THE FINEST TALK
Dirk Wertelewski

THE FINEST TALK – Dirk Wertelewski

IT‘S SIMPLY THE HAPPY END THAT MATTERS TO US

Founder and CEO of Casa y Terre-no. The 54-year-old estate agent was born in Dortmund, became one of Germany’s most successful restaurant proprietors in his youth. In between, he sailed around the world and brought up two children. He lives in Almayate together with his companion and business partner Jenny, her two daughters, two dogs, three bunnies and the occasional fish.

A Friday afternoon in June on the beach of Almayate. In the background: Bob Marley – and a waitress who still has to learn how to use a bottle opener. Valentin Barbacoa, owner Juan’s billy goat, happily eats his way through the garden borders. And we are in between, talking about changing markets, new tech-nologies – and cloths soaked in vinegar.

Shall we start?
Let’s start!

A guesstimation: how many sets of keys have you held in your hands during your time as an estate agent?
I can tell you quite exactly: slightly fewer than 5,000.

And how many of them didn’t fit?
I’d say around 60. Most of them were poor copies.

You must have felt the cold sweat on your forehead.
Oh yes. It’s a very unpleasant feeling, and you don’t exactly feel very professional the moment you realise that somebody led you up the garden path.

And then?
Then you simply improvise and try to get hold of another key-holder – or drive on to the next house and come up with a nice story as to why the key didn’t fit.

Which takes us to every estate agent’s fear of the alarm system. How often have you triggered an alarm without knowing how to stop it?
This hasn’t happened all that often. You prepare yourself. As we have plenty of high-end properties, you nearly always have an alarm system waiting for you. I’d say an alarm sounded maybe five times unintentionally. And once I had to stand up against a wall and identify myself.

Some years ago, maybe you remember, we compared our mobile phones. Result: under the letter A alone you have more contacts saved than I have in my entire phone. Does this mean I don’t have enough friends – or do you have too many?
Friends are another story. To me, friends are people I really know well on a private level. Then of course there are business friends, which is category B. And category C are loads and loads of acquaintances.

So an estate agent without a mobile phone is…?
Lost.

Half a dozen employees, company cars, mobile phones, IT, office in a top location, advertising costs: doesn’t this sometimes cause sleepless nights?
Only shortly before and after the first of the month.

Casa y Terreno has been in the market for nearly 20 years. What is your formula for success?
The sheer determination to survive – and the constant effort to be as professional as possible. To persist in the market, you need to be present, in person and permanently. We had some easy and also some very difficult years when I think back to the crisis. I hope we now have some decent years ahead of us. After all, the economy is on the right track. I believe that after the eight rough years we had up to 2016 we are now facing eight good years to come.

Your opinion: what has changed in general over the past 20 years?
Consumer behaviour and the nationalities. In earlier years, most buyers came from Great Britain. They were also the ones who drove the prices up significantly. At the beginning of the millennium, the British market dominated; the pound was doing well. Ever since Brexit began spreading uncertainty, consumer behaviour has changed in the extreme. The markets in Germany, France and Switzerland are saturated, which means you won’t achieve the value increases that are still possible in Spain. We are freshly out of the crisis, level 1. You can really build value here. Rentability in and around Málaga is at over 90%. You earn money in a double sense: renting out properties and their increase in value. This is a guarantee for all those who want to make an investment. I always say: we are Europe’s Florida.

But Marbella is also nice; and they have white beaches along the Atlantic coast. Why Axarquia, why the Costa del Sol?
Because Axarquia is simply the perfect location. It takes me an hour to get to the skiing resorts in the Sierra Nevada, and when I drive back in the afternoon, I can still go water-skiing in the evening. Where else do you get that? Besides, we have a great interior. Granada, Sevilla, Cordoba – all within a radius of one and a half to two hours. It never gets boring around here. Culture, beaches, fun, great events – be it the caves in Nerja or the Weekend Beach Festival and the airshows in Torre del Mar. It’s about the lightness of being. Around here, you can slow down and recharge your batteries – and still enjoy the nightlife.

