15 Secrets of Real Estate Agents

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Real estate agents play a huge role in one of the most important financial decisions of our lives. When it comes to buying, selling, leasing, or renting, they’re the ones who shepherd us through a process that can only be described as overwhelming. We talked to a handful of agents across the country to learn more about the tricks of their trade—and in the process, picked up a few tips for you.

1. CRIMINALS ARE BAD. KIDS ARE WORSE.

It isn’t just an urban legend that criminals will visit open houses to case them for a burglary. Colorado realtor Crip Erickson said these incidents happen in waves, and sometimes the crime has a super-specific target, such as prescription drugs in a medicine cabinet. Still, he said criminals aren’t the only ones to worry about during an open house. “By far the biggest problem are couples with young kids who don’t watch them,” Erickson says. “There’s been major damage done.”

2. WHEN IT COMES TO STAGING, THEY HAVE PLENTY OF TRICKS.

Chocolate chip cookie spray may be the cliché, but the realtors we spoke with emphasized music and interior design when getting a property ready to show. In addition to a little freshly popped popcorn, Erickson says he plays low-key tunes that visitors won’t know (to avoid any bad associations with a certain song). Monica Webster, who works in New York City and Greenwich, Connecticut, says her musical accompaniment depends on the property: “If I have a 6-million dollar beautiful brand-new build that's very cosmopolitan and metropolitan, I’m going to play different music than if I have an 1875 Old Greenwich house. It all depends.”

Webster says she also advises fellow agents to get dogs out of the house, turn the lights on ahead of time, make sure people walk through the front door instead of the garage, and depersonalize when necessary so prospective buyers can envision themselves in the space.

3. THEY CAN’T TELL YOU IF A PROPERTY IS HAUNTED.

An agent or broker isn't allowed to “stigmatize” a property, which can include suggesting a house is haunted. Sellers and their agents must disclose material defects, but spooky happenings can be kept quiet. If you’re truly curious, neighbors are often a great resource. Erickson says he tells prospective buyers to Google a property and check the county sheriff's website for any news stories, criminal activity, or building permits associated with the address.

4. THEY’RE ON-CALL 24/7.

In the wee hours, agents’ jobs are equal parts salesperson and therapist. “I’ve had lots of midnight phone calls with someone sobbing on the other end of the line,” Erickson says. Webster agrees: "I call myself a psychologist,” she says. “We’re in people's bedrooms!” Every agent talked about the difficulty of making people happy in the high-stress environment of finding a home. The word “compromise” came up a lot, and it applies to both the agent-buyer/seller relationship and among the buyers/sellers themselves. Erickson says that when dealing with a couple, he has them separately write down what they’re looking for in a home. “Sometimes they’re on the same page, and sometimes they’re not,” he says.

5. LITTLE SLIPS CAN COST THEM THEIR GIGS.

Webster says the hardest part of the job is finding out what buyers and sellers really want and managing their expectations. Keeping a seller happy can be just as important as perfecting a listing. Once, after a showing of a $10 million listing, Webster was fired for not calling the owner with an immediate report. “Our job is very intense,” she says. “We’re always on the front lines. Always.”

6. THEY SEE THE EXTREMES OF HUMAN EMOTION.

A stressed-out looking couple reviewing files near a laptop
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Paul MacMahon, a realtor in Dallas, says: “We work with people in all stages of life, good and bad … Selling and buying homes is almost always an emotional roller coaster and we are there with our clients every step of the way. We talk to people when they're ecstatic, infuriated, excited, and defeated.”

7. THEY SPEAK THEIR OWN LANGUAGE.

There’s a skill to crafting the perfect, limited-character sell. Erickson says a few things to look out for are “charming” (a.k.a. “small”), “cozy” (“a shack that’s about to fall down”) or “mature landscaping,” which often means there are dead trees that will need to be dealt with. Virginia agent Sarah Marchese adds that “potential” means it’s old and falling apart, “won’t last long” means it’s already been on the market too long, and “motivated seller” means it’s overpriced and any offer is good.

