By Dani Tietz
As a realtor of over 20 years, RE/MAX Agent Matt Difanis has given thousands of people the opportunity to pursue their homeownership dreams.
Difanis remembers being a newly married 21-year old undergrad student with the opportunity to purchase his first home.
“We had a delightful realtor,” he said. “But I had no idea how this process worked. So once we bought our house, I was really motivated. I was fascinated by the process and wanted to learn, but I also didn’t want buyers to be clueless like I was. I didn’t like that sensation.”
Through all of his years as a real estate agent, Difanis has carried that experience with him.
By providing individual counseling sessions so people understand how the process works, Difanis sticks to the statutory duties of an agent to provide legal representation, loyalty, and confidentiality to all clients.
“In the world of real estate, real estate licensees, realtors, are charged with representing the best interest of the clients with whom they are working,” he said.
Over the years, Difanis has been able to build a team of real estate agents who function from the same customer service foundation that he laid all those years ago.
With a team behind him, Difanis has been able to venture into the behind-the-scenes of home ownership.
“In my world, the higher priority is being able to spend as much time as I can with the trade organization (National Association of Realtors) and know that the wheels aren’t going to fall off.”
Difanis said while many real estate agents are part of the National Association of Realtors to have access to the multiple listing service (MLS) database, there are also local, state and national components that influence the real estate industry.
While Difanis can be seen throughout the Champaign-Urbana area, either working on behalf of his clients, taking photographs, providing music or participating as the emcee of many local events, he is also seen on social media standing next to U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth, traveling to France to attend the International Real Estate Conference or working with Illinois Senators in Springfield to ensure that the real estate transaction for his clients and the millions of other clients throughout the United States remains a fair and sought-after process.
“If we do our jobs really well, a whole lot of what we’re doing is beating back proposed legislation or regulation that would be bad,” he said. “So if we do our jobs really well, consumers will never see most of it.”
“Obviously the realtors are hurt if the marketplace is hurt, but the overwhelming majority of what we advocate for is in the public interest of consumers and private property rights,” he said.
As a board member of the National Realtors Association, Difanis recently worked alongside other members of the volunteer organization to help lawmakers see the consequences associated with the 2017 Tax Cut and Jobs Act.
“It’s not that we’re under threat of a socialist regime that’s going to eliminate private property ownership, however, there are constant threats to private property rights at city council levels, county board levels, as well as state and federal levels; things that would have the potential to devalue real estate or add more fees, requirements, complications, inspections or other mandates that get attached to real estate transactions that would, in one way or another, impair or impede people’s ability to buy and sell real estate.”
While the National Realtors Association did not want to stand in the way of a fairer, flatter, simpler tax rate, they did voice concern over the erosion of tax incentives and property values for homeowners.
“When you see a picture of me and a State Senator, or when I’m elbow-to-elbow with Senator Tammy Duckworth, that is the conversation we are having,” he said.
With a team looking over proposed bills in Springfield to access the impact on real estate, the Illinois Realtor Association works to educate lawmakers.
“They (Illinois lawmakers) will constantly come up with ideas that are well-intentioned, but have unintended consequences,” Difanis said.
Working his way up through the trade organization over the last seven years, Difanis became the first Illinois Realtor Association President from the Champaign County Association of Realtors in its 100-year history in October. At age 41, he is also the youngest President in 25 years.
Overseeing an organization that is within a state that has the seventh largest realtor membership at 47,000 and the sixth largest state population, Difanis said the trade organization provides him with a lot of interesting opportunities.
“It gives me the opportunity to have way more of an impact on the actual strategic direction and planning for the organization as compared to an at-large board seat,” he said.
A Champaign native, Difanis has enjoyed seeing his childhood home blossom into an international interest.
“Illinois is very strategically positioned because we have a global city, but we also have a lot of global touchpoints in the state: Champaign-Urbana being one of them, as well as some international ports that are outside of Chicago, Decatur and on the east side of St. Louis.”
As he travels to France for the International Real Estate Conference in March, these are the features he will promote, alongside the University of Illinois, as he advocates for real estate opportunities and investments in East Central Illinois.
Difanis remembers when Champaign-Urbana’s outlook was bleak.
“As was the case with a lot of metro areas that were this size, you ended up with indoor shopping malls coming on the scene along interstate corridors and then sucking all the businesses out of downtowns. And downtown Champaign was a classic example of that phenomenon,” he said.
“So during most of my childhood, downtown Champaign was littered with vacant storefronts and, in fact, when I first started in the real estate business in the late 1990’s, you could hardly give away some of the historic condominiums and co-op units that were right along West Side park and in close proximity to downtown Champaign,” he continued.
But, the well-traveled Difanis boasts about the nationally recognized cuisine and music scene located in East Central Illinois now.
“There’s no place else like this,” he said.
“As I’ve got more and more well-traveled, that’s one of the things I really have a huge appreciation for because I’ve never seen any place else that is as small a market as ours is that offers that combination of that global vibe, really, really high-quality cuisine. You also have so many people who have musical abilities, who could be making a living at music, but they have a degree in engineering.”
