The game of real estate roulette

  • Article by: JIM BUCHTA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 27, 2011 - 1:46 PM

Even as more real estate agents exit the business, a new crop thinks they can make a go of it in the still-sluggish industry.

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Realtor Gary Judson prepared for a recent open house. He says it’s been challenging to get established in the business with so much competition for buyers.

Photo: Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

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Jerome Ryan was a senior architect who designed high-rise condos. Beth Reilly has worked for a big Fortune 500 company. Gary Judson is a former marketing manager who's getting his master's in elementary education. Now they're selling houses. Or trying.

In the midst of the worst housing downturn in generations they've all become real estate agents. And they're not alone. While the number of licensed real estate agents in Minnesota has fallen almost 40 percent from 2005 to 2010, according to the Department of Commerce, there was a 14 percent increase in the number of new licensees who joined the Minnesota Association of Realtors during the past three years. Many are casualties of the recession, people who have been burned by corporate America and don't want to -- or can't -- return to that grind. They see real estate as a way to take control of their career at a time when there's little economic certainty, even if sales are slumped.

"There's a fairly low cost-to-enter compared with other businesses," said Chris Galler, chief executive officer for the Minnesota Association of Realtors.

In fact, competition has gotten so fierce that Ron Peltier, chairman and CEO of HomeServices of America, the company that owns Edina Realty, said earlier this year that despite the exodus of agents that has already happened, there are still too many agents in the business chasing too few transactions.

For those who decide to take a chance on the business, success can be elusive. Galler said that historically 80 percent of all new agents drop out after two years in the business.

"It looks easy to play basketball, but not everyone can be in the NBA," he said. "It's a tough business."

Despite the decline in home sales Galler expects the attrition rate among new agents might be lower these days because many people who get into the business are seasoned midlevel managers who have the skills to run their own business and market themselves.

Judson, for example, was a marketing executive for a local chain of credit unions who quit to become a stay-at-home dad. After a nearly a decade raising kids, he's simultaneously pursuing a master's degree in elementary education and a career in real estate. He'd love to be a teacher, but with municipal budgets in shambles the prospects for teaching jobs is dim, so he's pursuing another passion: houses.

"I realized that sometimes life throws you curveballs," he said. "You see a lot of pictures of happy families, and sometimes the stories aren't always happy. I want to help families with new beginnings."

Judson, who several years ago started writing children's books through his small publishing company, Juniper Berry Press, still hasn't given up on the idea of becoming a teacher. "In this economy you have to have a lot of different irons in the fire," he said.

Judson admits that with so much competition for buyers, it's been challenging to get established, especially because he's competing with agents who have been in the business for decades. In fact, the vast majority of home sales are conducted by a very small percentage of agents, who have achieved celebrity-like status by plastering their faces on billboards, bus benches and all over the Web.

Real estate agents in Minnesota have to be licensed by the state, and they're required to take 90 hours of classroom studies and to pass tests, all of which can cost about $1,000. Then to get access to house listings through the Regional Multiple Listing Service, they have to join one of the associations. Annual membership in the state association costs $130 per year and there's an additional fee to join local chapters. Once in the business, marketing costs are extra.

Ryan, the laid-off architect, says that the prospect of getting another job as an architect was more daunting than the prospect of selling houses, which he's already done twice.

"That first year is a do-or-die situation for a Realtor," he said.

Ryan Palmer, who got his license in October after quitting a high-stress health insurance job, hasn't been so lucky. He says his dream was to open a coffee shop in River Falls, Wis., but he couldn't get the financing. He still hasn't sold a home or had a listing yet, but at least he's not dealing with angry customers and he has more time to see his kids.

"While it's challenging, I'm not dreading work every day," he said.

Like many real estate agents Beth Reilly got into the business after getting pink-slipped during a massive layoff from a big company. "I like the control of sales," she said. "I can control my own destiny."

She agrees that the agents best-positioned to be successful are those pursuing it as a second career, but says there are a lot of young faces in her office.

Take Chance Brown, for example, a 22-year-old who was working at Radio Shack a couple of years ago when an agent tried to lure him into selling homes. But he was promoted to a store manager, so stuck with retail. Then Radio Shack started closing stores.

In September he got his real estate license.

He turned to social media to promote his business and set up a fan page on Facebook where he told nearly 1,000 "friends" that he was becoming a real estate agent.

"Everyone was pretty shocked because of what they hear about the market," he said. But some called and though he hasn't made any sales, he has one transaction pending, is awaiting a response on one offer and is working with a couple of buyers. He acknowledges that it isn't easy. He gets up early to start networking and spends most of his weekends getting to know the market and at open houses. And he's optimistic that things will pick up.

"I have a gut feeling ... that while we're not out of the woods, things are going to pick up soon," he said. "I'm in this for the long haul."

Jim Buchta • 612-673-7376

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