By Erica Noonan, Globe Staff | May 8, 2005
© Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

NEEDHAM — The real estate firm is called Century 21 The Alexanders. As the name suggests, it’s a family business — but not just one family.

Owners Robert Byrne and his wife, Kathleen, bought the business from his mother, Doris Alexander, who retired after more than two decades.

Today, the firm employs three mother-daughter teams, and in the office near Needham Center, home life blends in with talk of new homes.

Joan MacEwen, 74, started selling real estate when her three daughters were in grade school. In 1986, her middle daughter, Debbie Anastas, now 45, joined her in the business.

Sensitive to the challenges facing working mothers, Joan helps Debbie keep an eye on her two children, now 12 and 14.

”There is one thing I tell people about working so closely with your daughter,” said MacEwen, who recently retired. ”You really do have to get along with each other well.”

The real estate business has always attracted women seeking flexible hours and independence. But the open-ended nature of the job can be misleading. The demands of an overheated market and technology that lets customers see houses 24/7 on the Internet has made residential real estate intensely competitive and demanding.

”It’s 100 hours a week of availability, and you can’t tell a client, ‘Sorry, I don’t have a sitter,’ ” Anastas said. ”They see a house there on the computer screen, and they want you to show it to them immediately, and you need to be there for them.”

The work-life balance is often more complicated than for women with 9-to-5 desk jobs, the agents said. Clients want constant cellphone and e-mail access to their brokers, and most weekend days are consumed with open houses and client showings.

In Needham — where the current median single-family home price is $642,000 — stakes, and commissions, are high. More than ever, the mother-daughter duos said, you need a partner you trust.

Most of the older-generation moms said they remember a day when few women worked outside the home. But their daughters, even those who have become mothers themselves, say they never considered not working.

The mother-daughter teams have varying arrangements. Some work independently but offer coverage and backup for each other; others are official partners, sharing commissions and client responsibilities.

Becky Gorman, 24, is the youngest of the group, choosing to partner with her mother after graduating from Boston College in 2003. What has her mom taught her so far? ”To be confident in what you are doing,” Gorman said. ”To be positive.”

Karen Gorman, 53, joined the firm with her daughter in October 2003, switching to real estate after working for an insurance company for more than 20 years. Having raised Becky and her brother, Michael, at the same time, she remembers the constant tussle.

”You have a sick kid with a fever who you’re worried about, but you still have to balance a corporate image,” she said. The camaraderie at the real estate office means mothers don’t have to hide their personal concerns.

Laura McDonald Hasenfus, 33, earned her real estate license last month and brought her own two children, Emma, 5, and Timothy, 3, along for a quick stop at the office one day last week.

She’ll be working with her mother, Jane McDonald, who has been with the firm since 1989. McDonald says she is eager to combine her years of experience and negotiating skills with her daughter’s fresh perspective on Generation X home buyers.

”Many of the people buying houses today are Laura’s age, and she’s lived here all her life and she really understand their needs,” she said.

Laura, who also works as a special education preschool teacher, said she is equally excited to partner with her mother. ”Working with your mom is a special thing,” she said. ”It’s not something most people ever get the chance to do.”

 

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