How a Small California Real Estate Team Will Make $1M in 2020

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The trend in real estate teams is toward size: mega teams, expansion teams, and mega-expansion teams! There are big teams all over the country doing great work and producing tremendous results.

But big teams aren’t for everyone. In this week’s episode of The Walkthrough, we talk to Melinda Elmer, leader of a small team in Long Beach, California — just three people total. Melinda shares five secrets of success that have propelled her small team to put up big numbers, and tells us what it would take for her to consider growing her team to 10, 20 or more people.

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Links and Show Notes

Full Transcript

(SPEAKER: Matt McGee, Host) Everyone knows that bigger is better, right? Give me a double cheeseburger over a single burger any day. Do you want a 70-inch TV or a 32-inch TV in your family room? I bet you’ll take the 70. And if you’re going out for a night on the town, a big, bad limousine is better than a Toyota Corolla. (By the way, I’m not slamming Corolla owners. I’m actually one of you.)

My point is that we live in a society where bigger usually means better.

In real estate, we can all agree that bigger commission checks are better, right? This trend toward bigger things often plays out in the growth of bigger brokerages and bigger teams. That’s not a bad thing. There are big teams and brokerages all over the country doing incredible work, and providing great service to their clients. We’ve had several of them on “The Walkthrough” already, and we’ll have more of them on in the future.

But it’s not the only path to real estate success.

Today, we’ll discover five secrets of success from a small California team that’s putting up big numbers.

This is “The Walkthrough.”


Hey, everyone, I’m Matt McGee, editor of HomeLight’s Agent Resource Center. On this show, you’ll learn what’s working right now from the best real estate agents and industry experts in the country.

At HomeLight, we believe in real estate agents. Together with you, we’re on a journey to create a world where every real estate transaction is simple, certain, and satisfying. If you’d like to reach me with feedback, ideas, or questions about “The Walkthrough,” there are now two ways you can do that. The email address that we’ve been giving out the entire history of “The Walkthrough” still works. That’s walkthrough [at] As of last week, we now have a voicemail number where you can leave a message. It’s 415-322-3328. I do read all the emails and voicemails that come in. So, I’d love to hear from you. Again, that number is 415-322-3328.

Okay, I’m sure you’ve seen the trend — big teams, mega teams, expansion teams. Again, nothing wrong with that. There’s no judgment here. But there are some agents who prefer to keep things smaller, who believe you can put up big numbers without a big team.

Melinda Elmer is one of those agents. She’s a 17-year veteran who works out of Long Beach, California. She has a three-person team. It’s herself, another agent, and a full-time admin. I should also mention that Melinda won two HomeLight Achievement Awards for 2019: top producer and top negotiator. And she’s also Move Safe Certified, too, which shows that she’s using the right tools and practices to keep clients safe.

The Elmer team is on pace for about 80 deals this year. And that’s even with the challenges of COVID-19. They could track to 90 or 100 if and when the market rebounds.

On today’s show, Melinda walks us through five things she does to put up big numbers despite the small size of her team. So, listen for her to talk about

  • her number one source of business and how she works it
  • her focus on efficiency, not wasting a moment during the workday
  • the benefits of treating other agents well
  • and a couple more secrets to small team success

After we chat with Melinda, I’ll do our takeaways segment. And then we also have a HomeLight Home Run segment today, too, so stay tuned for that.

First up is my conversation with Melinda Elmer. I began by asking, why she’s purposely keeping her team so small when the industry trend is to get bigger and bigger.


Melinda: You know, I certainly look at profitability, and it…and I’m trying to maximize my production and my skills. I can only find one of me generally. So, the volume that I’m doing, and how hard I’m willing to work, is really hard to find that in someone else. And so because it’s my business, and I want to do a really good job at it, I like to think of ourselves like a doctor’s office. I’m the doctor. And our buyer’s agent is kind of the nurse. Has a lot of skills, but they’re a little bit more specialized. I have skills, and they’re a little bit more specialized in one area, but we can both do some similar stuff. And then our admin is the admin person.

So, in a doctor’s office, yes, there’s gonna be some doctors’ offices where they have, like, 15 different agents…or 15 different doctors that are all working the same group of patients. But I feel like the customer gets a better quality of care if I…if we’re the only two people working with it. I mean, I think about how hard it is just for the three of us to make sure that we are all on the same page with all of those clients all the times.

So, imagine if you have a team of 20 people, and you’re trying to communicate that information to everybody else. And you’re always talking to a different person all the time. That’s not the kind of experience that I want for the clients. I wanna have a cohesive experience for them, and then all the communications there.

