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Interview with Al Cannistra from SanAntonio.homes

San Antonio, Texas, USA downtown skyline on the river walk.

We had the pleasure to of speaking with Al Cannistra who is a licensed REALTOR® and Property Tax Arbitrator in San Antonio Texas. Al is also the owner of several .Homes domains including SanAntonio.Homes. He moved to San Antonio in 2004 and entered the real estate profession after leaving a career in the corporate world. We hope you find our interview enlightening as well as educational. 

Homes: Tell us a little about yourself and your background in real estate, if you would?

Al: My background is corporate. Thirty years in that world, ultimately ending as a VP of a billion-dollar, multinational company. It was a move to San Antonio and a personal makeover which got me into real estate, and that experience was the culture shock of a lifetime. I went from having a large support staff to just me. That took some getting used to.

The very first book that I read about real estate was quite interesting. In chapter one, the author suggested that folks transitioning from corporate to real estate experience a ninety percent failure rate. That same day I decided that I would be one of the 10% who survived!

It was 2005, I got my real estate license and a mortgage loan officers license. I had to immediately give up the mortgage license because the broker I was with at the time did not allow us to have both. I looked at commercial real estate and thought it might tandem with my corporate background, but ultimately decided on residential real estate, focusing primarily on the northern portion of San Antonio and surrounding counties.

In addition to real estate, I also work for the state of Texas as a property tax arbitrator. You must be an appraiser, an attorney or a licensed Realtor to qualify as an arbitrator. The process for tax arbitration was created by the state legislature in 2005, effectively beginning in 2006. I’m one of the oldest people from the first organizing class still doing arbitrations, not in terms of age, but in terms of how long I’ve been doing it.

Homes: As you were leaving corporate what got you interested in real estate versus a different second career?

Al: The reason for relocation from Chicago and walking away from my corporate career was an aging parent who had to be moved to a warmer climate. That required a lot of my time. There was much care required and many doctor’s appointments. A full-time position of any kind just wouldn’t have worked. Real estate gave me the flexibility that I needed.

Homes: Who are your primary clients? How do you find them and what markets do you currently serve today?

Al: I primarily work in the north-central area of San Antonio. I concluded that the best way to serve clients is to focus on and increase my level of expertise in a section of the city. (Not all agents will agree with that). If this were a small town, covering it in its entirety would be fine. San Antonio is not small. Just a quick example – we have an inner loop and an outer loop, the outer loop being 1604. One day, I started in my neck of the woods, drove around the city on loop 1604 (at 50-70 mph) and by the time I got back it was two hours later – that’s big! I also did four and a half years with the San Antonio Police Department as a volunteer – anywhere in the city –  and realized just how much geography there was to cover. You’ve heard everything is bigger in Texas? It is. So, while I focus on northern San Antonio, if I have a client relationship or if someone refers a client, I have been known to take on real estate forty or fifty miles from where I’m located.

Homes: You mentioned getting referrals. Can you tell us about your marketing and advertising efforts and how they have evolved since you started in real estate?

Al: When I first started in real estate, I was with a brokerage that provided leads for a fee. You could also work at the front desk and that’s how I really got started because I didn’t know many people in San Antonio at the time. As my business grew, I focused more on referrals. I’ve had clients come back to me as many as three times and there will soon be one back a fourth time. It is all about building trust.

I’ve invested in many strategies. I’ve done mailings and postcards, email and newsletters. I’ve done Facebook and Twitter ads and even television ads. For a time, I was just focusing on the TV commercials but the number of hits on my website went down, so I stopped television ads.

Homes: It sounds like you’ve tried several different marketing tactics and even some expensive ones, like television. What worked best for you?

Al: I would say word of mouth. You try to make yourself public to build trust. Social media is a great venue. My social network exceeds forty thousand followers. I have walked into a local supermarket and been recognized on a number of occasions. I have walked into a car dealership and a Lowes and been recognized. I think just being out there and being visible is important.

Homes: How has social media impacted how you do business, just being online and having that sort of presence?

Al: Some folks say you need only two social media accounts and to some extent, that might be true – as a minimum. In my opinion, you need to be in several social media arenas because clients are there and you want to be there too – you want to be the one they think of when they think of real estate.

I am experimenting with magazine racks – that’s where the grocer offers all the free real estate magazines. I have leased space as the featured Realtor on a couple of those racks and already was surprised when someone said ‘Hey, I know you, you’re the guy I saw on the rack at the grocery store, I saw your picture.” So that works too. It’s just about having your image in the public eye.

Homes: It sounds like you have a combination of offline and online presences to get in front of your potential clients?

Al: Yes. I’m also looking at possibly using a local company that offers a mailing service. They create a list for you, print mailing labels, address the postcards and mail them for you. It is nothing new but the service offerings have improved. You just pay the bill.

Homes: What is your goal when you’re engaged in social media or print advertising or whatever it might be? Do you have a specific call to action, like visiting your website or picking up the phone? How are you trying to get folks to engage with you once they’ve seen your personality out there?

Al: I used to have a strategy of multiple websites, at one point over forty sites. It was too much maintenance, too much time and not productive. Today I try to focus everything on two – SanAntonio.Homes and SanAntonioRealEstate.Blog. Both sites cross-link to each other and I figure if I can get people focused only to those places, in the long run, it’s going to have a better result than forty sites I tried to manage. Two sites also allow us to laser focus on SEO and better ranking.

