Zef Camaj

From Waiting Tables to Putting Deals on the Table

Zef Camaj, regional manager of Houlihan Lawrence’s Yorktown, East Fishkill and Lagrangeville offices, is one of those rare individuals who knew from a young age that he wanted a career in real estate. After earning a degree in Business Administration from the University of Central Florida in 1998, he got his real estate license and has been in the business ever since.

“My dad worked in real estate as a rental property owner and investor,” said Camaj. “I guess I always knew I’d get into the business as well.”

Originally from Queens, Camaj moved to Dutchess County when he was just 10 years old, and where he still lives today. However, during his college years, he took a detour to Florida and worked as a waiter at several Disney World restaurants to help make ends meet.

After returning to New York, Camaj joined Prudential Serls in East Fishkill. “In the beginning there wasn’t a lot of money,” he recalled. “I had to also work another job to pay the bills.” He didn’t hesitate to go back to waiting tables at local Dutchess County restaurants, including the former Bugaboo Creek Steakhouse on Route 9 in Poughkeepsie.

Eventually things began to take off for him with new construction coming to the area. “I started to do a lot of open houses, secured more listings and then I got my first subdivision,” he added. “Things were taking off and I was just very lucky to be in the right place at the right time.”

From there, he left for New York City, where he managed properties at Brown Harris Stevens for a couple of years. “I had family members who worked in property management, so I thought I’d give that a try. But after a while I realized that I liked being with people, so I got back into residential real estate,” he said.

Camaj joined Keller Williams, which at the time was the first Keller office in New York, located in Central Valley. He soon became the firm’s first team leader and grew that office to more than 100 agents.

In 2007, Camaj headed up a new Keller Williams office in Wappingers, but a year later the market turned. “From 1998 to 2007, the market was great—all you had to do was show up and you made money,” he quipped. However, by the end of 2008 the financial markets changed, deals began falling through, and short sales dominated the marketplace. “No one was prepared for that. On the bright side, I did learn a lot about short sales,” he recalled.

For a while, he worked in the mortgage industry. “It was new for me but it helped me to understand how they work and how to keep deals together,” he said. Realizing again that this was not his passion, Camaj joined Houlihan Lawrence in 2011, eventually taking over management of the Yorktown office.

All the time he was growing his real estate career, Camaj was also growing his family. He and his wife now have four children aged 15, 12, 10 and 8 and live in Hopewell Junction.

In addition to running between three offices now, Camaj also finds time to serve on the Board of Managers of the newly formed OneKey MLS. OneKey merges the listings from the former Hudson Gateway MLS and Long Island MLS to offer more than 40,000 listings from Montauk to Monticello. “The markets are very different and it’s going to be a challenge but it will also be a learning experience,” he said. “We’re all trying to create something bigger than us and it’s very exciting to be a part of this.”

If that’s not enough, Camaj is also involved with Support Connection in Yorktown, which provides counseling and other services for women with breast and ovarian cancer. For the past seven years, his office has held an annual golf fundraiser for the organization. A Houlihan Lawrence team also participates in its annual Support-A-Walk at FDR Park in Yorktown.

“Support Connection was actually started by Nancy Heller, an agent in my office who is a breast cancer survivor,” said Camaj. Heller has since retired and moved to California.

In his spare time, Camaj coaches two student soccer teams. “I guess I just love to keep busy,” he admitted.

Looking back at his decision to go into real estate some 22 years ago, Camaj admits it wasn’t easy, but his passion kept him going.

As for advice he’d offer to today’s young people considering a real estate career, Camaj has two just words—read and learn. “Take as many training classes as you can and read as much as you can. Treat it as a business,” he advises.

He also shares the story of black bamboo, starting out as a hard shell, and taking a few years to reach its full potential. “If you water it and fertilize it, the plant can grow up to 100 feet,” he explained. “It’s not rocket science. It just takes time and patience.”

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