8. THEY NEED SALES.

Most agents are independent contractors working under brokers and are paid solely on commissions, which means they only make money when a transaction closes. Agents generally make between 5 and 7 percent, and depending on the state, that amount goes to the listing agent’s broker or can be split between the buyer and seller’s agent brokers. Lease commissions vary, but they're usually between 40 and 100 percent of one month's rent.

9. THEY REALLY DO HAVE TO ALWAYS BE CLOSING.

A hand passing over keys to another hand, with a printed agreement underneath them
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Given this financial structure, it’s no wonder agents will go to great lengths to secure a sale. Agents have seen it all, and done it all. MacMahon has one story of going the distance: “I once hiked down a mountain in Canada while trying to keep a deal from falling apart on the phone. It was getting dark so I had to use the phone's flashlight while I was talking. While I was talking to the other agent I heard my sister-in-law tell my wife not to worry, but there were bears on the mountain. I've had more relaxing vacation days.”

10. THEY WANT YOU TO BE PREPARED.

It helps if clients have done their homework. At the very start of the process, Webster gives clients a form outlining every step of the process to prepare them for what’s to come. Letting them know that it's important to get finances in order, determine a budget, and get pre-approved for a mortgage helps to set realistic expectations. (Most sellers won’t consider an offer without a pre-approval letter anyway.)

They also want you to know your limits. Both Marchese and Erickson say that one of the biggest real estate mistakes people make is trying to handle buying or selling on their own. Sellers often don’t know how to properly price their home and don’t anticipate the work involved in dealing with lenders, appraisers, attorneys, inspectors, and buyers.

11. ASKING PRICES AREN’T ARBITRARY.

A realtor and family looking at a new home to purchase
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Agents price a home based on comparable properties around the neighborhood and predictions about where the market is headed both on a grand scale and with the seasons. An agent will run a “comparative market analysis,” which collects active listings as well as those pending or under contract and then evaluates things such as the age of the structure, renovations, lot size, views, and neighborhood.

Seasonal trends also affect sellers’ prospects. For example, Erickson told us things slow down after the Fourth of July when people begin to think about school starting up again and aren’t necessarily looking to move.

According to MacMahon, it’s about finding a sweet spot that maximizes the seller's profit but isn't too high . A property has to pass an appraisal report to get a mortgage approved. Banks won’t extend mortgages for sale prices that wildly deviate from appraisals, a policy that dooms many sales. Appraisals also help protect buyers from paying too much for a home only to discover they're deep underwater on their mortgage.

12. IF YOU’VE FOUND A PROPERTY YOU LOVE, HANDWRITTEN LETTERS HELP.

If a seller is fielding competing offers, letters, photos, or videos can sway their decision. These tokens of your affection for the property can distinguish your offer from the pack or simply allay sellers’ fears about what’s going to happen to the property once they’ve moved on. “The smartest thing I could do would be to tell a buyer: ‘Write a letter and say you’re not going to tear this house down,’’’ Webster says. Marchese wrote that she’s known sellers who have taken an offer based on a heartfelt note, even if it wasn't the best move financially. “Never underestimate the power of emotional attachment,” she wrote. “It raises its head in so many ways.”

13. BUT DIVINE INTERVENTION CAN HELP, TOO.

Those aren’t the only tactics buyers can use to secure a property. Erickson says buyers sometimes contact the sellers directly—he doesn’t advise that path, but admits it can work out. Webster tells us there’s also a relatively recent superstition that sees buyers and sellers burying a statue of St. Joseph to help the process along.

Marchese wrote that she’s seen buyers “stalk” certain areas for listings, contact homeowners out of the blue to ask if they’d be interested in selling, and even submit backup offers in case a deal with another buyer falls through.

14. THEY’RE NOT JUST SELLING HOUSES.

Real estate agent showing new home to clients
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Agents also have to sell themselves, because large portions of their business come from referrals and repeat clients. Many come to be known as neighborhood experts by moving a large quantity of homes in a given area, and that perception alone can be enough to get hired. Agents can also "farm" areas, meaning they choose a specific geographical area and target their marketing efforts there.

Aside from investing in professional architectural photographers, sending out postcards, and networking, MacMahon says he’s also strategic about his online presence, because he knows potential clients will do their research: “We're all small business owners and we have to be aware that we're our own PR firms.”

