Getting Personal: Matt Difanis

Getting Personal: Matt Difanis

Each week, we offer a Q&A with a local personality. Today, staff writer Melissa Merli chats with MATT DIFANIS, 41, of Mahomet, a real-estate broker, owner of RE/MAX Realty Associates in Champaign and president-elect of the Illinois Realtors trade organization.

What interests you the most right now?

My son is in his second season of junior high cross-country. As a serious photographer, I find that this has also become a great photographic pursuit. And since I'm going to be the geek with the gigantic camera at the meets to shoot my own kid, I try to shoot as many others as possible and share the photos with other runners' families.

Tell us something few people know about you.

I met my Filipino wife in a nursing home in Effingham, when my grandfather was a patient there.

What does it mean to be the 2017 president-elect of Illinois Realtors?

The 47,000-member Illinois Realtors trade organization exists to protect private property rights and advance the real-estate profession. Headquartered in Springfield, the organization has dozens of amazing staffers.

But the organization is governed by a 28-member board, comprised solely of Realtors. The president chairs the board, as well as leads the executive committee, which consists of the other officers, the CEO and the executive vice president. As a practical matter, the executive committee heavily influences strategic direction and priorities for the organization.

I am the first person in the 100-year history of the Champaign County Association of Realtors to become a state president, so I am excited and honored to be the first from the area ever to get to do this.

Does it keep you busy? Do you go to a lot of meetings?

The Illinois Realtors involvement is a volunteer role that is on top of my full-time work with clients, leading a high-producing team and being a multi-office broker-owner. I spend around 12 weeks per year traveling in connection with my trade organization work. Those trips range from in-state business meetings for Illinois Realtors committees a few times per year to outreach meetings at the nearly 30 local Realtor associations around the state to National Association of Realtors meetings to some fairly exotic travel, such as being in a delegation to the MIPIM international real-estate convention in Cannes, France, in March over the last couple of years.

What kind of trends are you seeing recently in this area of the selling and buying of homes?

Despite being arguably the economically brightest spot in the whole state, our real-estate market is not overheated or hurting from inventory shortages. Many segments are stable with modest upward value trends.

Other segments, such as new construction and relatively new pre-owned homes in the $300,000-to-$500,000 range, are seeing a bit of excess inventory, which has resulted in price reductions and an attractive combination of selection and prices for buyers. The excess inventory seems to stem mostly from the fact that Champaign and Savoy have numerous ongoing developments, while Mahomet continues to compete for a larger share of buyers with numerous ongoing developments of its own.

What would be your dream home?

Here's where being a Realtor in Illinois makes me a bit jaded. As soon as I let my mind wander to something wildly expensive, I immediately think about the new-car-per-year-sized real-estate tax bill that would go with it.

Where I live now is very close to my dream house wish list: five minutes from the interstate, but not able to hear it; less than a half-mile from the running trail through Lake of the Woods Forest Preserve; the Sangamon River runs behind the homes across the street from me; and my most frequent traffic jam is from deer.

Were you ever teased when you were growing up because you were a son of then-State's Attorney Tom Difanis, who has since become a judge?

No teasing, but my father was state's attorney during my entire childhood. I was born in March 1976 — during primary campaign season. My mother was wheeled into the operating room for an emergency C-section, handing out campaign brochures!

During my dad's tenure as state's attorney, he personally tried numerous capital murder cases. It tended to make me stay on the straight-and-narrow path through my childhood. My mother had to leave town with my sister and me a couple of times when convicted criminals got out of prison and threatened to kill us all.

You went to law school. Why did you decide not to practice law?

I got married at 20, and I went into real estate right out of college. After giving that a couple of years, I was certain that I was not destined to make a living in it, so I went to law school to change careers. I managed to double my business while in law school, which I took as a strong indication that I was already in the right career.

What are your best memories of your 12 trips with World War II veterans to Washington, D.C.? What has happened to all the photographs you took on those trips?

I traveled with more than 700 World War II veterans over the course of 12 trips, during which I shot more than 30,000 photographs. I have said many times that I will forever be a better person because of the time I got to spend with so many members of "The Greatest Generation."

I had the honor of hanging out with hundreds of heroes. While every single one of them would claim not to be a hero, their collective efforts literally changed the course of world history. My travel companions have included Pearl Harbor survivors, folks who watched the flag get raised at Iwo Jima and one man who helped load the nuclear payload into the bomb bay of the Enola Gay B-29 Superfortress before it dropped it on Japan.

Whenever minor hiccups would happen with our trips, such as an hourslong departure delay getting back from D.C., the veterans would always shrug it off with a smile. Whatever it was, they'd lived through far worse.

I burned DVDs with all of my original images for each veteran on each trip. I also posted photos to Central Illinois Honor Flight's Facebook page.

How many full marathons have you run so far, and why do you do it? What is your favorite route?

I've run 12 full marathons, one of which was cut short when the Illinois Marathon had to close the course because of lightning. I started doing distance running as part of a weight-loss regimen 9 years ago. My insane schedule during the last couple of years has made it impossible to stick to a marathon training schedule, so I have been on hiatus for the last couple of years. That's also freed up time for me to refocus my energy on weight gain and jowl cultivation. I have gotten back into running regularly in the last few months, typically 20 to 30 miles per week. My 1-year-old Irish setter has turned into a great distance-running companion.

