Real estate "For Sale" signs around south Charlotte can be as varied as the houses.
While the market once was dominated by large real estate brokerages, many Realtors now are going out on their own. Emboldened by the Internet and social networking, small boutique firms and independent agents are finding a niche in today's flailing real estate market.
"We see a lot of the younger agents who are pretty fearless, and they are not afraid to step out and be on their own and start their own companies," said Kim Walker, public relations and media relations specialist for the Charlotte Regional Realtor Association.
"They have not known the boom times, so they are working with the landscape they've been given."
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According to statistics from the CRRA, which covers a 10-county area in and around Charlotte, almost 1,200 of its 6,200 members are independent agents. Many more work in small agencies with fewer than five people.
Realtor Steve Stawick of Charlotte, who started Focus Residential Group about five months ago, said he's seen more and more real estate signs he hasn't seen before.
He said some Realtors, like himself, start at a larger firm and learn the ropes. Stawick is now on his own.
"I think after a year or a little more than a year, you're starting to find people who are saying, 'I get this, I can do this,' and are going out on their own or who are pulling together with one or two other agents and saying 'Let's go do our own thing,' " Stawick said.
Jennifer Diaz, 37, left a career in finance after having children, but decided after a while that she wanted to go back to work. She first worked at a large franchise firm.
"They have educational classes and classes that teach you how to set your own goals and make your own biz plan," she said. "It was a very good foundation, and I still use a lot of what I learned there."
A year ago, Diaz became an independent Realtor and founded Jen Diaz Realty. Like Stawick, she didn't want to pay the fees and commissions required at larger brokerage firms.
"It just doesn't make sense to me to pay out a percentage of commission to a franchise when I am just as productive (on my own), if not more," Diaz said. "To me, I felt like I have enough resources at hand that I don't need to be going somewhere else."
Diaz said Facebook has been "phenomenal"; she has created a page for Jen Diaz Realty and has more than 600 friends who keep up with her business.
Between Facebook and a newsletter she sends out to 800 houses in Sardis Forest and neighboring residences, Diaz said, her business is going well.
"I know that area the best," Diaz said. "I've consistently marketed to that same group of homes over and over again. Now I'm pretty much the first person they call when they are thinking about selling their home in the neighborhood."
Diaz now gets about one call a week from people considering listing their house. She recently sold a house that was on the market for 37 days, and had a house under contract 12 days after it was listed.
Stawick, 30, uses Twitter and Facebook to make connections with potential clients or referrals, though he's careful not to inundate subscribers and friends with real estate information.
Those networks are "a nice, passive way to stay in front of people," he said. When his connections are ready to buy or sell a property, they likely remember he works in real estate and ask him for help, he said.
Stawick said he valued talking with fellow brokers at an agency, so he now meets once a month with a small group of Realtors who also work in uptown and south Charlotte. "It fills that gap that I wouldn't be getting because I'm on my own," he said.
Diaz and Stawick said they are pleased with the progress of their businesses, even in a sluggish market.
"I feel like I'm doing better because I take pride in my name, and it's my business," Diaz said. "I've got an added passion and drive because it's like my own baby. I didn't anticipate that, but I feel like I take it so much more to heart."