15. THEY DON’T WANT YOU TO BELIEVE EVERYTHING YOU READ ON THE INTERNET.

When Erickson meets prospective clients, he says his goal “is to try to establish a rapport so you don't come off as a salesman.” He believes that big real estate sites like Zillow and Trulia make people wary of agents because listings aren’t always accurate, and a simple inquiry can result in multiple realtors—often not local—contacting someone. “That process doesn’t work,” Erickson says. Marchese addresses the way the internet has changed real estate with a slightly different perspective: “I think there is a big concern among agents today that, with the internet, our profession will become obsolete. But I think it’s only helping to strengthen the industry. The more informed people are the better we have to be at our job!”

Note: This article originally misstated that people bury statues of St. Anthony for good luck.

A version of this article originally ran in 2015.

13 Secrets of Substitute Teachers

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iStock.com/shironosov

Whether they’re recent college graduates or retirees, substitute teachers are a diverse bunch with a range of academic specialties and skills. No matter their background, they often arrive at work unsure of exactly who and what they’ll be teaching—but they usually have some tricks up their sleeves to get oriented quickly. Mental Floss spoke to a few subs to get the inside scoop on everything from why they love pregnant teachers to how they spot troublemaker pupils.

1. Morning people get more substitute teaching jobs than night owls.

Substitute teachers must be willing to have a (very) flexible schedule, and it helps if they’re morning people. As early as 5:00 a.m., subs get a phone call—automated or from someone who works in the school’s office—offering them a job for that day. If they accept, they have an hour or two to get out of bed, get ready, and report to work. Some schools now use an email notification system, but early morning phone calls are more effective given the time-sensitive, often unexpected nature of substitute teaching.

2. First impressions are important when it comes to substitute teaching.

A young female teacher in front of a white board talking to a group of students
iStock.com/SolStock

According to Kevin, a substitute teacher who works at schools in Southern California, dealing with new groups of students can be challenging. “It’s very hard to establish authority in the classroom. As a newcomer, you’re the foreigner,” he explains.

To immediately establish their authority, some substitute teachers practice speaking with a powerful voice, exhibit confident body language, and shut down any disruptions swiftly and decisively. But no matter how confident a sub is, some students will take advantage of the teacher’s unfamiliarity with the class. “It’s hard to write up a student who you can’t name. In a high school setting, you usually get 30 to 38 students a period for five or six periods. That’s a lot of students who may or may not want to test their bounds that day,” Kevin says.

3. Subs are an eclectic bunch.

Substitute teachers range in age from recent college grads working toward their teaching certification to elderly retired people. But what unites them is a love of teaching. Beverly, a substitute teacher who has taught for over 56 years, says that subbing keeps her sharp and active. “I do it for mental stimulation and because it’s a terrific service. You have to stay stimulated and involved with people,” she says. “I find youngsters to be so forthright and honest. The kids light up my life.”

Besides being a variety of ages, substitute teachers also come from a variety of professions. “You can’t believe how many teachers used to be lawyers but couldn’t stand it,” Beverly says. Everyone from former nurses and flight attendants to chemical engineers have earned their teaching certificates and become subs, bringing their real-world experience into the classroom.

4. There's a reason a substitute teacher's face might look familiar.

In schools in Los Angeles and New York, many struggling actors work as substitute teachers because they can balance teaching gigs with auditions and short-term film shoots. Like actors, subs must be able to speak in front of groups of people, improvise when they don’t have good instructions, and be quick on their feet when something goes wrong.

5. Substitute teachers aren't a fan of school holidays.

Because substitute teachers don’t have a set salary and work one day at a time, many of them face financial uncertainty, especially when holidays roll around. “Holidays can be devastating financially,” Kevin explains. When a school has the whole week of Thanksgiving off, subs don’t see that as a chance to relax. “In reality, a quarter of your paycheck for that month is gone,” Kevin says. “When you have student loans, insurance, etc. to pay, that extra little bit taken off your paycheck may mean you’re just scraping by.”