What made you become an estate agent in Spain?
I have sound business training. When I got here before the euro was introduced, I was looking for a property on the beach front. My Spanish was basically non-existent back then, and hardly any of the estate agents spoke English. Somehow nobody really showed me what I wanted. My search criteria were ig-nored; they simply showed me whatever they felt like. That was pretty disappointing. Then I thought: why not give it a shot in a more international way? I speak three, four languages – by now even Spanish (laughs). This enabled me back then to enter the market laterally – and within the first week I sold my first real estate.

Let’s stick to that time, 20 years ago. Nowadays, GPS gets us everywhere, even to ‘Quinto Pino’, as we say here, out in the sticks. Dirk searching for a finca between Alcaucin and Competa in 2001 – that must have been a totally different world…
A lot of handiwork (laughs). You need to ask your way, move around in the old-fashioned way. With folding maps. And then be communicative – telephone, telephone, telephone. Where am I? Seventh palm tree, Quinto Pino, turn right. Of course, it wasn’t that easy. But the nice thing about it was that you get to know the countryside – which is also fun.

Let’s play a game: I give you a sentence in “Client” and you answer in “Estate Agent”. The client says: well, the access road is rather bumpy…
…which is an enormous advantage, it really proves that we are in the countryside. If you want to live in the countryside, you don’t want a motorway at your front door, not even a tarred road that that everyone uses, with 100 cars whizzing past every day.

The internet said: connoisseurs’ property. Isn’t this more of a ruin?
A connoisseurs’ property doesn’t have to be a ruin. It is some-thing very original and full of this Andalusian charm. Simply authentic, built the way they used to build. Of course, some of the properties are modernised, but their old style has been maintained. This is very important to me. New buildings are mostly built according to the book, classical, nothing to write home about. This is as if I only had six white shirts in my ward-robe, which will eventually get boring.

And the distance to the coast…? Killer question for every estate agent, isn’t it?
Killer question – and the answer: at most half an hour to the coast, at most one to the airport. Where else could you find that?

In your earlier life, you were a successful restaurant proprietor in Germany. What is the difference between a chat at the bar counter and a two-hour drive with prospective buyers?
In general, there is not much of a difference. I am a very communicative person and like talking to people. I also like sharing the knowledge I have built up over 20 years with my clients to prevent them making the same mistakes. Builders, accountants, lawyers – we only recommend specialists we really trust. This saves our clients time and money.

Times are changing: the internet dominates the real estate market. How important are new technologies for marketing properties?
In the meantime, the internet has become our number-one marketing tool. Everything revolves around the net. We need to keep up with the times. First came the net, then social media. You need to adapt to every change. And this is what we do. We are innovative; we have now built up a 3D platform, offer drone videos – with know-how and licenses.

Still, irrespective of new technologies, with the magazine ‘the finest’, you are about to join the ranks of publishers. Are print media not totally out of fashion after all?
Print media will never be out. We might as well say: we’ll no longer print books because we can download them all anyway. It is totally different to read something that you are holding in your hands. This is the primary marketing aspect. In addition, we of course also want to make ourselves heard and show that we don’t just tell people what they want to hear. We question – including and above all ourselves. We want to keep developing. If you stand still, you’re a has-been.

Why don’t you have a go at your glass for a change.
Not sure, I feel rather observed around here.
And while he says this, we hear rustling in the chiringuito’s tropical garden – and photographer Ann-Kathrin nearly trips over her own feet in this maze of bamboo and bougainvillea.

Ten years ago, the housing bubble burst in Spain. Casa y Terreno survived the crisis – and even managed to expand. A look at the future: what will the real estate market in the Axarquia look like ten years from now?
We’ll have an expanding market. We live in a region with a very high social factor. Healthcare services, be they private or public, are state-of-the-art. All of this of course also increases the value of real estate. France, for example, has always been a pioneer in this area: prices there have risen so drastically in the meantime that the French are being driven to our coast. Around here, the price-performance ratio is still fine – and guarantees stability.

