It's been six years since the real estate downturn began. And while thousands of Twin Cities agents have left the business, the market remains competitive.

Just ask Ryan and Kristal Kempenich.

The Twin Cities duo specializes in foreclosures, which can fly off the market within minutes because of their hefty discounts. Ryan Kempenich said he used to miss out because they would sell by the time he got back to his office to write up an offer.

No more.

These days, he and his wife zip around town in a 14-year-old white stretch limo that has all the tools -- computer, fax machine, scanner -- to make a speedy offer. They found their 30-foot-long Bentley knockoff two years ago on Craigslist for $13,000 and now they're able to whip up a bid for a client right as they sit in front of the house.

"It makes a statement when I meet the competition, and it helps me get more work done in less time because I am not driving," said Ryan Kempenich. "Sometimes being the fastest wins."

With fewer quality listings and a market where distressed properties can sell in a flash, many agents are working harder to set themselves apart to secure a sale. While the Kempeniches of St. Paul are doing so with a tricked-out limousine, other agents will scour expired or canceled listings for house hunters or help give their clients' homes a makeover.

A tough market has caused 10,000 Twin Cities agents to leave the profession since 2006. And with the obstacles facing the market today, the area's 14,000 remaining brokers must get creative to stay in the game.

"Every piece of the transaction is more complex," said Steve Murray, editor of Real Trends, which provides real estate news and analysis. Because buyers and sellers are so unsure of the market, putting together a deal has never been more difficult. "Everything has to be perfect," he said.

Office on wheels

With its tinted windows, white vinyl top and chrome rims, the limo stood out in a neighborhood full of student rentals near the University of Minnesota where the Kempeniches waited for Rich and John Goettl outside their condo. The Minneapolis couple recently shopped for a deal on a house to replace the condo Ryan Kempenich, an agent with Coldwell Banker Burnet, helped them buy a couple of years ago.

They loved the curbside service.

"It makes us feel special," said Rich Goettl, as he got comfortable on the limo's gray leather bench seat. Ryan Kempenich then powered up his computer and started clicking through the most current listings while his wife navigated rush-hour traffic.

A ceiling mirror framed with black crushed velvet reflected the flickering lights of Ryan Kempenich's laptop. He gave his wife the address while he and the Goettls reviewed interior photos of the house they were planning to tour.

They soon discovered the house was not right for them.

"Let's see if there's anything good right now," said Ryan Kempenich, as he moved on to the next listing. "There's an amazing deal somewhere every day."

The limo is equipped with about $5,000 in electronics and there's a stash of paperwork, including purchase agreements, just in case. With distressed properties often selling within minutes of going on the market, last-minute detours to visit new listings aren't unusual. Ryan Kempenich said the limo, which seats seven, is a great tool for group home tours.

It's also good for marketing, he said. The limo sports a bumper sticker that says "LimoHometours," which has generated calls as people ride in cars behind it.

Taking staging services on the road

Graham Smith said he has plenty of willing buyers, just too few listings. The Edina Realty agent works with clients who want a house that's move-in ready. But with inventory at an eight-year low, those houses often have multiple offers and sell quickly.

"We have a lot of buyers that are ready to purchase, but the home they're looking for isn't on the market," he said.

Smith has taken matters into his own hands.

Not only does he look for expired and canceled listings in search of the perfect house, he also courts sellers that aren't actively looking for a buyer, using open houses to quiz visitors. If he finds a prospect, he gets permission for a one-time showing before the house actually hits the market.

"It goes back to being open-minded and thinking outside the box and not limiting yourself," he said.

For Krista Wolter, the biggest problem is selling the houses her clients already own. Recently she's had two situations where out-of-state house hunters were trying to relocate to the Twin Cities, but couldn't until their houses sold.

"This real estate market is in gridlock," said Wolter, an agent with Coldwell Banker Burnet.

One client was from a small town in New Jersey -- and the prospects seemed grim. The listing photos told it all: "I saw a picture of a dog, a picture of a cat, and so on and so forth," she said. "These photos were not helping them get traffic to their home."

Wolter and her designer hopped on a plane to Phillipsburg, N.J., to stage the house and get it sold. Two months and $2,500 later, the house was snapped up and her client was shopping in the Twin Cities.

"I have no problem vacuuming cobwebs and cleaning toilets to make sure that the house is perfect," she said.

Another house-hunting couple from Idaho was in a similar situation. They met Wolter at an open house for a condo in Stillwater, but explained that they couldn't buy it until they sold their place back home.

Again, the listing photos were a drag. "They had a picture of their piano, among other things, and I knew immediately that these photos were not doing a good job of showcasing their mountain home in the hills of Idaho," she said.

So Wolter and her designer headed west. After two days of cleaning, staging and organizing, the house was in salable condition. "We were our own reality TV show -- with nothing but reality," she said. "It looked like they were trying to sell their furniture rather than their home."

Six months later the house sold and the owners were able to buy a place in Minnesota so they could be closer to their grandchildren.

Wolter said the $1,500 investment in airfare and designer fees was worth it.

"This is all about creating more biz," she said. "And keeping the market moving."

Sherry Helgoe, a licensed marriage and family therapist who helps both agents and their customers navigate the difficult emotional terrain of today's market, said that after several years of tough times, she's not surprised so many agents have called it quits -- and so many are trying new things.

"They go into flight-or-fight mode," she said.

Jim Buchta • 612-673-7376