6. Substitute teachers have tricks to learn names quickly.

A primary school teacher helping a young boy in the classroom
iStock.com/JohnnyGreig

Facing a classroom of unfamiliar faces can be daunting, but subs have a few tricks up their sleeves to memorize student names in a flash. While some subs make seating charts as they take attendance, others use mnemonic devices to remember troublemakers’ monikers. Beverly admits that she doesn’t use anything fancy, but because she substitute-teaches math and science classes at the same school, she sees the same kids year after year. “I see the same youngsters out of junior high and into high school, but I do have a seating chart as well. They’re always amazed when I know their names,” she explains.

7. They love pregnant teachers.

Subs seeking job stability hit the jackpot when full-time teachers get pregnant. “At the school I currently work at, there’s a woman who is subbing for the whole semester for a second grade teacher who is out on maternity leave,” says Kyle, a science teacher who worked as a sub before getting a full-time teaching gig. Besides pregnancies, long-term health challenges and injuries can present an opportunity for subs to get a steady gig. Beverly says she once took over for an entire semester because of another teacher’s broken hip.

8. Some substitute teachers are quite familiar with busywork.

Novelist Nicholson Baker, who wrote about his experience going undercover as a substitute teacher at six schools, describes the astonishingly large amount of busywork that subs must assign students. “I passed [work sheets] out by the thousands,” he noted in The New York Times.

While Baker laments the “fluff knowledge” and vocabulary lists that subs are expected to force students to memorize and regurgitate, some subs do teach lesson plans. Kyle, who has a math and science background, explains that some teachers felt comfortable with him teaching the lesson plan so the students wouldn’t fall behind. “I’d teach it and assign homework accordingly for what we covered in class,” he says. But he admits that for middle school or non-science classes, he would sometimes simply be given a video to show the kids, or a work sheet or quiz to pass out.

9. The reputation of a substitute teacher can precede them.

High school professor asking students to answer question
iStock.com/Steve Debenport

Once a sub has taught at the same school a few times, they can develop a reputation—good or bad—among students. “When I first started subbing, I was 23 or 24, so I wasn’t much older than these kids—especially the seniors—and I think they saw me more as a peer than an authority figure,” Kyle explains. “I thought if I kept a light and fun atmosphere, kids would show their appreciation with respect. But that’s not how kids’ minds work. If you give a little, they’ll want more. So I became stricter and sterner as I went on,” he adds.

10. Substitute teachers can often spot troublemakers fast.

Although it might seem obvious which students are talking out of turn or giving the sub a hard time, substitute teachers have another way to quickly identify any mischievous students. “Usually, if a teacher has a really outrageous student, they’ll leave a note of warning for the sub. Sometimes the teacher will also leave a list of who the helpful students are,” Beverly says.

11. Substitute teachers may deal with inappropriate student behavior.

Kyle says that due to his young age and easygoing nature, some students tried to push the boundaries and act inappropriately with him: “[Students] would talk about or say things in front of me that I know they would never say in front of a teacher. I was once asked to party with some of the kids. Girls would try and flirt with me.” While male students typically tried to talk to him about basketball, female students frequently asked him if he had a girlfriend. “I would lose control of classrooms sometimes. Kids would get very wild, and sometimes would say inappropriate or abusive things to other students without fear of discipline,” he admits.

12. Substitute teachers are honored on a special day in November.

The National Education Association established the annual Substitute Educators Day on the third Friday in November to honor subs around the country. Besides bringing awareness to the work that substitute teachers do, Substitute Educators Day supports subs in trying to get health benefits, professional development, and fair wages.

13. Substitute teachers can make lasting impressions on their students.

Although most subs don’t see the same kids day after day, they can have a meaningful impact upon their students’ lives. “As an outsider, especially a younger teacher, students will often listen to you as someone who recently was in their shoes. Sometimes you talk to them one-on-one and give them a new perspective on why they should care about their schoolwork,” Kevin says.

And some students listen to their sub’s advice on studying and planning for the future. According to Kevin, students have approached him as he walked down the halls to thank him for encouraging them to get better grades.

“These experiences are few and far between, but it’s crazy to think that even these small talks with students can actually have a lasting impression,” he says.

