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Mr. Battiata goes to Washington ... again

Matt Battiata doesn't give up easily.

In January 2009, the CEO and lead listing agent for the Battiata Real Estate Group traveled to Washington, D.C., on a mission. Meeting with representatives from both houses of Congress, Battiata lobbied for his plan to stem the tide of foreclosures, a plan he still regards as "maddeningly simple." The proposal, which he says doesn't cost the government a nickel: compel banks, which were getting a $700 billion government bailout, to reduce fixed interest rates for buyers and homeowners to 3 percent, and allow upside-down homeowners (those who owe more than the current value of their properties) to refinance.

It didn't happen.

"The problem with all the government programs they've come up with," Battiata said from his Del Mar office overlooking I-5, "is they were all voluntary on the part of the banks to participate. The government didn't put any teeth in them."

At least it didn't last year. Battiata is headed back to Capitol Hill in early February to again meet with members of the House and Senate. His proposal will be much the same, but this time "I'm going to say 'Look what's happened the past year.'"

Battiata can point to San Diego County, where "we had four concurrent foreclosures moratoriums (the last ending in September)" designed to give banks time to modify borrowers' loans. But the banks opted for what Battiata calls a "Band-Aid" approach. "Most of these people need a dramatic reduction in their payment, and the banks are just not willing to do that."

Now, as a result, Battiata expects "a deluge of foreclosures" in the first quarter of 2010 as inventory held back by the banks -- and held back, he says, as an asset to inflate those institutions' bottom lines -- start to come on the market.

"It's a shell game," Battiata says.

Any perception that the real estate market has bottomed out and that 2010 stands to be a comeback year is "artificial," Battiata adds, because the housing inventory, minus the foreclosures, has been artificially low.

Matt Battiata is the CEO and lead listing agent for the Battiata Real Estate Group. Photo: J. Kat Woronowicz

Battiata, whose firm averages up to 200 transactions a year, acknowledges that he isn't painting a bright picture for the new year. "Real estate agents all kind of spout the company line, which is that everything is great," he said. "I don't understand that. It's a responsibility of mine to tell the truth. For some in our industry, that's like heresy."

A frequent guest expert on local TV and radio shows, Battiata realizes, too, that delivering grim news may limit his airtime. "I always tell the truth, and I think the news (programs) get tired of hearing it," he said. "It's not popular right now to tell the truth."

While there may not be good news on the real estate horizon, there could be a silver lining in San Diego County this year. Battiata expects to see "a lot of first-time buyers" out there "because the market has become more affordable."

But "the buyers we don't have out there are the trade-up buyers. They don't exist because most people don't have any equity."

It's a reality, Battiata says. "I take a lot of pride in the fact that over the last three to four years, I've been one of the lone voices (in the real estate industry) for reality."

Getting his voice heard has proven to be a formula for success for Battiata, who embraced the idea of marketing his skills and that of his 11-year-old real estate group early on. "It seemed to me," he recalled, "that most real estate agents were still operating in the dark ages. I saw a lot of agents who didn't do any marketing whatsoever."

Seeing an opportunity, "I started advertising right away," Battiata said. "It was trial and error in the beginning. I experimented with a lot of different things."

Not only did Battiata discover the benefits of branded advertising, but he "decided to position himself" as an expert in the real estate field. Visit his company's Web site, battiata.com, and you can track his thoughts on the industry and the market through archived segments in print, on radio and on television.

The exposure is in line with his strategy of enticing customers to come to him, rather than his wooing them. "Real estate," he said, "is one of the only industries that will cold-call people to get business. We did about 200 transactions in 2009, and every one of them called me first."

You don't see doctors cold-calling potential patients, said Battiata. Why should a real estate agent? "It's just a different way to position yourself," he said.

Battiata's radio and television campaigns, plus direct mail and Internet strategies on behalf of his buyers and sellers, are also part of his moving forward in an industry that can be reluctant to do so. "Real estate has stayed in this sort of 'mom and pop' (mode)," he said. "They end up giving really bad service."

In this troubled real estate environment, Battiata devotes much of his service to customers who owe more on their mortgages than their houses are worth. "We're doing hundreds and hundreds" of so-called real estate short sales. In touting the benefits of the short sale to the embattled homeowner as well as to the lending institution, Battiata borrows a phrase heard often on Capitol Hill: "It's good for Wall Street and for Main Street."

It sounds like Matt Battiata is primed for his return to The Hill, and he's more optimistic about his prospects this time around. "I think you might see things change in Washington," he said, "as far as the approach it takes with banks goes."

His ultimate goal, now as it was last year: get buyers back into the market.

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