sets of skills.

We were motivated to go into real estate because we had a really bad experience with a transaction on a home. Kathy was so upset that she cried on many occasions during that transaction. We just felt that real estate was something we could both contribute to; that we could find ways to help people avoid that awful experience we’d had. Because buying or selling a home is not only life-changing, but it can also be pretty traumatic and intimidating. We decided to get our real estate licenses together and began building our business. So that’s how we got into it! We started back in 2012. We’ve been in it for six years now.

What’s your favorite part about being in real estate?

There are a couple things. Easily the most rewarding is that we get to help shape the futures of our clients, whether they’re people that are looking to downsize as they approach retirement, or whether they’re first-time home buyers. We love helping people and changing lives. And staying in touch. We’re a referral-based business, and as a result, most of the folks that we deal with end up becoming friends. So you get to stay in touch and see how this opportunity to buy or sell a house can change someone’s future. It’s really fun to watch. There are so many far-reaching impacts of home-ownership. It doesn’t just affect the individual. It impacts their family, the neighborhood and the fabric of the community. That’s what we really enjoy the most.

What’s the biggest challenge you face?

When we first got in the real estate industry, we realized quickly that the level of competency varies significantly across professionals, whether you’re talking about mortgage lenders, insurance companies, title companies, inspectors, vendors or partners. It can be pretty frustrating, to put it kindly. You’re trying to help a client and give them a great experience. But yet the talent or the commitment level of the different partners on the team looks different. And, you don’t know at first where each partner is at because you just haven’t had any time to work together yet. Those are some of the early challenges. It takes a lot to build a great real estate team. But it also creates a good opportunity when you do it well.

What is one thing you wish your clients knew before they started working with you?

One thing that I wish clients understood? The value and the importance of hiring a professional realtor. A good realtor is a trusted advocate. So many times, we have a client that will tell us, “I’ve got a friend or a cousin or family member that’s an agent,” and you look the agent up and they’ve done two or three transactions a year for the last five years. And it’s challenging when a client really doesn’t understand the value of a quality realtor that has their interests in mind, and that has a great team in place. I wish there was a way to help educate the real estate market on the value and importance of a trusted advocate.

What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned over your career in real estate?  

Number one: it takes longer than you think it will take to build a real estate business and consistently have the kind of impact you’re looking to have. I’ve built five businesses previously; this is my sixth. The other five were all technology companies. Stepping into real estate was much different than I originally thought it would be. I thought it was going to be very similar, in terms of the business model and the academic process of moving into the real estate market. But it wasn’t.

The second lesson: I had to learn how emotionally important the connection with the client is, and how valuable that is in real estate. In a commercial business, you’re dealing with people that make decisions more on a business level. Compared to a home purchase or sale which is very personal and often life-changing. And boy, I’ll tell you, it took a while to appreciate the depth of understanding that’s required from a real estate professional to navigate a transaction’s impact on the client’s life.

You mentioned that realtors have varying levels of expertise and commitment. What advice would you give to a home buyer who’s looking for someone they can trust, and who has a high level of skills?

We recommend that you check references beyond just the homebuyer. Talk to the broker’s partners. It’s not just about having a realtor help you, it’s about having a team help you. That means you want to reach out to the mortgage lender, the employing broker, and any other primary partners. If you’re a high-end buyer, that might include a tax attorney, an estate planner or a wealth manager. Check into the strength of the realtor’s team, because they’re going to impact your ability to buy a home and your experience.

The second piece of advice I have is to call several past clients of the realtor. If they don’t have a list of clients who are willing to brag about their services and level of communication, that’s not a good sign. Get your hands on five or six recent clients — recent meaning in the last six months — and talk to them. Once you’ve looked more closely at the team and talked to past clients, that should give you an idea of whether the realtor is a good fit for you. Fit is important, because you have to trust and enjoy working together.

Can you tell me about the down payment legislation you’re working on?

Home ownership is challenging enough in this market. I wanted to figure out how I could help first-time home buyers. One of the biggest challenges buyers face is coming up with the down payment. And I believe that if we continue to fall back on down payment assistance, or little-to-nothing down, we’re going to find ourselves right back in the crisis situation that we visited not long ago.

I’ve been a small business owner. There are times that I’ve employed up to 150 people. And I know that helping an employee and their family to own a home is an enormous advantage to both the employee and the employer. There are three major seasons in life that impact an employees decision to stick with a company. First is when they get married. The second is when they have a baby. And the third is when they own a home. Not always in that order! The good news, as an employer, those employees become more dedicated, and choose to stay with the company longer.

As an employee, the challenge is, “we would love to own a home, we just can’t save enough money to come up with the down payment we need to buy a home.” Especially in a market where the values are accelerating as quickly as they have been. And so, what I wanted to do, was to provide a solution to both the employee and employer through an employer match, one-to-one, two-to-one or three-to-one, on a down-payment savings account, tax-free. So, the contributions would be tax-free and the interest earned would be tax-free. There would be no real cap on the contributions until you hit, maybe a total of say $40,000 to $50,000 a year in total contributions. And you’re only in the program for five to six years, because the intent is to buy a home and to gain the financial benefits that come with owning a home.

So how would it work in practice?

Most of the employers I talk to believe that they would match, at least two-to-one, and likely three-to-one. That means an employee who contributes $500 a month at two or three-to-one matching would be able to save a total of $1,500 to $2,000 a month, tax-free. Soon enough, they’re 18, 20 or 24 months in and they’re able to buy a house. That is an enormous financial and personal advantage, as compared to contributing to a 401K. When you’re in your 20’s and 30’s you’re not thinking as much about retirement, but would love to find a way to own a home of your own. Owning a home prepares you for and gives you a foundation which you can then build on for retirement.

Have you gotten a lot of support?

Everybody we’ve been talking to about the program has found it to be a slam dunk; a no-brainer, if you will. We’ve gotten support from the Colorado Association of Realtors and interest from the National Association of Realtors. We are planning to present our bill to the new legislature coming up in January. Right now, we’re in the bill drafting process and talking with a number of legislators that would like to sponsor the bill. I’ve gotten calls from nine other states and it seems as though there’s an interest in taking it beyond the state of Colorado. Ideally it would be great to get federal tax relief and expanding beyond Colorado. The first step is to get this passed here in Colorado, then we can look to expand the program. If you have interest in learning more please reach out to me.

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