By Kari Hawkins (The Redstone Rocket)July 18, 2012
One night last week, while her Soldier husband and two children were relaxing and enjoying the last few hours of their day, Melinda Hamilton was searching through local real estate listings for the perfect home.
On the wish list: a basement, two bedrooms, a view of mountains or a river, and at least an acre of land.
But while she plans on being successful at hitting the mark with the wish list, Hamilton is not interested in buying a home.
Rather, she plans on selling it.
Hamilton, wife of Garrison commander Col. John Hamilton, is a professional realtor. She began her career in real estate in Washington, D.C. in 2009, while her husband attended the Industrial College of the Armed Forces at Fort McNair. Their move to Redstone Arsenal brought an end, at least temporarily, to establishing herself as one of the leading realtors in the D.C. area. Prior to moving, in her rookie year as a real estate agent, Hamilton closed on $3.1 million in real estate sales in northern Virginia. Even by D.C. standards, that number is high for a first-year realtor.
"I worked for 16 months in the D.C. area and I was very successful," Hamilton said. "I attribute that success with always being willing to volunteer for floor duty, which meant I was the agent on call for those who just walked in the door at the real estate company. I also did a lot of work finding tenants for rentals."
After about six months, Hamilton was asked to join a team of realtors.
"That really pushed me over the mark in sales," she said.
The real estate market in the D.C./northern Virginia area is fast paced and competitive. Houses rarely stay on the market past 10 days. Rental properties are snatched up in a matter of hours. Hamilton, who juggled the demands of her new job around her family's schedule, was proud that she'd been able to make a mark professionally in a real estate market that is demanding in terms of a real estate agent's time, energy and commitment.
So when Hamilton learned that her family was moving to Redstone Arsenal/Huntsville, she admits she was a bit disappointed. But she was not surprised -- working military spouses know they will have to sacrifice their career when the Army calls with a new assignment.
Hamilton had learned that early in her marriage when she gave up a promising job soon after marrying then 2nd Lt. John Hamilton in 1992.
"We had been neighbors and friends in college for two years before we started dating. John was on an ROTC scholarship, but I knew nothing about the Army or military life. I couldn't have told you the rank structure if my life depended on it. None of my family had been in the military," she said. "So, I was a little overwhelmed and very nervous about being an Army wife."
Her first job out of college was working for a state senator in Florida. She enjoyed working in the political arena, but had to leave the job to follow her husband's military career. During the first nine years of their marriage, Hamilton worked a series of jobs as assignments took her and her husband to different installations. She was the manager of an on-post thrift store in Germany, a medical transcriptionist for a neurosurgeon in Philadelphia, an office manager for a dentist in Virginia and an education center employee at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
With the birth of their two children -- Walker, now 11, and Rebekah, now 9 -- Hamilton narrowed her focus to family and supporting her husband's career. But as her youngest was approaching her school-age years, Hamilton began thinking about what types of careers she could pursue that would allow her flexibility to also be a mom and an officer's wife. She decided to try her salesmanship skills at real estate.
"People who think about going into real estate will say they like the career field because 'I just love to look at houses. I love to go to open houses.' And I did enjoy that. It was fun for me," she said. "But I'm also good with numbers. I enjoy meeting people. I am organized, detailed oriented and know how to meet deadlines -- all skills that are important to a realtor. "
Even so, succeeding meant being able to lean on her husband to help with the kids on those nights and weekends when she would be with clients, and to apologize for her when she was unable to make an Army social event.
"John is supportive. If I was going to be an auto mechanic, he would be supportive," she said, smiling. "I have had to turn down more events than I thought I would have to, important events that I wish I could have been at. That's a drawback of the job. But John makes my apologies for me and most people are understanding."
She has yet to maintain her career as a realtor through a deployment. Fortunately, her husband's last two assignments have kept the war veteran close to home. Her children's school schedule also makes it possible for her to take on a realtor's career.
"It would be hard to do this if the kids were still at home. I'm not sure if I could do this if my kids were not in school during the day," she said. "Real estate is a very hard business to do in addition to another job, and being a stay-at-home mom is a job. So, you have to make choices.