Through providing opportunities for homeownership, Difanis has also got involved in several opportunities on the national and local levels that have allowed him to be a part of opening doors for individuals who may not have otherwise had the opportunity.
Difanis served as the volunteer photographer on the 2010 Central Illinois Honor Flight which works to provide WWII veterans with free trips to Washington, D.C., to see the National WWII Memorial.
Taking his children, ages 13 and 10, on these trips is important to Difanis.
“I like to bring the kids because they are fun to hang out with and there’s usually some sort of educational or horizon-broadening component to it,” he said.
His daughter, Izzy, traveled to Chicago with her father in October to visit with Senator Duckworth.
Izzy, whose mother is a native Filipino, researched the Illinois U.S. Senator on her way to the visit, discovering that she is, too, of Asian descent, but also a Black Hawk helicopter pilot who was shot down in 2004.
“She’s somebody who, on so many different levels, is amazing and inspiring,” Difanis said. “So specifically for my daughter to meet someone who I think is this over-the-top female role model success story was something I didn’t want her to miss.”
The day before, though, Difanis brought his son, Gabe, along to Chicago State University where he volunteered to provide audio and photography for the Deerborn Realtist Board, the African American Real Estate Trade Organization.
The group was hosting a homeownership event on the south side of Chicago. Those whose credit qualified for a loan were educated on homeownership and those who did not qualify received counseling to get on the path to homeownership.
According to the Chicago Tribune, 38.9 percent of African-Americans owned homes compared with 74 percent of whites in the Chicago area in 2015.
As a single mother looked at her options, her two sons, ages 8 and 9, spent the day with the Difanis family, asking questions about audio and photography gear.
“These two kids were extremely polite, asking a gazillion questions,” Difanis recalls. “One of the boys told us that about a year earlier, they buried his dad after he was shot 14 times. And the bottom line is you don’t have to go very far in that neighborhood to find stories like that pretty much everywhere because they are happening several times a week.”
“It’s a really big deal for my 12-year old to not have the idyllic setting of Mahomet be the entirety of his world,” he continued.
Through their parent’s lens, the Difanis children know that hard life situations, including poverty, are not too far away.
Although Mahomet is hailed as an affluent community, Difanis was surprised to learn that each year about 20-25 percent of Mahomet-Seymour students qualify for the free or reduced lunch program.
Difanis learned about this from retired Sangamon Elementary Principal Mark Cabutti, who asked him to join the Mahomet Area Youth Club (MAYC) Board of Directors.
Alongside other visionaries, Difanis helped to implement the Mahomet Area Youth Club B.L.A.S.T. program within the Mahomet-Seymour Schools in 2013.
The club saw that the facility, which was located on Franklin Street, did not serve the needs of the Mahomet youth. Over the last five years, MAYC has grown from providing services and opportunities to a dozen of children to reaching hundreds of children each year.
“I’m really excited that within the last few years, MAYC”s impact and footprint on the community has increased exponentially,” Difanis said. “It gives me tremendous joy to be able to look anyone in the community in the eye and say MAYC has never, ever done more good for more kids than it is doing right now.”
And while the level of need in Mahomet is sometimes overlooked, the Difanis children are only one generation away from a world of poverty themselves.
Angelle Difanis grew up in the Philippines where, during parts of her childhood, her family was quite poor.
“My kids and I have been to the open air market where she would stand and beg for food when there was no food, no money, no safety net, no welfare program; when there was nothing,” Difanis said.
“There’s no substitute for all of us to be able to see that.”
The Difanis family makes a trip to the Philippines every 18 months.
While the family does spend part of the time exploring the exotic islands as tourists, Difanis said it is the time that the family spends with their relatives that means the most.
His mother-in-law, who now also lives in Mahomet, was separated from her sister when they were seven because their family suffered from poverty.
Growing up on different sides of the country, Difanis said both women, who have lived 20 years longer than expected in the Philippines, reunite whenever they visit.
“Those are some of the most spine-tingling moments is seeing these two sisters reunited from absolutely opposite ends of the Earth,” he said.
The family reunion is also accompanied by a service project where they join one of Angelle’s classmates, who has become successful, in treating 300 of the poorest children in the village to a day of fun activities, music, dancing, presents and a meal. The children also leave with a bag of groceries to take home to their family and a t-shirt.
“It’s a day where kids who have absolutely nothing leave that world for a while,” Difanis said.
The Difanis family brings their experiences to Lincoln Trail each year as they present Filipino food and pictures to students during Hands Around the World in the spring.
“When I start my presentation in Hands Around the World, I ask the students, ‘Who has had a parent who says you need to finish your food because there is a kid on the other side of the world, somewhere, who doesn’t have anything?’”
“Almost every hand in the room goes up. And then I let them know you’re about to see what those kids look like.”
Having been face-to-face and related to children who have nothing is something Difanis believes is important for his children.
The first-born children of an immigrant, Difanis believes that “unless they have opportunities to see exactly where their immigrant parent came from, you can’t expect them to appreciate it. If that first generation, born here, is going to Mahomet-Seymour Schools, then this is how it is.”
The Difanis family is currently visiting the Philipines.