Matt: It gives you a chance to be more hands-on with the clients that way?

Melinda: It does. And you know, it’s better….I think it’s better customer service, more direct with the person who has the most experience. And ultimately, if my buyer’s agent has a question, you know, because I have three times the amount of experience that she does, but I’m able to refer back to that, and she can ask me that question. And she can still answer questions that the client has, without having to ultimately be completely separated from me.

Matt: By keeping your team small, you know you’re going against the grain here, right? The trend is towards these mega teams that you’ve mentioned. The expansion teams, I guess is another term that gets used, depending upon where you’re at. I heard a speaker last year, I think it was last year, say that, “It’s only a matter of time until joining a big team is the only way to grow your business.” So, what do you think when you hear something like that?

Melinda: Keeping it clean?

Matt: Yes, please do!

Melinda: I don’t think that’s true. I can see where the appeal would be for a newer agent trying to come in under a team. And when I first started, I had a mentor. And they took 50% of my commission. And I remember the brokerage took 50%, and then the mentor took 50%. So, I remember getting my first check, and it was like $1,500 and I thought, “Oh my god, I worked for 3 months for $1,500? That’s crazy.” But in essence, I mean, if you’re on a 40-60 split with the buyer’s agents, at what point does that no longer become profitable? I think that our industry promotes a lot of this because it’s easier for the brokers, frankly, because now you’ve got a broker who’s ahead of the office, and then you’ve got these teams underneath them, which are all basically mini offices.

And most of the time that listing agent isn’t producing enough business to really keep the team afloat. So, they’re spending a lot of money, energy, and time … A) training and managing the agents who are working underneath them, which really should be the broker’s job. And then, and I may not make a lot of friends by this statement, but and then the people who are underneath, they’re all newer agents. So, you know, if they’re doing 2, 3, 4 deals, well, that’s great, but now they’re on 40-60 splits. So, they’re not making very much, and eventually, they’re gonna go on to work, have their own team. And now, at what point does it just become… There’s all these ridiculously large teams that have zero experience, but they’re all riding the coattails of whoever that initial Rainmaker was. And that initial Rainmaker has to generate enough business to keep that whole team busy.

Now, I know a couple of agents who run a very effective and efficient big teams. But in those cases, their buyers’ agents are doing 30 to 40 transactions a year. Now, I have no problem with that. And I would be happy to run something like that. But it’s still a small, tight and efficient and very profitable and productive team.

So, I guess my caveat to this is if I can take my business to that level, where I’m training a…you know, my buyer’s agent right now is getting closer to that type of production with our production. And so if I’m able to duplicate that, absolutely, I’d be open to that. But if I’m just gonna be a big, mega team with a ton of agents working under me doing two, three, four, or five deals a year, that’s not worth my energy and time.

Matt: Melinda told me that she works all price ranges in the Long Beach area. That’s from high-end homes down to condos that may sell for $200,000 or so. And her numbers are excellent. Two years ago, she closed 70 deals with a GCI of more than $750,000. Last year, she was on pace to do about 80 deals but took 4 months off to have a baby.

This year, she’s at 28 transactions as of the second week of May. That puts her on pace again for about 80 deals. And with an average commission of about $12,000 to $13,000, Melinda and her small team are pacing at almost $1 million in GCI, and that’s even with the Coronavirus pandemic slowing business down since March.

So, I asked Melinda to share her secrets. How does she manage to put up big numbers like that with such a small team? She walked me through a handful of things, starting with taking great care of her past clients and sphere.

Melinda: I think really it’s about customer service and doing a really good job for those clients because I would say 80% of my business is coming from those past clients and sphere of influence. So, we’ve taken really good care of them. So, they come back to us over and over again. We just took a listing last week, and it’s going on the market at the end of this week. And today, he called me really excited because he had a potential referral for me who was gonna buy his house.

So, he may not buy it. But we’ve already shown him such good customer service just in the last week that he decided to hire me and pay me a full fair commission versus somebody else who worked, who farmed his little community, who was even willing to do it at a 1% commission. They really saw that I was willing to go the extra mile, and now he’s already called me with a referral.

So, that kind of difference. Or we have another listing coming on the market here in the next couple of weeks that we did such a great job for those clients that now they call me, and their neighbor is gonna be selling their home of 65 years, and they decided to pick me over two other agents, because of that referral. So, that source of business is huge, and being able to take care of it. And I also call other people as well. But that is the largest, especially in this last year, because I have a nine-month-old. So, I have to be extra efficient right now.

Matt: What do you do in order to maintain the efficiency needed to have a young one at home, run a small team, and put up the production that you’re putting up?