Key word stability: many agencies fell victim to the crisis, Casa y Terreno did not. What are the reasons for your success?
I am a service provider. I listen to my clients. I am punctual. Quite simply the old virtues. When we make our properties available on the website, we will already have checked the paperwork. We know our sellers very well. I have travelled a great deal in my life and have built up an extensive network all over Europe. We are part of an international real estate association with nearly 700 agencies. This also helped us to continue attracting international clients when times were difficult in Spain.

The phone rings. As a matter of fact, for the first time in 20 minutes, which is surprising. Time for a little cigarette break, during which the heavily tattooed waitress serves us some more wine, red for him, white for me.

20 years. What was the most bizarre viewing you ever had? I heard about a wasp sting…
Yes, that happened. In fact, it wasn’t only one; I was attacked by an entire swarm. It happened in an old finca with these typical shutters. I opened the window, and there was this wasps’ nest.

So, the whole family took pleasure in altering my face (laughs).

But you kept going?
Yes, of course. I went to the kitchen, got a bottle of vinegar, emptied it over some kind of cloth and put it on my face. And the good thing is: the pain really eased up at some point… but only after the client had left.

And then off you went to cool your face?
You bet! But I will never forget the most bizarre situation: it was a flat directly on the harbour. We had a key, but the owner forgot to tell us that she might be at home. So we entered the place with a big crowd – the Spanish love taking their entire family for viewings. That is to say: parents, two kids, grandparents, uncle, aunt – eight Spaniards and me standing in the hallway when suddenly this endearing Scandinavian lady in her late 70s came out of the bathroom. Absolutely stark naked. Of course the cli-ents didn’t really know where to look in the narrow corridor. But the lady was totally nonchalant: ‘Oh, seems I forgot to let you know. Never mind, just carry on.’ But she didn’t just go back into the bathroom. Nine people, in this tiny 1.5-metre space – a charm of its very own.

You live in Almayate, this tiny village of 2,000 inhabitants between Torre del Mar and Benajarafe. Why?
Almayate is a very authentic village, totally unspoiled by mass tourism and excessive consumption. You simply have a great life here. If you just try and speak some Spanish and approach people openly you are immediately a part of the community and simply feel as happy as a pig in clover. Besides, Almayate has this beautiful virgin beach with plenty of little chiringuitos. Not over-the-top, no half-hour looking for a parking space. You simply park your car in the sand next to the beach bar – and nobody cares.

We are actually sitting in one of them.
Exactly. We are at Juan’s place in Hornillero. You really feel you’re back in the 1970s. It has its very own character, nothing off the rack. And when you come back a second time, they immediately remember you.

My son asked me the other day: what do you need to know or learn to become an estate agent? What would you tell him?
You need to be aware of the fact that you are a service provider, that the client always comes first – and that you want to make them happy. This often makes me a welcome visitor – unlike the tax inspector (laughs). I’m welcome because people know this is someone who helps them to sell their house or find the property of their dreams. We have 800 properties for sale in the Axarquia and via our association have access to 25,000 proper-ties along the Costa del Sol. Only when I really listen can I make my client happy.

5,000 keys later: what are the moments that still make you happy in your job?
Many things make me happy. When I see the almond trees blooming or when the sea shows me how powerful it can be, how tremendous storms and rain can be. To bring people together – and to see that both parties still want to invite me for dinner two weeks later, this still fascinates me. In a way, it’s a bit like matchmaking. It’s about flexibility and the willingness to compromise – on both sides. We always work for both sides.

You often say, and this is my last question: those who ask don’t like giving. Still, I want to ask you for a final statement. Will you give me one?
After 20 years in the business, I am still doing a job that wows me. I am an aesthete. I enjoy seeing nice houses and apartments, nice plots and nice locations. What keeps fascinating me is that I still discover new places I have never seen before. Even after 5,000 properties – and not every sale was easy. But I always say: nothing is impossible. And in this respect, I can always count on my team. We cover seven languages, we have our own scouts and they will find the right property – even if we don’t have it in our portfolio yet. We want to make dreams come true – and we mostly achieve this goal. It’s simply the happy end that matters to us.