When Erika Rivera’s husband, Luis Rivera, a Navy petty officer first class, was sent to complete military training in Virginia Beach, she was left with the daunting task of finding the couple’s first home while taking care of their newborn daughter.
She soon found help in Homes for Heroes, a nationwide for-profit company that affiliates with real estate-related service providers, such as Realtors, loan officers, title company professionals and home inspectors, who offer substantial rebates and discounts to heroes serving our country and its communities.
Realtors affiliated with Homes for Heroes donate 30 percent of their commissions to the buyers. Of that portion, 25 percent goes directly to the buyer in the form of a discount or rebate and the other 5 percent goes toward the Homes for Heroes Foundation, a nonprofit that provides financial assistance and housing resources to military personnel (active, reserve and veterans), law-enforcement officers, firefighters and first responders in need, and a portion of that 5 percent is designated to administrative fees.
“Our Realtor, Lisa Helmly-Tracy [a Homes for Heroes affiliate], was so helpful,” said Erika, 36, who works as an administrative nurse for Leon Medical Centers Health Plans in Doral. “I was looking for houses on my own and it was hard. We looked at one place before he left and after I continued the search by myself, but once he registered with Homes for Heroes, Lisa contacted us shortly after and I started working with her, she completely took my stress away.
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“I always had to take the baby with me to look at homes and Lisa would help me by holding her while I recorded the different houses with my phone so I could send videos to Luis and hear his opinion and know if he liked the property or not,” Erika said.
Homes for Heroes began in Minnesota as a licensed real estate company, shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks when CEO Ruth Johnson, a Realtor, was asked by her son, Mark Micek, if there were any existing programs to help heroes buy homes. It now has 2,000 affiliates and operates in 49 states.
It recently made its way to South Florida and debuted on Feb. 19 as the first buyer, who worked with a Homes for Hero affiliate, closed on a home.
Micek’s casual question in 2002 sparked his mother’s curiosity and the answer gave way to what the company has become, one many Realtors and lenders praise and are passionate to be a part of, despite donating a chunk of their commissions to buyers and paying a $149 monthly membership fee ($175 for lenders and a discounted rate for yearly memberships).
For Helmly-Tracy, 64, a Realtor with Yes Real Estate Services in Pinecrest with more than 15 years of experience, the appeal of working as a Homes to Heroes affiliate hit close to home. Her son, Keith Helmly, 30, is a Miami firefighter.
“I feel so much happiness, excitement, passion to be doing this type of work,” said Helmly-Tracy, whose Homestead closing with Yinalis Jaime, a healthcare professional, was the first Homes for Heroes closing in Miami-Dade County.
“It just feels like the right thing to do, I want to donate part of my commission, I want to help the community and honestly, I don’t know why [Realtors] wouldn’t want to unless they couldn’t,” she said. “Closing a home is very expensive and every bit counts plus it’s at no charge whatsoever to the hero, so why shouldn’t they use it?”
Helmly-Tracy is currently working on two other closings, including the Riveras’ in West Kendall.
“Programs like this one are great because they give back to us, they make finding and buying a home simple and hassle-free,” said Luis Rivera, 36, who is buying his first home, a three bedroom, two-and-a-half bathroom house in the Kendall area, and has been an active-duty Navy man for 14 years. “Communication with our Homes for Heroes Realtor was on point and she really went the extra mile to get the paperwork to me while I was away.”
Rivera says he doesn’t know for sure how much money he will have saved by closing time, but he estimates it will about $3,000.
While the Homes for Heroes initiative is still in its infancy in Miami-Dade County it is quickly growing. It has four Realtors aside from Helmly-Tracy: husband-and-wife duo Karolina and Rene Cruz of Yes Real Estate Services; Vivian Guerra of Florida Realty of Miami; and Elle Montero of the Special Miami Homes team; and one loan officer working for Paramount Residential Mortgage Group, who are registered affiliates in South Florida.
Karolina Cruz says she’s motivated by the smiles on buyers’ faces at closing.
“I wish I could do more,” she said. “They really are heroes in my eyes and it’s not easy for them to buy a property. My neighbor, who is a firefighter, told me when he was in the process of buying his home he had to work part-time jobs on the side just to be able to afford his house, it’s heartbreaking, and it makes me wish I could go back in time to help him, they work hard and they deserve the help.”
Even so, other Realtors are not as giddy about the Homes for Heroes enterprise and complaints about the membership fee being too steep and the percentage of the commission donated too high can easily be found on online forums such as real estate industry blog, Active Rain, which features a 2009 blog post warning Realtors interested in registering for the program to beware that Homes for Heroes is not a lead generating program and that paying the monthly fee does not guarantee having a hero referred to them.
Comments on this blog post, some as recent as February, question whether the program is in violation of Section 8 of the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act. Ross Bennett, a Realtor in Orlando, asked: “Section 8 prohibits any payment or anything of value in exchange for referrals. How is this different than illegally paying the local real estate agent for referrals?”
While others were quick to jump in online, in defense of HFH: “HFH does NOT give the hero 25%, the realtor does!” and “I was a policeman for 20 years and have had my Brokers Licenses for 12 years. I joined the HFH program 6 months ago and I am a firm believer in it. As a young officer and first time home buyer supporting a family of 4 on 25/K a year (many years ago) I can appreciate the benefits of the HFH program.”
The back-and-forth comments between Realtors for and against the program go on and on. Some even went so far as suggesting the creation of a similar program and calling it Houses for Heroes, others saying they would donate a portion of their commission to heroes without being affiliated with the program, and those currently working with HFH staunchly making its case as a “blessing” to their businesses.
Homes for Heroes marketing director Luke Feldbrugge, who has been with the company about a year, says there has been some confusion generated by companies that operate under similar names, despite that Homes for Heroes is an officially registered trademark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
He also highlights the most common misconceptions about the HFH program.
“From the heroes standpoint, I’d say the biggest misconception is who qualifies. Homes for Heroes defines qualifying heroes as firefighters, law enforcement, military, healthcare workers and teachers,” Feldbrugge said. “From the perspective of real estate professionals, many are looking for lead generating programs and that’s not us, we’re a nationwide network of people who want to thank heroes for their extraordinary service to our communities, in fact many of our affiliates are actually heroes themselves.”
Feldbrugge explains the monthly fee paid by real estate professionals provides them with access to a national marketing program and marketing tools, a custom website page, discounted services on strategic industry partnerships, which include brand names in the real estate community and mentoring and training from a dedicated HFH success team.
One way or the other, the benefits to heroes are undeniable.
According to Feldbrugge, Homes for Heroes gave back over $5.1 million in total hero savings nationwide in 2015 and notes that the company’s official website features a Hero Savings Counter listing an amount over $13 million since 2009.
“I wouldn’t have been able to close on my house without the help of the program,” said Yinalis Jaime, 26, a healthcare professional working in Miramar, who is the single mother of two daughters, ages 5 and 7.
“It helped me so much because I was short on cash and got many discounts with the title company, lender and Realtor. I had been saving money little by little for about three and a half years and instead of paying $13,000 for the closing and the down payment on the house, I only paid $8,000,” said Jaime, whose soft yellow-colored, 1,512-square-foot home is inside gated community, The Groves. “Now, my girls have a nice place to call home.”
For more information on Homes for Heroes, visit www.homesforheroes.com.