Melinda: Every night before I go to…before I end my workday, I sit down and write down all the things I need to do the following day, and put it into my schedule. I run a very tight schedule.

Matt: Are you time blocking?

Melinda: Essentially, yes, I just kind of go through my list, and here’s what I have in my schedule. “Okay, now I need to move on to the next thing. Now, I need to move on to the next thing. Now, I need to move on to the next thing.” You know, and as much as that’s possible, because of course, you know, we were a few minutes late getting our call started because I had to finish a call. So, I can’t tell a client, “Oh, sorry. It’s 1:00. Sorry. I have to get off the phone right now.”

Matt: Gotta do the HomeLight podcast!

Melinda: But we were almost finished. I knew we were almost there. But you know, and within reason, absolutely I’m time blocking. It’s, “Okay, here I need to do these things during this time, this thing’s during this time, and just keep moving through my list, and do what needs to get done during that window.” And I have a pretty hard stop at 5:30 at the end of my day, so I can spend time with my son before he goes to bed at 6:30.

Matt: Okay, so customer service, focusing on past clients and sphere, maintaining an efficient schedule. So you know, doing sort of time blocking. It’s so you’re not working, you know, 12, 14 hours a day — you’re not working 7 days a week?

Melinda: I might hear otherwise from my spouse. But, in general, no, I’m not…I feel like I’m not. Like, I do some really intense, focused work. I take a little break at lunch, and I get to see my son because I’m home, working from home, which is great. And so I eat a little lunch, and then I get right back on. So, I’m not messing…I’m not looking at Facebook. I’m not playing around on LinkedIn or doing other things like that. I am very specifically doing my lead generation, talking to my clients, negotiating contracts, going on appointments. Any of that other stuff, I try to delegate as much as possible, and I’m not doing any personal stuff during work hours.

So, you will never call me during my workday, and I will not be at the grocery store. That will be a very rare day when that happens. I’m very structured in my day so that when I’m off, I can be off. Obviously, within reason, if I have a client who couldn’t talk during 9:00 to 5:00, well, I’m still gonna make that call, have a conversation later in the day. I might pick one or two people I need to have conversations with. Things like that. But that would be then after 7:00 after my son’s gone to bed, or on the weekends, of course.

I do generally work Saturdays what I would consider a half-day. Although the quarantine has actually changed, I work less on Saturdays because more people are more available during the week. So, that’s been a huge, great thing. I actually get more of a Saturday off, and then Sundays I’m off. But I’ll still answer emails or texts or things like that on occasion. But I try to really put my phone down and walk away on Sundays.

Matt: I mean, it sounds like the key is, when you are working, you’re just very focused about it, very intentional, no wasting time, no goofing around.

Melinda: Right. No, I see that as money being lost.

Matt: Speaking of being intentional, it seems to me if you’re going to keep a team small that puts a premium on hiring the right people. Do you agree?

Melinda: Absolutely. Yes.

Matt: What was then…tell me what your hiring strategy was for the people that are on the team now? What were you looking for?

Melinda: Self-starter and someone who works well within our group. That’s really important to me. And I think our next hire will be an additional admin person. I can free up my system. My system has developed a lot of really good skills over the years. So, when I’m looking for my next hire, I wanna have someone who’s a self-starter, who doesn’t have to come to me for every question. Who can go figure stuff out on their own.

You know, and I’m certainly by no means an expert in hiring because I don’t do it very often. I think that’s the biggest thing that I’m looking for is someone who can really go try to figure stuff out. I mean, when I started as a real estate agent myself, I think back to I had a mentor who was probably in her 70s back then. She’s still alive and working, I believe. But my mentor was in her 70s seventeen years ago, and she was very slow, methodical, did nothing on the computer. And here was this 24-year-old kid that she was working with who was like, “Nope, I need to make some money. I need to go make this happen.” I’m pretty sure she only did three or four deals a year. She was acting as the broker of record for our office. And we were on very different wavelengths.

You know, if I needed to figure something out, I went and researched it, and looked it up, and tried to figure out what the solution was to that problem. Whereas she was just kind of like, “Okay, well, it’ll happen when it happens.” And so that’s a similar quality that I look for in people that I hire. My assistant when we hired her, I hired her and then literally left…I left two weeks later on vacation. So, I pretty much said, “Here’s some basic stuff. I’m going on vacation in two weeks. Good luck. Figure it out.” And she did.

