Try to picture the top-selling real estate agent in the world.
Are you thinking of a New Yorker in a skyscraper who has befriended a bunch of investment bankers? Perhaps a shady Londoner steering oligarchs to multimillion-dollar mansions?
Whoever you’re imagining, it’s probably not someone like Ben Caballero.
Little about Caballero’s aesthetic screams world-class: The slight 83-year-old works out of a nondescript building in suburban Dallas. His office is outfitted with gray carpeting and drop ceiling tiles. He shares the building with a waste management company.
But the agent’s numbers don’t lie:
- In 2020, he set a world record of 6.4k home sales, presiding as the listing agent over ~$2.46B of sales volume.
- This year, he’s on pace to sell ~6k homes in Texas — a rate of ~16 sales every day.
In an industry teeming with whales, Caballero has become a near-mythical force — a real estate megalodon. And he’s done it without relying on mega-mansion sales and high-rolling clientele.
All he did was come up with an idea that made homebuilders’ lives slightly easier.
Caballero’s real estate career seemed destined to fail before it really got started.
In 1960, he moved to Dallas on a whim: His car had broken down on a trip from Oklahoma City to Houston, and he liked the friendly people who helped him on the road so much that he decided to stay forever.
Caballero was 21, fresh out of the Air Force, recently married, and had ~$500 to his name.
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Dallas was booming. New arrivals flocked to mid-rise apartments that sprouted in city neighborhoods and suburbs like elm trees, and Caballero realized after an unpleasant experience with an apartment-hunting company he could build his own business.
Just after Thanksgiving of that year, he started The Apartment Finders, a service that helped prospective tenants find rentals in Dallas. The company made money by taking a commission from the property owners and charging nothing to the apartment seeker.
Caballero’s (pictured in the photo) got some press in 1962 (The Dallas Morning News via America’s Newspapers)
By Christmas, Caballero felt immense pressure. The ads he placed in the local paper didn’t bring any customers. He and his wife had to carpool with friends to visit relatives in Oklahoma City because they couldn’t afford gas.
“The day after Christmas I say, ‘Well, I gotta get back to Dallas,’” Caballero recalled in an interview with The Hustle. “They said, ‘What for? You don’t have any business.’”
But shortly after New Year’s Day, the calls started coming. Real estate is a seasonal pursuit, and apartment seekers were again on the hunt. It was a small lesson but taught Caballero to pay attention to the quirks of the industry and use them to his advantage.
Soon, Caballero became a local real estate heavyweight.
- He used funds from his business to finance the construction of an apartment building, partnered with another builder, and eventually started his own building company, producing custom homes while holding a real estate license.
- In the late 1980s, during a depressed home sales market in Texas, he started a guaranteed buyout business in which he contracted to purchase the old homes of prospective homebuyers if they didn’t sell them by the time they closed on a new house. Caballero sat on the houses until he could sell them for a decent return.
For years, he ran his businesses with great success. Then, at an age when he should’ve been retired, Caballero got his best idea yet.
Inventing a new sales system
Caballero exploited an odd quirk in the way new houses get marketed and sold.
- Homebuilders generally just want to build houses and don’t care as much for the work of selling them. They’re rarely tech savvy, and they don’t often see eye to eye with agents, who find that builders are desperate in cold markets but avoid their calls in hot markets.
- Real estate agents generally don’t understand nuances of new homes, like how delays alter closing dates or that new homes have more complex contracts than existing homes. They also like to work with their own lenders, another turnoff for builders.
“It’s just a complicated relationship,” Caballero said.
Tract housing in Houston, Texas (Getty Images)
Sometimes the reticence to engage with real estate agents leads builders to make surprising choices. As Caballero discovered, many builders would not even use the Multiple Listing Service (MLS), the primary mechanism through which buyers’ agents discover homes.
So his first foray into becoming an agent for builders involved a simple accomplishment: convincing an executive at the homebuilding firm Lennar to let him list part of their inventory on the MLS.
Caballero’s work with builders grew from there. In 2007, he launched a platform, HomesUSA.com, that streamlined the builder-agent relationship.
It works like so:
- The program allows builders to easily enter data about homes they want to list. After a quick review by Caballero, the information gets uploaded onto the MLS.
- Caballero uses the software to monitor data and trends and provides feedback to his clients. He works much faster than average real estate agents, uploading new homes or updating information to the MLS in less than 30 minutes.
- An automated lead capturing service helps connect builders directly with potential buyers, reducing the need for a buyers’ agent commission.
Simple as the program may sound, it proved to be a significant innovation for builder clients who develop hundreds, even thousands, of homes annually in Texas, which has outpaced the nation in new housing, per capita, for years.
“No one (else) is doing it,” real estate agent Nav Singh told The Hustle.
He added: “I could go to 10 to 15 builders and say, ‘I’ll get your homes on MLS.’ (But) there’s more to it. The feedback he gives them and the timeliness is big.”
Zachary Crockett / The Hustle
Caballero counts ~60 builders among his clients, including giants like Toll Brothers.
Kelly Hoodwin, VP of sales and marketing for the builder Altura, says the streamlined process aids Altura’s sales team and saves them money in the long run. Caballero estimates the savings for his clients at ~$1k-$1.5k/home.
His Rolodex of big builders and the rapid growth of Texas, the tract home capital of the US, has resulted in an unprecedented hot streak:
- From 2004 to 2021, Caballero sold ~48k homes worth ~$17B.
- The Guinness Book of World Records honored him for the first time in 2016 (3.6k sales), again in 2018 (5.8k sales), and once more in 2020, for his sale of 6.4k homes.
Other prolific agents in the US might sell a few hundred homes in a year, and none have surpassed $2B in annual volume, like Caballero, who outsells many of the nation’s top brokerages.
Even Zillow, in the first full year of its failed iBuyer experiment, couldn’t keep up, selling ~$1.7B in homes in 2020, compared to Caballero’s $2.46B.
Zachary Crockett / The Hustle
Similar to his sales totals, Caballero’s methods differ greatly from most agents:
- There are no open houses or Saturday morning home visits. Caballero works from the office — along with 32 mostly remote employees — updating listings, tinkering with improvements for the software, and honing relationships with builders.
- Caballero charges builder clients a flat fee per home, rather than taking a 3% cut of the sales price, as most seller’s agents do. He gets paid when a house is listed rather than when it sells. (Caballero declined to discuss his rates or his annual revenues.)
Every afternoon around 5:30pm, Caballero’s software updates him on new homes listed under his name.
At a pace of 6k sales per year, he’s averaged ~16 listings per day. The median residential agent, according to the National Association of Realtors, closes on 10 homes in an entire year.
The next big idea
Caballero is aware he likely won’t break his 2020 world record anytime soon, given reduced buyer demand in the face of rising interest rates and a decline in housing starts, which had ticked up to their highest level in more than a decade at the heights of the pandemic.
But his business still has appeal in sluggish real estate markets.
According to Hoodwin, the Caballero client with Altura, builders might be more likely to use him when demand is lower. The market was so hot last year that many builders, including Altura, didn’t use real estate agents. (Caballero’s sales in 2021 fell to a pedestrian 4.7k.)
Caballero poses in his office with his Guinness World Record (Mark Dent)
Caballero has also been working on taking his service national.
His plan is to create a version of his program that can be licensed to homebuilders anywhere. The resulting product could mean many more sales for Caballero and a greater impact in the real estate industry.
No matter how big his business gets, he has no plans for upgrading his plain suburban office for a skyscraper in New York or London.
“I don’t need that,” he said.
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