The real estate business is booming throughout the United States, and perhaps nowhere more so than in the Washington, D.C. area. In this edition of New American Voices meet Moon Choi, a Korean immigrant and local real estate agent.
For Moon Choi, a handsome man in his late thirties, the real estate business is much more than just selling houses. “It's not just selling one piece of real estate. It's selling the service, selling yourself, providing a good service,” he explains. “This business is a long-term commitment, so once you take care of the customers, they will come back to you, and refer you to a lot of different people. I think this is really a good profession. As an occupation, you make money, but you're also helping people, so it's really a fulfilling job.”
When Moon Choi was a boy growing up in Seoul, South Korea, he says he dreamed of becoming a lawyer. At age 20 he came to the United States to study, but found it tough going. His English was not good enough for him to easily follow classes, he says, and he didn't have the necessary financial support. So after a semester at a community college, he chose another alternative: he joined the Army.
“I think that was a good experience for me,” Mr. Choi says. “I really worked hard on the language, because I realized I really have to learn to speak English. Because I came here when I was 20, I didn't have any background experience about childhood or growing up in the States. Interacting with other soldiers who came from all over the United States I picked up a lot of different experiences, backgrounds, what it's like living in America, those kind of things - so, I had a good time in the Army.”
After leaving the Army, Moon Choi worked for a couple of years as a manager in a clothing store. By this time, his parents had also emigrated to the United States. “Like many immigrant families have done, my parents opened a small dry cleaners, where I had to help, because as a family member in the Asian community, you've got to help your family,” Mr. Choi says. “So I helped my parents to set up the store for a year, and after that, the store settled down and was going well without me, so I left and I joined the real estate business.”
To become a licensed real estate agent, Mr. Choi was required to take some eighty hours of courses and pass a federal and then a state real estate examination. The classes were not all that difficult, he says. “Actually, they consisted of the law -- you know, real estate law, financing, and principal. You apply for the test, and if you pass it, you get the license. But just like with a driver's license, you get the license, but it doesn't necessarily mean you're a good driver. So, it takes a lot of experience, and it's hard to be a good realtor.”
Moon Choi has been working in the profession for eleven years, the last six with a company called Presidential. Appropriately enough, the walls of the company offices are hung with presidential memorabilia, including campaign buttons, photographs, and souvenir plates with painted-on portraits of presidents and their first ladies. Moon Choi doesn't spend much time in the company office, though. Often he works from home, and much of the time he's out showing houses to prospective clients.
Mr. Choi says most of his customers come to him though referrals. Many are immigrants, including quite a few Koreans and other Asians. “A lot of immigrants come to this area for a lot of reasons,” he points out. One of the top reasons is a good school, but also good living conditions, good jobs, because there's a lot of job opportunities here. Actually, immigrants are a really big buying force, because they come here, they came to the States, they're working hard, and they want to have a good house for their families. They're good clients.”
The housing his customers are looking for varies greatly, Mr. Choi says -- from relatively small apartments or condominiums to large single-family homes. But whatever they decide to buy, the prices they're paying now are considerably more than they were a year or two ago. “The range of the average price of a house in the D.C. area has really increased. I would say, five or six hundred thousand dollars used to be really, really good houses, now they're kind of an average house,” Moon Choi says, adding, “but if you look at the ten-year period, the price increase I think is justified. Compared to other metropolitan areas, in my opinion, the Washington D.C. area housing prices were low before, so now they're kind of catching up.”
Before his clients actually start shopping for a house, Moon Choi encourages them to get pre-approval from a bank, to make sure they know what kind of a house they can realistically afford and what kind of a mortgage payment they can expect. Typically, the buyers pay about 20 percent of the price of the house as a down payment. Mr. Choi says he usually shows his clients four or five houses before they settle on the one they want -- although sometimes the number can go up to 20 or more.
With the Washington-area market as hot as it is, Moon Choi works very hard -- twelve-hour days are the norm, he says -- but the job brings him a good income, and much satisfaction. “I like the real estate business,” he says. “I love being a realtor. I think this is a noble occupation, if you exercise what you can do and help people. And generally the real estate market is good, especially in the metropolitan area. So I see myself doing this for a long time.”