This story was republished in 2019.

13 Secrets of Tattoo Artists

A professional tattoo artist at work
A professional tattoo artist at work
iStock.com/Vitalij Sova

Tattoos have gone mainstream: what was once considered a mark of rebellion abhorred by grandparents has become more like a rite of passage. Today, about 30 percent of American adults have at least one tattoo, and among millennials the number jumps to almost 50 percent.

So it’s a good time to be in the tattooing business. But no matter how up-close and personal you get with your tattoo artist, there’s still a lot about the job you probably don’t know. We talked to a few seasoned experts about the intricacies of inking.

1. Tattooing is really hard to break into.

Today there are more than 15,000 tattoo parlors in the U.S., compared to roughly 500 professional tattoo artists operating in 1960. But while the industry is booming, it’s difficult to get your foot in the door. The first step is to get an apprenticeship under a reputable artist who will teach you all they know, but that can take years of persistence.

“I just now have an apprentice and he’s been bugging me about it for three years,” says Chad Leever, a tattoo artist in Indiana. His best tip for landing an apprenticeship? “Hang out, get to know us, get tattooed, but even then it will probably still be no. It’s really tough.”

Tattooing has been an exclusive and secretive industry for years. The “every man for himself” culture has roots in the early days of tattooing when an artist had to protect the tricks of their trade. Sailor Jerry, for example, was known for his vibrant ink shades and Japanese-inspired designs. Captivated by his work, other artists would ask him how he concocted such brilliant colors on the posters in his shop, and Jerry would tell them to add sugar water to the ink. The copycats would realize they’d been sabotaged when they found their posters full of holes—eaten by cockroaches attracted to the sugar.

“Everybody has their secrets and they don’t wanna tell anyone else,” Leever says. “You have to earn the right to gain the knowledge.”

2. Tattoo apprentices get hazed.

If you miraculously manage to land an apprenticeship, get ready to grovel. “Being an apprentice, we can make you do anything,” Leever says. During his own apprenticeship, Leever had to get his navel pierced. “They picked out the most ridiculous navel ring,” he says. “It was this colorful rainbow thing and I had to leave it in for 10 days and show every person who came into the shop. It was horrible.”

Rituals like these are meant to test how far an apprentice is willing to go for the job. “It’s tough but you’re gonna find out if someone’s gonna make it or not based on how much they wanna sacrifice for this career,” says Bang Bang, a celebrity tattoo artist in New York City and author of the book Bang Bang: My Life In Ink. “Do you love it or do you just wanna be part of the show? You have to prove you are just the humble, humble student.”

3. Tattoo artists practice on themselves.

It may be years before an artist-in-training gets to wield a tattoo gun. When they finally get their first shot at inking some real human skin, it’s often attached to their own body. “I just had my apprentice tattoo himself,” Leever says. “It was terrible tattoo. It turned out horrible. He messed it up and he’ll learn from that but now things will make more sense the next time he does it.”

Occasionally they’ll get to tattoo their close friends or even their teacher. Bang Bang says he was the subject of his apprentice’s first tattoo attempt. “If I’m not brave enough to get it, how can I suggest other people do so?” he asks. “I wanted to show them I believe in you, you can do this.”

Other non-human practice materials include orange peel, faux skin, and pig ears.

4. They agree with your parents.

Artist tattooing male customer's hand in studio
iStock.com/Portra

If you’re looking for support for your burning desire to get a neck tattoo, you probably won’t get it from your local tattoo parlor unless you’re older and have a steady job. A lot of artists flat-out refuse to tattoo necks, faces, and hands for young people because they know it could affect the rest of their lives.

“I don’t feel like at 18 you understand the risk of that,” Leever says. “That’s huge. I feel from a moral and ethical standpoint, I could do this and get paid however much, but totally change or ruin this kid’s life.”

According to one survey, 61 percent of HR managers said a tattoo would hurt a job applicant’s chances of getting hired. “People are like that’s money you turn away,” says Jeffery Page, a California-based tattoo artist, “but it allows me more time to do something more positive. Otherwise you’re screwing that person out of at least half of their job opportunities.”

