When Jennifer Li first arrived in Toronto from China, she found herself struggling to qualify for a mortgage and making sandwiches for minimum wage. Then, her own realtor recommended she get her real estate license. She has never looked back. Li is in the top 5 per cent of Canadian realtors representing HomeLife New World Realty Inc.

Li was honoured in 2010 by the Canada-China Realty Professional Association as a Top 10 producer and has maintained her top producer status with HomeLife for 10 years.

Meanwhile, her family remains her top priority and she is constantly giving back to Toronto’s Chinese community. She has been a volunteer coordinator for the Philip Hayden Foundation/China Orphan Outreach program, which helps orphans in China with minor surgeries and health care.  She is also extensively involved with Rolia — a social network and resource website dedicated to helping Canada’s Chinese immigrant population adjust to their new lives by building community and providing resources to employment, culture, travel and parenting advice.

Li gave us great insight into what Chinese-Canadians are looking for when they buy a home and how Toronto’s buyers and sellers should react now that the market has slowed down for the summer.

How did you initially get into real estate?

Fifteen or 16 years ago, I went to try and get a mortgage, but it was really difficult to get a mortgage because I didn’t belong to a Canadian bank. Also, I worked at Subway making sandwiches and the pay was so low and the hours were so long that the agent who helped me purchase my house encouraged me to go into real estate. He saw something in me where he thought that real estate would be simple for me so that’s how I got my start.

What appeals to you about the business?

Flexibility. The time you work, you can arrange for yourself. Plus, selling a house affords you the opportunity to get big commissions. The amount of money you can make is much higher than an hourly rate.

We understand you represent the Chinese Canadian community quite extensively in the GTA. What are they looking for in a home that’s different than the Canadian buyer?

Usually they are buying for family because we had the one child policy for a long time in China, so the purchase of a home is always about family first and the families are much younger. Also, most people would rather own a home than rent one because even though you can own a home in China, you have way more choice in Canada. Also, home prices in the big city — I’m from Beijing — are much higher in China than they are in Toronto, so most Chinese buyers in the GTA feel the homes here are a good buy. In China, it’s hard to own a house with a backyard because most people live in apartments.

What advice do you have for buyers and sellers in the competitive market of the GTA?

For buyers, I would say that even if they have to pay high taxes, it’s still a great time to buy because the market has returned to normal and we’re in a bit of a slowdown over the summer. In Bayview Village, you can buy a detached ranch-style home for $600,000, which I think is very decent for a family. For sellers in this market, I think it’s better if they hold out. In this market, they will lose money — maybe as much as two years of income. It’s better to wait for the market to come back. Next year, around spring it will be much better. By then, the government may have a new policy in response to the market and more people will come back to it, so just wait and see what happens. In the end, it will be much better for potential sellers.

What does it take to become a top producer in the real estate business?

First and foremost, you have to work hard and attract more people to your sphere of influence. I find there’s tons of competition, so it’s really hard to stand out. For me, I feel like I’m a little bit retired because I only work with my clients’ friends when it comes to new business — the real serious ones — because many people don’t seem like they can afford a home right now or they’ve recently changed jobs.

How do you achieve success in the real estate industry without working too hard, burning yourself out or alienating your family?

For me, being a mother is most important. Also, my job is not so regimented now, so I’m OK when it comes to balance. My children still have a lot of activities and it’s important to be there, but the flexibility of my job thankfully gives me that option. I think I will still be balancing their needs against the needs of my business until they are ready to go off to university.