A man and a woman walk together holding a laptop and cellphone.

When real estate is 'All in the Family' 

It's not uncommon for agents and brokers to work alongside spouses, siblings and other family members — see how they make it work + 4 tips for success.

Updated August 25, 2023
5 minutes

Key points:

  • Family members have a fuller picture of each other’s skills and strengths, which can be a benefit.
  • But being the boss’s kid or spouse may mean working extra hard to earn respect.
  • Clear expectations and good communication are important in any business relationship, but especially when working with family.

Ever have one of the days when your broker is on your last nerve and all you want to do is gripe to your fellow agent? Except you can't, because the broker is your dad and the agent is your cousin.

Such is the fate of real estate pros who go into business with family. And, as challenging as it can be to manage personal relationships in a professional setting, those who've made it work say it's a tightrope worth walking.

'We're collaborators'

Neal Clayton is a broker/license partner with Engel & Völkers Nashville. When son John Clayton decided he'd like to join the brokerage as an agent back in 2008, his parents asked him to think long and hard about that decision. "We told him the good and we told him the bad," says Neal.

The two say that working with family "isn't all butterflies and puppies," but they agree there's far more good than bad. And, while they know experts advise separating their personal and professional lives, that's just not how the Claytons operate. 

"Pretty much every time we get together, the discussion ends up focused on real estate," says Neal. "We try not to talk about it all the time, but we're collaborators."

John agrees: "It's who we are and it ties us together. We share an interest and we have different perspectives on that interest. It's not work for us to talk about real estate."

The family ties in the office don't end with Neal and John. Between the brokerage and their property management division, there are six relatives involved in the business. "There's no favoritism," says Neal. "We work very hard to be transparent and fair with all our advisors. There are no free rides just because your name's Clayton."

'You definitely have to earn your own way'

Brothers Joe and John P. Horning represent the third generation of leadership at Shorewest Realtors, a Wisconsin company with more than 1,000 associates in 23 offices. They grew up working around the office, but Joe says he never intended to get into the business himself — at least not right away.

"I graduated from Marquette with a degree in IT, and there's an unwritten rule that you ought to work someplace else before you join the family business. But the CFO at the time convinced my dad that they needed me to help update our systems," says Joe. "So obviously that rule was broken."

Joe says he and John have skill sets and personalities that complement each other, and there are rarely disagreements. "We grew up sharing a bedroom and, when we were first starting out, we bought a duplex together," he says. "We know each other as well as two people can know each other." 

For those who think joining the family business is the easy path, Joe says you might want to reconsider. "You definitely have to earn your own way," he says. "You're under more scrutiny than anybody else and you're not going to get the slack that others might. Joining a family business means working extra hard to prove yourself and earn respect."

'We truly understand what each other is going through'

Spouses Donna Harding and Sebastien Latulippe are brokers/owners with Engel & Völkers Nova Scotia; they oversee 100 associates and staff in seven offices. Their business includes one of their sons, a nephew and their sister-in-law. The retired naval officers have been married 19 years and have worked together for 20 years.

"There's no manual about the best way to work with your spouse," says Sebastien. "Every day is a new day and we have to ask ourselves what we're doing well and what we need to work on."

Donna says she finds comfort in knowing her work partner is also her life partner and that they share the same goals and work ethic. "I don't have to come home at the end of the day and say, 'You're not going to believe what happened with this agent or this deal,' because he was there," she says. "We truly understand what each other is going through."

The best part of working with her husband? "We're always together," she says. "On the flip side, we're always together. Sometimes I just have to find a moment or two for myself."

The two admit it hasn't always been easy, especially when they first started out. Building on a strong personal relationship has been key to making their professional relationship work, says Sebastien. 

"Love will get you through a lot, and sharing the same vision and 'why' are really important," he says. "Plus, communication is everything. If you want it to work, there can't be any secrets."

4 tips for working with relatives

Thinking of working with your family or launching a new business together? These tips can help set you up for success.

1. Consider working somewhere else first

Experience in an outside firm can provide invaluable training, improve your business judgment and build your confidence. It's a good way to get to know your strengths and preferences. It may also help colleagues see your worth.

2. Adopt an 'office voice'

Be aware of the ways in which you interact with family at work. Use a professional tone. Don't make others feel excluded by using nicknames, sitting on dad's desk or sharing inside jokes. Save family talk for after-hours.

3. Define your role

Make certain you have a clear understanding of your role and responsibilities, and share that information with others in the office. You don't want to step on colleagues' toes. 

4. Treat everyone equally

If you're the boss, work to treat family members as you would any other employees. That means no preferential treatment. It also means you shouldn't expect family to put in extra work or time without compensation or acknowledgement.

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