5. A good tattoo artist will say no.

Whatever your age or employment status, there are some tattoos artists just won’t do, either because it’s not their specialty or they know it won’t look good or heal well. The professionals will be honest about this.

Small, intricate designs might not age well, and finger tattoos won’t last. A good artist will warn you about these potential complications and maybe even refuse the work. Because so much of their business relies on referrals, their art is an advertisement, so it better be good. “A good artist will tell you no because your money is not worth their name,” says Page.

But this isn’t always true, especially for less-experienced artists looking to make as much money as possible. “They probably didn’t train under somebody that taught them well,” Leever says. “It’s become this cash-cow industry where people open up a shop that know nothing about tattooing and hire a bunch of people who don’t know anything about tattooing and it’s just about making money.”

6. Tattoo artists hate it when you don’t look at their portfolios.

One big pet peeve of artists is when customers don’t even peek at examples of their work before asking for a tattoo. This is a little bit like hiring an interior designer to revamp your home without looking at their previous designs or at least checking out their Yelp reviews, except a lot more permanent.

“I want my work to sell itself,” Leever says. “I want you to look at this and realize, yes I am the one for you.”

This is also a sign a customer hasn’t done their research, another pet peeve. “If you’re in such a rush to get a tattoo that you can’t look up a person, then you probably shouldn’t be getting it done,” says Page.

7. They’re tired of infinity symbols.

A woman from the back with an infinity tattoo at the nape of her neck
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Tattoo trends come and go, but this one just keeps hanging on. According to Leever, there’s been a huge increase in requests for the infinity symbol (which sort of looks like the number eight on its side) over the last few years. “A guy I worked with did four or five in one day,” Leever says. “It’s a poor, boring design. Maybe it’s on Pinterest or something.” Indeed it is, but it’s also on a lot of celebrities, including Kristen Stewart and Taylor Schilling. And celebrities have a huge influence on tattoo trends.

“When Megan Fox got lettering down her ribcage, it seemed like for a whole year we’d have girls come in asking for messages down their ribcages, saying it means a lot to them,” says Page. “But they never would have gotten the message on the ribs, because it’s more of a painful area, [except] the fact that she had it meant it was a cool summer addition to their body.”

8. They make mistakes all the time.

They just know how to cover them up so the customer never knows. “Every tattoo artist messes up,” says one artist on Reddit. “We just take the time to fix it as we go, adding a flourish here or there, a little bit more contrast. No client would notice.”

9. You can barter with them.

Not all tattoos must be paid for in cash. “I actually love bartering, because both parties involved always get what they want,” says Leever. “No money exchanged, makes it easy. The best barter I've been involved in would probably be when I received a 1977 Kawasaki KZ750 motorcycle with a sidecar. It was quite the deal.”

10. Men have the lowest pain tolerance.

A male tattooist at work
iStock.com/Glenofobiya

Women handle having their skin pricked with needles over and over again much better than men do, according to Page. “Usually the funny thing is, the more alpha male the guy is, the less of a pain threshold they have,” he says. Leever tells the story of a man who wanted a “tough guy Metallica tattoo” but who couldn’t handle the pain. He left the shop with a single line trailing down his bicep.

11. Cover-ups pay the tattoo shop bills.

The tattoo industry is self-sustaining in many ways. For example, people rarely stop at just one tattoo. According to the Pew Research Center, about half of millennials with tattoos have more than one, and 18 percent have six or more [PDF].

But there’s also a lot of cash to be made in covering up old designs. “I make more money from guys down the street than from new customers,” says Leever, meaning bad tattoos from his competitors. “There’s always a name to cover.” And speaking of names …

12. There are only three names you should ever have tattooed.

According to tattoo artists, if you’re going to get a name inked on your body forever, it should only belong to your pets, your kids, or a dead relative.

13. The bodies of tattoo artists take a beating.

A female tattooist bent over a drawing
iStock.com/PeopleImages

“If your back’s not hurting, you’re not trying hard enough,” Bang Bang says. “I have a bad neck now after many years of being hunched over. Back problems are really common, as are hand and neck and eye problems. It takes a toll.”

This article was first published in 2016 and updated in 2019.

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