Chiquita Abbott advises colleagues to build their sales skills and learn all they can about local properties during this slower time in the business.

Chiquita Abbott, CRB, of Del Mar, Calif., obtained her real estate license in 1959 at the suggestion of her mother-in-law who thought it would be a creative outlet for the former executive secretary. Fifty years later Abbott, 84, is still snagging listings and shuttling around buyers as broker-owner of Chiquita Abbott Inc. REALTORS®.

Though business is more competitive than ever, she finds nothing more gratifying than building and maintaining relationships with colleagues and clients in her seaside community north of San Diego.

What's the most difficult period you've been through in the real estate business?

ABBOTT: This year has been the toughest ever. The economic problems are so broad and we have 4,000 agents working in this market. There's not enough business for everyone to make a living. But we have advantages too in that people come from all over the country and from other countries to buy property in our area. I'm still working because I love it. I'm a very lucky lady.

How have you made the most of this slower time?

ABBOTT: When things are going very well, you're frantically working to get offers through. You don't have enough homes to sell. Now I have time to keep learning about my territory and the details of properties in the area. It's a great time to get more educated and work on your professionals skills. I also did the opposite of what other people did: I spent more on advertising when finances were tight to get more people to know about a listing.

You were approached by Prudential about 10 years ago to sell your business. Why did you resist?

ABBOTT: I did not want to lose my autonomy. I always had between 12 and 15 agents and I didn't want to get any bigger. I didn't think I would make any more money. I made a judgment and I think it was a good one. Some of my agents went to work for Prudential, and that was fine with me.

About seven years ago I moved the business from our office to my home. It sometimes drives my husband crazy. I still have three agents and we all work from home. One danger of working from home is becoming isolated. I make sure to spend time interacting with the other agents.

Are you comfortable with current technology?

ABBOTT: I have two laptops, a desktop computer, a printer/fax, and a copier. I use e-mail and a cell phone. I have several dedicated work spaces at my home. Technology is great for bridging the needs of different generations. But it doesn't replace the need for real one-to-one contact.

The Internet is really bittersweet for me. You have the world at your fingertips. And it speeds up the work, but because everyone can see every listing, the public may not see the advantage of getting close to a professional who can really guide them through the process and knows the details of a community.

There's really an overload of information. I can find out about a property in San Francisco for a client, but I won't know as much about the area as a salesperson who works there. You can't be an expert in every place.

What criteria did you have in recruiting new agents?

ABBOTT: Everyone needed to have six months of savings before getting into the business since you couldn't count on income in the beginning. I didn't look at their financial records. It was a matter of trust. It almost always worked out. I had many agents who stayed with me for 20 years. I only asked agents to leave the business three or four times in my whole career. It turned out the profession wasn't the right fit for them.

What are your expectations from your agents?

ABBOTT: I've never had sales requirements. I wanted them to work hard, but they didn't have to be the biggest salespeople to stay in my firm. I never publicized individual sales numbers. That's a matter of integrity and self-image. Everyone in the office didn't have to know if someone had zero sales in a particular month. If someone was having trouble, I was very hands-on about helping them.

What's the key to your longevity in the business?

ABBOTT: I've built long-term relationships, which are necessary to become-and stay-successful. I've worked with three generations in the same family. You need to become part of the community that you sell to, whether it's volunteering at the YMCA, a local planning board, or a budget committee. I was a president of our local association and I helped set up the MLS about 40 years ago.

Also, you have to be committed to the work. This is not the time for part-timers or hobbyists in real estate.

Do you see signs of a market recovery?

ABBOTT: Things are turning around. In our area we have people with money who are bored of hearing the bad news. People are putting money into real estate because it makes sense. Real estate is the basis of the economy. And if you have a need for a home, it's always a great time to buy. You just have to find the right pocket, the right neighborhood for you.