Five Questions With: Diane Vitalo

Diane Vitalo is a licensed Realtor based in Warwick at HomeSmart Professionals who formerly worked as a senior loan officer for Citizens Financial Group Inc. Vitalo’s career in real estate spans more than two decades, but she returned to the industry in 2021 at HomeSmart.

This year, Vitalo earned a certification as a senior real estate specialist, meaning that she underwent courses through the National Association of Realtors, preparing her to better serve senior citizens and the elderly. Vitalo said her network includes services that senior clients may require, including elder law attorneys, mortgage brokers, painters, junk removal and other services.

PBN: You’ve made it a focus of yours to work with clients who are seniors. What are some of the unique challenges seniors are facing when it comes to real estate, and what do you do to cater to them?

VITALO: As a baby boomer, I realize that we all go through many life changes, and with that a different set of needs, desires and emotions evolve. We may qualify as seniors chronologically, but I think mindset plays a great part in aging. Many older people are just becoming empty nesters, but they are not old. Many are still very active, but the children are grown and gone and as a result, they have housing decisions.

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There is a lot of emotion that plays into the should we stay or go decision. It’s a family home with tons of memories, but do we want to deal with the upkeep, or do we want to simplify and downsize and free up cash to do what we enjoy? And how will the kids react? So much depends on health, finances, age and dreams. These decisions are life changing and can be heart wrenching for the entire family. It is the polar opposite of the excitement of the purchase of the first home.

Other clients may have to move because of circumstances. Their health may prevent them from living alone, perhaps they cannot afford the house anymore and the family is pushing them to sell. In addition to selling the home, I can connect the sellers and their families with attorneys, accountants, social services, etc., who specialize in elder issues that include probate, powers of attorney, life estates, etc.

As a Realtor, I have to be extremely empathetic. I understand the situation because I have been in it with my own children. When mine left, I stayed a few years in our home but eventually I decided to sell. Breaking down a home and deciding what to keep and what to get rid of is a tough thing to do. But at the same time, I know that depending on client circumstances, this sale can be the start of a wonderful new chapter; an adventure that can really be savored only once you have reached a certain age. It’s my job to find out the specific needs and desires of my client and make that happen for them.

PBN: Can you tell us about your Senior Real Estate Specialist designation? Where did you get it, how did you earn it and what does that mean for you?

VITALO: The Senior Real Estate Specialist in a designation earned through classroom study with the R.I. Association of Realtors. There are less than 100 agents in the state with this certification. It was in those classes that I learned about the special needs of this particular group and how to be a liaison for any services they may need. As we boomers age, this group will grow and need the services of professionals that understand their situation primarily because they have been there themselves.

PBN: What are the situations that a reverse mortgage might make sense for a client?

VITALO: The reverse mortgage definitely has a place in all of this. If a homeowner wants to remain in their house and they have a lot of equity, the reverse mortgage allows them to tap into that equity and get cash to help them stay in the home. There is no payback until the house is sold or the owner dies, and the estate sells to pay off the loan. There are a lot of nuances to this type of mortgage. It can be a lifesaver for many people, but I recommend sitting with a loan officer who handles them and finding out if this is the right product for you.

PBN: What do you make of this current real estate market, in terms of the speed that new listings are being sold and how that suits you?

VITALO: The current market is a double-edged sword. Great if you are a seller. However, once you sell, you become a buyer – you have flipped positions. It is an important reason to have an experienced agent working for you to protect your interests on both sides of the transactions. Properties are still seeing multiple offers, many over asking price, so pricing the home to list is almost like an art. One house on a street can be one price and two months later the one next door sells for $30,000 over what the first one did. You just don’t know.

If the client is a buyer, they need to be prepared to act fast. There is no time for “I’ll think about it” because there will probably be multiple offers and it will be gone by the time you decide. We don’t know how long this will last. But it is always a good time to buy. Even with the rate increases, real estate is always a great investment. Rental prices are as much as a mortgage payment these days, so if you can do it, improve your financial situation by purchasing.

PBN: How has the real estate profession changed from your point of view since the 1980s when you first got involved in the industry?

VITALO: First and foremost, technology is the biggest change since the ’80s. Imagine doing your job without the internet or fax machines! We did a lot of running around. The internet is a huge asset for Realtors and clients alike. Clients can view listings online, decide if they have any interest and go forward from there. They get a comprehensive overview of the market regarding pricing and what types of properties to expect in their price range.

As a Realtor, having immediate access to new listings, sales, expired, etc., helps us to be proactive in helping our clients. There are many more regulations in place today than in the ’80s. That’s a very good thing. Realtors did not garner a lot of respect back then; there were many unsavory people who gave the industry a bad name. While there will always be a few bad apples, that is no longer the huge problem it once was.

Today’s Realtor has to complete a 40-hour real estate class and pass a general knowledge and state law exam to be licensed. In addition, they are required to complete continuing education in order to renew the license every two years. They must have basic understandings of contract law, mortgage math, fair housing regulations, home construction, and Rhode Island and national real estate law. As such, we are no longer salespeople, but more of an adviser or consultant. These requirements have helped improve the old image and elevates the status of Realtor to that of a respected professional that you can trust.

Marc Larocque is a PBN contributing writer.