Two things I would like to mention to your readers. The quality of your site and its content matter. Choose your host carefully. And, keep in mind – the market has shifted to mobile. Your site must perform well on any device. My sites are designed to do that. In addition, the SanAntonio.Homes site instantly offers to download the free app version and the ability search from the user’s location – no ads. You want users to come back!


Homes: That’s how we got connected, you registered a .Homes domain. Can you tell me what interested you in registering a .Homes domain when you already had a website?

Al: I think that .Homes is the most specific top level domain (TLD) anyone in real estate can own. For me a .Realtor domain doesn’t offer the same opportunity. What do people look for when they’re shopping for a home? They’re either going to use the city, suburb, subdivision or zip code and the term homes, houses, properties when searching. The user wants to see homes for sale not talk to an agent. Most folks search for homes and properties first. They want their privacy. The agent is a facilitator of the transaction when time to open the doors and negotiate a contract.

By having “San Antonio” on the left and “Homes” on the right in the domain, I figure that’s pretty much what people are looking for. I am content to be here when folks have decided an agent is needed. The internet is not about the .com anymore. There are many new TLD’s, .homes being one of them. And, I am not suggesting that agents should not have a .Realtor domain – I am just pointing out which I think has a better ROI. The .Realtor compliments all else and increases awareness of our profession.

Homes: That’s awesome. We always try to ask guests that we talk to, especially if they’ve been in the industry for a while, what advice they would pass on to newer agents. Having your breadth of experience, having worked with a lot of different marketing and advertising opportunities, what would you tell a new agent that wants to come into real estate about being successful? What advice would you give them?

Al:  In 2005, when I first got into real estate and was getting acquainted with agents already in the business for a quarter of a century or more, I saw a problem. I noticed websites tended to be the agents name .com. In those days that might have been effective because people knew them, and personal websites were in their infancy. Those folks brave enough to have their own sites had what amounted to vanity sites. The value of branding and the thought that someday, they will retire or move on and that the domain could have value was overlooked. Let’s face it, a domain named Suzy is not likely to be bought by a guy named Jim.

In those early days my branded site was MySATexasHomes.com. We didn’t have all the new extensions that are available today. The playing field has changed. There are new opportunities for branding. As I said earlier, I think.Homes is the best TLD for real estate. That is why I have SanAntonio.Homes and FloridaNew.Homes (I am also licensed in Florida).  (Editor’s note:  Since this article was initially published, Al has purchased 17 additional .Homes names representing towns and neighborhoods in the north San Antonio area.)

Another – albeit I think a critical reason to brand yourself is to build and maintain your client base. If an agent relies on a site provided by the broker and the agent moves to another brokerage – clients will be lost! And, don’t even think about selling the domain – you do not own it. If a broker offers a free site – by all means use it. Use it as a secondary domain or point it to your branded domain and invest in improving your branded site. The branded site is yours.

So, my advice, get a domain name that you own so you can build your brand and can sell in the future. Whether you stay in the business for five years or fifty years you need to build your personal brand, and that brand is going to be important to you.

Homes: That’s awesome. I know you’re doing some interesting stuff. We’ve talked about the fact that you’re working on something with the new Alexa voice technology. What trends do you see emerging for real estate professionals in this coming year of 2019?

Al: I think Alexa and real estate are in courtship mode. It’ll get there, but I like to be on the bleeding edge so we are the first in San Antonio. There is going to be a learning curve for sure. Perhaps it will be a great draw for millennials.

In addition to starting with the voice search option, about two weeks ago I became a participating agent-owner of Turbo Mortgage. Turbo Mortgage is a new offering from our broker and his partners. It’s RESPA compliant and we’re offering mortgage services as part of our package. We’ll be able to offer to match or beat any price and offer an additional dollar value in savings, maybe five hundred dollars toward the purchase of a home or something like that. It’s a REALTOR owned mortgage company, and I’m told it’s the first of its kind.

Homes: That sounds very interesting. Are there any other similar trends you think real estate professionals should be watching out for?

Al: Real estate is evolving and moving away from brick and mortar brokerages – a trend that I think will continue. I have been with some very large brokerages in the area. I wanted to experience the different business models. We had corporate-like offices with desks and computers for everyone. The few agents that brought clients to the office used conference rooms. I began to ask myself who needs all the overhead especially with the rapid advance of technology. I switched to Texas Premier Realty about five years ago and it is totally virtual. When I joined, there were about a hundred agents, now we have about four hundred and fifty. I like the freedom that goes with being virtual. I like the reduced cost. I think the REALTOR® of the future is going to be virtual.

Perhaps the greatest short-term danger to the profession are the companies that are trying to package real estate services and turn them into a commodity where if you want to buy a house it will just cost $199 or $999 or something like that. Agents need to be aware this is happening, yet I think over time (and experience) people will rediscover a need for a professional to protect their investment and get the most money for their home if selling. Someone to hold their hand through the process, show them properties if they are buying, and take care of the human side of the transaction. Computers cannot do that. Residential real estate is very emotional and requires a human element.  I think agents will be around even though the world of real estate will be different.

Homes: Al, where can people find you if they want more information about you or if they’re in the San Antonio area and looking to buy or sell a home?

Al: I am easy to reach through my websites, SanAntonio.Homes and SanAntonioRealEstate.Blog. If people want to connect on social media, they can visit my blog, look in the rightmost column for the “social hub”.

Homes: Well, Al, I want to thank you for spending time with us today. I think this was very valuable to our readers. Thanks again for coming on and we look forward to an awesome 2019.

Al: Thank you.

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