And I tease her all the time about that. I’m like, “See, you did such a good job then that now I just give you way more stuff than you feel like you can handle sometimes.” So… But you know, she really goes to bat for the team. She cares about the team. You know, we kind of have created that team effort, so that I know that if she does get overwhelmed that, you know, we try to help each other out. I’m trying to do less of that. So, that’s where I think my next step would be, to potentially hire an additional admin so that we can go to 150…100 to 150 transactions in the next year or 2.

(Announcer: Hi, everyone, if you’re enjoying “The Walkthrough,” we’d appreciate it if you tell the real estate agents in your network about us. Even more, please rate and review us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen. Your feedback helps us get better, and in some cases, can also help new listeners find and hear us. And when we get around to having you on the show, the more listeners the better, right?)

Matt: Okay, just to reset at this point. I’ve been asking Melinda to explain how she manages to produce big numbers while running a small team. It’s just three people, herself, another agent, and one admin. If you’re taking notes or making a list, so far, she’s walked us through three things. Number one, strong customer service, and a focus on working her past clients and sphere. Two, efficiency. Melinda has a daily schedule and sticks to it. There’s no goofing off during the day. Three, she doesn’t hire often, but she’s intentional when she does. She wants self-starters, people who are as driven as she is.

There’s a couple more things to add to the list, starting with systems and scripts. Melinda says they make the team’s business consistent and repeatable.

Melinda: It’s easy for my assistant to answer the phone for me, and be able to answer people’s questions because she already knows what I would say because I say the same thing over and over and over again to everybody. So, I don’t vary what I’m saying. And she has scripts, I have scripts, we all have scripts that we follow to make sure that we’re all doing the same thing. So, within that, even something as little as sending out a listing contract in DocuSign to be signed, she just can copy and paste the language. So, she knows, “Okay, this is the same exact thing that’s going out to every person.”

So, if anybody, later on, were to come back to me and say, “Oh, well, you didn’t tell me this,” I can say, “Well, yes, this is part of our standard operating procedure.” This is not free-for-all real estate. We do the exact same things over and over again. And the questions and objections and things like that people have, none of those are new. So, it’s very easy for us to be consistent, because she knows what I would say. My buyer’s agent knows what I would say. We’re all in alignment there. So, if one of our buyers has a question, any one of us can answer that question. Or one of our sellers has a question, any one of us can answer that question.

I would say one of the other things that is successful for me is that I’ve maintained a lot of really good relationships with agents, both here locally and also across the country and even the world. I’ve been to, like, Mike Ferry events in Italy and France, and all over the U.S. And so maintaining those relationships, I get referrals from those clients…those agents all the time, I’m able to send them referrals and make a fair amount of money every year through just referrals as well.

And in addition to that, because we really take good care of the other agents, and we do a good job with the other agents, we are not about drama. We are not about making it really painful for everybody. We’re very upfront. We’re like, this is the deal. This is what’s going on. We try to keep everybody informed. And because of that, if we’re in a multiple-offer situation, with our client and a buyer situation, we will get picked 9 times out of 10, because they know us, and so that helps our clients get offers accepted. It makes us more efficient as well.

Matt: Have you ever thought about getting bigger than the small group that you have now? And under what circumstances would you ever consider being more than a three- or four-person team?

Melinda: I think, yes. If when I get to the level of doing 125, 150 transactions a year, I can see myself having an additional buyer’s agent/ listing agent and then also like another admin or so, maybe another admin and a half. Ideally, I’d like to have a full-time transaction coordinator, something like that, but this is when we’re talking 125, 150, you know, much bigger volume at that point. Because I know that we can do 75 transactions with just the three of us. I have every confidence that that can happen.

So, until we start to add an additional 30, 35 transactions, I don’t see the need to add an additional staff person. It’s something that I wanna focus on right now because I do want to grow to 100 plus transactions.

Matt: Would you ever want to be, you know, a 10, 20, 30 person team?

Melinda: Only if I was doing, like, 200, 300 transactions a year.

Matt: So, there’s probably some of the folks that are listening might be thinking about forming their own team. What advice would you give them about that, specifically about getting the size of their team right?

Melinda: I would say that if somebody is younger in the business, or even older in the business, but they’re only doing 10, 12 transactions a year, which is great, my first step was hiring a TC, and I actually use the office transaction coordinator. So, I was just paying per transaction, which great…worked great because if a transaction fell apart, I didn’t have to pay them, right?

And I worked that way until I was probably doing 40 deals a year. Thirty five, 40 deals a year is probably when I made the switch, and I brought in an assistant. So, I wouldn’t necessarily look at hiring additional agents for me until I was doing consistently 30-plus transactions a year because you can spend that time focused on working your clients and work with motivated, qualified clients, not the ones who are gonna drag you around forever. You know, really get clear about what your minimum standards are so that you’re not wasting time showing property to people who aren’t qualified or motivated. And that’s a huge difference.

