The Optimists’ Club

Date: Friday, February 13
The Optimists’ ClubBy MICHAEL M. GRYNBAUM

Published: February 13, 2009

Yet despite the worst residential market downturn in a generation, hundreds of New Yorkers still want a piece of the action — or whatever’s left of it.

In the waning weeks of 2008, the state administered more than 700 licensing exams to aspirants looking to join the ranks of agents.

“We’ve been much busier than we thought we’d be,” said Stephanie Barron, a manager at the New York Real Estate Institute, which offers licensing courses for brokers and agents.

The rookies range from laid-off bankers to fresh-faced college students, from restless empty nesters to service workers looking for a change of career. Many are sidling away from other industries caught in the downturn; some just need part-time work to make ends meet.

Shake your head in wonder. Call them crazy. But don’t question their gumption.

“I’m coming into this thing like nothing’s going to stop me,” said Kendra Elise Tomas, 27, who started work at Urban Sanctuary, a downtown-focused brokerage firm, late last month. On Jan. 20, the day Ms. Tomas took her licensing exam, the Dow Jones industrial average dropped 330 points.

Aspiring sales agents convey a can-do-it-ness that combines ambition, hunger and a necessary pinch of delusion. They shrug off ominous reports of double-digit price declines and slowing sales and insist there’s plenty of cash out there.

“They say the business is cyclical,” Kyle Wolhers, a 22-year-old student, said last month after a seminar at the Real Estate Institute that attracted about 75 people. “I can gain experience now, cut my teeth in this kind of market, and when there’s an upswing, I can be an established agent.”

Although Mr. Wolhers is pursuing a graduate degree in English, he has bigger plans: “I want to be a mogul.

Despite such current interest in entering the real estate profession, the situation used to be even more intense: 25 percent fewer people took the sales agent exam in December than at the end of 2007. The state once offered three exam sessions a week; since July it has offered two.

But that still leaves hundreds of new agents seeking a foothold in one of the city’s most competitive industries at a particularly brutal time. In October, 742 sales agent exams were administered; in November, 565.

Like many newly licensed agents, Ms. Tomas is coming from a different line of work: she has sold items from her clothing line, Elise MIA Vibe, in boutiques in NoHo and the Village; and also worked as a buyer at H&M. But retailing has slowed considerably, and, encouraged by two friends in the business, she enrolled at the Real Estate Institute, where the basic 75-hour licensing course starts at $395.

Ease of entry was a factor for Ms. Tomas. Sales agents are effectively independent contractors who use a broker’s listings and resources in exchange for a slice of their commissions. Ms. Tomas completed her classes in nine days, sat for the 90-minute multiple choice test, and paid the required $65 fee. (A score of 70 percent merits a pass. In December, about half succeeded.) She had toured seven buildings by the end of her first day on the job.“I’m a very self-sufficient person,” she said. “I did my clothing line because it’s my passion, my creativity, how I express myself. I’m doing real estate for money. To fuel my passion, I need money.” Ms. Tomas made $47,000 a year at H&M; as an agent, she said, “I’m looking to make twice that, if not more.

Expectations, however, can be a mismatch with reality.Recruiters for brokerage firms say that a new agent can expect to earn about $50,000 a year.

But it takes time to meet clients, obtain referrals and develop relationships with landlords. The journey from contract to closing can drag on for months. And even longtime agents may not close any deals for weeks on end.