"If you like continuity and stability, it is not a job for you because your salary is based on sales commission. My husband does have a stable job with health and insurance benefits. If I have a bad month, my world would not stop."
When Hamilton moved with her family to Redstone Arsenal in late 2010, she was expecting to drop out of the real estate business, at least for a while. But soon after arriving, she was serving on Crestwood Hospital's Women's Advisory Council alongside a local realtor who was looking for a realtor to join her team. The two got to know each other and Hamilton was asked if she was interested. Hamilton took a few required real estate classes, took the Alabama state realtors test and went back into business as a realtor in February of this year.
"This market is much slower than the D.C. area. It's not high pressure, which I think is kind of nice," Hamilton said. "There's not a constant sense of chaos and there's not that sense of intense competition. Everyone here is friendly and nice. And I think the real estate market here is on the upswing. It's not as bad here as it is in other parts of the country."
The Huntsville market is also different in that there is a lot of new construction. About 30 percent of sales in Madison County are for new homes. In northern Virginia there is not much new construction. Also, the Huntsville market offers vacant land or homes with acreage for sale, which wasn't available in the D.C. area. Another benefit is that an Alabama real estate license allows a realtor to sell both residential and commercial property while in D.C. realtors had to make a choice between the two.
About half of Hamilton's clients are military-connected families. They differ from other families in that many want to live in neighborhoods that include other military families or that are military friendly. They want good schools and features that will help them sell their house quickly so they can move onto their next assignment debt free, Hamilton said.
As the Hamilton children have gotten older, they've learned a bit about the real estate business from their mom -- and about how to behave in situations where one wrong word could lose a sale.
"If they have to go with me to show a house, we will have a talk on the way there," Hamilton said. "They know not to go into a house with me and a client, and say something like 'This house smells yucky.' They've learned how to interact with people and how to behave with strangers."
Technology has made it easier to be a successful realtor, even making it possible to work from home.
"I can email and text from my kitchen," she said. "You can do contracts over email now. You don't even have to go to your office anymore."
One drawback about mixing a real estate career with the military lifestyle is that it is a career field that prospers through referrals. It goes without saying that a realtor with a good reputation who is established in a community will get more referrals than a realtor who is new to the area.
"That's why it's good to become a member of an already established team in an area," Hamilton said. "You can get referrals because of the team's reputation. Also, when you do move on with your Soldier spouse you can pass your clients on to another team member who will give them the same kind of service they have received from you."
It's also a career field that prospers for realtors who know their market and how to move around in their area.
"People expect us to be neighborhood experts," Hamilton said. "It takes some definite research when you are new to a community. You have to sit down with a map and study it so that when a client asks for a view of the mountains you know where to take them. I've spent time just driving around neighborhoods and taking notes. As part of a team, I can also go to other realtors on the team and get help with learning the different neighborhoods. And GPS is a realtor's best friend, especially when that realtor is new to an area."
As with any entrepreneurial business, the more time a realtor spends getting their name out in public and touching base with clients the more business they will gain. It's up to the realtor to know how to juggle the job with family and personal obligations.
"Real estate can take over your entire life. You feel like you have to always be available because you get afraid that if you're not the client will go to someone else," Hamilton said. "You can get a call from a client asking 'Can you meet me in 45 minutes?' So, you have to be really diligent about protecting yourself against that. You have to make your priorities and stick with them.
Even though you might not be able to meet that client in 45 minutes, you can always suggest a different time on the next day that will work better for you."
And then there are those long weekend hours to consider and customers to cultivate.
"People looking for a house want to look after work or on the weekends. If you have a client who is in town for a specific amount of time, you may be crazy busy for two weeks helping them," Hamilton said.
"In this job, you are always looking for ways to get your name out. I wear my name tag everywhere I go -- to the kids' school, to the library, to the store. You'll be shocked how many people will ask you about the real estate market. They might not be in the market right now. But it's an opportunity for me to give them one of my cards and maybe they'll remember me when they are in the market."