The business of buying and selling real estate can be quite lucrative. The lure of high commissions is certainly enticing, and leads aspiring real estate entrepreneurs to believe that it’s easy to make a lot of money in real estate. Yet, the reality of selling real estate is very different.
The truth is that more than 80% of real estate commissions are earned by less than 20% of real estate agents. Furthermore, nearly 80% of all new real estate agents fail. These statistics are certainly discouraging and usually enough to give most people pause. Nevertheless, the excessive appreciation of home values over the past several years drove many vacillating individuals to take the risky plunge into real estate, hopeful that they, too, would rake in thousands of dollars in commissions in the booming real estate market. Then, the market started to cool, a natural fluctuation in the cyclical real estate market.
I’ve heard it said that the hardest part about a career in real estate is passing the real estate exam. I would have to respectfully disagree. The real estate business is a 24/7 enterprise. Thus, the only way to truly succeed in real estate is to eat, sleep, breathe and live real estate. As far as I am concerned, sacrificing your family, friends and personal interests is by far the hardest part about a career in real estate.
In the grand scheme of things, I spent a miniscule amount of time pursuing a career in real estate. I found, after little more than a year, that I simply did not want to devote my entire existence to real estate sales and promptly redirected my efforts elsewhere. My Aunt learned the same lesson in approximately the same amount of time. I would be remiss, however, if I did not play devil’s advocate and share with you that those few persistent and committed individuals who resisted the temptations of everyday life have, indeed, made and continue to make a substantial income from real estate.
So, if you are convinced that a career in real estate is your destiny, consider the following facts before you make the leap.
A real estate career requires a significant investment in money, as well as time. Regardless of your state of residence, the real estate commission will require you to pay fees to take the real estate exam. But, before you can even take the exam, you will be required to take a real estate course designed to prepare you for the exam and your career. (Note: not all states require the course, though most do). The cost of the course varies, but averages approximately $250. The exam usually costs in the neighborhood of $100, which varies by state. Thereafter, assuming you pass the exam, you must pay a licensing fee for your state’s licensing authority to issue your license to you. Once you become licensed, you will usually be required by your hiring broker to join your local association of Realtors. I paid in excess of $400 annually to join. Depending on the agency you work for, you may have to pay licensee or agency fees, which are usually a few hundred dollars. In order to get started marketing yourself as an agent, you must have business cards (upwards from $75 for a starter box) and other marketing devices (car magnets, listing signs, mass mailings, etc). Remember, too, that this is the Internet age. Therefore, a computer is essential. Most agents I worked with, myself included, used laptops. Some invested in desktop systems that, of course, had to be left in the real estate office.
After all of the initial start-up costs, there are ongoing expenses like self-promotion marketing and fuel. Right now, with gas prices as high as they are, I doubt struggling agents can scarcely get ahead. I once spent an entire day touring more than 14 homes with a potential buyer who expressed urgency in finding a new home and claimed to have cash readily available for the purchase. Despite all my efforts, he went home to “think about” the homes I had shown him, and I never heard from him again. I traveled several hundred miles that day alone. After being skunked several times, I finally landed my first listing and closed it in relatively short order. At last, I had a commission check. And, just like a teenager who earned her first paycheck and wondered who the devil FICA was, I looked over all the agency deductions and realized just how small my checks would be relative to all the hard work I had to put into each transaction.
All things considered, I was mildly successful as a new agent. I grossed more than $2 million in sales in my first few months. Sadly, however, after spending more than a year preparing for and developing my real estate career, my earnings from those sales yielded me income of little more than $11,000. Once I deducted all of my expenses for that same year, I netted very little income. Such is the life of a real estate agent.
It’s important to note, however, that each agency has its own fee and commission schedule. Some realty companies are required to deduct a franchise fee that is passed on to the franchisor (i. e. Century 21, Coldwell Banker, RE/MAX, etc. ). In addition to franchise fees, some agencies keep as much as 50% of its agents’ commissions, plus a fee for malpractice insurance coverage, ostensibly in exchange for valuable services and paid marketing. Other agencies keep very little of your commissions but require its agents to pay all of their own marketing and office expenses, including desk rental fees (which can exceed $2000 a month in some areas).
Unlike other business enterprises, the amount of time, effort and money you pour into your business does not directly correlate to income earned. As I mentioned above, an agent can spend many weeks or months with a buyer showing property and working with lenders to qualify that buyer for a home loan. Sometimes the buyer will finally complete a transaction. Sometimes he will not. Likewise, agents regularly spend months showing their listed properties to prospective buyers and searching for other qualified and interested buyers. In the end, a sale may close or the seller may decide to terminate the listing and, perhaps, list again with another agent. So, a new agent must learn the valuable lesson to never count on any commission until the transaction has completely closed. Things can and do go wrong, often at the closing table. Unfortunately, some of my fellow agents, anticipating a closing, would make purchases against the uncollected commissions, which occasionally resulted in a serious financial crises for that agent.
One final word of caution for would-be real estate agents – real estate litigation is on the rise. I know of several very good agents who became unwitting defendants through no real fault of their own. Rather, dissatisfied or remorseful buyers elected to target their agents instead of admitting their own carelessness or haste in buying a questionable property. That is not to say that some agents are not justifiable defendants. Indeed, there are an abundance of disreputable agents who methodically deceive their clients to ensure a commission. The deplorable fact is that lawsuits follow deep pockets. Real estate agents are generally considered to be wealthy, though this is certainly not applicable to all agents. Therefore, they are becoming more frequent targets for both legitimate and frivolous legal actions.
As with any career, there are rewards as well as drawbacks. Real estate agents are nearly always classified as independent contractors, which affords them greater autonomy and control over the direction of their business than ordinary employee-employer relationships. For many, that single advantage is sufficient to offset the drawbacks of a demanding real estate career.
I hope I have offered an enlightened view into some of the realities of real estate sales as a career choice. Though a career in real estate sales certainly does not appeal to everyone, some agents I know wouldn’t have it any other way.
Kim Balsman, a former licensed Century 21 agent and Realtor, grossed more than $2 million in sales in her first few months as a Realtor. Upon moving to Colorado, Kim gave up her successful, albeit brief, real estate career to pursue her true passion, photography. Kim's diverse background includes real estate, law, interior design, photography and writing. Kim now devotes all of her time to writing and photography. She owns Balsman Photography, LLC, a small, professional studio in Colorado's Front Range. Kim and her husband, Bob, have two teenage children and enjoy all the many aspects of living in Colorado.