Christine Zhu landed in Toronto from China in 1996 with two suitcases to her name. Now, after receiving her real estate license in 2005, she owns five properties across the GTA.

She says that in some ways, she feels like she never really left China. As a sales representative for Living Realty Inc. Brokerage in Markham, many of her clients are individuals from China looking to make the move to Toronto. In the last few years, many have been international students coming from China to attend studies at York University or the University of Toronto.

It all started when the daughter of a friend introduced her to WeChat — purportedly the largest messaging application in use in China. Zhu figured out how to use the app and quickly recognized how her new social network could connect her to Chinese students looking to attend university in Toronto, and to their parents as well. Zhu said she took advantage of WeChat and China's other huge social network Weibo to facilitate real estate sales in Toronto and help her Chinese clients find a place to live while they study.

Toronto Storeys, which recently launched an instant Mandarin Chinese translation service for the site’s daily content, wanted to hear more, so she joined for an interview where we talked about how her own personal investment strategy helped get her started in her real estate career, and why it's important that when you find a house you can afford, you should just buy it.

What brought you, to real estate in the first place?

That was 11 years ago. At that time, I purchased my own property because I was living in Toronto in 1996. My first property was an old apartment at Bayview and Sheppard and then I moved to Markham. This was my first townhouse, but I still kept my Bayview apartment to rent out. At that time I was also getting my real estate license to try to eventually sell my apartment on my own and switch to another property like a townhouse for investment purposes. This is why I got my license. I wanted to serve myself first.

What keeps you in the real estate business?

From a personal perspective, when I got into this career I got a lot of opportunity. Currently, I own five properties: two pre-construction, two penthouse rentals and one condo at One Bloor Street. This career gives you more opportunity than regular people not in real estate because you see how you can use a line of credit or down payment to create your portfolio and get other people to pay for your mortgage. That's on the personal side and then in the last five to six years I've been very appreciative because most of my clients are young people. They are University of Toronto or York University students. I get a lot of young clients from the WeChat app, so that makes my life very fulfilled. You get a lot of energy from those clients. They sure appreciate it and I'm very happy to deal with young people.

What is your best advice for people looking to buy or sell a home?

For buyers I would say if it's your first home, buy it! Buy whatever you can afford. Don't pay too much attention to a $10,000 or $20,000 difference. Once you calculate your monthly income and you can afford it, buy it. Canada is an immigrant country. Every year there's almost 300,000 people coming to live in Canada and 70 per cent of them choose to live in Ontario. This means there could be around 280,000 coming to live in Toronto and the GTA. This doesn't even count overseas students, so demand is always there. No matter what happens.

This year the market slid down a little bit because new rules came out and people might not have any confidence. But, in the long run, no matter how hard you save, if you're not buying a house, you're never able to catch the appreciation of a property. I remember when I was first moving to Toronto, a house in North York only cost $420,000 for a big bungalow, but now it's $2 million to $3 million. How can you save to get a $3-million house? It's impossible.

For people who say I want to buy one house and live there forever, that's not realistic. I always tell my clients, ‘Pack away your income, buy what you can afford instead of paying rent. You can save and start small and then switch to a larger space as your income grows.’ I always tell my daughter, ‘Don't waste your money on expensive clothes, save money for your first house and that's how you can secure your future.’

What does it take to be a top producer?

In my branch I was in the top three for 2015-2016. To be a top producer you have to catch the new technology and have an attitude to learn new things. Obviously, you have to make your clients the first priority. When people deal with you they want to know that you really want to help them and serve them. This is how I got more and more referrals. Time management is also very important. When you’re very busy you still need to schedule time to keep in contact with your clients and make time to do paperwork. These are three things that can make you a top producer if you have them under control.

Speaking of time management, how do you work at such a high level, still maintain your health and still spend time with your family?

To be honest, I'm not that good at achieving balance right now. I'm trying to. I take classes for time management at U of T. I'm still learning and it's just not easy because when you have this job it's really 24/7. Most of my clients are in China and it's a 12-hour time difference. Our evening is their daytime and their daytime is our sleeping time, so sometimes on WeChat I will put a notice saying what I'm doing right now.

Also, I have an app called OmniFocus. Sometimes a client might pop up with a question and I can't just immediately reply to them every moment, especially when you are driving, showing or doing an offer. What I did is use the OmniFocus app to remind myself to call the client back before the end of the day.  After dinner, I check off my little notes to get back to these WeChat clients one by one.

Maintaining fitness is also very important, so I have a gym membership and I try my best to go twice a week. It's a little hard to get more time with my kids because they're all teenagers right now, so I think I still need to learn how to do my balance.