If we show a buyer, they usually buy within… We show them three or four houses max, usually, and they buy. So, we’re not dragging around for months and months and months showing them property day after day after day after day. If you’re newer, don’t think about bringing up buyers until you’re doing consistently 30 transactions a year. Think about bringing an admin or a transaction coordinator or something like that, which most offices have in house. So, you can probably just utilize that service until you’re doing more business that you’d need that additional support.

Matt: And if they said, “Melinda, how big should I let my team grow?” What would you say?

Melinda: You know, it’s gonna depend on each individual person. The stuff that we have to do expands to fill the time that we have. So, if we allow ourselves to work 12 hours a day, every day, even a year and a half ago, I spent more time kind of playing around on the internet or, you know, watching YouTube videos or something on my breaks. I don’t do that stuff at all now. If you saw a Facebook post for me during the middle of day, I would be shocked. And it’s probably not me doing it. It’s probably somebody I hired to do it. I just don’t have time for that right now. It’s not a priority. My priority is my son and my business and keeping that busy during the day. You know, if you wanna spend a lot of time going and doing a bunch of other stuff, you might decide you need to hire additional help and additional people.

Matt: I mean, it sounds like you’re saying there’s no such thing as a right size of team. It’s up to the individual and what that person’s goals are and…?

Melinda: Exactly. And I look at profitability. There was a group around here that interviewed me to come in and take over their big team, because they were semi-retiring. And when they talked to me, I kept asking questions, “Well, how much productivity does this agent have? What is your average per person productivity?” And from what I could tell, most of the agents were doing 10 or 12 transactions a year. And to me, why do I wanna spend all my time and energy and effort?

Okay, so I get a 40% split off of that agent or probably a 30% split, because the more transactions they start to do, the more they want to keep their own money, right? So, let’s say I’m paying a 40% or a 30% split, or I’m only getting a 30% or 40% split, is it more effective for me to go out and sell 2 more houses? Or is it more effective for me to spend all that time training and working with them to grow the business so that they can do a couple more transactions when I can do more transactions because I have the skills, I practice my scripts daily, I work on all my skills every day so that I’m getting better and better, and I have that experience? Or do I wanna spend all my time training another person? That’s gonna be up to each individual. I don’t wanna spend my time training other people.

(Speaker: Matt McGee, Host) Thank you so much, Melinda, and congrats on the success you and your team are enjoying.

Coming up, we have a HomeLight home run segment to share about an agent in Bay City, Texas. But first, let’s do our takeaways. And those takeaways are the five things that the Elmer Team does to put up big numbers while keeping the team small.

Number one, great customer service, especially towards sphere and past clients.

Two, they stay incredibly efficient every day. Melinda says she has a very structured, very intentional day. No goofing around.

Number three, she has hired self-starters, just like herself.

Number four, she says the team relies on scripts and systems to make their business consistent and repeatable and more efficient.

And five, they treat other agents with respect. Melinda says that leads to more referrals. And it also helps her clients in multiple offer situations, because other agents know that they’re in for a good experience.

I wanna hear from listeners who are on teams or lead teams. What were your takeaways from today’s show? Or do you prefer being part of a big team? Or do you agree with Melinda that you can be just as happy and successful on a smaller team? Tell me what you think. You can leave a voicemail. The number is 415-322-3328. I’ll repeat that in a moment. You can also email walkthrough [at] Really, I’d love to hear from you on our Google Voice line. Again, it’s 415-322-3328. Speak clearly and I may use your comments in an upcoming episode.

All right, let’s do a HomeLight Home Run. This is a segment we’ll do where we celebrate your success stories, your home runs as it were. This week’s HomeLight Home Run comes from Sherry Williams, an agent in Bay City, Texas. Sherry’s win was selling a home on the first day it was listed, and this is in a market where homes don’t normally sell that fast. She also picked up a $1.5 million land listing, too. So, that is a home run for sure. Way to go, Sherry.

I’d love to share your success stories as a future HomeLight Home Run. Again, the email is walkthrough [at] Or leave a message, tell me about your success at 415-322-3328.

That’s all for this week. Thanks to Melinda Elmer for joining us, and thank you for listening.

Remember, at HomeLight, we believe in real estate agents. Together with you, we’re on a journey to create a world where every real estate transaction is simple, certain, and satisfying. Go sell some homes. We’ll talk to you again next week. Bye-bye.

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Sound effects in this episode by DomainHunter and CGEffex, used via Creative Commons license.