Real estate agents who speak multiple languages are in increased demand as Philly’s immigrant population rises – The Philadelphia Inquirer

Foreign-born residents have largely driven Philly’s population growth, and home buying can be especially difficult for non-English-speakers. More real estate offices offer help in multiple languages.
After Carlos Giraldo came to Philadelphia from Colombia at age 17, he learned a lesson about the power of language that stuck with him.
When his parents bought their first house, their agent showed them only a couple properties and did the bare minimum. But the agent spoke Spanish, and since his parents didn’t speak much English, they didn’t have many agents to choose from.
Giraldo saw that Spanish speakers needed more resources, so he got his real estate license and later started his own business in 2007, focused on serving Latino buyers, sellers, and investors and helping them build wealth.
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“It’s not only earning a living. It’s helping your people in a way,” Giraldo said. “The Latino community really does need people to help them navigate the process in their language.”
He sees “a huge need” in Philadelphia and just expanded from his first office in the Northeast. He is recruiting agents for the Giraldo Real Estate Group office he just opened in North Philadelphia. A warm personality and a desire to help people are a must. Speaking more than one language, that’s a plus.
Closing a deal on a home is difficult enough when everyone in the transaction speaks the same language. When they don’t, any miscommunication could endanger the purchase of most people’s biggest asset.
Newer immigrants also have to establish credit, find jobs that pay them enough to qualify for a mortgage, and deal with additional paperwork. They can benefit from culturally sensitive guidance through a complex process that might be different than in their home country.
In Philadelphia, foreign-born residents largely drove the city’s decade of population growth, creating even more need for multilingual real estate agents.
“Our office reflects the community that we serve,” said Al Perry, broker and owner of Century 21 Advantage Gold, a real estate firm with offices in and around Philadelphia.
The roughly 200 agents who work for the brokerage speak 33 languages other than English, including Hindi, Ukrainian, and Yoruba. They are able to work with a wide variety of clients because of their language skills.
“It’s good business,” said Perry, who also is president of the Pennsylvania Association of Realtors. “I think real estate companies have started to realize that, and now you do see real estate brokerages more moving toward agent populations that are more reflective of the communities they serve.”
He acknowledged the industry has “a ways to go yet” to adequately serve all communities.
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The Inquirer spoke with multilingual, immigrant agents about their experiences in the Philadelphia region.
Emily Qing Hui Wang became a real estate agent in 2005 to help clients who don’t speak English well. Nearly two decades later, she’s still following that passion.
“There’s a need for bilingual real estate agents at that time,” she said. “And there is more and more new immigrants coming to the Philadelphia area.”
Last month, she cofounded the Philadelphia-area chapter of the Asian Real Estate Association of America, a group of real estate professionals that recruits and acts as a voice for Asian American and Pacific Islander residents.
More agents, lenders, and other real estate professionals now speak languages other than English.
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“But there’s more need,” she said, “and more support should come to help the community who are not language proficient.”
She said trust between client and agent is especially important when the client can’t understand English. But when agents earn that trust, clients refer them far and wide.
From one client, Wang has closed about 10 real estate deals, including homes for four family members within a couple blocks of each other in the Northeast.
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Sometimes communicating with clients isn’t as easy as speaking the same language.
Sharyn Soliman’s family is from Egypt, so she speaks an Egyptian dialect of Arabic. Most Arabic speakers understand her, but understanding some of them can be difficult for her.
Often, they know what each other is saying or the clients’ English-speaking children can translate. She refers some clients to agents from their geographic regions.
Palestinian, Lebanese, Iraqi, and Jordanian natives have been among Soliman’s clients, and she said she hears from at least two or three Arabic speakers each month, most of whom are referrals.
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“I have a lot of Arabic-speaking clients in Philadelphia” and several in Bucks County, she said. “There aren’t a lot of Arabic-speaking Realtors that I know of.”
Social media and culture-specific professional networks are frequent sources of referrals. A lender may be looking for an Arabic-speaking agent, and her friends recommend her. She has posted in search of Arabic-speaking lenders.
On calls with Arabic-speaking clients and English-speaking lenders, for example, she acts as a translator.
Jacqueline Talpa doesn’t speak French or Haitian Creole. But when two recent immigrants from Haiti came by her office last year hoping to buy a home, Talpa understood some of the challenges they faced and wanted to help.
The sisters could speak some English, so Talpa said she explained what she could and communicated in other ways — “using even little drawings and things like that.” Texting also worked well because of translation apps.
“Seeing two fresh immigrants really trying to get their American dream together, I feel that is really empowering for other people to see as well,” she said. “Being myself an immigrant, when you first come here, it’s not easy to find help.”
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When Talpa bought her first house in Seattle, her real estate agent wasn’t much help. She knew she could do better.
She gets about three clients a year who speak Czech as she does, and she understands Russian and Polish. She was drawn to Northeast Philadelphia, she said, because of its “hodgepodge of many different cultures.”
Compared to United States natives, immigrants, she said, “are willing to listen and learn a little bit more and take the guidance, I would say.”
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One of Angie Millan’s Spanish-speaking clients needed a first-time home buyer grant to help with closing costs. But when she got to the required class, the teachers didn’t speak Spanish. Luckily, she found someone to translate, but it’s one example of an additional barrier home buyers face when they speak another language.
For people who don’t speak English well, “there’s a lot of doubts, and they’re probably afraid to ask questions,” Millan said.
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“It’s just a matter of people understanding the process, the options, and being able to ask questions in their language that makes it easier for people to become home buyers,” she said. “I realized there was a need for people like me to help others, because I have the experience, I know the language.”
A few months ago, Millan participated in a first-time home buyer seminar held entirely in Spanish. She regularly guides Spanish-speakers through real estate deals happening mostly in English.
“When the people don’t understand the language, sometimes you have to translate and explain. So it’s a lot of work. But I’m happy to do it,” she said. “Once you go to closing and you see people’s dreams come true, that’s a gift.”


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