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Real estate agents: Sink or swim in tougher waters

After six years as a stay-at-home mother, Melissa Silver entered the real estate sales game last year, when the market still boasted a boom.

Talk of home prices included words like "record breaking" and "skyrocketing," as buyers outbid one another, making both sellers and sales people happy. While Silver got her feet wet in the rising tide, selling $400,000 homes in Framingham, Mass., little did she know the market would soften before she got a chance to pull in the big bucks.

As the nation's five-year real estate boom loses its bang, real estate agents -- who saw their ranks swell with the same tide that elevated housing prices -- will likely see their numbers recede, along with sales and home prices.

But, it's not all gloom and doom on the other side of the boom. Flexible hours, commission-based income and the opportunity to be your own boss are still attractive to many, including Silver. She says she's still on track to earn the $30,000 she projected for this year, working 15 to 25 hours per week, far more than the $9,800 she grossed in 2005. However, Silver does make it a point to lower sellers' expectations when she lists homes. "We're telling our sellers that their home will be on the market six to nine months," she says.

Silver, of course, isn't the only person who jumped on the real estate bandwagon.

According to the Association of Real Estate License Law Officials, or ARELLO, which accredits state real estate license exams in the United States, last year 2.64 million people in its 47 member states held a real estate license. (The only states not represented in ARELLO's survey are Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa.) That's up from 2.4 million in 2004 and 2.1 million in 2000, says ARELLO Chief Executive Debbie Campagnola.

Any homeowner can sell his or her own property in the U.S., but to sell someone else's, a license is required, and each state sets its own requirements. Once the license is obtained, about half of the agents join the National Association of Realtors, the professional group that trademarked the name "Realtor."

Last year, NAR added 163,117 people nationwide, pushing its membership numbers to a record 1.2 million people by year's end. Tom Stevens, president of NAR, says the group has added 500,000 new members since 2000. "That usually happens when there's a good market, and we've had five record years of sales. There's a lot of interest in the business."

Now Stevens expects the slower real estate market will curb the influx of new real estate agents. "I think less people, over the next year or two, will get into it," says Stevens, who is based in Vienna, Va., a suburb of Washington, D.C.

Stevens insists the nation isn't going through an all-out real estate bust. Instead, he says, different pockets of the country are experiencing different levels of activity. Some overheated markets have cooled, while others that were lukewarm during the height of the boom are heating up. For example, formerly scorching-hot Miami only saw home prices inch up 2 percent in the second quarter of this year. But El Paso, Texas, had double-digit gains of 16.3 percent, and the Virginia Beach, Va., area saw a whopping 23.6-percent rise, as did parts of Florida, including Tampa and Gainesville, with roughly 20-percent gains.

 
 
Next: "Twenty percent of Realtors do 80 percent of the business."
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