Paying It Forward-One Family at a Time

TRAVERSE CITY – When Christine Stalsonburg started her real estate career, she didn't have to look far to find the audience she was targeting. That's because the fire service veteran knew she wanted to give back – literally – to firefighters, police, and those in the military.

Stalsonburg, who gives back a portion of her commission to her service clients, said it's just the way she wants to do business.

"I would see so many veterans with no idea they could buy a home, even with all the programs available," she said. "It's important to help those who serve our country so selflessly."

It's no surprise that Stalsonburg has chosen to give back to that segment. Prior to becoming a RealtorĀ®, she worked for the fire service and as an emergency medical technician in Arizona. Her two sons are in the military, and her husband Larry is medical director for the Grand Traverse Metro Fire Department, with 32 years' experience as an emergency room doctor.

"We're a couple of adrenaline junkies," she said.

Stalsonburg said there are a number of programs in place to assist veterans, such as Veterans Affairs (VA) loans and federal Homeownership Opportunities Program grants, which assist first-time homebuyers on a limited income.

Stalsonburg said in most cases it is a matter of educating the consumer about the programs.

"The additional education is huge," she said. "When you know some of the hiccups ahead it's really helpful."

Stalsonburg said working with a lender who is familiar with such programs is a plus. While most lenders are familiar with VA loans, they also need to be current with newer programs now available.

"Having a lender partner is key," she said. "All of them do VA loans, but if they're not staying updated, it won't work."

In addition to giving back part of her fees to the families she works with, Stalsonburg is also actively working with Jason Allen, who currently serves as Michigan's Senior Deputy Director for Veterans Affairs, Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, to help veterans buy their own homes.

"We have a unique situation here in Michigan with site condos and VA financing," she said. "Very few of our site condos have been through the VA approval process, making it challenging for our military personnel to use their VA benefits to purchase a home here."

The designation as site condos, or detached homes that are part of an association, derails quick, easy loan approval for VA loans because the site condos need to be pre-approved by the VA.

Together with a small team of active locals, Allen and Stalsonburg worked to gather the required information for VA approval.

Joseph R. Buzzella, Jr., base commander for the United States Coast Guard Air Station Traverse City, said Stalsonburg has helped more than her own clients through her efforts to fast-track VA loans.

"VA loans are government guaranteed, with no private mortgage insurance and no money down required. It's a very attractive option for active-duty military," said Buzzella.

The result of Stalsonburg and Allen's efforts is more local military personnel have been able to get VA loan approval and purchase homes.

"In the year I've been here, 15 or more have gone through the program that I'm aware of," Buzzella said.

Stalsonburg's support for military and service personnel goes beyond her real estate work. She has attended the Coast Guard Festival in Grand Haven, welcomed service members home, participated in veteran motorcycle rides, and has even worked with military out of the region.

"I go to all the training for the Michigan National Guard on the home-buying process," she said. "We go to Kalamazoo, Detroit, and Grand Rapids to educate them."

She has also launched the Hero Rewards Program, which is similar to a national program called the Heroes Home Advantage, an affiliation of real estate agents with strong ties to the U.S. military that gives 25 percent of the agent's commission back to the buyer after closing.

The difference between the programs? Stalsonburg gives back 30 percent of her commission.

"That still gives me more than enough to live on," she said. "It's the least I can do."

Stalsonburg is also a member of Military Veterans Association of Real Estate Professionals, an organization dedicated to helping military veterans own their own homes. It includes real estate agents, lenders, home inspectors, appraisers, title and escrow companies, as well as military veterans, active duty military, and National Guard personnel.

She is a preferred RealtorĀ® with USA Cares, a Kentucky-based 501(c)(3) program that provides grants and other assistance to military families.

Combining VA loans or grants for military families with other programs can help veterans save thousands of dollars. Stalsonburg said a recent transaction with a Coast Guard family saved them $4,000.

There is also a national program offered by her real estate franchise that Stalsonburg would like to bring to the area.

"Operation ReMax trains and mentors military, spouses, veterans or those on active duty in a real estate career," she said. "They can take that training anywhere in the country or the world."

Stalsonburg said as much as 75 percent of her business is done with active duty service personnel or veterans. The largest portion is local Coast Guard families and the remainder is police, fire and emergency medical workers.

As for her inspiration to continue working with service families? For Stalsonburg, it's a matter of doing what is right.

"It's just my way of paying it forward," she said.