I love the Illinois Marathon course, and as a townie, it might as well be the Matt Difanis biographical course. But as someone who has always preferred cold running weather, I've posted my best times (the best being a 3:46) at the Monumental Marathon in Indianapolis.

What time do you typically get up? What do you do the first hour of the morning?

I don't love being a morning person, but I've gotten into the habit of getting up at 4:30 or 5 a.m. on days where I can only get out running early before a full day that may have me in appointments or events well into the evening. If I get the miles logged first thing, there's no chance I'll run out of time to do it later. The first hour of my day is a combination of caffeination and catching up on news and social media.

What do you consider your greatest achievement or accomplishment?

I'm married to an amazing woman who is a Filipino immigrant. Part of her childhood was spent in a level of poverty that most Americans could not comprehend. We have made a point of visiting the Philippines about every 18 months as a family, which has enabled my kids and me to develop and maintain a connection with her home country, the culture and the extended family there. We also sponsor two children in different parts of the Philippines, and we have visited both of them in person. I'm proud that we've been able to provide that experience to our children, so they can appreciate how much of the rest of the world lives and how their mother was raised.

What do you regard as your most treasured possession?

My camera, whichever one I have on me. I currently shoot with a Nikon D810, and my most frequently used lens is my Nikon 70-200 f/2.8, which is a great lens for shooting candids of people from a distance and cross-country runners. My compact camera is a micro-four-thirds Panasonic LX100. There's always an image to capture and a story to tell, and Facebook is my most common sharing medium.

Do you have a guilty pleasure and what is it?

Peanut butter. My unholy relationship with this glorious food has caused my wife to have to hide any peanut butter she brings into the house.

What book are you reading now? What is your favorite book ever?

I'm reading "Thinking, Fast and Slow," in which the Nobel Prize-winning author Daniel Kahneman explores mental shortcuts that the brain takes. While many mental shortcuts are helpful, the book helps sensitize the reader to those that are prone to inaccuracy or that can unwittingly bias decision making.

Where on Earth are you dying to go? Why?

My wife's home country of the Philippines is composed of more than 7,000 islands. While we have many other parts of the United States and the world that we love visiting, we're nowhere near running out of new places to see on our Philippines trips. Nearly everyone there speaks good English, it is relatively inexpensive to travel there and there is amazing scenery and culture.

Tell me about your favorite pet.

We just had to say goodbye to our 13-year-old Irish setter, Macy, a couple of months ago. She was in the family longer than either of our kids, and she ran more than 1,000 miles with me. In her later years, she developed quite a following on Facebook. We have a 1-year-old Irish setter, who is nearing the end of his maniacal puppy phase and is a much-loved member of the family, as well as a rich source of comedy.

What's your favorite sports team?

The Mahomet-Seymour Junior High cross-country team, where my son is a runner.

Who are your favorite musicians and why?

I had the opportunity to see BB King live at The Virginia Theatre a few years ago. I've long been a fan, but I love that a guy who grew up in the segregated South managed to break out of poverty and connect with audiences of all colors through his amazing talent and a sound that was unique to King.

What's the happiest memory of your life?

I was lucky enough to find my future spouse at a young age, and my wedding day at the tender age of 20 is probably the happiest day of my life, followed closely by the arrival of each of my two children.

Which historical figure do you admire the most and why?

We in Illinois are steeped in all things Lincoln. There is a nearly 90-year-old Lincoln historical marker at the intersection of county roads 1675 N and 0 E (at the Champaign-Piatt County line, just south of Interstate 72), memorializing that road as the route that Lincoln would ride on horseback when he was a working-class attorney "riding the circuit" from county to county. I am amazed to think that Lincoln's background as a man of modest means, who rode around with his files stuffed into his hat here in central Illinois, developed the principles and personality necessary to lead the country through the Civil War and to end slavery.

What personality trait do you most hate in other people? Most hate in yourself?

My wife not uncommonly reminds me that I am the most insensitive person she knows. I therefore often have to stop and ask myself, "What would a sensitive person do in this situation?"

What's your best piece of advice?

Be open to opportunities when they come knocking. Many of my most life-changing endeavors have happened largely by some combination of accident, fate or divine intervention. Those are the things you don't see coming and cannot necessarily plan for.

What was your first job and how much did you make an hour?

Because I have four younger sisters, the youngest three of whom are more than a decade younger than I am, I amassed lots of child care experience by the age of 13. I did a lot of baby-sitting for other families.

The early job that best prepared me for the rest of life was waiting tables at Red Lobster in Champaign in the late 1990s (back when it was on Bloomington Road). If you could handle the smoking section on Monster Truck night at the Assembly Hall, you could handle anything.

What was a pivotal decision in your career and how did you arrive at that decision?

Around 2009, longtime colleague Max Mitchell asked me to run for leadership in the Champaign County Association of Realtors, which was the impetus for my journey there and at Illinois Realtors.

Do you have any regrets in your life? What are they?

Certainly. I've had plenty of moments of hurtful words or actions. So long as I learn from them, there's value in every mistake. With so many new and exciting mistakes yet to be made, I do try to avoid repeating the old ones whenever possible.

How do you handle a stressful situation?

With a lot of experience being under stress, my decision making doesn't really change much. I tend to be swiftly decisive by nature, and where being deliberative or consultative with others can help improve the outcome, I try to slow myself down.

Sections (1):Living
Topics (3):Economy, Housing, People

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